On The Training Of Boys' Voices

By W. H. RICHARDSON, Formerly Conductor of the Swanley Orphanage


[A] Mr. Richardson has responded to my request for hints with such

fulness and weight that I devote a separate chapter to his essay. In

writing, he has specially had in view the difficulties of choir trainers

in rural districts.

All that a writer on the training of voices can do is to lay down

> general lines, and give comprehensive suggestions. The teacher, to make

any use of them must be indeed a teacher, not a mere mechanically

automatic individual of only sufficient calibre to take the directions

of a writer, and give them again. He should be both enthusiastic in his

work, and willing to spend his strength in patience if he would have a

choir of boys to sing reliably well. It is of the greatest importance

that work should be set out on right lines, and that a thoughtfully

prepared scheme should be arranged before commencing. I would here give

my experience of two choirs I had at different times in agricultural

districts, and in one of them I was well satisfied with the progress we

made, while in the other my work was completely thrown away. The reason

for the failure in the second instance (which I foresaw from the outset)

will be gathered from the following account of our plan of campaign. The

choir was a village one which met for rehearsal once a week. The

organist attended and presided at a harmonium, and, nolens volens, I

had at the beginning of each practice to take the choir through the

whole of the next Sunday's services. The boys' voices were, at the

beginning of my connection, uncivilised, and at the end of

it--fortunately the question of ways and means not allowing the interval

to extend beyond a few months--were as barbarous as at the commencement.

There was absolutely no chance of making a name through these

youngsters; and as to voice culture! How could it be possible to attempt

it after labouring through such a programme as Canticles, Hymns, Psalms,

Kyrie, and Amens?

I determined never to take office again unless I could have my own way

in fixing the time-table of work. My success in the other case was owing

greatly to the fact that I had one night a week entirely devoted to

musical training and voice culture. This did not preclude us from

relieving the drudgery of work by the singing of songs and hymns, but

it allowed me the use of an unfettered judgment in the choice of what

should be attempted. A teacher is heavily handicapped if after getting

his boys for the first time to sing in the upper thin register, he is to

follow his delicate work by singing half-a-dozen verses to a tune which

will in the very first verse undo all that he has done, simply because

its melodic progression encourages forcing. Experienced teachers will

appreciate what I say on this point. Take such a tune as:--

KEY E[b]. {m:f s:l t:d1 s:f &c.]

--a tune which inevitably causes a wrong use of the registers by

inexperienced boys. The tunes selected should further the work of the

exercises, not undo it, and with diligence the teacher can find suitable

tunes and chants for this purpose. My advice to all teachers is that

before commencing work they should insist upon conditions that do not

preclude success, and that they should not spend their labour in

wearying drudgery with the full consciousness that to attain it is


One suggestion I would make is that the choirmaster, if he be not, as is

often the case in villages, also schoolmaster, would do well to enlist

the services of the school teachers in the village. It is not often

practicable to have more than one--or two at the most--meetings of a

choir during the week, and the length of the lesson must be, in

consequence, at least an hour. For voice training in the earlier stages

six lessons a week of fifteen minutes each are preferable to one of an

hour and a half, and therefore I would urge the necessity of getting

hold of the sympathies of the school teacher, and putting him on right

lines to work out the choirmaster's ideas, if the offices be not united.

Voice work should be begun in the infant school. At Swanley it was my

practice to give, I believe, daily lessons in the Infant Department, and

the remarks made by visitors will bear out what I am about to say as to

the possibility of getting young children to sing, and sing like little

angels. I was always as pleased to exhibit my infants' vocal powers as

to show those of my more advanced boys, and success was, comparatively

speaking, more easily gained with them than with older boys, for

inasmuch as the difficulty of registers and breaks does not exist as

such with these tiny ones, and unless our plans be artificial or formed

of caprice, this is what should be expected.

In the infant school the teacher can take hold of the good that is

innate, and mould it; in the higher school he has to spend hours and

hours eradicating the bad habits which shouting and untamed license have

allowed to grow. By all means begin with the infants, and let their

songs and nursery rhymes be written so as to "give them a chance."

But I am asked to say something that may be helpful to the choirmaster

having to train the vocal organs of boys who are beyond infantile

methods. I will therefore suppose myself for the first time before an

ordinary country group of lads with all the vocal faults that now appear

indigenous to the locality. I should first get them to find the Upper

Thin Register, and my plan is to confine the work to this region

E, or F, making my own "Exercises," which are suggested by present


KEY D[b]. d1 m1 m1 d1 m1 r1 d1 d1 r1 m1

Koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo

KEY D. d1 r1 d1 l t d1 d1 t r1 d1

Koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo

KEY E[b]. d1 r1 t d1 r1 d1 l s d1

Koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo koo

KEY B[b]. s f m r d s m s s s]

As at this stage the boys know nothing of the diatonic scale, I let them

imitate. The exercises may be played on a pianoforte, if the teacher

cannot sing them, though in the latter case it is preferable that he

should adopt the plan of selecting his best pupils for the models.

I once had to commence with some uncultured boys, and knowing the

difficulty of getting them to make a start, took with me a few of my own

trained lads, who sang the exercises first, after which I added one or

two of the beginners to them, and sympathetically they soon sang in the

proper register with the others. By continuing the process of addition

gradually I soon got the whole class to sing as I wished.

At this first lesson the proper production of "oo" (vowel) should be

obtained. I deal with the vowels as they arise, never observing a lack

of clearness and purity without endeavouring to correct it. The

foregoing exercises can next be used for teaching the intervals of the

diatonic scale, for instance:--

calling the notes by their names, doh soh. Here, again, the proper vowel

production must be sought for, and obtained. The difficulties will be

varied in this respect with the locality. Often I have met with

doh-oo. This, as well as ray-ee, and other faults that need not be

specified, can be corrected at once. The beautiful intonation we had at

Swanley I attribute in a large measure to the care bestowed on the

production of vowel sounds. There must be no division of opinion among

the singers as to how any particular vowel sound should be emitted. If

there be not unity in this respect the intonation suffers.

The earlier exercises should be sung in unison, a correct division into

1st, 2nd, and 3rd trebles being impossible until the boys have acquired

sufficient confidence to show what they are naturally. I have for a

long time used with advantage the single chant form for exercises,

making them myself.

In order to avoid waste of time in learning exercises they should be

short, so that they can be caught up at once.

To get boys to sing in the register below (the Lower Thin) is the next

notation] and formed in the same way as those in the higher region. The

difficulty is greater in getting rough boys to use this part of the

vocal score correctly. The best way I have found to get them to

C1, to koo. The notes are at first weak, and there is a tendency to

"squork," if I may so term it. These exercises must be sung softly at

first, and at this stage the schoolmaster can render valuable help if he

will get his boys to read from their lesson books in this register

instead of in the one below it.

I have to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to one of our best and most

painstaking teachers for giving me this hint. The reading will at first

be weak, and in a monotone, and there being no flexibility, the boys

will have difficulty in forming the usual cadence at the end of

sentences, but practice will soon strengthen the weakness, and make this

register as strong as the one below it. Between the one above and the

one below, this "middle" one is apt to be overlooked altogether, and I

have heard some fairly pleasing singing where it has not been recognised

at all.

The third register (Upper Thick) should now receive attention, and in

order to find it the pupils should cultivate it upwards with such

exercises as--

KEY A[b]. d1 r1 d1 d1 r1 m1 &c.

Koo koo koo koo koo koo]

Within the limits of a short paper, it is impossible to give more fully

all the needful directions for training the voices to cover up breaks,

and to change from one register to another.

Suitable tunes should now be selected, so that the aim of the exercises

may be extended. Remember that it is easiest to leap from one register

to a higher, a stepwise ascent being an insidious snare. Koo and

afterwards laa such tunes as:--

{ s:m d1:s m1:-.r1d1:s l:l s:d1 s:f m:-

KEY E[b].

{m:r f:m r:-m:-l:s t:d1 s:-f:-

{m:r f:m r:-l:-d1:s m:r d:--:-]

Many ready-made exercises are to be found in any chant book, which can

be used to strengthen the voice and build it. For voice exercise I like

a high reciting note at the beginning, D1, C1, E[b]1, as by this we

ensure getting the right register for the high notes, which will be a

matter of doubt for some time if the question of suitability of melody

be left out of calculation.

I strongly recommend the use of the time names. For some years I was

prejudiced against them, but after trying them, believe them to be of

the greatest value.

The teacher should give manual signs for his short exercises. Time is

wasted unnecessarily if the teacher has to turn and write on the board.

The objection to working through a book, only using prescribed

exercises, is chiefly this--no book writer can provide for all the

permutations and combinations that may arise during the actual work of

teaching; it is impossible for him to anticipate them. This does not in

the least detract from the value of the book, which must be the best

general guide for by far the larger part of our teachers.

I have referred to the teaching of vowel sounds, and would say a word

about consonants. My practice has been to guard against giving undue

prominence to any individual letter, and to encourage always a simple

unaffected utterance in singing. Rolling "r's" is very well, but to

precede the vowel with a sound not unlike the noise caused by springing

a police rattle is neither artistic nor pleasing. My custom was to first

let the pupils sing a vowel, say aa, and require it to be held on as

long as my hand was still. A sharp movement of the hand directed when

the consonant should appear, as aa--t, &c., the appearance and

disappearance being as close together as possible. It is a difficulty

with beginners to sing such words as "night," "bright," &c., holding on

the middle part, or vowel. I demonstrated that the singer has nothing

left to sing after having too soon disposed of the vowel. I also gave

exercises in prefixing a consonant to a vowel. Other points of detail

will arise, such as in the word "sing." The habit here is to make the

"ng" sound throughout the greater part of the durance of the singing of

the word. By analysing, and showing by copying the bad model, the

teacher will convince the pupil that "ng" held on is unpleasant. In

singing laa, laa, laa, &c., at first pupils lower and raise the jaw.

This should be at once stopped. But it is impossible to anticipate every

difficulty that will arise under this head. I have said enough to

indicate generally my method. I do not propose to enter into the

question of breathing. One thing I would say--do not try pupils by

requiring them to sing long notes at first, but do get them at the

beginning to "phrase" to your pattern. This will from the first get the

will to control the breath taking.

By all means introduce certificates. By the examination of individuals,

the teacher will get truer knowledge of his learners' powers, and will

be enabled to give advice of greater value because of its assured need.

Let the examination be in public--before the other pupils--and so help

to beget confidence in the pupil, without which success will be limited.

The teacher should never do anything to destroy the confidence of his

pupils, though I am bound to admit that I have not always been free from

irritability and impatience in my dealings with pupils. The work is

trying, the nerves of a teacher of singing are throughout highly

strung, and very little cause is necessary to upset his equilibrium. He

should therefore be ever on his guard to check any tendency to show


Never get a pupil to sing alone for the sake of showing his defects to

others. No one can sing who does not possess a sense of his power to

do so. There should be encouraged an abandon sort of manner. A

gentleman once said to me, "I see how you make your boys sing; you tell

them they can do it, and that makes them do it." The rigid watching of

the beat of the conductor should not be too closely insisted on. No

machine-like singing should satisfy, even though it be correct. The

correctness of a great painter's production is not everything, and

neither is it with the singer. There should an atmosphere of the liberty

of freedom.

At Swanley my work was lessened by the interest that all my colleagues

took in it. A moral force was constantly brought to bear on the boys,

which made them work with a will and a determination to excel. Their

success was the same in other departments of work, though not so

prominently placed. The music teacher who has in himself the power to

draw out the latent feeling of his pupils is the one who will best

succeed. I would draw my remarks to a close with this advice:--Make your

choir as large as possible. Take all who will come into it, and do not

go through the form of "trying" voices that have never tried themselves,

and of which you can form no opinion. For adults this is a necessity,

but for children it is better to get one or two per cent. of naturally

defective learners, rather than to turn away all but those showing

undoubtedly exceptional ability.