The Better Land?

Dr Edward Higginbottom and Colin Baldy on the trebles of the new millennium in response to Stephen Beet’s article The Lost Boys (CMQ, October 1999) on the demise of the boy soprano voice. These two experienced musicians question the idea of a post-war decline in the quality of boys’ voices.

Sixty years ago at the chorister trials held in New College Oxford fifty or so boys used to line up in the ante-chapel to sing, one by one, to Dr Andrews. Most came from local parish choirs. A sizable majority had a couple of years' experience under their belt, and a good solo in their satchel. In presenting themselves as semi-finished products they illustrate in telling fashion the change that has occurred since; what happens these days in institutions like New College happens in the middle of a desert. There is one remaining Oxford city parish choir with a boys top line, and New College holds open days to introduce city parents to the idea of having their sons join us. All is far from lost, because these parents are always amazed by what they see, hear and learn; and when their sons arrive as rank beginners we still have time to get them up to speed. But to speak any more of a culture of singing among boys is to speak of steam trains and Lyons corner houses. Who knows how many exceptional voices are never heard these days.

The ecology of training boys voices in the new millennium is characterised by no previous experience, no peer support, no cultural contexts. It's pretty tough for today's boy. To survive you have to belong to a clearly defined self-reliant group in whose company you feel valued. Choir schools can provide this environment; and some independent organisations are bri1liant at producing a sense of community and purpose which serve equally well. But leave these protective walls and the world out there is hostile. The pressure for instance on New College choristers in their new secondary schools to stop singing treble can be immense. Not of course pressure brought to bear by staff, but the more difficult-to-resist peer pressure which suggests to them that it's not cool.

What has this got to do with a possible lost golden age of treble voices? I'll keep you guessing for a little longer if I may. Meanwhile consider another thing or two. Dr Andrews kept a cane in the corner of the Song Room. Dr Buck of Norwich, we are told, shut a boy in a cupboard to help the lad understand the expressive nuance to be applied to the word 'darkness'. Somewhere else an organist aimed a hymnbook, no doubt with unerring accuracy. And as all this was happening (and as social workers were sharpening their pencils), British milk, overlapping in hormones, began arriving on the doorstep, the British housewife began finding money to buy food additives cunningly disguised as meat and vegetables, and WH Smith invented the concept of the ‘top shelf’. O tempus! O mores!

Is there a scientific approach to a comparison of the boy treble of the forties and those of the naughties? Each seems to have been raised in such a very different ‘eco-system'. I sometimes dream of having a top line as they used to be: sixteen boys, eight between the ages of fourteen and sixteen (not unlike the boys on this CD). Whatever gets done at New College, and this will be the same at most places running choir schools, has to be done before a boy's fourteenth birthday. Confronted with such discrepancies I guess I would back off comparisons.

Although I suggest that there are factors well beyond anyone's control making comparisons difficult, I would add that it remains well within a contemporary choirmaster's competence to ensure that boys' voices are properly handled. This means training them in a healthy fashion, and using their ful1 resource. It includes building a ‘falsetto' (call it head voice if you like) that wil1 normally remain intact (though perhaps a little capricious) during the period of voice change. It also means involving the child’s emotional response (I’m not sure I hear this 'impersonal style' referred to by Stephen Beet as today's fashion).

If ‘The Better Land’ celebrates a golden age for numbers of boys singing, who could disagree? If it represents a golden age of accomplishment from these solo voices, I think each of us will make up his or her mind. If it represents a golden age in terms of enlightened vocal tuition, I would have to reply: non est demonstrandum (except in most of the country’s primary schools).

Sometimes talk of a golden age is an outpouring of nostalgia. The important thing is not to descend into prejudice: it cuts you off from much that is handsome and kind. I hear as much good singing from today's ‘professional' trebles as I hear from the young men on this CD, and I rejoice in all of it. Let us not condemn the modern choirmaster, expecting him (her) to recover sounds which are probably locked in another age’s historical, social, cultural and physical contexts. At the same time let us not overlook the many affinities between the treble of today and the treble of the past.

Edward Higginbottom
Dr Higginbottom is Director of Music at New College Oxford.


Stephen Beet in his article, The Lost Boys, (CMQ, October 1999) raised the tantalising prospect of the existence of a large number of recordings of boy sopranos from the 'golden era' of the twenties and thirties. Having previously only heard Ernest Lough, I was delighted to be able to add these recordings in the form of the newly released CD, The Better Land, to my collection. In bringing these other voices to the attention of a contemporary audience, Mr Beet really has done us a great service. I must, however, take issue with certain of the conclusions which he draws from these recordings concerning the current situation regarding both the condition and training of contemporary boys voices.

Stephen Beet leaves us in no doubt that the sound of these earlier boy sopranos is in some way 'better' than that which we might expect to hear today. Indeed, though the opening track is thus titled, this prejudice is surely intended to be strengthened by the very name of the collection. This is a shame since any such judgement is necessarily subjective. The sound we hear on this CD is certainly different (though, as I hope to prove, not as different as Mr Beet suspects), but who is to say which is better? As for the assertion that modern vocal methods are to blame for the early breaking of boys voices, though this would indeed be scandalous, it too is wrong. My experience of teaching both boys and girls over the last twenty years (the last nine of them with the choir of New College, Oxford) leaves me in no doubt that we are providing children with the best possible start to their singing lives. In the process, we are not only preparing them for the rigours of chorister life but also for the possibility of life as adult singers. Having said that, it is a sad fact of life that there are as many bad teachers around today as there were in former years: We must all have heard young voices in performance and wondered what on earth their teacher was thinking of, but I am afraid that one can also hear several examples of rather dubious technique on the CD in question. As for Dr Buck shutting boys in cupboards, I can just imagine the furore which would result from such an approach today!

The argument hinges on the use of the terms "chest" and "head" voices. These two words have been the cause of an enormous amount of confusion and angst over the years and should really have been put to bed decades ago. When early monks started singing their Offices, they noticed that it was possible to produce a full, low voice which seemed to emanate from the chest, and a lighter, high voice which seemed to have its origins in the head. The "chest" voice which they were hearing was, in fact, full voice produced by using all three elements of the vocal folds (or vocal cords as I they used to be known). In contrast, the "head" voice was falsetto which uses either shortened, opened folds or stretched, thin and nearly closed folds, depending on whether the sound is supported or not. Whereas the use of the word falsetto is simply terminology, the other two terms imply the existence of two distinct voices. The current debate seems to be based on whether either one of these two "voices" is better or healthier than the other. A huge amount of angst could be avoided and time saved by acknowledging that, in truth, both parts of the voice are simply elements of the one instrument.

I believe that it is necessary to train both boys and girls to be able to use both extremes of their voices and to be able to move as effortlessly as possible between them. This produces the full tone which people will associate with New College and, since the middle of the voice looks after itself there is certainly none of the coarseness of tone which Stephen Beet associates with that term "chest" voice. That tone is, I believe, the sort of sound which I encounter more and more in primary schools these days. The only concern would appear to be to produce as high a level of decibels from the children as is possible. It equates with a harsh, shouted noise which stops and gives way to a weak falsetto at around B above middle C simply because the children have not been taught how to access the tops of their voices. Of course such singing is ugly and has a short shelf life. A well-developed and well-produced falsetto is essential then, not only in order to access the upper notes but also to strengthen and improve the quality of tone lower down the voice. Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that a strong falsetto will prolong the life of the unbroken voice. Not only this, but it is a prerequisite for a natural and well produced broken voice (1 could give quite a list of former choristers now singing with easy tenor and baritone voices in Ox bridge choirs, at Music Colleges and as professional musicians).

Now here is the surprise: the blended tone, as I have just described it and which I would consider to be a voice well-produced, can be heard in several places on The Better Land. Leslie Day in I hear you calling me (track 2); Thomas Tweedie in By an old abbey door (track 14, with lots of chest) and Denis Barthel in both his tracks are good examples. Morris Stevens in God shall wipe away all tears (track 7) uses a particularly large amount of chest. However, he also severely depresses the larynx with a tight jaw, resulting in a very throaty sound which I would try to avoid at all costs. Indeed the accompanying Silver Songsters sing in a manner which equates pretty closely to the course chesty sound which I mentioned earlier with regard to modern primary schools.

Does then this 'modern' voice production lead to the early breaking of voices? I have already stated my belief that a well-developed falsetto will lead to the longevity of the boy soprano voice and I could name very many ex-New College boys who have gone on singing well into their sixteenth years. I recently coached one of our old boys for a recording of Bernstein' s Chichester Psalms for Erato when he was, I believe, fourteen years of age and we currently have an ex-Westminster Cathedral (a similar sounding choir) chorister singing tenor, who was still recording with his treble voice at the age of sixteen-and-a-half. On those occasions when a voice does break before the boy has served his time with the choir, it is nearly always possible for him to continue singing in pure falsetto. Indeed his voice is often the best it's ever been. Many choir trainers will be familiar with the phenomenon of a boy's voice being incredibly strong for the last year or so of its life and I have a theory that this extremely well-developed falsetto can often be associated with a natural inclination to sing counter-tenor in later life, but that's another article.

No, if we really want an answer for the early breaking of boys voices, then we need look no further than the modern diet and lifestyle. We have, arguably, a better diet than ever before. It contains far more protein than in former years but also, alas, added hormones and other impurities. Then, of course, there are the chemicals with which our entire environment is polluted and which we cannot avoid ingesting. When, as a result, the onset of puberty occurs earlier and earlier, is it any surprise that there is a corresponding alteration to the age when voices begin breaking? I will illustrate my point by drawing on my experiences abroad. I have taught for a number of years in Italy, working with the children of the choir of Lodi Cathedral, among others. The Italian diet has far less protein in it and there I find boys with strong soprano voices at fifteen and sixteen (though in Italy too, the diet is becoming higher in processed foods). Contrast this with Germany and Austria, where the diet has a high meat content and colleagues report the early breaking of voices. All this is without taking into account the fact that boys who do no singing at all are losing their unbroken voices earlier too.

In conclusion then, though the jury will undoubtedly remain out, I hope that I have at least been able to contribute to the debate and I make a plea that we remember that what is regarded as beauty of tone (within, of course, the context of good voice production) will always be in the ear of the listener.

Colin Baldy
Colin Baldy is an opera singer, teacher and church musician. Since 1991, he has taught the choir of New College, Oxford.

"Reprinted from April 2000 issue of 'Church Music Quarterly', the journal of the Royal School of Church Music, by permission of the authors and the editor."

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