Reply to 'The Better Land?'


The points raised by Edward Higginbottom and Colin Baldy in their thoughtful response to the publication of The Better Land are in the main answered in detail in my accompanying booklet to the second volume which has just been released by Amphion. Space does not allow for a detailed discussion here of the points raised. In many ways, Dr. Higginbottom and I are at one, but I do feel that both he and, to a greater extent, Colin Baldy, miss the point of my argument, and I hope that the editor will allow me to respond in detail at a later date.

The debate, I feel, focuses on the following disputed points:

Whether the very considerable social changes over the past fifty years rule out the possibility of training boys to sing in the traditional way. I would say they do not.

If it is possible to train boys to sound like those featured on The Better Land, is it desirable to do so? I would say, Yes.

Is the forcing up of the lower 'chest' voice into the higher register injurious to a boy's voice and responsible for vocal problems and the early loss of that voice? I would say yes, there is a good deal of evidence to support this claim.

Has what we once knew as the traditional Boy Soprano Sound been lost and replaced by a sound which our fathers would not recognise? I would say yes, it certainly has.

Do boys stop singing too soon these days not only because of peer pressure but because of poor vocal training? Having trained boys to sing for over twenty years, I find the arguments put forward concerning the earlier breaking of voices very unconvincing, and letters received from experienced choirmasters both at home and abroad seem to agree.

Is the old 'head tone' (a sound now either unknown to or disliked by many choirmasters and used almost exclusively by boys in the past) being confused with falsetto?

The discussion has recently been taken forward by Paul Hale, the Rector Chori of Southwell Minster, one of the most respected choirmasters in the country who, in Organists' Review, writes of the boys of The Better Land:

'The voices are all excellently trained, with the clearest diction, extended breath support, an attractive degree of vibrato, and above all, a glowingly warm and well-projected head-tone. No pushed up chest voice here, but the full head resonance. It gives me cause to reflect upon what we are doing with the training of our boys' voices today (despite apparently knowing all about technique and employing singing teachers in many cathedrals) if we can but so rarely produce such rounded musicians as these, with their sumptuous beauty of tone.' (Paul Hale - Organists' Review May 2000)

Another authority, George Bragg, the founder of the famous Texas Boys' Choir and known as 'the Dean of American Boy Choir' e-mailed me to say:

'A boy's voice comes into bloom (after he has got over the start of the voice-change) and there is then a period of approximately one year which can by all standards and results be the most wonderful year of his choir days.'

I am surprised that Colin Baldy accuses me of prejudice: the charge really does not stand up to examination, as I have pre-judged nothing. One well-known cathedral choirmaster wrote to say that before the issue of The Better Land, my ideas could have been dismissed: 'Now you have presented the recorded evidence, your case speaks for itself.'

If I have brought the old techniques back to the fore after so many years of neglect, I am thankful. It is not a question of portamento or vibrato which are merely matters of style: the real issue here is about correct 'forward' tone. As Major Denis Barthel (head boy at Temple 1931-33) said in a recent BBC interview: "Things aint what they used to be, but I am very hopeful for a restoration of the former standards."

...Stephen Beet


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