Mutation Of The Voice
The anatomical and physiological changes which occur in the larynx at
puberty have been described in the chapter on "Physiology of the Voice."
It may be added that at this period the resonance cavities also undergo
considerable alteration in size and form.
As childhood is left behind the individual emerges. Divergences in face,
in form and in mental characteristics become emphasized. The traits of
family are manifested and self-consciousness becomes more
acute. This period of development, bringing as it does so much
disturbance to the vocal organs, is particularly inimical to singing;
and yet public school music is expected to produce its most elaborate
results in those grades where the pupils are just about to enter, or are
passing through this period of rapid growth and change. The singing in
such grades may be discussed with reference first to the singing of
girls and then to that of boys.
The vocal organs of girls often develop so gradually in size, and with
so little congestion of the laryngeal substance, that no aversion is
manifested to singing. In other cases the inflamed condition of the
vocal organs is shown by the hoarseness which follows their use, and the
huskiness of the singing-tone. The voices of nearly all during the
mutation period show more volume of tone on the lower tones and
evidences of strain at the higher tones.
It is a good plan to put girls who show throat-weakness, characteristic
of their age, upon that part which requires only a medium range of
tones, and to repress all inclination to force and push the voice. The
desire which girls often express to sing the upper soprano need not
affect the teacher to any great extent. A multitude of strong and
constantly-shifting ambitions are thronging through their minds. Some
wish to sing the highest part because it seems to them to be the most
prominent part; some wish to sing it because they can do so with the
least mental effort, and so on. These whims and wishes must be treated
tactfully, but if the teacher is sure that a certain course is right,
there is no alternative but to carry it out, with as little friction as
may be. Large voices, that is, voices that proceed from large resonance
cavities, are often badly strained at this period of life by too loud
and too high singing. It must not for a moment be forgotten that the age
is a critical one for vocal effort, and a strain that the adult woman's
voice will endure with apparent impunity may produce lasting evil
effects on the voice of a girl of from fourteen to sixteen years of age.
If the requirements of the music are such that pitches above F, the
fifth line G clef, must be occasionally sung, let the voices upon the
part sing lightly. If some of the girls are put upon the lower of three
parts, do not let them use the chest-voice, which is just beginning to
develop, otherwise than lightly also.
The boy's voice may change from the soprano to a light bass of eight or
twelve tones in compass in a few months, or the change may extend over
two or three years; that is, two or three years may elapse after the
first distinct break before there is any certainty of vocal action in
the newly-acquired compass. When the voice changes rapidly, all singing
should be stopped. Really, in such cases, boys cannot sing even if they
attempt to do so.
They are so hoarse, and the pitch alternates so unexpectedly between an
"unearthly treble and a preternatural bass" that a boy can usually sing
only in monotone, if, with courage proof against the ridicule occasioned
by his uncontrollable vocal antics, he tries to join in. In those cases,
where the larynx undergoes a slow change in growth, it is often possible
for the boy to sing all through the period of change. The upper tones
may be lost, while there is a corresponding gain of lower tones. This
process, in many cases, goes on slowly and with so little active
congestion of the larynx that the voice changes from soprano to alto,
and thence to tenor almost imperceptibly. Voices which change in this
way often become tenor, but not invariably.
The question now arises, Should those boys who can sing while the voice
is breaking be required to take part in school singing exercises?
In Browne and Behnke's work, "The Child Voice," to which allusion has
been made, there is given a resume of 152 replies to the question: Have
you ever known of boys being made to sing through the period of puberty,
and, if so, with what result?
The answers were:
Forty correspondents have no knowledge.
Five think the voice is improved by the experiment.
Ten quote solitary instances where no harm has arisen.
Ten know of the experiment having been made, and consider it has caused
no harm to the voice.
Eight mention results so variable as to admit of no conclusion.
Seventy-nine say the experiment causes certain injury, deterioration
or ruin to the after voice, and of this number ten observe that they
have suffered disastrous effects in their own person.
These answers were from English choirmasters, organists, music teachers,
singers, etc. It will be noticed that only fifteen of those who give a
positive opinion upon the subject think that boys can sing through the
period of break safely; while seventy-nine are positive that the result
is unsafe. The other replies are vague.
It must be remembered that many of the opinions are those of instructors
in cathedral schools, where one or two rehearsals and a daily church
service means a great deal of singing; while other answers come from
choirmasters who require of their boys equally hard work, though less in
Every individual voice must be judged by itself, if such demands as
choir-singing are made upon it; and, while there are some cases, as
every choirmaster will probably agree, where no perceptible injury
results from singing during the change, the rule is that even when
possible, it is very unsafe.
But the daily time given to singing in schools is very short; the work
bears no comparison with choir-singing. It might almost be thought as
necessary to forbid reading and talking during the break of voice as to
forbid its use in a daily drill of fifteen or twenty minutes in singing.
Certainly it is absurd to advocate entire non-use of the voice at this
period in either speech or song. It is rather correct to guard against
its misuse. If boys have up to this time used only the thick register,
they will in singing through the break intensify their bad habits;
throatiness, harshness, nasality will become chronic. This would be bad
enough, but each bad vocal habit results from the abnormal use of the
vocal organs, and occasions hoarseness, chronic sore throat, catarrh,
It is quite customary in school music to assign the boys to the lower
part, in part music. This practice continued from the time part-singing
begins in the music course, compels the boys to use the thick register.
As the larynx gains in firmness from year to year, they experience more
and more difficulty with their upper tones-- those lying from F to C.
Having used only the thick voice in all their school singing, they know
of no other, and very likely consider the thin voice which they are now
obliged to use in singing the higher tones as altogether too girlish for
the prospective heirs of manly bass tones.
The reluctance of boys to sing the soprano would be amusing were it not,
in the light of utterly false training, so pitiful.
School music is educational; its scope is controlled by those in charge.
The public expects good educational, rather than show work, and employs
those to supervise and teach who are supposed to know what good
educational work is in vocal music.
The supposition that children's voices can, owing to individual
differences analogous to those existing among adults, be divided into
alto and soprano voices, is erroneous; children can most assuredly sing
in parts, but the quality of tone which in the woman's voice is called
alto or contralto cannot be secured for certain physical reasons
previously explained; and the use of the chest-tone, which resembles the
adult woman's chest-voice as a clarinet resembles a viola, is wholly
If, however, the voices have been trained in the use of the thin
register only, the management of the boy's voice during the change is
simplified; the influence of good vocal habits will be felt; the vocal
bands which have never been strained will respond when their condition
admits of tone-production. The boy who has been accustomed to sing with
an easy action of the vocal ligaments and with open throat will at once
become conscious of any unusual strain or wrong adjustment in the vocal
organs. If he has learned to sing well, he has also learned not to sing
The test to apply to the subject of boys' singing in school during the
break may be: Can they sing without strain or push? Can they sing
easily, or does it hurt? There is a certain amount of humbug in boys
that must be allowed for, but it does not affect calculations as to
their singing-powers more than upon their other abilities, if singing is
The speaking-voice also indicates the state of the vocal organs, and
shows the effect of the break sooner than does the singing-voice. If the
tones in speech are steady in pitch, singing is possible in all
probability. If, on the contrary, the speaking-voice is croaky and
wavering, singing is difficult, if not impossible. As the object of the
study of vocal music in the public schools, in so far as it relates to
the treatment of the voice, is to develop good vocal habits, not bad
ones, it follows that if boys sing during the break it must be only upon
those tones which lie within their compass at any time, and that the
vocal organs must be used lightly, and without strain.
In nearly every upper grade room there will be a percentage of boys
whose voices are in a transition stage, some of whom can sing and others
of whom cannot. It requires judgment and tact to handle these voices,
but if boys have sung as they should up to this period, and have taken
pleasure in it, the mutual good understanding between them and their
teacher need not be disturbed. They are likely to do their best.
In this connection it should be said, that really it may be doubted if
the common practice of assigning all boys, whose voices show signs of
breaking, to the bass part, is right.
If boys have been kept upon the lower part, in all part singing and have
never used other than the thick chest voice, then, when the voice begins
to break up, it may be that they must sing bass or not sing at all. Boys
trained in this way have never used the soprano head register and so if
they sing alto, it will be with the thick chest voice of boyhood, which
will now be the upper tones of the developing man's voice.
Singing alto at the mutation period in this manner, strains the vocal
bands beyond reason, and should not under any circumstances be allowed.
It must be understood then in what follows, that singing alto in this,
the chest voice, either before or during the break, is unqualifiedly
But we will suppose now that boys have been permitted to sing only in
the head register, that they have been assigned to the upper part in
part singing, for notwithstanding that usage is to the contrary, this is
what should be done. As has already been suggested the voices of girls
change less, and at a younger age than do boys, and they begin to show
weight of tone and increased volume, at an age when boys are at their
best as sopranos. Girls at this period should sing the middle and lower
parts, but it must be said in passing that much of the music contained
in our text-books ranges too low in pitch for them, or any voice except
a low contralto or a tenor. They must not be permitted to use their
voices at full strength, and special care should be taken of those who
at this age show hoarseness. With girls as with boys, the change is
accompanied with periods of great relaxation of the vocal bands, and
during these periods the singing tone is either very light, or very
Returning to the subject of treatment of boys' voices during mutation,
and premising that they have sung only in the head voice during
childhood, the question arises whether they are not in many cases set to
singing bass prematurely. It is obvious that during this period the
voice is actually broken, divided in two. The lower notes are produced
in the chest or man's register, while more or less of the boy's voice
remains as upper tones. These tones, by the way, never are lost, they
remain as the falsetto or head voice of the man.
Now the vibratory action of the vocal ligaments is much larger for the
chest voice than for the head, or as we ordinarily call it, the
falsetto. There is then no question that during mutation a boy can
confine himself to the use of his old voice, or so much of it as is
available at any time with very little strain. The tone will be light,
in fact, during the active periods of laryngeal growth which
characterize mutation, there will perhaps be no voice at all, owing to
the congestion of the parts, but in the periods of rest separating the
periods of growth, the vocal bands will respond. The compass of the head
voice at this time varies largely, but it corresponds pretty closely to
that of the second soprano, in three part exercises, or from C to C. If
it is attempted to carry the voice down it changes to the chest register
unless used very lightly.
Without attempting then to lay down positive rules for treating a voice
which consists of fragments of voices, the above suggestions are made in
the hope that they may receive the consideration of teachers and