Did you know that there are technically only two types of voices?
- a child’s voice (aka unchanged)
- a changed voice– subdivided into male and female changed voices
Voice changes start after puberty. If you’ve ever noticed the growth spurt of a child, you’ll understand why the voice change seems so awkward for most boys and more gradual for most girls. Want to do some reading? Try these links:
- VERY simplistic explanation for children: http://kidshealth.org/kid/grow/boy/changing_voice.html
- A more anatomical explanation of the larynx: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/559032/speech/68966/The-structure-of-the-larynx
The point of this post actually has little to do with the physical aspects of the vocal folds and larynx, but more about perceptions of children’s voices. It’s more a request.
As an elementary teacher, I should be working with all unchanged voices. There are a few 5th graders who are on the cusp of the change, but still not quite there.
However, with boys (and even a few girls) from Kindergarten all the way through 5th grade, I struggle with perceptions of what boys and girls voices SHOULD be. In unchanged voices, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. If you listen to little boys and girls talk, there shouldn’t be much of a difference at all. If there is, this is due to environmental conditioning. Boys tend to speak lower in their vocal range, because they want to sound like the males around them.
A 1st grade student told me, “I can’t sing as high as you because I have a man’s voice.” There are boys in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade that can sing with me in their higher ranges, but they always revert back to the absolute lowest part of their singing voices… and their speaking voices! They’re actually doing damage to their voices, because they insist in attempting to speak and sing lower than the natural range of their voices. By the way, I NEVER force my students to sing by themselves in front of the class. This is not really about fear of singing in front of their peers.
I’ve been frustrated, so I sat down with my male students in each grade level and we just talked. I asked them,
“How many of you have ever been teased about sounding like a girl?”
I reassured them that they didn’t have to raise their hands, but most of them did. I reminded them that there is no such thing as a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice in unchanged voices. They know this. We talk about it all the time… but there is an unfortunate expectation of our boys to sound like boys… or to be more ‘manly.’ This expectation is affecting children as young as 4 and 5 years old! Have you ever heard a Kindergarten student trying to sing like a man?
So, here’s my request:
Could we PLEASE stop insisting our boys act like boys and girls act like girls with antiquated stereotypes of what boys should be and what girls should be?
Could we PLEASE stop insulting boys by calling them girls?*
Could we allow little boys and girls to be just that? Little boys and girls? Let them play, let them explore, let them discover… without the pressure of living up to the hopes and dreams of the adults in their lives?
Maybe I’m asking too much, and obviously, this hits me where I live as a vocal music teacher… but I hope you can see where this leads. Boys who are too “girly” (there’s that insane insult again) are bullied. Girls who don’t act like girls (whatever that’s supposed to mean) are ostracized. They don’t grow out of these criticisms when they hit puberty. Those things stick with kids for a long time. It’s about time adults learned that the little things do count with kids.
*I played softball as a kid and loved it. I was determined never to “throw like a girl,” because that’s what I was told by an adult in my life. As an adult, I watched two of my daughters play softball. At one game, I witnessed one of them make a rocket-laser arm throw from 3rd base to 1st, and the subsequent look of pain by her teammate on 1st base… I proudly said, “Now THAT’S how to throw like a girl!”
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To deal with these types of issues, I ended up beginning a boys’ only choir. Unlike you, however, I teach middle school and have that lovely challenge of having some unchanged, some changing, and some changed voices. I have struggled with this issue for a long time, hence boys’ only. I have found that my numbers have gone up (26 singers this year) and I am able to give each section the attention they deserve. This is such a hard time for the boys and we must treat them differently. I aim to choose repertoire that appeals to boys and am very careful about the ranges. I do put the boys with the girls for at least one piece each term but make sure I feature our boys at all times. Having two choirs is a little more work and takes planning but is very worthwhile. My boys even have their own mascot and secret handshake/password. It’s very cool.