Boys keep singing

From the story Boys Keep Singing – Widening Young Male Participation in Choral Singing

Fear of being branded ‘the voice of an angel’ is one of the key reasons boys don’t sing, according to a new book by an Edge Hill University academic.

But Professor Martin Ashley argues that both the opposing stereotypes of high-voiced choirboys and the hoodie culture need to be tackled if boys are to continue singing past puberty. In his book How High Should Boys Sing? Gender, Authenticity and Credibility in the Young Male Voice, Professor Ashley says myths about physical changes in the body, as well as the challenge to boys’ masculinity and intergenerational conflict are all contributing factors in this modern dilemma.

Professor Ashley is Head of Research in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University and has spent many years investigating the physical effects of singing, as well as the social explanations.

He said: “Firstly, there is an ignorance of how to manage boys’ voices, based on the erroneous belief that their voices break. What we are saying in the book is that voices don’t break unless we break them. The tradition is that a boy will sing up to the age of 13 or 14 in a high treble voice, which people compare to angels singing. Around 14, boys say they can’t do this any more and they are told their voices have broken.

“But in reality, the voice has not broken, it has been slowly changing. When the boys are growing rapidly during puberty, their larynx is also growing. The vocal folds, or cords, are getting longer, and their voices are gradually getting deeper.

“The issue is that in schools, boys start to sing lower sooner, but in choirs they want their high voices to go on for longer. In the later stages of puberty, this can strain the voice and my book looks at the consequences of that.”

But aside from the physical side, there are social reasons why boys stop singing so early.

Professor Ashley added: “Paradoxically, Britain has an amazing tradition of singing, which is the envy of the world, but the flip side is that people who lead this singing can be quite conservative and are not always ready to engage in knowledge transfer.

“Secondly, there is a significant commercial market. Boys’ singing sells to adults if they are imaged as cute and make an angelic sound. There is a market to keep boys’ voices high, but the boy singers we interviewed used the words ‘grannies’ and ‘cheesy’, and this puts the genre into total conflict with the hip hop or rap other boys are listening to.

“Thirdly, there is the education we give teachers and choir leaders. OFSTED reported recently that teachers in the music departments of otherwise effective schools did not know how to manage boys and voice work.”

But he says changing the perception is a tall order. “For example, we are not calling them choirs,” said Professor Ashley, “That’s a dangerous word which sends out signals of ‘posh’, ‘operatic’ or ‘old people’. However, my research does show that boys who sing in choirs love it – they just keep in a secret.

“Then there is the significant issue of intergenerational relationships. The older generation is not connecting with the younger generation. The tabloid press portrays all boys as yobs and hoodies, but the book says many boys are great – highly creative, very committed and pleasant young people. We know there is a generational rift but it is because of a lack of understanding.”

The book is aimed at those who work with choirs, but also all music teachers, especially those in secondary schools. It will also appeal to those interested in the sociology of boyhood, and enthusiasts of angelic voices. A teaching resource is also being created, which will be launched in February. Boys Keep Singing is a set of films, created to look like a video game, which will be used with a digital interactive book, entitled I’m a Boy, How High Should I Sing? There are also plans to use older school boys as role models by sending them into schools to promote the positive side of singing. To purchase a copy of the book visit www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754664758.