We all know that boys go through a big change. Their voices break (Let's say... change - in a big way)! One day they were little boys with angelic voices and then they lose all control. They never know what will come out of their mouths or how much range they have or whether they can even sing anymore. Eventually out comes a croaky deep voice that gradually grows into a smooth man's voice. This takes several years.
Boys voices grow by up to 60% in a short time and there is no wonder they lose control for a while. It's like becoming really good on violin and suddenly you must play double bass! It looks similar, the mechanism is similar but the strings are waaaaay longer and you need to play it quite differently. It's also really big and hard to handle.
A lot of consideration is given to boys going through their change and most people understand. But what about the girls?
How many times have you heard a young girl sound fabulous and then she hits puberty and won't sing anymore? She says she can't sing. Her high range has all but disappeared and the low notes seem easier for her. Why do the high notes sound so weak and fluffy and breathy? And she hates everything that comes out of her mouth and being a teen sucks so what's the point?
She is having her own teenage vocal crisis. Her voice is also growing rapidly and becoming more difficult to play. Sometimes she loses lots of her range. Sometimes she sounds husky all the time, or feels like she always has a sore throat. Sometimes all of her high notes disappear or at least they don't sound good.The notes in the middle to upper part of the stave just after her registration change are breathy. They didn't used to be.
Her vocal folds are also increasing in size (not as much as boys) very rapidly. Menstruation is making them tired and a bit puffy (yes the vocal folds too) and sluggish. The vocal ligament starts growing and suddenly they can't make a clean sound anymore. What's more, their audiation is affected so they think they sound far worse than they do.
She may as well give up. She just can't sing anymore...... WRONG!
Now is the time to keep working those muscles. Help them to get used to this new instrument. Young violinists go through it every time they grow into the next sized instrument. They just get good at playing one size and grow out of it. All of a sudden finger spaces are slightly different, the bow is longer and the whole thing is just bigger.
It's no different. The reason it is so difficult for singers is that our instrument is inside our bodies. We can't see it, or touch it, or even feel it internally very well. What's more, your voice is an expression of who you are. No wonder teens won't talk when they are going through vocal change.
So how can we help them? Educate them. Teach them about what they are going through and what is really happening. If they are singers, keep them singing but don't expect them to perform if their voice keeps changing range or comes and goes. Keep working on the breathing and support muscles. They will need those no matter what happens with their voices. Keep working on musicianship. They will need that too. Keep their vocal lessons going so they can learn to negotiate the new instrument.
In the next article in this series, I will go into more detail into the physiological changes, research on supporting boys and girls through vocal change and what to expect at each stage. We will look at why adolescents should not push their voices too much at this delicate stage and why patience pays off in spades.