Male Adolescent’s Voice: An Estill Perspective
By Bram Versteegen
As a singing teacher, I mainly work in the Musical Theatre genre with children and adolescents. Everybody is happy and navigating their learning curves, until that one moment every boy encounters: the first voice crack. Panic in their heads, panic in the group. Where is my stable voice? Where is my stable self? Where is the stable boy? What’s happening to me, and what will my voice become?
That’s where we voice teachers can come in and help. Knowledge of what’s happening and what to do during this process can be great anchors to assist the pupil in panic.
In this blog I give my vision and recommendations for guiding young men through their voice changes, based on literature, my teaching experiences and interviews with three adolescent singers: Levi K (16 years old), Levi V (16yrs) and Ole (14yrs). Let this be the start of an open discussion.
Here are just a few things that happen to singers during puberty:
- Facial muscles grow, but not in proportion and not together. Some grow faster, some grow slower. This process has its effects on connections to the vocal tract, and therefore on the student’s internal perception of voice resonance.
- Larynx grows (faster than the rest of the body).
- Children’s tongues are relatively larger than adult tongues. In puberty these proportions also change.
- At birth, boys’ and girls’ vocal folds are similar lengths, measuring about 2 millimeters long. True Vocal Folds get bigger (female: 0.4 mm per year – eventual size: 10 mm, male: 0.7 per year- eventual size: 16 mm (Poncelet, 2019). This is only an indication; I’ve also heard even larger rates of growth at different voice lectures. The largest rate of growth happens during the earliest years and during puberty. The larger the vocal folds, the deeper the sound.
In summary: Proportions Change!
Some consequences of these changes may include voice breaks, reduction of pitch, dysphonia in the speaking voice, breathy voice, or decreased range. In young men, the changes are more pronounced than in women. Bigger changes may even result in bigger panic! Some young singers even feel their vocal identity is gone.
Levi K says: I was always capable of singing the highest notes. Last year I tried it with more breath and pushing a little bit harder, but that doesn’t even work anymore. When my voice changes, who am I?
Eventually things will be good, with time and the right coaching. It may take as long as three- to five years (Poncelet, 2019). Some find that it takes until their early 20s for to feel stable and secure.
Levi V says: Now, after two years of intense singing during the voice break process, I still have my high notes. The technical approach is very different. but I also have low notes, Hurray for the Siren, and other advices of my teacher, which helped me through).
In the meantime, how can voice teachers help?
EVT Figure Toolkit
As teachers, we are the adolescent pupils’ guide to vocal maturity, in which the pupils’ process and progress takes the lead; not our own preferences, judgements, or biases. Together we can find out what’s going on and what has to be done.
I think Estill Voice Training has offered us great tools to observe and adjust male adolescent pupils’ progress. Following the Figures of level 1, I think the following are the most important to be observed and taught profoundly:
- Effort: Anxious as adolescent singers may be, they can still be very ambitious, wanting to hit that high note. I think it’s important to explain about the changing effort during puberty. Effort has to be a point of attention in all following figures.
- True Vocal Folds Onset/Offset: Changes in puberty can cause the voice to crack or creak unexpectedly into Stiff or even Slack folds. Different combinations of onsets and offsets can help to make pupils aware of what they are doing and what is appropriate when they desire clear tone.
- True Vocal Fold Body Cover: It’s good to make pupils aware of the different possibilities, as well as the healthiest possibilities. Confidence in Thick and Thin conditions will serve the young men for general singing in many music styles. Please also take care to notice the pupils’ breath pressure.
- False Vocal Folds: Make sure that pupils do not constrict to hit high notes. Explain the differences and explore other tools like Anchoring and Thyroid Tilt to encourage the false vocal folds to retract.
- Thyroid Cartilage: A slight Tilt can help to stabilize the vocal folds. Tilting further stretches and so thins the vocal folds – and can be a great asset to help them hit that high note. Many adolescent voice needs can be solved by increasing effect in Thyroid Tilt! Keep in mind that a starting adolescent’s thyroid is not as flexible as an adult thyroid. As teachers we should train Thyroid Tilt effort as, I think, one of the most important figures during voice change.
- Larynx: Keep it moving!
- Velum: Many adolescents tend to talk with a Mid Velum. I don’t see a physical explanation for this; I think it’s a psychological tendency. However, it’s important to make pupils aware of the difference and consequences for their singing.
- Head & Neck and Torso: Anchoring these structures can provide further stability. Teach your pupils this tool but also make them aware of the effort differences needed during adolescence.
- Posture: Although not a part of the EVT system, I think good posture is important for everyone. It can be an especially great way to help adolescents develop their confidence and presence for performing.
The key of a healthy voice is a mobile voice, and for that we have the Estill Siren. It contains almost all above discussed Figures and so it is a good test and trainer for all singers, especially adolescents.
Besides the specific Estill Voice Training Figures I mentioned, I think it’s also good to talk shortly about Didactics and Repertoire, in order to make our toolkit complete.
- Focus on clear tone to close vocal folds.
- Warming up is very important in such a life-changing period. Help the student build a habit of checking with his voice every day: Hi Voice, how are you today? What do you need?
- Do your best to stay well-informed about ongoing research on voice, as well as about the pupil’s well-being in general when considering his voice. Show differences between healthy and risky voice use.
- Be flexible in the range of repertoire, but keep it challenging. Female teachers: Drop octave when needed.
- Keep them singing through the process of voice break.
- Explain what’s happening. Stay patient, kind, and relaxed.
Ole says: I didn’t understand till you explained. Now when you help me, I trust the process.
- Vary the repertoire, so that pupils get to know their voice in different ways.
- Record fragments of the lesson. Listen to them together with the pupils, so that you can put it in perspective.
- Regularly repeat of previous repertoire; for example, from six months ago. This helps to make the pupil aware of the changing effort levels.
- For everything you let the pupil do: Not too long, too loud, or too high. Especially not all three combined!
- For choirs: Challenge singers but do everything to keep it the atmosphere comfortable. Choir is also a place of social behavior and peer influences may impact the voices.
I could say much more about this subject, and I want to learn much more about this subject, so I’d be delighted to discuss the subject with you. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Formerly trained as a Clarinetist and Conductor, Bram only started his professional singing study at the age of 34, at the Tilburg Conservatory in the Netherlands. He found his passion for singing through choral conducting and musical theatre. Today he is a Singing Teacher and Musical Director working towards his EMT certification.
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