Boys love to sing. Teenagers all over the world report the same thing: They love to sing and want to improve.
Yet many boys stop singing during the transition from childhood to adolescence. There is a misconception that boys stop because their voices start to change. Boys don’t really say that. What they are saying is that as their voice develops during puberty, they become convinced that they are no longer good singers.
As a music teacher and researcher, I’ve asked hundreds of boys about why they sing and, more importantly, why they don’t. My goal is to learn what boys want from singing – and how parents and teachers can provide the skills, guidance, and support needed to help them become their adult voices.
Friends and role models
Adolescents are strongly influenced by their peers, their families and their teachers. These people can provide direction and motivation during a boy’s transition from childhood to adolescence, especially if they support him and share his goals. It was once thought that boys stopped singing because of peer pressure. While this may hold true for some, many boys report the opposite: Support from their peers is what draws them to singing and keeps them involved, especially in school choirs.
Older models are important because they provide images of what the boy might become in the future. A boy who is a positive role model can make decisions about what to do to become like that role model. The adolescent brain makes this kind of forward thinking possible, marking a change from childhood when the focus is on the here and now.
If a boy has an older model who sings, he can envision a future in which he sings too, maybe even with friends. This idea could lead him to join a singing group or a choir at school. Better yet, he might decide to do it with a group of buddies.
Support singing by changing voice
Teenage boys singing have unique concerns that need to be addressed by teachers or supporting adults.
Boys want to know why their voices are cracking, when they will be able to sing lower notes, and what to expect during the developmental process. They also want to know that they will be protected from embarrassment.
Providing information on vocal anatomy helps boys understand why and how their voices are changing. A boy’s voice change occurs in stages, each clearly defined in terms of the range of high to low notes that can be sung at each stage. The six stages of voice change correspond to the six stages of male pubertal development.
Education must be responsive to the changing needs (and voices) of adolescents. For example, pitches that were easily sung a month ago might not be accessible today, forcing teachers to adjust the repertoire and vocal parts they assign.
Boys can be enlisted to experience and tell about the changes in their own voice. This strategy encompasses the empowerment that is so important to teenage boys.
Adult models can describe their own change of voice, compare their notes with the boy, and reinforce the singing of older boys and adult men.
Developing your musical skills as a teenager
Many boys will thrive in a school choir, but others will prefer to sing individually or in self-paced groups with friends. The same dynamic occurs in sports, where some athletes join teams while others focus on individual sports or pickup games. What matters is that the boy is faced with increasingly significant challenges, suited to his growing level of musical competence.
Developing singers have a lot to learn, such as mastering breathing control; understand how the larynx will grow and change to expand its vocal range; coordinate the muscles that will eventually allow lower (and often stronger) heights; and read music written in bass clef. Instead, the boys report that they are not taught these fundamentals of musical growth, leading them to give up hope of being “good singers” again.
Music teachers are often evaluated by school administrators in the same way that athletic coaches are judged – by the result of a choir or a game. This is problematic, because teens say they value the learning process more than the act of performance.
A public celebration of musical achievement, in front of friends and family, at the precise moment a boy feels most vulnerable to his changing voice, is exactly what many boys say they don’t want at the heart of puberty development. Instead, many of the boys I’ve spoken with say they would continue to sing without the public performance. The obvious question becomes, “Do all choirs need to sing in public?” These boys suggest the answer is, “No – not until I’m more confident.” “
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the spaces where boys sing. Virtual choirs, like Zoom choirs, have multiplied. Technology has improved boys’ ability to connect socially while making music together. Software with amazing production tools is free and easily accessible. But even in this environment, boys will benefit greatly from the virtual musical accompaniment and support of teachers and other adults.
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A recent national survey found that 54 million Americans (one in six) sing in backing vocals, and many more enjoy singing in other settings. Research shows that singing improves mood, reduces stress, and strengthens community. I hope that with a little understanding, the singing boys of today can become the singing fathers, teachers and buddies of tomorrow – who together can join in the song.
(Note: In this article, “boys” refers to biological sex, not gender identification. Families may wish to discuss the intersections of biology, gender, and song as they relate to puberty and the development of the teenager.)