The Continuously Developing Voice: Adolescence to Ageing Voice

Adolescence (16 to 19 years)

At this stage of development, the voice has usually gone through the most extreme changes that it will ever experience.  This phase is where stamina and consolidation should be the focal points of training.

In some cases, the voice can appear to be quite settled, but don’t be tempted to burden the voice with repertoire which is extreme in range and dramatic content.  It is an excellent time to be building in agility and length of phrase.

The choice of repertoire should be challenging, both technically and emotionally, but if you are training singers, do keep within your student’s capabilities as you try to extend them.  You can also challenge your students by introducing genres and styles which they would not ordinarily have considered for themselves.

For the classical repertoire, the early composers such as Purcell, Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, as well as the popular collections of 17th & 18th Century Italian Songs & Arias provide ideal repertoire for the adolescent voice.  For musical theatre and more popular music, be careful about the range of the song, especially for boys’ voices.  You should be able to find songs in a variety of keys to suit the abilities of your students.

When choosing repertoire, be sure that the accompaniment is not too overpowering for the voice.  It can be discouraging for a young singer to feel swamped by the density of the accompaniment so that they strain to be heard.

Young Adulthood (20 to 30 years)

This is the period of life when much more vigorous training of the singing voice can be undertaken.  The pharynx has developed to its full length and width, and the cartilage systems with their accompanying musculature have now reached their full size.

The vocal folds have also reached their full length, and the muscles within them are now ready to take on harder work. The breath support system has now settled and can be worked upon to produce longer phrases and louder dynamics.

Everything is now in place for improving tonal quality and extending the range of the voice.  It should be remembered that from the age of 25 the soft cartilages of the larynx begin to harden and become more dense.  This is the first step of the aging process of the voice.

Later Adulthood (30 to 50 years)

At this stage of life, the singer should be able to access abundant stamina and vocal flexibility. The tone is at its peak of potential and the voice should be able to work with a wide variety of dynamic and energy.  The voice is also capable of sustaining longer periods of higher tessitura and louder dynamics without strain.

The teacher should feel confident in working with voices in this age range as they should be fully settled into voice type and capable of working hard.  The singer is also of an age where the emotional and intellectual life is flourishing, and so will be capable of a wide range of styles and musical challenge.

The Ageing Voice (50 onwards)

Please remember that the ageing process of the voice commences at about age 25, when the soft cartilages of the larynx begin to harden and become more dense.  The aging process can inhibit the function of the larynx, affecting flexibility, pitch and tonal quality. This can be counteracted by a greater input from the muscles which control the movement of the larynx.

Constant maintenance in the form of proper exercise will ensure that the voice will function at its best.  There is no reason why the voice should sound ‘old’.  Deterioration of muscular function is the true cause of a voice which sounds ‘old’.  Keep singing, as long as you are prepared to practise!

Ross Campbell

Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

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The Continuously Developing Voice: Puberty (Boys & Girls)

Puberty (12 to 15 years)

The onset of puberty generally occurs earlier in girls than in boys, but most youngsters fall into the 12 to 15 age range.  This stage of development triggers a series of growth spurts followed by recovery periods.  The development is not regular.  An increase in hormonal levels produces an increased growth in the body as a whole, including the larynx, with resultant changes in the voice.

This age range will be enthusiastic about current popular music, a lot of which is not suitable for the developing voice.  If you can find the right popular song, which sits comfortably in a student’s vocal range, this will maintain their interest.  These songs can be taught alongside classical songs and songs from musical theatre.

  • Boys’ Voices

The vocal changes are most noticeable in boys.  The larynx grows so large that it can be seen moving in the throat.  It is commonly called the “Adam’s Apple”.  The vocal folds become longer and increase in muscle mass, with a consequent lowering of range of pitch.  The pharynx becomes longer and wider, adding depth of resonance to the voice.

Boys may try to speak and sing using the muscle memory of their pre-pubescent, unchanged voice.  This no longer works, resulting in squeaks and “breaks”.  New habits need to be developed to allow the fast-developing instrument to function properly.

At this stage, it is important for a teacher to realise that although vocal stability is difficult to control, this process of vocal change is entirely natural. It is also important that a boy should continue singing throughout this period of vocal change.  A boy is not told to stop playing football or give up all sports while going through the physical changes of puberty.  In the same way, exercising the voice by singing will help it to grow and be strong.

You should be aware that any of the following may happen:

  1. In ideal circumstances, the pitch range of the voice lowers steadily without any break and remains intact.
  2. In extreme circumstances, the boy wakes up one morning with a completely different voice functioning in a lower register, with access to a much weaker upper voice.
  3. What is almost certain to happen is that there will be a definite change of register in the voice, with a limited thick fold sound of approximately one octave below the change, and an easier falsetto range above.

The job of a teacher should be to develop the middle range of the changed voice and extend this range both up and down the scale.

Repertoire choices become considerably limited, due to the loss of range, but you should select songs, or parts of songs, which cover the range at which the voice is working easily.  A boy should not be made to continue to sing as a treble or alto beyond a reasonable period after the voice begins to show change.  This may cause conflict, undue strain and slow down the development of the adult voice.

A counter-tenor voice may be developed, but this will be at the expense of the emerging tenor, baritone or bass voice.  It is a matter of choice as to which type of voice you wish to develop through training.

  • Girls’ Voices

The vocal change in a girl’s voice is generally less dramatic, and begins earlier. A noticeable breathiness often appears, due to the temporary inability of the vocal folds to close fully.  This is because of the accelerated growth process occurring in puberty. As with boys, the vocal folds thicken, and there may be evidence of register changes, or transitions.  These give easier access to the lower notes in some girls’ voices.

Teachers and singers have even referred to having different “voices” (head or chest) on either side of these gear changes or transitions.  In truth, there is only one voice.  The singer must learn to control the transitions by controlling the relative thickness of the vocal folds and the position of the larynx in the throat.  Sirening is a great help here.

The notion of a “head” or “chest” voice arises from the sensations of resonance which are felt in these areas on varying pitches.  A teacher must strive to mix these resonances and sensations so that the tone quality is balanced throughout the range.  This will also help to smooth out any gear changes.

The transition from one area of the voice to another is called a register change.  The notes upon which the register change occurs is called the “passaggio”.  Notes in the “passaggio” often feel weaker but should never be forced.  If force is used moving from a lower to a higher register, the transition into the next register will not happen.  The voice will sound driven and pushed.  This is very unhealthy for the voice and can build up long term problems.  Some people mistake this for belt quality, which it is not.

In this phase of vocal change, it is important not to be quick to categorise the voice as either a soprano, mezzo-soprano or contralto.  You should listen to the tonal quality of the voice and  work on a variety of repertoire allowing the voice to settle into its preferred range in its own time.

Throughout the physical changes of puberty, a guiding principal of exercises for boys and girls alike should be the siren (“ng”), as well as descending scale work.  Girls at this age should be discouraged from over-developing the lower range of their voice.  This sound may be enjoyable and easy to make, but does not carry through to higher pitches with ease. They should work on the upper, middle and lower parts of the voice equally, to ensure the muscular development of all parts of the voice.

– Ross Campbell

Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

The Continuously Developing Voice: Baby/Toddler to Puberty

Baby/Toddler  (from birth to approximately age 4)

From the moment of birth, healthy babies use the larynx and lungs in a vigorous reflex action which is entirely safe.  Babies can cry loudly for extended periods of time with no damage to the voice, because of the way they support the breath.  Just observe the work in the abdomen when a baby is in full cry!  Re-discovering the link between breath support and the larynx, which is so natural to a baby, is fundamental to vocal health in later life.

The larynx in babies sits high in the throat.  It is very small with short vocal folds.  The cartilages are soft.  The noises produced are high in pitch, can be very loud, but lack wide variation of tone.

Babies then go on to amuse themselves by exploring the range of sounds they hear in their environment.  Adults encourage this by using a special language for babies, with cooing, exaggerated pitch changes and simplified words.  Babies respond by imitating these sounds and begin to gurgle tunes.  They experiment with pitch, volume and length of phrase.  A sense of enjoyment and play arises from the sheer physical act of making these sounds.  This is so often lost when the teaching of singing becomes formalised.

At this stage, gentle lullabies and nursery rhymes sung by their parents and older children will help to develop a baby’s musical ear.


Childhood  (age range 5 to 8 years)

As the baby moves into childhood, the larynx begins to grow and to drop lower in the throat.  The increase in the length of the pharynx allows for a wider variation of tone, and the increasing length of the vocal folds allows for a greater variety of pitch.
It is interesting to note that the vocal folds in boys tend to grow at a faster rate than in girls.  Despite the slightly larger vocal folds, girls and boys speak at around the same pitch, but girls tend to develop a wider singing range earlier.

Children in this age range will develop naturally by singing in groups.  They need to explore their voices to discover pitch, and they learn to sing in tune more readily by listening to others in their group.  At this stage, you should not insist too much upon accuracy of pitch or memory of words if this will interfere with the overall enjoyment of the experience.

The type of songs which children of this age enjoy, and respond well to, are nursery rhymes and songs with accompanying actions and repetition.

 
Pre-Puberty (9 to 11 years)

An ideal age for a child to begin individual singing lessons would be about 9 years.  It is advisable that children should not sing too high in their range nor too loudly for extended periods of time.

Your choice of repertoire is very important and should be influenced by the child’s musical experience so far, which can vary greatly from child to child.  The sense of enjoyment should not be lost in these early singing lessons, so find out what type of music the child likes, and build up a repertoire with this in mind.  Children of this age respond well to songs which tell a story, animal songs, character songs, and comedy songs.

Generally, a child will learn the words of a song more quickly than the tune.  They will also learn more easily through the process of imitation.  To this end, you should sing the tune to the child rather than just play it on an instrument, and continue to sing along with the child as he or she learns the song.  You can then stop singing along when the child feels more confident.
A well-structured programme of training can produce very gratifying standards of achievement in this age group.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London

Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

The Continuously Developing Voice

The voice constantly changes throughout life. As a result of physiological change in the body the voice passes through various stages, the most obvious of which occurs in adolescence. If you are a teacher of singing, you need to be able to recognize the condition and stage of development of a student’s vocal mechanism from the sounds it produces. These sounds are further defined by gender, inherited attributes, native language and dialect.

There is no point at which a voice settles into being a finished product; the continuously developing voice should instead be viewed as being a ‘work in progress’. Even the adult voice passes through its own stages, and needs regular work to keep it flexible. Singers need to work at technique continually.

It is important not to sing or recommend repertoire to a student which is too demanding. If, for example, the range of a song is too wide for the voice-type and its stage of development, an undue strain can be placed upon the voice. Similarly, a song with emotional content calling for a bigger, dramatic sound brings the danger of vocal fatigue. Clearly, it takes time to build the necessary stamina and range in any voice. Proper training will keep a singer active and ever-developing.
The songs which you or your teacher selects for you should also reflect your emotional range. For example, giving a 10-year-old a song such as ‘Hello Young Lovers’ from The King and I is not emotionally appropriate, even though the technical demands of that song may be reasonable for a young singer. Adopting an holistic approach to training the singing voice is advisable right from the outset; emotional and technical content of songs should go hand-in-hand, and be appropriate to a singer’s age and stage of development. If you are a teacher of singing, then repertoire choice is one of your most important tasks.

Stages of Vocal Development

The voice’s stages of development fall roughly into the following age ranges. Each has a corresponding physical set-up for the voice, which produces its own particular type of sound.

  • Baby/Toddler (from birth to approximately age 4)
  • Childhood (5 to 8 years)
  • Pre-Puberty (8 to 11 years)
  • Puberty (11 to 15 years)

o   Boys

o   Girls

  • Adolescence and Young Adulthood (16 to 19 years)
  • Adulthood (20 to 35 years)
  • Later Adulthood (35 to 50 years)
  • The Ageing Voice (50 onwards)

Ross Campbell

Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

The Muscles of Breath Support

Muscles
For breath support purposes, the abdominal muscles consist of four groups:

  • The rectus abdominus, which lies just underneath the surface of the skin
  • The external obliques, which lie underneath the rectus abdominus
  • The internal obliques, which lie underneath the external obliques
  • The transverse abdominus, which is the deepest and which lies underneath all of the above

The rectus abdominus muscle (the six-pack) is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles, and it runs from the bottom of the ribcage at the front of the torso to the pubic bone. The muscle fibres run lengthwise down the body, which has a serious implication for singing. Contraction of these muscles pulls the body forwards and down, which interferes with the posture needed for singing. A singer will lean forwards if this is happening. For this reason many teachers advise students not to exercise using stomach crunches.

The external obliques are a pair of abdominal muscles which are located on either side of the torso and are superficial to the internal obliques which lie in a similar position, but deeper. Both sets of oblique muscles are attached to the lower ribs and to the pelvis at the hip.

The transverse abdominus muscle is the most important of this group for breath support. It lies at a deeper level in the body than the other abdominal muscles, and wraps around the torso, creating an effect similar to a back support belt. The muscle fibres run from side to side, so when this muscle contracts, the effect is to flatten the belly. Unfortunately this muscle tends to be rather lazy, so if the rectus abdominus is doing all the work, the transverse abdominus need not do anything. Posture is the key here; the singer should avoid leaning forwards and should be aware that the oblique muscles are at work. The transverse abdominus will then function as it should.

These abdominal muscles operate together, not in isolation. It is important however that the rectus abdominus does not dominate and upset the balance. The work of the muscles should not interfere with the diaphragm as it contracts.

The following activity shows the diaphragm and the abdominals working together. It demonstrates the same muscular action used in supporting the breath for singing.

activity:

  1. Using the fingertips, find the band of muscle above the navel and just below the centre of the ribcage.
  2. Push and release the fingertips into this band of muscle to feel how elastic it is. Make a lengthened and vigorous ‘SHH’ sound, and observe how this muscle contracts, pushing the fingertips outwards. Repeat this exercise with the band of muscle below the navel and just above the pubic bone.

Note that the navel is not being pushed outwards as these muscles contract. (You should not in any case push out the belly when breathing as this locks the torso and reduces flexibility.) To demonstrate the mechanics behind this, place a fingertip in the navel and make a long gentle ‘SHHH’ sound. The navel naturally moves inwards towards the spine as the air is exhaled. This is because the transverse abdominus muscle is contracting and flattening the belly.

Related Muscle Groups

The abdominal muscles are helped in their work by muscles in the back and the pelvic floor, which have their role to play in controlling the use of breath in both speaking and singing.

Although not so easy to observe in action as the abdominals, the action of these muscles can be shown in an activity similar to the above.

activity:

  1. For the muscles in the back, place the palm of the hand on the back muscles just below the ribcage. Make a lengthened and vigorous ‘SHH’ sound and feel the muscles contract.
  2. For the muscles at the sides, place both hands just below the ribcage on either side of the body, the fingers in front and the thumbs to the back. Make a vigorous ‘SHH’ sound. Squeeze gently as the sound is made, and the contraction of the muscles is easily observed
  3. For the pelvic floor muscles, sit upright on a hard chair. Make a vigorous ‘SHH’ sound. As the sound is made, there will be a very slight uplift of the torso as the muscles contract against the chair.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

The Action of Breathing

Control of breath underpins all speaking and singing. Air is taken into the lungs either through the mouth or nose as we breathe in, and passes out of the body as we breathe out. On its way out, it passes through the larynx and is used to power the voice. The control of airflow must be the job of the breath support system and, when properly supported, the voice will emerge freely and under control.

The following are the most important parts of the anatomy with regard to the use of breath in singing:

  • the lungs, which hold the air when it is inhaled
  • the diaphragm, which controls the inhalation of the air
  • the abdominal muscles, which control the exhalation of the air
  • related muscle groups in the back and pelvic floor, which support the abdominal muscles

The Lungs

These are large sacs lying within the rib cage, above the diaphragm. Their main purpose is to provide the body with oxygen which they extract from the inhaled air. The air left over is then exhaled, and it is from this that we can make sound. Lungs cannot inflate or deflate by themselves because they have no muscles of their own. They inflate and deflate due to the action of the diaphragm.

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle attached to the lower edges of the rib cage and to the spine at the back. It lies deep inside the body under the rib cage. You can feel the effect of it moving when you touch the upper abdominal muscles, but you are not touching the diaphragm itself. When relaxed, the diaphragm lies in a dome shape underneath the deflated lungs. When it contracts, it moves downwards towards the abdomen and the lungs fill with air.

Diaphragmatic breathing is often considered to be a support mechanism in singing. However, we use the diaphragm to breathe in. When we sing, we are breathing out! The diaphragm is relaxing as we breathe out (exhale), so it is losing energy and can’t be depended upon to support the voice. Breath support for singing in fact comes from the muscles which control exhalation, the outward flow of breath. These other muscle groups support the breath, giving power to the voice – and are particularly important for long phrases, whether spoken or sung.

When the lungs are full, the diaphragm will have contracted and moved downwards. This action creates the inhalation of air and the lungs inflate.

When there is little breath in the lungs, the diaphragm is relaxed and sits high in the rib cage.

Locking or holding the diaphragm interferes with and impedes the free flow of air. The diaphragm can become locked if the rib cage is constantly being held in a rigid, high position. This is a common problem, since some people mistakenly believe that this ‘military’ posture is good for singing. But flexibility is the key to success in singing, and it stems from well-aligned posture.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie

Muscle Memory & Posture

Muscle Memory

Muscles ‘remember’ the actions they perform. The more often these actions are repeated, the more efficient the muscles become at doing them. The clearest example of muscle memory is one’s accent. This is the result of years of repetition of particular muscular actions of the tongue and throat. It is habitual – if you wish to change your accent, you have to create new muscular habits. In My Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle’s cockney accent became ‘Received Pronunciation’ only after endless work.

Training a voice involves building up the muscle memory which will allow the voice to work at its best. Singers may arrive for a first singing lesson with muscles that are under-active, over-active or used incorrectly. Correcting old habits and creating new, more efficient ones is an essential part of teaching singing. A singing teacher needs to encourage regular practice and rehearsal of these new habits, because it is through repetition that the new muscle memory is established. Repetition also builds stamina for more prolonged and sustained singing.

Posture

The voice works best if the instrument – and the instrument here is the body – is set up properly. There is an ideal physical set-up for the voice, which we call posture.

The two main elements of good posture for singing are:

  • a long spine
  • breadth across the upper chest

The alignment of these two elements helps the voice to work optimally. The spine should be long, so slouching must be avoided. Think tall, with the back of the neck straight but not rigid, and the base of the spine tucked down. The simplest way of achieving this is to rock the pelvis backwards and forwards so that you can feel the lower part of the spine dropping down and tucking under. The knees should remain flexible, but not soft, and certainly not locked. This position means that the muscles of the lower abdomen are ready to work. Breathing can then function efficiently.

Breadth of upper chest refers to a sense of widening of the sternum. This engages the pectoral muscles of the upper chest which help to support the muscles in the neck, and it stabilizes the larynx. In order to achieve breadth of the upper chest, the shoulders should be moved gently back. With hands clasped behind the back at waist level, the singer should pull the elbows back, before lowering the hands (still clasped). There will be a feeling of stretch in the pectoral muscles as the chest widens. While maintaining this posture, the hands should be released and the arms allowed to drop to the side.

The breath cannot work properly if the body is not correctly aligned, for example if it is collapsed in the centre. This happens when the superficial abdominal muscles, the ‘abs’, contract and pull the upper body downwards. The diaphragm then cannot work efficiently and tension rises into the neck. In addition, if the chin juts forwards, muscles in the neck, which hold the larynx in place, are stretched, which prevents the larynx from moving freely and therefore working easily.

Teachers should always be reinforcing good posture in a singing lesson, and singers need to be reminded that they can practise good posture at anytime, anywhere, and whether or not they are singing. It is a question of being mindful of how they are standing, sitting or walking, of checking the position of the spine and the shoulders (whether they are properly aligned), and of thinking about how the muscles feel. Good posture may feel unnatural at first if bad habits have become entrenched; new habits often feel odd, even when they are more efficient. Teachers & singers should persevere until good posture becomes habitual. Good posture is fundamental to good singing, and much more than an optional extra.

Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Director & Head of Singing, Musical Theatre Ireland, MTI
Award winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 – 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available
www.rosscampbell.biz
www.musicaltheatreireland.ie