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A changing voice can also change a life

The sopranos who make up boys choirs occupy a special musical niche -- until a flood of hormones takes it away.

December 30, 2007|Abigail Tucker | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, MD. — The day Brian Oakey's voice broke, so did his heart.

Brian, 12, was in the midst of a recital; his solo was Mozart's Laudate Dominum. During the long instrumental opening, he breathed deeply, then prepared to unleash that first soaring soprano note.

"Instead, all I heard was ahhhhhhrgh" -- a rasping sound, as though he were gargling air. "It was like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together."

Somehow he choked his way through the rest of the song, but his child's voice -- which had made old ladies gasp and won him star status in the Maryland State Boychoir -- never fully returned. Brian spent much of the next several months sobbing on other choristers' shoulders, oblivious to his mother's promise that one day he might develop into a strong tenor.

"I had something beautiful, and then it was gone," says Brian, now 14. "It's just hard to get over that."

Lucky for him, the Maryland Boychoir sees young performers through the trauma of voice change and the pubescent discord that comes with it. The group has even formed a separate Changed Voice Choir, where the repertoire includes barbershop and glee club numbers meant for mature male singers. There, croaking adolescents can get their confidence back.

Boy choirs -- which focus on classical church music -- generally ask their members to leave when their voices start to falter and crack, or transfer them into another singing group for adults. The transitioning male voice is so unpredictable that it is nearly impossible to train; some choir directors have recommended that boys just go play the handbells until the worst is over.

But "we couldn't abandon them just when they needed us most," says Frank Cimino, artistic director of the Maryland State Boychoir, which has been retaining older singers for 15 years, almost since the group began.

Choristers are selected from across the region through competitive auditions; many join as third- and fourth-graders. By their teens, they've been involved for half their lives, attending rehearsals twice a week, going to choir camp, touring the country and the world. Taking away this musical camaraderie at a time when so many other changes are happening simply seemed cruel to Cimino, who was asked to leave his own cathedral boy choir at 14.

Now he doesn't mind that his older kids stick out at boy choir festivals, nor does he yell when they occasionally quaver or squeak. Members of his elite tour group -- about 35 boys -- range from earnest little kids with chubby cheeks and cowlicks to towering teenagers with carefully tousled hair who swill Gatorade and wear T-shirts that say, "Do I look like I care?"

They really do.

Classical musicians have long cherished the voices of young boys for their laser-like intensity and smooth, round tone, which female contemporaries can't match. Also, there is something compelling about the vehicle: a gang of imps whose hygienic habits are hinted at by the Maryland Boychoir's handbook, which emphasizes the importance of brushing teeth. Somehow all of their grubbiness disappears in song. A chorus of young boys can evoke a host of angels.

But what really makes a boy's voice "a miracle," Cimino says, is the fact that "it doesn't last."

It is beautiful because it is ephemeral: Third-graders who begin as sopranos in his choir will be baritones and basses soon enough. In adolescence, a boy's angelic voice descends into something merely human, and in a sense the sinking of the male range parallels the fall of man. After the hormonal flood that deepens his voice -- by lengthening and thickening the vocal folds -- a boy is no longer innocent in other ways. Showboating cherubs are suddenly brooding teenagers.

"With the little guys, their biggest problem is having a history test tomorrow," Cimino says. "The older guys, they really have problems."

Fitting in at school. Fighting with parents. Girls. It's fitting that the larynx, the organ where all the vocal growth and change is taking place, is also known as the Adam's apple -- the place where the forbidden fruit supposedly lodged in Adam's throat.

Centuries ago, promising young male singers were castrated to preserve their voices. The mere mention of these "castrati" sends the choir boys into fits of giggles, but even the manliest among them admit to fighting hard to keep their high notes, mouthing the loftiest parts or developing a falsetto. Those whose voices change late count their blessings.

"I was 6-foot-5 and still singing soprano," Stephen Holmes, 27, a Maryland Boychoir alumnus who also helps to direct. "I thought that was pretty great."

But, eventually, his voice changed too.

Though the change is inevitable, it is also unpredictable. Some boys slide easily into a lower register, but others develop temporary holes in the middle of their range, or can only hit a handful of notes.

"Some voices shatter like a piece of pottery," Cimino says.

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