Classifying Early Adolescent Voices

Proper classification of the adolescent voice may be considered the first step toward successful singing with choral groups containing voices who are experiencing mutation. According to Dr. Irvin Cooper, developer of the well-known Cambiata Concept, in his book, Teaching Junior High School Music, the different kinds of voices found in middle-level schools are: soprano girls, treble boys, boys in the first phase of change (cambiata), boys in the second phase of change (baritone) and boys changed (adolescent basses).

He believed that girls at this age were neither soprano nor alto in the adult sense of the word. He described their voices to be "rather thin, breathy, colorless and inclined to be sometimes shrill". With only a few exceptions he found most girls to have the same range, from B flat below middle C to top line F in the treble clef. He called them Soprano I and Soprano II and divided them equally into two groups each of which contained both experienced and inexperienced singers.

Classifying the boys' voices usually occurred at the beginning of each school year in a period of no more than fifteen minutes. He used the following procedure:

Step 1:   If it was a mixed group, he requested all girls in the first several rows to stand and move to the rear of the room. The vacant places were then filled by boys who had been sitting in the back several rows after which the girls who had been standing at the rear were seated in the places vacated by these boys.  If it was an all-male choir he just used steps two and three. 

Step 2:  He asked all boys to sing the chorus to Jingle Bells in unison. He pitched the key of D major, giving the beginning tone of F sharp. Immediately it became obvious that the boys were singing in octaves. Some of the boys were singing the chorus to Jingle Bells beginning on F sharp above middle C and others were singing the chorus beginning on F sharp below middle C.  As the boys continued to sing he moved among them, touching on the shoulder or leg each boy who was singing the lower octave thus indicating that he was to stop singing. The boys singing the lower octave were boys in the second phase of change (adolescent baritones) and changed voices. Cooper indicated they should sing the baritone part. The boys singing the upper octave were boy trebles and boys in the first phase of change (cambiata).  These boys who sang the lower octave were asked to be seated together as a group.

Step 3:  He then instructed those boys who were singing the upper octave in the key of D (those were the ones who remained standing) to sing the chorus to Jingle Bells in the key of A flat with C as the beginning note.  Again it was apparent the boys were singing in octaves, except for a few boys who had not discovered their voices and were singing incorrect pitches. Some of these boys were singing the chorus to Jingle Bells beginning on middle C and others were singing the chorus beginning on C, one octave above middle C.  Once again he moved among the boys and touched on the shoulder of leg those boys who were singing the upper octave and asked them to stop singing.  He continued until all voices singing the upper octave were eliminated. The boys singing the upper octave were unchanged voices (boy trebles who enjoyed using head phonation) and were designated to one of the treble parts. All other voices were cambiatas, uncertain singers, and boy trebles who enjoyed singing in chest phonation.  He asked the uncertain singers to sing in the cambiata section for several rehearsals, giving them a chance to adjust to singing in that area of their voices (approximately the A to A octave around middle C).  If after these several rehearsals the boys were still uncertain, he would give them individual attention to teach them proper manipulation of their vocal instruments (see Training the Uncertain Singer).   After they had "found their voices," he made a correct classification and assigned them accordingly.  All these voices were asked to be seated together as a group.

Step 3:  Classifying the girls' voices was easy.  He arbitrarily moved among the group, giving one girl the number 1 and the next girl the number 2.  Then, in order to achieve equality, he seated the "ones" together, which he call the "blues" and the "twos" together, which he called the "greens."

The mistake many choral directors make involves improper classification of boys whose voices are in the second phase of change. Often mid-level directors attempt to treat these boys as would high school choral directors and divide them into tenors and basses. This results in some boys whose voices are in the second phase of change (having been classified as tenors) being mixed with boys whose voices are in the first phase of change (cambiata). This practice severely limits the vocal potential of the cambiata because music must be chosen which seldom goes higher than an E flat or F above middle C and he is never allowed to use his upper voice which contains some of his most beautiful tones. It is fine to call boys whose voices are in the first phase of change "tenors" (although choosing the term "cambiata" for these boys is becoming more prevalent) as long as the boys realize they are not the same as adult tenors, but one should never place boys in different phases of change all in the same group. All boys whose voices are similar to high school tenors and are already in the second phase of change should be combined with the changed voices and designated to the baritone part.

Cooper believed that early adolescent girls should not be classified as sopranos and altos but should be considered as having equal voices. He did not feel they had a true soprano or alto range and quality.  In fact, he would ask the groups to swap parts, allowing one group to sing the upper part on one song and then the lower part on another while switching the other group to the opposite part.  In his published arrangements he often wrote the melody in Part II so girls singing the upper part could learn to sing harmony, and vice versa.  Mainly, however, it was important to him that these young women use the full compass of their voices to discourage the "I'm an alto" or "I'm a soprano" syndrome.  For the most part, this practice eliminated the deplorable occurrence of young women developing an unmanageably wide passaggio due to overindulgence in "chest singing."

After the voices have been classified they may be taught an easy four-part song either by rote or with a copy of the music that is available to them online.  There is no charge to print the piece.  Since Jingle Bellswas used to classify the voices, simply extend the use of Jingle Bells (Just click the title to access it) for the four-part song. Teachers may put line notation on the chalk/marker board or make teaching charts or transparencies of Parts I, II, & IV. Or the teachers may simply pass out copies of the piece and let the students read from them.  More detailed information about how to teach music by rote is in the article Rote Teaching Melody-Part Style Music.

 Here is the process (please do not use the piano until Step 9):

Step 1:  Sing the first stanza up to the chorus to Part IV using the neutral vowel "lah" for the adolescent baritones.   Then ask them to sing it with you.  Repeat it a time or two until the singers are singing it relatively well.

Step 2:  Sing the first stanza up to the chorus to Part II using the neutral vowel "lah" for the 2nd sopranos.  Then ask them to sing it with you.  Repeat it a time or two until the singers are singing it relatively well.

Step 3:  Combine the two parts.

Sept 4:  Sing the first stanza up to the chorus to Part I using the word "jingle" as it is written for the 1st sopranos.  Then ask them to sing it with you.  This part is a very easy and simple ostinato.

Step 5  Combine the three parts.

Step 6:  Sing the melody of the 1st verse (Part III) of Jingle Bells to the cambiatas.  Then ask them to sing it with you.  Repeat it a time or two until the singers are singing it relatively well.

Step 7:  Combine all parts.

Step 8  Use steps 1-7 above to teach the chorus.

Step 9:  Sing the entire arrangement with the words and the piano accompaniment.

To hear all the parts separately and together, go to Jingle Bells.

Further details concerning early adolescent vocal/choral music education may be found in Don L. Collins' books, The Cambiata Concept, published by Cambiata Press, 1806 Bruce Street, Conway, Arkansas 72034 and Teaching Choral Music, 2nd edition, published by Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.