How to Choose Music Adolescents Can Sing

Choosing to sing literature written specifically for early adolescents is the most important decision choral directors make when working with singers of this age. This statement is exacting and to the point.  There is no question about its definitude.  You must understand that the topic of early adolescent choral literature is a very important aspect of teaching early adolescents.  To this date, in over 150 professional workshops in thirty-one different states and abroad, Dr. Don L. Collins, Founder/Director of the Cambiata Vocal Music Institute of America, Inc., has advocated strongly the tenets about which you are to read.  He has spent almost thirty years preaching this gospel because he sincerely believes that choice of literature is the secret to success in teaching choral music to early adolescents.

These young singers do not have adult voices; therefore, they should not be singing music written for adults.  Difficulty is not the consideration here.  Dr. Collins has conducted some early-adolescent choirs who were capable of singing difficult music better than many adults he has conducted.  The music the adolescents sang, however, was written or arranged for their unique vocal limitations. Composers and arrangers who write music for adults do not consider the adolescent's unique vocal characteristics and limitations.

Years ago directors of early-adolescent choirs had no alternative but to attempt to sing music written for adults because publishers did not realize that early-adolescent choirs needed a unique type of literature.  Now, leading composers, arrangers, educators, and publishers recognize the importance of supplying music written specifically for choirs in middle-level grades.  Regrettably, they cannot agree on such important matters as (1) how to group the singers, (2) what to call the changing voices, (3) which clefs to use when writing the parts, and (4) how many parts early adolescent choirs should sing.  Perhaps as our profession matures we will come to a consensus about these matters.  Most of the music currently provided by American publishers for early adolescent choirs is worthy of consideration.  However, even though publishers recommend their music for adolescent singers, directors must be careful to evaluate each piece they choose:  The piece may not fit the singers' voices.

How can we know if we are choosing music that will present our choirs in the best light?  In the form of a question-and-answer dialogue, important information relative to choosing music for early-adolescent singers is presented here.  Read it with care.

Which is best for choirs containing early adolescent voices -- unison, two, three, or four parts?  The answer to this question is elusive.  The number of boys enrolled in the choir provides the answer.  If there are numerous girls and only two boys, it is very difficult to perform four-part music.  On the other hand, if there are numerous girls and at least four boys, directors may be surprised at how successfully the choir can sing four parts.  Some directors are inclined to place all the boys (if there are as few as four) on one part and divide the girls into two groups (Soprano I and II), thinking that four boys can balance ten girls on each part better than two boys.  If all four boys are cambiatas or if they are all baritones, that is sound logic; but if there are at least two cambiatas and two baritones, consider this reasoning.  Contemplate the comfortable singing tessitura of both cambiatas (which is A below middle C to A above middle C) and baritones (which is D, middle line, bass clef up to D above middle C).  Notice that if they sing together comfortably, they must sing a part that has an overall compass of A (top line, bass clef) upward to D (above middle C), only an interval of a fourth.  Directors may choose a part that is written with an overall compass of F (fourth line, bass clef) to F (above middle C), which represents a composite overall range capability of both voices, a full octave.  In either case, there are problems when the boys sing the part together.  The part will keep the baritones in the upper area of their voices all the time, which causes vocal tension, poor intonation, and unhealthy vocal results.  The same part will keep the cambiatas in the lower area of their voices all the time, which does not allow them to use the most comfortable and best-sounding tones of their vocal instruments, the tones of D (above middle C) upward to G.  Therefore, none of the boys will be able to sing in the best area of his voice.  Putting them together hampers both cambiatas and baritones.  If the two cambiatas and two baritones are allowed to sing two separate parts written specifically for them, parts that permit the boys to use the most comfortable singing area and best tones of each, two boys are more likely to balance ten girls than are four boys who are hampered by the part they must sing.  For that reason, early-adolescent choirs almost always will function better singing four parts rather than three, provided those four parts are written to accommodate to their vocal limitations.

Singing in two parts (cambiatas and baritones on one part and the girls on another) also creates the problem described above because any time the cambiatas and the baritones must sing together, neither can use the best tones of their singing instrument.

Unison and octave singing presents a similar problem if both cambiatas and baritones sing in the same octave.  If directors find a unison piece that has an overall compass of D (above middle C) upward to A, the cambiatas can sing in unison with the girls and the baritones may sing an octave lower.  Early adolescents cannot sing successfully in unison if the part moves above or below the D- to-A compass.  Choosing to sing unison melodies with a range outside of the D-to-A compass usually causes the cambiatas to "flounder around," attempting to sing with the girls (a part that is too high) or to sing with the baritones (a part that is too low), neither of which allows them to be successful.  They soon become altogether disenchanted with singing and start to disrupt the class because they realize that they are not making a significant contribution.

Is it possible to use SATB voicing with early-adolescent singers?  It is possible but perhaps not practical.  If directors are careful, they can find SATB music that early adolescents can sing successfully, provided (1) the soprano part does not move above F (top line, treble clef), (2) the alto part does not move below B-flat (below middle C) and has a relatively high tessitura, (3) the tenor part (which the cambiatas will sing) does not move below A (top line, bass clef) and has a relatively high tessitura, and (4) the bass part (which will be sung by the adolescent baritones) does not move below B-flat (second line, bass clef) or above D or E-flat (above middle C).  Notice that the term successfully was used in the preceding sentence.  The more a piece of SATB-voiced music adheres to the strict limitations described above, the more successful early adolescents will be when they try to sing it.  When using SATB voicing, directors must scrutinize each part and select only music that adheres to the strict limitations described previously, if directors want to present their choirs at their best.  The best solution is to choose music written specifically for early adolescents.  From this point of view, choosing SATB-voiced music certainly is possible but may not be practical.

Is it possible for cambiatas to sing a part written for adult altos?  It is possible, but again, perhaps it is not practical.  Cambiatas will be quite comfortable singing an alto part that has a compass from A upward to A (below and above middle C).  Directors must be careful not to choose a part that contains unison passages that require the cambiatas to sing with the sopranos because it will likely move above the comfortable singing tessitura of their voices.  The primary problem directors have with cambiatas singing alto is not the boys' ability to sing the part; it is their gender. Labeling the part alto communicates "female" to the cambiatas, so automatically they assume that they should not and cannot sing it.  To them, that part was written for a girl.  Interestingly enough, if directors ask girls to join the boys in singing a cambiata part in SSCB voicing, the boys do not object so strongly.  They think about the part as having been written for them; it is a male part even though the girls are helping them sing it.  Cambiatas are capable of singing four-part music marked SSAB (one often finds this voicing in music written for the Moravians) or three-part music marked SSA if the alto parts meet the limitations described above and if directors are successful in persuading the boys to sing a part originally intended for a female.  Three-, four-, and five-part choral music from the Renaissance period (English madrigals are the most prevalent) has a part usually designated by editors as alto (originally countertenors may have sung it), which is perfect for cambiatas.  When examining this music, directors must be careful to choose an alto part with an A-to-A compass.

Will early-adolescent singers be successful singing SAB music?  The answer to that question depends on what the B means.  If it means baritone, and contains a part written for adult baritones or boys in the second phase of change, there will be no part for the cambiatas to sing; the baritone part will be too low for them.  They may attempt to sing the alto part if directors are successful in persuading them to do so and provided it is limited to a compass of A to A.  If the B stands for boys and contains a part with a compass of F (second line, bass clef) upward to D or E-flat (above middle C) then adolescent singers will be capable of singing it.  The arguments against all boys singing together (described in the latter part of the first question in this section) are germane to SABoys voicings as well.

There is music on the market labeled Parts I, II, and III.  Is this music written for adolescent voices?  If so, which parts are the cambiatas and the baritones to sing?  Music containing generic vocal designations are often written for adolescent voices but publishers use the nondescriptive labeling so that younger or older singers may sing them as well.  Publishers are able to increase their octavo sales if they do not designate the parts for one specific type of clientele.  Most of this music contains three parts (some of it has two or four parts).  If the lowest of the three parts is written in the bass clef, usually it is intended for all adolescent boys (cambiatas and baritones combined) with the same limited range and considerations described for SABoys voicing.  Quite often (if limited to the A-to-A compass), cambiatas, altos or both may sing Part II (the middle part), leaving Part III for the boys in the second phase of change (baritones).  If Part III (the lowest part) is written in the treble clef, the arrangement is usually intended for SSA or SSC voicing and should be sung by choirs without adolescent baritones unless they sing one of the upper parts an octave lower.

Is there a specific process to determine how appropriate octavos may be for early-adolescent singers?  Yes, as follows:

1.  Look at each line of music in the octavo.  Determine to which group of singers that part should be assigned, then ascertain if it is within the overall range of those singers.  If all parts are within range, the octavo may be sung by adolescent voices, but the upper notes may be tensive and the lower notes may be weak, particularly if there is an abundance of them.

2.  Look at each line of music in the octavo.  Determine to which group of singers that part should be assigned; then ascertain if it is within the comfortable singing tessitura of those singers.  If so, this octavo is highly recommended to be sung by adolescent voices if the text, difficulty, and articulation speed of the voices are appropriate.

3.  If the octavo is designated for an SATB choir, assign the soprano part to the Soprano I section, the alto part to the Soprano II section, the tenor part to the Cambiata section, and the bass part to the adolescent Baritone section.  Analyze it according to steps 1 and 2 above.

4.  If the octavo is designated for an SSA choir, assign the soprano I part to the Soprano I section, the soprano II part to the Soprano II section and the alto part to the Cambiata section.  Do not consider it suitable for a choir with adolescent baritones unless they could sing the soprano 1 part one octave lower.  Analyze it according to steps 1 and 2 above.

5.  If the octavo is designated for an SA choir, assign the soprano part to all the girls and the alto part to the cambiatas.  Analyze it according to steps 1 and 2 above.  Obviously, the octavo may be sung by girls only, if it fits their voices.

6.  If the octavo is designated for an SAB choir, assign the soprano part to the Soprano I section, the alto part to the Soprano II section, and the baritone part to all the boys.  If the boys' part is out of range and tessitura for cambiatas and adolescent baritones combined, consider the octavo in a different light.  Assign the soprano part to all the girls, the alto part to the Cambiata section, and the baritone part to the adolescent Baritone section; then analyze it according to steps 1 and 2 above.

7.  If the octavo has no vocal designations and refers to the parts by numbers (parts I, II, and III), with all parts being in the treble clef, assign part I to the Soprano I section, part II to the Soprano II section, and part III to the Cambiata section and analyze it accordingly.  This type octavo also may be sung by an all-female choir.  Assign part I to the Soprano I section, part II to the Soprano II section, and part III to the Alto section and determine if the parts are within the range and tessitura of adolescent girls.

8.  If the octavo has no vocal designations and refers to the parts by numbers (parts I, II, and III), with part III being in the bass clef, assign part I to the Soprano section, part II to the Cambiata section, and part III to the adolescent Baritone section.  If the octavo is out of range and tessitura using these assignments, check to see if it will work if part I is assigned to the Soprano I section, part II to the Soprano II section, and part III to all the boys (cambiatas and adolescent baritones combined), and analyze it accordingly.

9.  If the octavo has no vocal designations, refers to the parts by numbers, and has four parts (with part IV in the bass clef), assign part I to the Soprano I section, part II to the Soprano II section, part III to the Cambiata section, and part IV to the adolescent Baritone section, and analyze it accordingly.

10.  If the octavo is in unison, or has unison sections, its ease of use must be evaluated according to the composite unison-octave range (B-flat below middle C to C, one octave above) and tessitura (D to A above middle C) for changing-voice singers.  If the boys' parts move into unison, or if the cambiatas are asked to sing with the girls, consider the composite unison range and tessitura.