Harmony in puberty

The Baltimore Sun

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

The 12-year-old was in the midst of a recital; his solo was Mozart's Laudate Dominum. During the long instrumental opening, he breathed deeply, then braced himself 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 came back to him. Brian, who lives in Roland Park, 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," said Brian, who is now 14. "It's just hard to get over that."

Lucky for him, the Maryland Boychoir is one of a small but growing number of the traditional singing groups that sees young performers through the trauma of voice change, and all 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 else transfer them into another singing group for adults. The transitioning male voice is so unpredictable that it is nearly impossible to train; in the past, some choir directors have recommended that boys give up entirely and just go play the handbells for a while, until the worst is over.

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

Selected from across the region through competitive auditions, many of the choristers join up as third- and fourth-graders; by their teenage years, 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 the tender age of 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 honest-to-goodness cowlicks to towering teenagers with carefully tousled rock star 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, rounded 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, the 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 in order to preserve their voices; the mere mention of these "castrati" sends the members of the choir into fits of giggles. But even the manliest among them admit to fighting hard to keep their high notes, by mouthing the loftiest parts, or developing a falsetto. Those whose voices changed late counted their blessings.

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

But, eventually, his voice went, 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.

Egos shatter, too. It is bewildering to lose control, for months or even years, of a talent that has been cultivated since childhood, and there is no guarantee that a boy's voice will still be supple and lustrous in maturity. At the very least, the older boys must give up the melody in most songs, singing in the background instead.

Choir directors have made a study of the mystery of voice change, with little success. Henry Leck, the founder of the Indianapolis Children's Choir, even persuaded several choristers to let doctors stick strobe cameras down their noses so he could watch their vocal folds in action. He published an instructional video, The Boy's Changing Voice: Take the High Road, and now advocates that choir directors avoid negative words like crack and break to describe the process of voice change.

Leck's preferred verb? Mutate.

Cimino tries to be as gentle as possible when he takes boys aside to say it's time to leave the soprano section. Some boys take the news in stride; others, like Brian Oakey, experience something like grief.

After rehearsal once a week, the older boys stay behind after the little ones leave, and the old church basement where practices are held is filled with rumbling voices. A shaggy-haired boy fingers a few notes of Elton John's Tiny Dancer on the piano. No one tries to trip or pinch each other, the way the younger boys do. These guys are very cool - so cool, in fact, that every now and then a pint-sized soprano will pretend he can't nail the high notes anymore in the hopes of joining them.

This is the Changed Voice Choir, and their sound is beautiful - in addition to performing with the younger kids, they have separate concerts in which they sample everything from Celtic mouth music and Gregorian chants to spirituals and standards from Broadway shows.

They didn't always sound this good. When Cimino debuted the group, "Sometimes I wanted to put a bag over my head." It takes patience to tame the adolescent voice, in all its creaky peculiarity, and to cope with the adolescent personality - to tolerate their moods, recognize their vulnerability and convince them he'd be there if they ever needed help.

It's worth it to keep the teenagers singing. Once boys join the Changed Voice Choir they hardly ever quit, making time, in between rugby practice and homework, to commute to practice.

Across the country, more and more boy choirs are offering similar programs, as the onset of adolescence gets earlier, and as boy choirs - faced with competition from an ever-increasing number of extracurricular activities for children - confront dwindling membership.

But there are still plenty of traditionalists who cite practical reasons for bidding adieu to the older boys - keeping them on delays certain necessities, like learning to sing with girls in mixed choirs.

For their part, the gentlemen of the Changed Voice Choir would rather sing to girls. They're not a bit shy about serenading outside of movie theaters and elsewhere.

"That's how I got my girlfriend," 16-year-old Sean Northcraft, a baritone from Anne Arundel County, revealed.

The boys still miss their old voices, especially at Christmas time, when they can no longer manage the floating melodies of the hymns and carols honoring the most perfect of boys.

But this lingering sorrow, and all the rest of the joy and terror and strangeness of adolescence, helps bring about another, quieter transformation. The boys begin to experience the transporting emotions that propel art. And so they are no longer mere instruments to be arranged in song. They are musicians.


For a schedule of the Maryland State Boychoir concerts, go to www.marylandstateboychoir.org/about.htm.

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