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Giving boys a voice

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Friday, 29 April 2005

Thanks for this article go to Ford Motor Company. I was watching their commercial on television - you know, the one where the group of blokes is yarning in falsetto voices and then their bass-baritone mate Johnno rolls up in his new Ford Courier and they all mew, “Oh, nice!” The first couple of times I saw it I had quite a laugh. Then I asked myself why.

It didn’t take much brainpower to see that the commercial says something about how our culture views the voice as an expression of sexuality, gender and status. And so, as a music teacher with a special interest in vocal development, I heard the bugle call to arms.

We need to sing. It is learned psycho-motor behaviour, as Kenneth Phillips says, and is feasible for nearly all people. We should do so. Musical activity regenerates the individual, cements crumbling societies and bridges cultures. Vocal music is especially potent, emanating from deep within the human body itself rather than an external object. Being unmediated, singing is a peculiarly intense expression and exploration of the inner self. At the same time, however, opening up the inner self makes the singer highly vulnerable, and for this reason becoming a singer at any level is fraught with risks. Hence many people avoid it as much as possible.


Our culture discourages males in particular from singing. Women in general will sing at a party more readily than the men. Mothers will sing with their children far more often than fathers do. In most community choirs it is extremely difficult to recruit enough tenors and basses. The taboo against male singing is apparent even among primary school children.

Once, hoping to inspire some primary-school kids with no experience of excellent singing by unchanged voices, I played a CD recording of one of my former boy-treble choristers. I presented the performance without revealing anything about the singer, and they seemed impressed. But when I mentioned the singer’s name, many boys snickered. “You mean that’s a boy?” they sneered. “He sounds like a girl!”

Like other singing teachers I’ve encountered this reaction often. Many, perhaps most, boys are afraid of sounding like girls, even if they secretly love to sing. They may therefore sing half-heartedly at best, or only in an artificially low pitch which is unhealthy for the vocal cords. Quite a few refuse to sing at all.

Many of those boys who do sing well and with enjoyment in childhood stop completely when they come to the difficult age of the voice-change. While girls may find a small vocal change in adolescence it is not anything like the challenge facing boys.

A healthier, happier and more meaningful Australia would be the result if we were to set about growing a singing culture. While living and working in China I admired the readiness of its people to sing in public. Inching my way through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds I would often hear a person nearby - usually a male - singing softly but clearly. In the town-streets men would pass on their bicycles or electric scooters, singing folk-songs or pop with gusto. And they were always pleasantly in tune. The harder part of encouraging this vocal confidence and spontaneity in Australia would be to win the males over. For some it may be too late, but certainly not for the young ones. So what can we do?

Start from birth, or even earlier. Parents should sing to their infants as often as possible. Mother and baby have a similar vocal pitch, so the child learns to tune in from her more easily. At the same time it’s important that fathers sing too, especially as a model for the boy. The activity can revive the souls of parents: the family sing-along is a fountain of youth.


Boys on average have more difficulty in listening than the average girl, so some extra pains may be necessary to increase their attention. Sing in an environment with minimal distraction, perhaps, and with the boy close to the adult. Eye-contact at the same time can make the experience even more powerful for both.

If the child is singing don’t expect or demand perfection. Different children develop at different rates, so one five-year-old may sing in tune while another does not. Unlike instrumental music, singing involves both language and musical aspects. Some children may get the words right but take longer to master the rhythm and melody, and for others the reverse may be the case. In the very early years enjoyable participation should be the central aim.

Before puberty boys and girls both have treble voices, but there are real differences in the sound. We must help children to recognise this. There is a difference in the strength of the sound, for a start, and the two contrast in timbre (or tone-colour). The boy-voice is sometimes described as haunting and transparent, also as ethereal, cold, pure, piercing, and guileless. Recognising such qualities, makers of films have often deliberately used boys’ voices in their sound- tracks. The Australian television advertisement for a bank in Western Australia a few years ago was very successful mainly because it featured the haunting singing of a local boy-treble. We must help boys accept their treble voices while taking pride in their unique attributes.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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