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The Whole Voice Approach: Expanding the Understanding of the Adolescent Boy's Voice.


This paper describes a case study using the whole voice approach. The whole voice approach is a pedagogical method developed by the author as a means of guiding boys in singing throughout puberty.

First, a review of literature on the pubertal boy singer is discussed with reference to historical references, current attitudes, and common practices. Next, a description of the whole voice approach and its how it developed into a pedagogical method is shown. Specific examples of vocal assessment and technical exercises for the pubertal boy singer are provided. The case study, a boy chorister in Canada, who trained with the author for one year using the whole voice approach is then described. Finally, musical and medical results are presented. After a laryngeal examination using videostroboscopy it was determined that the whole voice approach, is a viable and effective means of training the changing voice and had no negative impact on vocal health.

This paper is based on a case study, the initial trail, to aid in the commencement of a large-scale interdisciplinary study that seeks to investigate physiology of the vocal folds of the male changing voice and the musical implications as a singer. Merging the fields of vocal pedagogy, music education, and medical analysis provides a new lens through which music educators may work within. The development of the whole voice approach is studied in greater scope within the doctoral research currently being explored by the author at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Jennifer Beynon-Martinec currently holds the Josef-Armand Bombardier Award, SSHRC and aspires to prove that the whole voice approach is a viable and effective means of training the changing voice.

The Pubertal Boy Singer: A Brief Historical Explanation

The age-old controversy to "dismiss the boy from the choir when his voice begins to change," (Gehrkens, 1919, pp.126) beginning in the late 19th Century (Weiss, 1950) is finally old news. Thankfully, very few conductors and pedagogues today still hold on to this ancient school of thought. Current general practice, due to a lack of understanding and fear of unsafe singing is to avoid actively promoting vocal development in the pubertal boy's voice (Campbell, 2016; Warzecha, 2013). Skelton (2007) suggests, "Many teachers shy away from the issue of voice pedagogy for children and adolescents. While some may have a firm belief that serious voice training should not take place before the completion of puberty, for many there is simply insufficient consensus on what teaching young singers entails" (p. 537). As a result of this collective fear, it is customary in North America to follow an un-demanding or overly comfortable method of practice. McKenzie (1956) was the first to establish singing through the voice change using what he coins the "'comfortable range' policy." (p. 29) Promoting singing where and when pubertal boys are most comfortable, supporting alto/tenor range development and encouraging boys to move into the lower tessitura. This was a bold step forward in the history of vocal pedagogy, and as a result many vocal pedagogues moved from ceasing all phonation during puberty to allowing comfortable phonating. Since 1956 there have been many other suggested methods of instruction that follow in McKenzie's school of thought, indicated in the table below.

Williams (2013) categorized the schools of pedagogical training throughout history into two schools of thought of vocal pedagogy for the pubertal boy's voice: The "limited range school" of thought and the "extended range school" of thought noted in the table below (p. 70).
Table 1: The limited range school and extended range school


* Predictable voice change

* Follow the five stages of voice change

* Remain singing in the lowest comfortable range

* Incudes the following researchers and/or pedagogues:
I. Cooper (1962), D. Collins (1982), J.
Cooksey (1999), S. Herman (1988)


* Length of voice change varies

* The voice change is not necessarily limiting.

* Advocates the use of falsetto

* Includes the following researchers and/or pedagogues:
F. Swanson (1977), H. Leck (2009), K.
Phillips (1996), J. Williams (2013)

Presently, singing in the upper register or head voice during the voice change is not general practice. It is noted that the simultaneous development of vocal technique and vocal musculature during puberty supports the voice change (Freer & Elorriaga, 2017). Researchers such as Fisher (2014) have noted that vocal training during puberty may delay the progression of the voice change or at least minimize the vocal difficulties associated with it (Freer & Elorriaga, 2017).

The reason the whole voice approach (simultaneous development of vocal technique in two registers) is not widely recognized is likely because of the uneasiness associated with the lack of understanding of how to teach the pubertal boy. Pedagogues are taught to do no harm and the comfortable range policy suits those with a limited understanding of healthy vocal development throughout childhood.

After many years of experience as a voice teacher with several elite boy choirs in Canada and Europe, and as a result of many discussions of current teaching methods with highly regarded colleagues working in children and boy choirs, I began to question our traditional teaching approach called, "the comfortable range practice." Phillips (1996) in Teaching Kids to Sing, notes that "developing the upper, middle, and lower registers in young singers' voices provides for exercise of the total voice and prepares the way for a healthy passage into adolescence." (p.

Presently, a growing number of conductors, singers and voice pedagogues are now stressing the importance of developing an expanding voice and active engagement in learning and vocal development throughout the pubertal voice change.

An Introduction to the Whole Voice Approach

The whole voice approach, a pedagogical method for training the pubertal boy's singing voice, was developed out of necessity while working as a vocal pedagogue with an elite boys choir in Europe. I prepared adolescent male singers for a (high school) performing arts conservatory audition. In these situations, the jury expects the candidates to have an exceptional level of ability in skill and talent. Unfortunately, auditioning as a singer at the age of fourteen creates many challenges specific to the pubertal male. In fact, it would be rare for a teenage boy to have a stable, changed voice, even at age 18. (Phillips, Williams, & Edwin, 2012)

The whole voice approach attempts to maintain access to the singer's head voice and upper register while simultaneously developing the new baritone register. Timing is essential as the pedagogical process begins with the first signs of puberty.

The following provides a description of the characteristics of the pubertal boy's voice.

What is the male pubertal changing voice?

* The changing voice traditionally refers to the period of time when male singers' voices change from the pure treble speaking and singing voice to having characteristics of an adult male voice. The process can begin as early as 9 years of age or as late as 16, and can last a few months or even four years (Williams, 2013). Most boy's voices change between 12 and 14 years of age, and lasts about 18 months.

* The term changing voice is problematic because the speaking and singing voice in both males and females is always changing. These changes begin at infancy and last throughout adulthood. For the purposes of this article, I specifically refer to the male pubertal changing voice.

The pubertal boy's voice is unique.

* Boys have access to power and vocal strength during adolescence that is unmatched by girls of the same age. This is due to the length and thickness of the vocal folds, lung capacity, and vocal training (Kahane, 1983; Skelton, 2007; Williams, 2013).

* The boy's larynx grows by approximately 65% during puberty compared to the female larynx that grows by about 34% (Williams, 2013).

* The strength and lengthening of the vocal folds allows boys to sing with nearly the same volume and tone as a young adult female (approx. 18 20 years of age).

* Their ability to use this strength and potential depends on the training before and during the voice change.

* I have found both choral and individual training to be necessary for optimum results.

It is important that the process of the whole voice approach development be practiced at the beginning of the pubertal voice change. In the boy choir setting the blend of the natural alto with the head voice of young countertenors and/or falsettists creates a unique timbre and texture that is essential in creating the distinctiveness of the boy choir sound. I am specifically referring to treble boy choirs that range from 8 to approximately 20 years of age. This unique timbre is a distinguishing characteristic of the child and teenage boy choir.

Having worked with several elite boy choirs, I developed the following four stage progression that all boy singers seemed to progress through before reaching their voice change. They are described below:

4 Stage progression (including types of voice change)

1. Call Roy Thompson Hall!--The boy singer (alto or soprano) sounds better than ever with a most beautiful and powerful voice.

2. He must be getting a cold.--The boy's voice becomes breathy--not necessarily noticeable to the average listener.

3. Is he still sick?--The boy sounds (to the average listener) as if he is sick with a cold. The voice is still reliable; however, it sounds like he needs to work hard in order to make it function.

4. The four types of voice change.

a. The Shift. Gradually the entire voice gets lower. The range (eg. 2 octaves) remains the same until the voice reaches low C (add a number C3, C4, etc). The range then gets smaller. Their range then reduces to approximately one octave in the low range, and one octave in falsetto.

b. The Gap. The middle voice disappears (around middle C3--A3). The early baritone voice begins to develop and the soprano register remains strong.

c. The Expanding Voice. Henry Leck (2009) coined the term 'expanding voice' and defines the expanding voice as "an unchanged voice, adding a lower register". This phenomenon is not new, and has been noted in most scholarly writing dating back 70 years. At one point mid-change, the boy will have 3 or more octaves.

d. The Unpredictable Voice. The boys voice is entirely unpredictable: disappearing completely and reappearing in any given register on any given note. This unfortunate change usually happens faster than the others. Eventually a baritone register does emerge.

When I was asked to prepare pubertal boys (often mature soprano soloists around age 13) for a conservatory audition, I had genuine concerns regarding vocal registration and vocal health.

Boys are not accepted into the conservatory with unchanged or changing voices because the jury sees such a voice as a risk. Therefore, the boys auditioning are strongly encouraged to sing in a tenor or baritone/bass fach (voice type or register). The following box is a description of registers as they are intended in this article:
Chest Voice refers to full closure of the vocal folds,
where the vibration occurs along the full length of
the vocal folds. It is also known as modal. This is the
most common range for male singers using the low
range--tenor/bass (Ashley, 2009).

Head Voice refers to full closure of the vocal folds
using passive vibration of the thyro- arytenoid muscles
(McCoy, 2011). The vibrating mass is thinner
with possibly less vertical closure (Ashley, 2009).

Falsetto refers to when the vocal folds do not fully
adduct or approximate. Miller (1993) states that
there is bowing anteriorly; other vocal scientists
argue that no part of the vocal folds fully adduct
(Kiesgen, 2006). McKiney (1994) describes the light
falsetto sound as flutelike and breathy. This process
is still debated and not entirely understood (Ashley,

The term passaggio refers to the transition between
registers. For the purposes of this article I am specifically
referring to the shift that occurs between the
upper (head) and lower (chest) register of a pubertal
boy. When the transition is minimal such as a mere
shift in tone, or yodel-like break over one or two
tones, I refer to the transition as a passaggio. The
term gap is used when more than two tones may be
missing when transitioning from the upper to the
lower register.

The origin of the whole voice approach

The first pubertal boy I was asked to prepare for an audition, was Patrick (pseudonym), a soloist and chorister in an elite choir who possessed superb musicality, talent, skills, and showed great potential to be an excellent candidate for a singing career in the future. At that point, he had full access to his soprano range (minus a few notes on top that he was accustomed to having and had now lost); his voice was somewhat breathy, but not unhealthy, and there was a 5-note baritone chest voice in his lower register with a gap separating the two registers.

For several weeks, Patrick sang as a soprano in the choral setting (2.5 hours per week), participated in the tenor voice masterclass (1 hour per week) and sang both soprano and tenor repertoire in his studio lessons (1 hour per week). Patrick exhibited a gap voice change. With my guidance he worked through the gap and began to develop a tenor range that would accommodate an appropriate repertoire for his audition. I focused his training and instruction on tone quality and creating a seamless passaggio. He auditioned as a tenor with a somewhat stable, maturing voice and was accepted into the conservatory.

Patrick continued to study through his voice change, as a tenor in the conservatory and a soprano within the choral setting. I observed that his vocal range expanded, the timbre grew richer, and the voice reacted in a healthy way to the method of the whole voice approach and learning. The gap which developed into a passaggio became almost unnoticeable when it moved into the easy and beautiful head register, and Patrick was able to sing in the tenor register as well as sing with the tone quality, or richness of a baritone. The pedagogical process that suited Patrick's development was to continue training the upper register (soprano) voice at the same time as the lower register, respecting both registers as two separate voices each with a set of repertoire and exercises. At the same time, the voice was trained as a whole entity using a top-down approach through the passaggio and/or gap. The range used for this kind of training are: tenor and soprano, and a key factor in the success of the method is timing.

Patrick began this training process in the early stages of his voice change. Using the stages of John Cooksey (1999) as a reference (that were further developed by Thurman--see table below). This training process began during Stage 2: Midvoice I/ Early Mutation Stage (Thurman, 2012). Researcher John Cooksey (1999) documented the stages of change, compiling the most comprehensive data to date of pubertal boys in middle school. These stages, primarily noted by comfortable tessitura, may be used to document the phase of change in all boys, including the professional boy singer.

Case Study: Stephen and the Whole Voice Approach in Practice

This section begins with a description and sample of the method of assessment used as to a tool to determine vocal health and ability when I began working with Stephen. Then, I describe the key exercises I used to promote active vocal learning and development. The article concludes with a description of the examination, its results and findings.

Stephen (pseudonym) sings with an elite boy choir in a choral setting and in private lessons. I taught Stephen in both settings for a continuous12-month period and monitored the Whole Voice Approach teaching under the supervision of medical personnel and a senior voice pedagogue.

Near the end of our year together, Stephen was assessed to measure the health of his vocal apparatus using a laryngeal videostroboscopy and fiberoptic nasolaryngoscopy. These are both routine methods of examination used to determine vocal health. Flint (2015) agrees and notes that "laryngeal videostroboscopy is currently the best method for evaluating patterns of vocal fold vibration" (p. X).

The following overview provides a brief description of the study procedures, Stephen's musical activities, and progression of vocal change during this case study.

Stephen, a Grade 8 student, is an avid musician. He studies cello, sings in a boy choir, and takes private voice lessons once per week. He enjoys performing and developing his technical skills in both lessons and choir.

Stephen sings approximately two hours each week on average; singing in warm up, individual voice lessons with his whole voice, and in choir using his treble (upper or head voice) range.

Shortly after we began working together, Stephen's voice began to slowly change. He was fortunate to experience one of the easier transitions through puberty exhibiting the expanding voice change (full head voice access, and the emergence of the new baritone register. Initially he presented with a small gap between C4--E4).

The gap presented itself only for a few short weeks. In lessons, we were able to figure out a way of connecting the voice together very quickly. For that reason, I refer to his change within the category of the expanding voice.

After eight months of training, Stephen had a routine medical evaluation* to determine the overall health of his voice and vocal fold efficiency by an Otolaryngologist on March 21, 2016. What were the medical results?

* The examination was performed by Gail Dicks-O'Keefe MSc.A., R.S-LP(c) and Dr. Doug Angel (Otolaryngology) to determine laryngeal health and confirm vocal fold approximation, vibration and mucosal wave upon phonation. Two weeks later, I documented and assessed Stephen's fundamental frequency, posture, tone quality and range using the assessment form (Table 2) below.

Initial Assessment

The following forms are used to assess each boy as they enter and exit my studio or choir. These exercises allow me to fully assess the ability, stamina and vocal progress of each singer. The same form was used to evaluate Stephen when he began studying with me.

Key Exercises used to close the gap and strengthen the passaggio

Once Stephen exhibited Cooksey's Stage 2, the mature male sound in the lower register was established as a separate entity and appropriate repertoire was suggested and studied. At this point I began working through the passaggio or gap. It is important to note that if the pubertal boy's tone quality becomes "rough, thin, reedy, hooty or grating" on a regular basis, it is best to stop instruction and consult a medical professional before continuing (Williams, 2013, p. 65).

I used the following techniques and/or exercises to create a seamless transition and to help the pubertal singer transition into the chest voice:

1. Siren: Octave glissando using

a. lip trill and b. [u] vowel on the following scale degrees: (1 - 8 - 1) and (1 - 5 - 1).

2. We worked on establishing appropriate vertical positioning of the larynx. Beginning in falsetto or head voice, the boy sings an easy glissando descending into his full voice. This exercise often is challenging for students at the beginning of the learning process and can result in cracking or a sudden drop or yodel-like sound. When the larynx is relaxed and stable in a lowered position, this exercise of singing through the transition becomes possible. (McCoy, 2003)

This exercise should begin in the falsetto or head voice of the young boy, above B4. Ideally, begin between E5 - G5. The starting note will be determined by the comfort of the singer.

3. Simple falsetto or head voice exercises (for example, five note ascending/descending scale patterns) are used to gently stretch the vocal ligament, which should ultimately lead to easier production of higher tones in the full voice. (McCoy, 2003)

4. Once the singer is able to switch between registers easily and it is clear that the larynx is in a low, relaxed and stable position, work with the triad beginning in the top of the register on the 5th, descending to the 3rd and finally to the 1st note of the scale. Begin as high as possible within the comfort range of the singer. The singer should transition between the two registers as the exercise is lowered by semitone. Begin with the [u] vowel and then gradually, as the singer gains control and confidence, expand the singers control by experimenting with the remaining vowels, one at a time.

Medical Examination of Stephen

Stephen was monitored while singing a series of these exercises with laryngeal videostroboscopy1 and fiberoptic nasolaryngoscopy to capture real-time laryngeal imaging while speaking and singing. The following is a description of the exam.

Part A: Videostoboscopy (completed in 2:55 minutes)

1. With verbal consent and explanation, Stephen read the following phonetically balanced passage to determine vocal parameters of pitch loudness and quality, tone consistency, breath control and supported sound. "When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow. The rainbow is a division of white light into many beautiful colors. These take the shape of a long round arch, with its path high above, and its two ends apparently beyond the horizon. There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People look but no one ever finds it. When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." (Shipley & McAfee; 2009)

2. [i] assessed randomly within the full vocal range at various durations and intensity including low/ chest register and upper/ head register.

3. [i] glissando from high to low and low to high

Part B: Fiberoptic Nasopharyngoscopy (completed in 1:42 minutes)

4. [u] 5 -3 -1 (treble)

5. [u] 1-5-1 glissando (treble) 5. [ja] 5-4-3-2-1 (baritone)

6. [u] 5-3-1 (treble)

7. [u] 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 (treble)

8. [u] 1-3-5-5-5-4-3-2-1 (treble)

After the laryngeal examination, further measurements (obtained on April 9, 2016) were documented by the researcher:

9. Fundamental Frequency--G3

10. Range--D3 to G5

Results and Findings

At the time of the medical examination, Stephen presented with a normal mucosal wave while speaking and singing. While Stephen's vocal folds were deemed anatomically normal, there was a glottal gap or glottal "chink" where the vocal folds meet posteriorly when singing in the lower/chest register. There was full vocal fold closure while singing in the treble register. Full glottal closure when singing in the upper/head register was especially apparent during the videostroboscopy testing (Part A). Adequate breath support appeared to create fully adducted passive vibrations of the vocal folds most of the time when singing in the upper register; however, the support was not consistent based on the irregular adduction of the vocal folds throughout the exam.

During adduction (see description in the box below) two details are noted:

a. while singing in the head voice/upper register, vocal fold closure was inconsistent however, at times the vocal folds fully approximated. This was likely due to inadequate breath management. and;

b. there was an obvious glottal chink or posterior gap in the vocal folds while singing in the lower register (new baritone range).
The vocal folds are aligned and appropriately
separated during abduction.

* Abduction refers to the opening action of the
vocal folds.

* Adduction, on the contrary, refers to the
closing action.

The presence of a glottal chink is likely a result of an unbalanced onset required for sound production and the "precise timing" coordination of "competing functions" (Flint, Haughey, Robbins, Thomas, Niparko, Lund, & Lesperance; 2014). It is possible to conclude that Stephen was trying to accommodate the volume of sound and air needed to create a new baritone sound and miscalculating the airflow required. However, the presence of the glottal chink is an outcome of the inability to accommodate the enormity and immense change attributed to vocal growth.

Further research is needed to see if this is an individual or common occurrence in pubertal boy's singing.

Conclusions and Further Questions (or Implications)

In my experience, the boy soprano is usually singing at his best just before the voice change, despite some breathiness in the overall tone that sometimes emerges. The boy singer is capable of the greatest agility and strength at this point before the pubertal voice change. Freer (2008) summarizes current practice and knowledge about the boy's voice: "Adolescent male voices should not be expected to sound like adult voices" (p. 44). I would argue that boys, right before the voice change, are capable of producing a sound similar to, but richer and fuller than that of a young adult female with vocal folds fully adducting during the phonation cycle.

Once Stephen reached Cooksey's Stage 2 or 3 (Thurman, 2012), the tone quality and level of musically challenging repertoire was significantly greater than is generally acknowledged in current practice and research. I propose that professional voice teachers in a formal choral setting should begin by teaching advanced breath support to build strength, to fully close the vocal folds, and strengthen the quality of the sound. If head voice is actively developed during this crucial period of time, the boy soprano will be able to maintain a head voice quality, if used regularly, throughout and possibly after the voice change. Specifically, the term head voice at this point refers to that of the counter tenor, not the breathy falsetto sound of the adult male. It is important that the training of the lower register begin when the boy soprano is singing with strength and confidence in the upper register.

If caught in time, or if the boy soprano exhibits lower expansion in the voice, the boy can be trained as a tenor and soprano simultaneously. It is also important to note that teacher should also monitor and actively develop the upper register. Freer (2008) suggests that the best way to assess a boy's voice is to identify the entire vocal range, excluding falsetto. When we only notice the lowest pitches, it may seem as though the change process occurs very quickly. But boys' newly acquired low pitches are only part of the change process. Other important factors are tessitura, voice quality, register development, and the average fundamental speaking pitch (ibid, p. 44). If the boy soprano exhibits a gap, usually found around C4--F4 (common in tenor repertoire); music with a limited range (such as high baritone repertoire) is recommended. In both cases (training the young tenor or new baritone) the teacher will need to seek out less demanding, limited range repertoire to begin the development of the new voice.

There is no doubt that continued research is needed to develop a comprehensive method of teaching for the trained boy singer. Typically, boys are capable of singing at a more advanced level than teachers normally demand. This highlights the importance of continued research in this field of study and addresses the necessity of investigating pedagogical approaches that contribute to the development of a solid musical foundation, healthy technical progression, and successful vocal transition for the boy singer. With a proven method of vocal instruction, such as the whole voice approach, boy singers will enjoy tremendous benefits through adolescence and further improvement and growth of the voice into adulthood.

Peer Reviewed articles are subject to a blind review process by university music educators. Upon completion of their review, they either accept or reject the submission, often with requirements for revision. Once the reviewers are satisfied with the revisions, the Editorial Board and members of the Publications Advisory Committee are consulted and a decision is made on the publication of the submission. If you wish to submit an article for peer review, please send it to Helen Coker, CMEA President at


(1) Laryngeal Videostroboscopy is a process using strobe lights to observe vibrations of the vocal folds during phonation. Fiberoptic nasolaryngoscopy allows a specialist to view the larynx and vocal folds.


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Jennifer Beynon-Martinec, B, Mus., B, Ed, M. Mus., is a doctoral candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies in Music, Medicine and Education at Memorial University, She has been a member of several prestigious performance ensembles, including the World Youth Choir and the Juno-nominated Canadian Chamber Choir, Jennifer has been a clinician, adjudicator, choral conductor and vocal pedagogue for over fifteen years in both Canada and Europe, and has been a conductor and teacher with St Michael's Choir School, the Amabile Boys & Men's Choirs, the Bach Children's Choir, and the Czech Boys Choir, Jennifer prepared soloists and/or conducted the Czech Boys Choir on four CD's produced by Pueri Auri (2011), Kings Production (2008) and Supraphon (2007), one DVD (2006) and toured the United States, Canada and Europe professionally, Jennifer was awarded the Don Wright Scholarship for Vocal Music (Western 2001), the Lloyd Bradshaw Scholarship in Choral Conducting (Toronto 2003) and most recently the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (SSHRC 2016). Currently, Jennifer is the co-artistic director of the Atlantic Vocal Ensembles, the newly formed provincial Atlantic Boychoir, a vocal specialist with the Quintessential Vocal Ensemble, and conductor of the CARA Choir in St. John's, NL. She taught choral conducting and choral pedagogy courses previously at Charles University in Prague, and currently is a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Education and the School of Music at Memorial University. Jennifer enjoys being active in the St. John's community with her three children and husband, Jakub Martinec.

Jennifer Beynon-Martinec

Memorial University of Newfoundland

Caption: Figure 2: From Freer (2012) and Thurman (2012).
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Article Type:Case study
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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