“As soon as a teacher has taken great care and pains to train a boy’s voice, it disappears.”
That’s 17th-century French vocal instructor Bénigne de Bacilly. He’s not the only choir director to have bemoaned the first crack in a pubescent boy’s voice. The director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Liepzig, Germany, certainly cares, too. At 801 years old, Georg Christoph Biller’s choir has a reputation to uphold—Johann Sebastian Bach served as its Thomaskantor, or choirmaster, from 1723 to 1750. Ever since then it’s reigned as one of the most prestigious boys’ choirs in the world. But now that Biller’s sopranos are dropping to tenors at an earlier age, he’s having to adjust lesson schedules, train the boys differently, and reevaluate the group’s sound as a whole. Using pharmacology to preserve their angelic voices is out of the question, says Michael Fuchs, the choir’s voice doctor. Here’s Elizabeth Weil writing for The New York Times Magazine:
Fuchs’s own voice broke in 1983, when he was a Thomaner, age 13. He liked the voice doctor of the choir then and decided to follow his career path. Now trim, goateed, in good shoes and fashionable eyeglasses, he’s among the world’s experts on the timing of voice break. Certainly nobody cares more. “We have a problem in the choir,” Fuchs said, when we met in his office at Leipzig University hospital, echoing concerns I heard time and again. “The balance is shifting. We have more men’s voices and fewer boys’ voices.” The obvious solution — starting boys in the choir at 8 instead of 9 — does not work. The choir tried, and the 8-year-olds couldn’t handle life in the alumnat, learning all the pieces and attending all the rehearsals. So the plan now is to squeeze every day out of the soprano voices. “We try to let the boys sing as long as possible without risking overloading the boys and damaging the voice,” Fuchs said. Many of the Thomaners hold Fuchs in mystical esteem, claiming he can predict to the day when their voices will break.
“Of course not the day,” Fuchs demurred, “but maybe two, three weeks.”
In the years before the boys hit puberty, Fuchs saw them every three months to record growth, hormone levels and voice. He played for me recordings of one boy speaking and singing the same passage of a choral piece every year from age 11 to 14. Even to my untrained ear, the differences over time sounded stark, the boy’s voice becoming richer and fuller until the day it shattered. Mining data from the recordings, Fuchs constructs scatter plots showing changes over time in jitter (variation in pitch), shimmer (variation in loudness), noise component (breathiness) and range. All this data provides context so that he can distinguish what is causing flaws in a boy’s voice. “Is it a cold? A problem of singing technique? Voice break can sound like laryngitis.”
Weil beautifully portrays the way these nuances in biology and anatomy have a direct affect on the culture and function of an 800-year-old institution. It always astounds me, too, when writers sculpt pivotal scenes out of the tiniest details. Take this description of Fuchs threading a miniature camera through a boy’s noise and into his larynx so he can observe the vocal anatomy as the boy sings:
The videos are intimate and alarming — the vibrating glottis, the gaping trachea: Jonah’s view from inside the whale. “That red is the leading edge of cells growing,” Fuchs said, pointing to a vocal fold on his computer screen. “Can you hear how it’s not possible to bring the vocal cords into good vibration?” he added during a particularly scratchy patch. “If this were from overstress and not voice break, you would see it on the surface. Like if you went to the forest to cut wood. You’d have nodules on your hands and edema. Stress on the vocal cords looks the same.”
There you have it. The mechanics of puberty, working itself out slowly but surely in the delicate timbre of a child’s larynx. Amazing.
Photo Credit: “St. Thomas’ Church, leipzig (choir)” Zarafa / Wikimedia Commons