My studio is a little over half male, and always has been. I have worked with prepubescent boys, adolescents, and many adults up to the senior years.
I see many questions online from female voice teachers about teaching male voices. I also get lots of direct questions from them about what to do. Sometimes other teachers will come to observe me teaching males. Many of my students previously studied with female teachers who apparently did not understand what to do with a male voice. There is so much confusion out there around this topic.
It is not surprising, since a lot of female teachers have studios that are overwhelmingly female. Many of these teachers always had female teachers who themselves only taught females. There are more women than men studying voice, and students will gravitate toward a teacher of their own gender more often than not.
There are many teachers who teach female and male voices very well. My comments here concern the trend that I see from the questions and issues that teachers raise, especially less experienced ones.
I have identified a few points that seem to need more emphasis in the training of teachers, based on my experience. All pitches referred to will be actual sounding pitch, not printed pitch. C4= middle C. The B above that is B4, then the tenor high C is C5, and so on.
- Beware of always singing too lightly, especially in chest voice. The male larynx is larger and bulkier and to be firmly engaged and strengthened, it is perfectly safe to ask for a bit of volume from C4 down in all voice types.
- Men sing in a chest dominant sound most of the time in most styles, such as classical, rock, and most musical theatre. However, some popular singers’ voices, such as those of the croonier R&B types, are much lighter on the top and may need a head dominant sound. Either head dominant or chest dominant, a coordination (or “mix”) between the two is necessary for the top notes, such as F4 and above for easier singing and greater versatility.
- Mixing generally takes longer for males to learn than females, because you are dealing with bigger, bulkier structures that only emerge in a male’s teens. Most women have a gradual change, with little pitch difference, in their early years, but the male change is drastic and fast. The changed voice does not feel or sound like the unchanged voice.
- Falsetto must be acknowledged and dealt with. Trying to legislate falsetto out of existence, as some ideas of “mixing” tend to do, is to throw out a useful training tool. Even if it is not used in one’s performances, strengthening and familiarity with it are a huge help to the voice. One must isolate muscle groups to strengthen them for better coordination.
- Falsetto needs to be taken down well below the mix area, down to A3 at least, and lower if possible. Virtually all female voice teachers, and the majority of males, don’t do this, but I have seen it help every person with whom I have used it. You only need to spend a minute or two on it per lesson, but making pitch change without the weight of the chest voice is extremely helpful for getting men in touch with their vocal function. Singing falsetto on low pitches is harmless, because it is a non-pressurized, non-constricted mode or else the pitches below F4 won’t even work.
- Beware of having tenors always singing too lightly on high notes. Those notes will never learn how to engage in a full head voice until they have been tried occasionally, with permission to fail.
- When a boy’s voice first changes, there may be a region just above C4 where notes don’t speak at all. Working on expanding chest a little higher, but most importantly for quicker progress, expanding falsetto down, will get you toward your goal. Most teachers give up too quickly when the hole goes away, and then are frustrated that the singer sings in full chest up to E and then has to flip into falsetto for F and beyond. That is because you have to continue to bring pure falsetto down much lower, so that there is a big overlap between chest and falsetto ability. Then working with lower volumes in the area of the break on coordinative exercises will start to yield results, slowly but surely.
There are no “quick tips” to teaching male voices, old or young, if you aren’t prepared to teach them. One needs to become educated in a vocal pedagogy that works, and then one needs experience working with that population. “Yawn-sigh”, bringing falsetto down without further coordinating exercises, and playing with resonance adjustments are not going to lead to excellent singing until the coordination at the vocal fold level gets better.
The adolescent voice change is not a disaster, or a time bomb, or something impossible to deal with. Helping mature men with low voices to expand their upper range and develop more ease is not just a matter of breath support and resonance. It requires a knowledge of the coordinative process between registers, patience, the willingness to experiment, and providing a safe, comfortable environment in which to make many kinds of sounds.