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This article was published 21/4/2012 (2862 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Several young boys do their best to stand still before a Sunday congregation at the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church.
Then they open their mouths.
Out comes a bell-like sound, silvery and steely and shiny.
The Winnipeg Boys' Choir is singing Rainbow Connection and the audience is enthralled.
"It is a remarkable sound," says choir manager Nicola Spasoff. "It's a pure sound that allows boys to express themselves emotionally and openly in a society that doesn't permit men, and, perhaps, particularly boys to do it that often. So, when we hear it, we can't help but go: 'Awwwwww.'"
Choir conductor Carolyn Boyes adds: "When you're listening to young trebles sing, you can't help but feel — in the different power and unique colour of that voice — that it's a short-lived gift. And, if the studies are true, the lifespan of that gift is getting shorter."
What Boyes is referring to are new reports from some of the more established boys' choirs in Europe that the voices of their singers are changing earlier.
"We have only a short time, from age 9 until 12, to squeeze in all the musical training for the boys," Stefan Altner, manager of the renowned St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig, Germany, told the Washington Post earlier this month. Altner said boys' voices are changing closer to 13. In the early 1990s, he said this usually occurred at 14 or 15. In Denmark, the records of the Copenhagen Municipal Choir School shows the voices of boys shifting six months earlier on average during a three-decade span. On a larger historical scale, demographic researcher Joshua Goldstein cited in a recent study on male sexual maturity that voices didn't usually change until around age 18 in the St. Thomas Boys Choir of the mid-18th century, a choir that was then led by J.S. Bach.
While to some, such as Goldstein, this age shift indicates the possibility of a trend toward earlier male sexual maturity, Dr. Seth Marks, a professor at University of Manitoba specializing in pediatric endocrinology and metabolism, says, "Not so fast." Marks stresses that there's little good medical evidence to support the notion of "earlier pubertal development in boys now than in the past. And vocal change itself is not one of our standard markers that we follow for progression of puberty."
In fact, some experts have suggested that vocal change might be entirely separate from the onset of puberty. Others, examining the historical record, have speculated that dietary changes and improved health may be the key factors in this vocal shift.
Whatever the case may be, choir leaders are reacting, whether it's consciously or unconsciously, to the vocal changes they're hearing by restructuring the organization of their choristers.
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The Winnipeg Boys' Choir, a community choir founded in 1925, has taken on a new shape in the past few years. The treble voices have been split into an experienced group (ages 9 to 14) and a less experienced class (ages 6 to 9). It's also expanded to retain a cluster of changed voices (ages 14 to 16).
"I don't think (choir conductors Boyes and Annelie Reimer) sat down and said, 'Oh, voices are changing a little earlier so we need to have younger kids and we need to reorganize to do that,'" says Spasoff. "But I wonder if in fact that is what is precisely going on."
"It's true," says Boyes. "Because we did realize that we were spending all of this time with the unchanged voices. And it takes a lot of time when the age range is say seven to 13 for them all to be at the same place, to sound like an ensemble. So, we realized that to get there more quickly and to do a repertoire that includes excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols we needed to have a place for the less experienced boys."
The Sisler High School teacher explains that the 32-member choir's re-organization builds confidence in the younger singers, better serves the interests of the tweens and early teens — especially those who are drawn to hockey's siren song — and ensures that a certain level of vocal and experiential maturity is brought to the more challenging music.
The reconfiguration is also a way to shore up and expand, with the inclusion now of young changed voices, a "safe space" for boys to express and share their emotions.
"These changes to the choir provide boys, who don't have choirs in their high schools, or feel there are social consequences to admitting that they love to sing with other like-minded boys, a nice safe space to do that," says Boyes. "For example, we had a boy in the choir for years. He loved singing. Loved it. He was an unchanged voice. One day he came to a rehearsal where a huge 300-voice high-school choir sang. I said, 'When your voice changes you could be in a project like this.' And he said, 'Yeah, but I'm not singing next year in high school.' And I asked, 'Why not?' He replied, 'Two words, Carolyn: social suicide.' I was totally taken aback."
Spasoff, an architectural historian whose son is a member of the choir, picks up on this sort of social policing of masculinity and observes that, "one of the areas that our society circumscribes men and boys is in depth of feeling. We think they don't go in for emotion or are not supposed to. Singing is a way, without needing to weep publicly, you can express emotion and I think that's got to be positive."
Boyes then continues, "And when individual boys are experiencing that type of emotion, they are aware that it's happening around them to the other boys. They are not alone (in a choir). That's important. And maybe in light of these broad and gradual vocal changes that we've been talking about such experiences might be even more important in forming a more well-rounded masculinity."
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Marco Chenier, 14, sings a verse of Coldplay's Viva La Vida over the phone. When he's done, the Grade 9 student of Kelvin High School is quiet for a moment. He's been a member of the Winnipeg Boys' Choir since age eight. His voice began to change last year, thickening and darkening. In earlier years, this subtle vocal shift would have signaled the end of his boys' choir experience. Not now. And he's certainly glad to get a reprieve.
"I feel free when I sing," he says. "So, yeah, the choir means a lot to me. It's fun to sing with all the other guys there and to mentor the younger kids. It's also great to sing such a variety of songs. It's just great, really great."
Updated on Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 9:53 AM CDT: Corrects listing to listening