The English Choral Tradition and the Secular Trend in Boys' Pubertal Timing

Martin Ashley

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A so-called “secular trend” (meaning a slow drift in measurement over time) in stature and pubertal timing in boys has been reported with increasing frequency by the press. English choir directors have also complained that boys’ voices are “breaking” sooner, with consequent difficulties for more complex repertoire. This investigation sought to establish whether a trend to earlier pubertal timing exists among a cross-sectional sample of 127 boys from seven all-male English cathedral choirs. A review of the medical literature on pubertal timing yielded conflicting results and a case not yet fully proven. Results from quantitative acoustic and perceptual measures appeared to support the belief in earlier "voice break". Advanced voice change associated with completing puberty status was commonly found during what is most frequently the top year of English cathedral choirs (Y8, age 12.5 – 13.5 years). Interview and observational data suggested the presence of differing practices and approaches to choral pedagogy. Some cathedral choirs dismissed boys once noticeable voice change had set in. Others appeared to pay little attention to the vocal health of boys in late puberty. While further medical evidence is required, these particular results may suggest a need for two precautionary measures: (a) all boys over the age of twelve years should be regularly assessed, and (b) all-male cathedral choirs might consider planning for a lowering of the age demographic for choristers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-27
JournalInternational Journal of Research in Choral Singing
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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