Choir Boys -- Bad Singers After Their Voices Change?

I have read before that many well-trained choir boys turn out to be pretty poor singers after their voices change. I know of several former choir boys who, now that they are grown men, can’t sing any better than your average Joe off the street. One is so awful that when I heard him sing I understood why they used to castrate promising boy sopranos!

I would think that years of professional voice lessons would make a decent singer out of anyone, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. I questioned a friend who is a voice major and did a web search on the subject but turned up no solid answers. My friend said that maybe former boy sopranos just need to be retrained to sing as tenors or whatever, but she didn’t really know.

Anyone have the Straight Dope?

Strictly anecdotal, but I used to date a former choir boy. As far as I could tell (I’m no expert when it comes to singing), he was quite a respectable tenor. I don’t think he had any voice lessons post-puberty, but he’d definitely kept in practice. Perhaps the voice goes if you don’t use it?

It depends.

I don’t have any statistics, but one of the voice faculty in our music department, John Stewart, sang as a boy and later had an operatic career, singing at the Metropolitan and all over Europe. He is a tenor.

I’d have to go research this, but I can make a guess about why former boy sopranos might have difficulties singing as an adult. During adolescence the vocal cords – well, the whole vocal mechanism – can undergo a growth spurt, just like the rest of the body. The vocal cords become longer: longest for basses and baritones (about 7/8 inch), shorter for tenors. Children’s vocal cords are about 3/8 inch. The vocal tract also lengthens.

Good singing depends on a balance between phonation (the sound made by the vocal cords) and resonance, plus breath flow and all sorts of other things. If the size and shape of the vocal cords and vocal tract change rapidly, the young man may not learn to adapt and adjust these balances quickly enough to continue singing well. Kind of like tripping over your suddenly huge feet. :wink: For some men it can be like having a whole new voice, and they practically have to start their training all over again.

A boy can keep singing in the soprano register while his voice is growing – to a point. But in order to do that he has to increase the tension in the cords more and more to produce a high pitch. I’m not sure if that might be damaging to the voice (except perhaps in extreme cases), however the singer would be so accustomed to the sound, feel, and manner of controlling his soprano voice that attempting to change these ingrained habits would be more difficult. Women do not have as much of a problem because their vocal cords do not grow as much and it is easier to adjust. Tenors would also have less difficulty in that respect (although they a have other technical problems to deal with).

Singers can adjust their resonators (the inside of the throat, mouth, etc.) to produce a more beautiful and better controlled sound. To a great degree this can be learned, but some people just have vocal cords and resonators of a certain shape and size that allows them to work together more easily to create a beautiful sound. When you grow these things change, and a boy lucky enough to have the right combination to sing easily and well might lose that good balance or coupling when he grows. He will need retraining at least. On the other hand a mediocre child’s voice can turn out to be lovely after growing.

Does that help any?


For an extra 2 cents: Singing, carrying a tune, and reproducing a sound don’t change when the voice changes. A successful choir boy will still be able to “sing” as adults, they just might not have the right attributes, training, and what not to make them professional singers. Great shower singers? Maybe.

Former boy soprano checking in, and I can verify what Jois and rivulus have said. My voice was good enough for the occasional solo in the church choir. I actually don’t remember any single event that announced “my voice is changing” - I just began singing alto at one point, and eventually I wound up as a tenor in HS glee club. I did take voice lessons when I was an adult and my voice showed hints of pro potential, but since music was basically a hobby for, lessons and practice became just more effort than I wanted to tackle at the time.

As far as the effect of lessons, I’m not a voice teacher, but my understanding is that lessons really can’t change the basic quality of your voice. They can only improve it a bit, shape it, and develop your technique to allow you to sing a lot without destroying your voice.

Thank you all for your responses! Very interesting.


Minor point here, but they were castrated so their voices would not change. And to prefer a good boy’s voice to . . . manhood . . . um, yeah:). Or something.

They used to castrate them, additionally, so their voices would not change because women were not allowed to be in the choirs and such. Then they were allowed and the practice of castrating promising boys died out in the 19th century, with the last good castrate dying in the beginning of the 20th century, for the most part.

I used to be a choir boy, and I was good enough in glee club and madrigals (I was a soprano when I got to high school and ended up a tenor, though I can still sing high parts if need be) that the director of both said I was the best singer in the school (of 300).

And I’ll reiterate what zgy said. Lessons improve the ways in which you breathe and the tone of the voice (among other things, certainly), but if you suck to start out with you’re not going to have much of a reason to quit your day job.

And let’s be realistic here: the vast majority of choir boys don’t really get a whole lot of solos, and choirs are rather large most of the time. When you have 40 voices you can afford to have some duds; when you’ve got seven tenors, you’ve gotta get good voices.

The last part there is partially MO, though.

How did one become unlucky enough to become a castrati?
I assume there weren’t any volunteers, and it seems to me
that no parents would want this to happen to their kid.

At the risk of, um, hijacking this thread . . .

From what I have read on other pages about castrati (singular: castrato), it would appear that promising boy sopranos were sometimes castrated so’s their voices wouldn’t change upon hitting puberty. One wonders what became of those who weren’t good enough. But the money for good voices was decent, if not good, so this was something parents might do. And it doesn’t seem as though it was an unrespected profession.

Yes, that’s what I meant. If all good boy sopranos ended up as such wretched tenors as this particular guy, I can understand why music lovers would be willing to take drastic steps to prevent choir boys’ voices from changing. I wasn’t suggesting (even in jest) that bad singers should be punished by getting snipped or anything like that!