The Female Changing Voice
The adolescent female voice is not given the attention needed by many teachers because so much time is spent on the changing male voice. Female voices also change, and effectively moving through these changes is as important as the focus given to males.
The female voice can take up to four years to fully change and generally begins between the ages of 10 and 14. Females go through their growth spurts approximately two years before males. Many physical changes occur which include a size increase of the larynx in thickness and length. The female vocal folds increase only 3 to 4 millimeters compared to the male’s increase of ten millimeters. During this female growth process, the glottis may not be able to close completely because of an unevenness of the vocal folds. This is the main reason a female's tone may sound breathy or weak. Hoffer (1991) attributes these thin, breathy tone qualities to "muscular immaturity, a lack of control and coordination of the breathing muscles, and insufficient voice development."
There are different stages of classification of the female voice change stated by many authors. Based on information drawn from sources listed in my research paper, stages in the female voice change are generally categorized in the following way:
Stage 1: Prepubertal.
This stage occurs in females ages eight to ten or eleven. The quality of this stage is characterized as being light and flute-like. Females in this stage can switch between upper and lower ranges with ease.
The general singing range in this stage is the following:
Stage 2a: Pubescent/Pre-Menarcheal.
(Menarcheal refers to a woman's first menstrual period,
usually occurring during puberty.) This stage is generally reached between the ages of 11 and 13, usually when
the first signs of physical maturation are seen. In this stage, females experience a voice break around the
range of G to B above middle C. Other effects from the changing voice include breathiness and difficulty singing
in the lower register. Singing sometimes becomes more difficult and may be uncomfortable.
Stage 2b: Puberty/Post-Menarcheal.
Females ages 13-15 may experience a more husky or heavy
quality in their sound. Their most comfortable range is shortened to around six notes, and lower notes are usually
the easiest to produce. This is the most critical stage in the development. The tessitura can move up or down,
narrowing the range. Changes in this stage are sporadic and unpredictable.
Stage 3: Post-Menarcheal/Young Adult
This stage usually occurs in females age 14 or 15.
Their sound may be inconsistent and have some cracking in it, but there is a decrease in the breathiness and the
tone will become fuller and richer. Also in this stage females may begin to produce vibrato.
One issue that is discussed by many researchers is the classification of girls as sopranos and altos. During these stages of change and development, it is nearly impossible to assign females into a voice category. There are very few adolescent girls who are true altos. Irvin Cooper came up with a way to divide girls into the two parts. Many middle school aged choral pieces are written for a soprano/alto split, but the two parts are similar in range. Cooper suggests splitting the females into two even sections and assigning them as the blue group and the green group. Females would alternate between the melody line and the second part. This trains all the females to sing melody and harmony.
Researchers have found that many females, after years of singing solely the soprano line in choral music, experience difficulty in harmonizing if after adolescence they are asked to sing alto. Conversely, females who have sung largely the alto line find it tiresome and challenging to sing the melody line. This is another compelling reason to use Cooper’s suggestion.
Girls who are made to sing the alto part in all middle school repertoire often develop problems phonating between chest and head voice. They may force high notes in their chest voice because when they attempt singing in their head voice the tone is thin and colorless. Adolescent girls negatively reinforce this chest voice by doing activities like cheerleading that encourage yelling in low areas of the vocal range. This could be detrimental if done too often and not correctly.