At the venerable St. Thomas Boys Choir, where Bach once drilled pupils in their scales, leaders have redoubled recruitment efforts and taken in boys at a younger age to make sure the choir has a full stock of voices ranging from the deepest bass to the most clarion-pure soprano. Children whose voices are deepening wait out the change by working the ticket booth.
The cause of the shift remains unclear. But some choir leaders say it is having a subtle effect on their music, and it’s not just that they have to buy more acne medication. The younger the boy, the less life experience and maturity underpins the complex emotions in what they sing, even if they’re more willing to study their scores instead of pining about romance.
“We have only a short time, from age 9 until 12, to squeeze in all the musical training for the boys,” said Stefan Altner, manager of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and once one of its singers. When he started working at the choir in 1993, most voices broke when boys were 14 or 15, he said. Now the average is closer to 13.
Because most boys join the choir when they are 9, even small changes are felt in the balance of the singers, he said, because after their voices deepen, the boys sing lower lines or drop out of the choir completely. In 2008, the choir added a nursery school, and in 2010, it opened a primary school as a way to identify and attract talent at a younger age.
“We want to find a way to have them from kindergarten all the way until Abitur,” the German high school graduation, Altner said.
The changes introduce an artistic conundrum to the hotly disputed studies of puberty, which some data indicate is starting earlier in girls, at least in the United States. Less attention has been focused on boys. Hypotheses about possible causes of earlier puberty in girls include improved nutrition, increased obesity, exposure to chemicals that mimic estrogen and changes in social pressures.
Among girls, researchers note that although studies have found that breast development may be starting earlier, the onset of the first period has remained constant, lengthening puberty rather than accelerating the process. Among boys, some studies have suggested that puberty might be starting earlier, but scientists agree that more research is necessary before they can say for sure.
“That puberty might start earlier in boys nowadays than it did decades ago is likely,” said Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, a professor of pediatric science at the University of Liege who has done research on early-onset puberty. But he cautioned that a change in the timing of when boys’ voices break could, in theory, be separate from a shift in puberty as a whole.