Newspaper Coverage

A shift in pitch Camp caters to choir members with voices in developmental flux

07:06 AM CDT on Monday, July 26, 2010 - By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor / Denton Record Chronicle

If he achieves his mission, the boys who just left Alan McClung’s 2010 Middle School Honor Choir Camp will stay on the risers in the choir room into high school — maybe even into college.

McClung, a professor at the University of North Texas College of Music, said boys drop out of public school choirs in droves during middle school, and not just because choir seems a little too effete for many a growing boy.

They also drop out because the music can be uncomfortable for an adolescent boy.

“This is a really important time for students,” said McClung, the director of the Cambiata Institute of America for Early Adolescent Vocal Music at UNT. “This is the time to improve your sight-reading skills, and it’s the time when boys’ voices are moving toward changing.”

The camp, which just completed its second year, brought 53 campers to the campus. It caters to middle school singers and ended with a mixed voice concert on Saturday.

Overall, McClung said, the camp is designed to supplement the work teachers are doing in middle school choirs across the country.

“I’m not here to say they’re doing anything incorrect or inadequate,” he said. “I want to supplement their teaching here in the camp, and send the kids back to them having worked on sight reading and singing in more parts.”

He has a special place in his heart, though, for the boys in sixth through eighth grade. Middle school boys have to sing through growth spurts that render their voices high one day, low the next and unpredictable until they’ve matured.

McClung taught a 90-voice middle school choir for 19 years in Atlanta. He said that choir of seventh- and eighth-graders studied music and voice during the final class period, and he was able to develop their skills.

“We’re putting that all into four days in the camp,” he said.

McClung said adolescent boys could use more music that is sensitive to their changing voices.

“In the future, I want to have a composition contest where the composers write music for the adolescent male voice,” he said. “The idea would be to perform the winning piece at the end of the camp. I think if we do that, we can get composers thinking about writing for those singers. Then, we have more music for those school choirs.”

Boys at the camp were outnumbered by their female peers, with about 19 boys to more than 30 girls. That didn’t get them down.

“My choir teacher came up to me and gave me the sign-up sheet,” said Cameron Hobbs, 13, of Denton. “He said he wanted me to come because I have an awesome voice, and he wanted me to keep working on it. I knew I wanted to come. I love singing. Music is my whole life. Music is around me everyday. There’s music at my house, and on the weekends, I go to my grandmother’s house and she plays piano.”

Jackson Sloan, 13, of Flower Mound said he wanted to attend because the camp was held at UNT.

“I heard this is a really, really good musical college,” he said. “My brother and sister have come here, and they said good things about it.”

Jackson found that the camp’s host lived up to its reputation. In the Friday afternoon workshop for boys, he and his peers wasted nary a second on four songs. They worked on sight reading, memorization and dramatizing the music. Boys might be known for a love of horseplay, but in the workshop, the singers were all business.

Matthew Berry, 12, of Plano said boys do have to work through some discomfort when their voices start to change.

“You get this sore throat thing,” he said. “Your voice rattles, and it’s like sometimes you almost can’t make your voice do what you want it to do. Or what your teacher wants to do.”

The answer? Patience, the boys said. Patience, and a lot of exercises to ease their voices into singing healthfully even when their voices seem stubborn.

“One thing we’ve worked on this week is learning how to lift that thing down here,” Matthew said, touching his throat. “Oh, what’s it called? Right here?”

“That’s your — wait, I know what it is — your larynx? That what you mean?” Jackson said.

“Nah, that thing. The flap thing,” Matthew said.

“The soft palate,” said another boy.

“Yeah! Yeah, we’re learning how to work the soft palate, how to get it to go up. And we’re learning how to open up and sing with our mouths the right way so the words are shaped right,” Matthew said.

When asked to predict what vocal range they’ll have as men, the boys answered without stopping to think.

“I think I’m probably going to be a bass, because my dad is a bass and my brother is a bass,” Jackson said. “That’s gonna be cool.”

Cameron said he’ll probably be a tenor.

“Tenors get to sing some really good stuff, and I like to stand out,” he said. “It’s not that I have to be in the spotlight, but there’s a lot of music for tenors. I think they stand out.”

Male and female campers spent time on solfege, a sight-reading method that pairs a hand sign or number to each note of the musical scale — the syllables are the “do, re, mi” made famous in the musical The Sound of Music. Camp counselors, most of whom are UNT music education students, said the students use the method early on, but grow less reliant on it as their sight reading matures and becomes more like a reflex.

McClung said the students mixed fun in with work. They did some line dancing, played musical Jeopardy and worked with hand bells.

The camp was also open to choir teachers, who attended to watch McClung and his college students apply his methods.

The boys said they think the camp will make them more competitive. Middle school musicians attend University Interscholastic League contests, which test their sight singing, pitch recognition and ability to perform in an ensemble.

“Oh, I definitely think this will help with UIL and all region, yes,” Cameron said.

McClung said the camp could also feed his summer camp for high school students, which prepares students for the rigors of the All-State Choir contest and UIL events.

“I really want to see this camp grow,” McClung said. “I think it’s a good opportunity. It was really hard to get the teachers excited so they could get the kids excited, which gets the parents excited. If we can do that, I think the camp will grow.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com .