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Why a change is not a rest

Many believe boys shun singing in public because of their breaking voices.

The Scottish national youth choir aims to entice more into the limelight, reports Deedee Cuddihy

With all the other issues that schools, educationists and parents are expected to deal with these days, it is perhaps not surprising that the issue of why boys are so much more reluctant than girls to sing in public doesn't get much of an airing. Indeed, is it an issue at all?

Yes, it is, according to the National Youth Choir of Scotland. And the choir is so concerned about the "traditional numerical imbalance in singing between boys and girls" that, having successfully established the (mixed) national choir in 1996, it went on to form a national choir especially for boys last year.

The national boys choir already has 100 members and includes a changed voice group so that boys can continue to enjoy singing "as their voices change and develop".

A changed or changing voice is the more accurate and less brutal term for what used to be called a breaking or broken voice. And it is that change which is reckoned to be at least partly responsible for boys becoming self-conscious about singing in public.

As well as forming the boys choir (and publishing what is the only booklet on the subject: My Voice is Changing), NYCOS has now added special workshops to its annual outreach programme for schools, aiming them specifically at boys whose voices are changing.

This year's programme, which will be delivered in North and South Lanarkshire, Aberdeen City and Dundee, opened in Perth and Kinross this month where Perth Grammar acted as host to all schools in the district that wanted to take part.

More than 50 pupils attended the standard two-hour morning session which is aimed at boys and girls aged 15 and over. Significantly, only a dozen of them were boys. The choir's artistic director and outreach programme leader Christopher Bell told them: "Lots of people may say you shouldn't sing while your voice is changing, but I think it's a good idea to keep singing."

Mr Bell's approach is serious. And it needs to be because this group of youngsters is expected to make a decent job of up to six songs and deal with basic aspects of musicianship and listen to a recruitment plug for the National Youth Choir of Scotland, all in just two hours.

The artistic director has got a bit of a throat infection and, to quell an outbreak of chattering, he announces: "I simply can't be heard over the top of you."

But these occasional admonishments are offset by a nice line in humour, a bit of daftness - "Are you ready to rock and roll?" - and lots of praise when the kids get things right.

Four of the boys who took part in the morning session ask if they can come back in the afternoon. They're delighted when Mr Bell says yes, especially as it means they'll miss PE.

"Nothing wrong with that", he remarks over lunch. "I built my career from getting out of PE. When I was at school in Belfast, I joined the cathedral choir for just that reason."

Twenty, mainly P7s, turn up for the "boys only" workshop in the afternoon, including Robert from Tulloch Primary, who is so keen on singing that he insisted on coming, despite having been accidentally hit in the face with a rounders bat earlier in the day.

He and his pal, Gary, are in their school choir and became interested in singing because they both have karaoke machines at home. They like all kinds of music, including Limp Biskit and Sweet Charlotte.

The changed voices sit at the back, the unchanged at the front, and Christopher Bell adjusts the music's pitch and key to a level they're all comfortable with.

The first song they tackle has ludicrously simple lyrics but fairly complicated parts.

However, within 15 minutes, the boys have lines like: "Fish and chips and vinegar; pepper pepper pot" sounding fantastic and Mr Bell tells them:

"There's some great singing going on. Excellent!"

He then reveals that Fame Academy star David Sneddon used to sing in one of his choirs in Glasgow, and adds: "There could be another 'star' here."

The boys do equally well with "Be Cool", a jazzy number about the dangers of global warming. If any of the group is feeling self-conscious about singing in public, they are hiding it very well.

For more information about the National Youth Choir of Scotland singing classes and other activities, tel 0141 287

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