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My son is twelve and a half and enjoys singing along with pop songs that he listens to with headphones on an mp3 player. Some of it comes out as some awful squeaking, which I find intolerable!

He took Choir in school last year and that went quite well. He plays several instruments beautifully.

I can't afford more private lessons for him.

I myself did two semesters of voice lessons for fun when I was in music school.

What sort of guidance can I give him with the way he's approaching these pop songs, so I don't have to go around the house wearing the ear protectors we use when mowing the lawn?

  • Is he hitting the note or over shooting it? Or not not hitting a note at all? – Jacob Swanson Sep 5 '15 at 22:33
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    If you can hold out for two more years or so his voice should change and that should make a difference. – Todd Wilcox Sep 6 '15 at 0:29
  • @JacobSwanson - It's mainly the forced timbre that bothers me. – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 3:37
  • @ToddWilcox - Sorry for my ignorance, but could you explain? I know his voice will get lower, but what will that do to those high notes the pop singers are doing with falsetto? – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 3:38
  • Is it his head voice or his falsetto? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_voice#Not_falsetto – Jacob Swanson Sep 6 '15 at 6:18
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As much as it bothers you, he's actually naturally doing exactly what he should be doing. I'll explain in a moment.

Changing voices for boys who sing is primarily difficult for two reasons: the physiological aspect and the psychological aspect. Because many books are written on this subject, I will very briefly address each citing information from a text I often employ (Becoming a Choral Music Teacher, Ward-Steinman).

First

  • You should listen to his voice approximately every six weeks to make note of changes in range, quality, and ease of production (pg.25)

  • Introduce songs that are comfortable for him to sing (in tandem with the higher pop songs):

"Ken Phillips, along with the other changing voice theorists, agrees that vocalizing from the high voice downward is effective for assisting with the registration problems experienced by adolescent boys. In fact...a key to developing a high school tenor is to vocalize the middle school boy[s] in the upper register." (pg.26)

So even though it's a bit annoying, vocalizing in the higher register is actually a productive way to: maintain a clear upper register after the voice change, assist with registration problems during the change, and maintain a positive attitude / atmosphere for singing during the change.

Right now, your son technically doesn't have a falsetto (which derives from old Italian meaning "false voice"). Oxford online dictionary defines "falsetto" as:

A method of voice production used by male singers, especially tenors, to sing notes higher than their normal range

Since your son's voice hasn't changed yet, he doesn't yet have a "normal" range that he could then sing beyond, thus, he is simply using a high voice.

The Approach

It's important for him to realize that most pop singers use what is called an aspirate (breathy) timbre. The breathiness comes from inefficient vocal cord resonance. For whatever reason, millions of people find it attractive (including your son). In addition, many pop stars sing with a "pinched" sound (lacking many overtones). You've mentioned in comments that you know how to help him open up his vowels. Proper vowel production is paramount to create a timbre rich in overtones. To you, because his voice hasn't changed yet, it will not have the resonance, power, volume, or overtones that a changed voice will, so he will continue to sound squeaky until his voice matures.

He should strive for a coordinated timbre in which the voice is open, relaxed, and the vocal folds are efficiently vibrating with minimum air loss.

Culturally, I would also make sure to expose him to a variety of positive male role models for vocalists. They shouldn't all be opera singers, but a healthy mix of cultures, musical styles, and styles of vocal production.

Since there are hundreds of books containing specific exercises, rather than put anything here, I'll just provide a couple of references for further reading:

  1. Ken Phillips - Teaching Kids to Sing
  2. James Jordan - The Choral Warm-Up
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    Oh, definitely. Thank you very much! Now I don't need to bother with setting a bounty. // Update: today he chose one of his piano tunes to work on for the vocal line -- Ain't Misbehavin' -- I could listen to that all day long! – aparente001 Sep 8 '15 at 4:33
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I see two distinct problems here:

  1. The quality of your son's singing,

  2. The fact that you have to listen to him doing it.

As others have said, it is very difficult to sing well if you cannot hear yourself doing it - as is the case when you have headphones on. However, this is only part of your problem, because singing well requires practice. Your son's age is also a factor, because the voice changes associated with puberty will be manifesting and his voice might be unexpectedly breaking into a higher register of its own accord.

If you don't want him to stop singing, you will need to reach some agreement as to how he can go about it without driving you nuts.

One possible option is for him to sing when listening to music on loudspeakers - that way he will both be able to hear himself better and the music in the background might possibly make the experience more palatable.

Another option is for you to give him opportunity to sing when you are out of the house, but ask him to not do so when you are at home.

In any case, you would probably do best to have a talk with him and try to work out some mutually acceptable compromise. If you don't want him to stop singing, make it clear to him, but at the same time explain that it is difficult for you to listen to him doing it.

I wouldn't recommend recording his singing and playing it back to him. The experience may be very embarassing and hurtful. You would, in essence, be demonstrating a problem without offering any kind of solution - because you cannot afford to pay for lessons. You might get him to stop doing it out of shame, but I don't think this is a solution you would be comfortable with. It should be done only if he wants to do it and should not be held up as a demonstration of "see, this is what I have to put up with".

If you want him to continue singing - just get better at it - you are going to have to accept the fact he'll need to practice doing it. Also, you will have to acknowledge that biology will be running its course and that your son won't have full command of his voice over the next couple of years.

Having someone in the house learning to play or sing is always a challenge, because the early stages are always hard on the ears of the innocent bystander. If, as a parent, you want to encourage your child to develop their musical talent, you may have to put up with some hardship, but if you discuss the matter openly and positively, you will probably manage to work out a way for your son to keep singing without driving you up the wall too often.

  • We both appreciate your sensitivity to the potential embarrassment involved with the self recording -- thank you! We make recordings for music camp auditions from time to time, and he's acutely aware how challenging it is to record oneself. – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 20:37
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    It's looking like bounty time for this question. What I need is technical advice about the use of the voice. I know how to help him open up his mouth the right amount for various vowel sounds, I know how to check that he's not raising his shoulders when he breathes, etc. (okay, maybe my guidance won't be up to Juilliard standards, but hey, it's a start), but I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT SINGING IN THAT ANNOYING HIGH VOICE MALE POP STARS USE. I don't know exactly what happens to a male's singing voice in adolescence. I don't even know if falsetto is the right word to be using. Can anyone help? – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 20:41
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If he is doing this while wearing headphones, he presumably cannot hear exactly what it sounds like to others. I would suggest recording the sounds he is making and then playing them back to him. I suspect that when he hears exactly what he sounds like to others, he might start to change his "output" - without the need to think about paying for extra lessons.

If he has sung in a choir and plays some instruments beautifully, I assume he must have quite a good "ear" for music. He might he horrified to hear a recording of himself singing along, but it might cure him!

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    I don't want him to stop singing. I am asking how to help him improve the results. I know nothing about singing falsetto. – aparente001 Sep 5 '15 at 20:10
  • If you read my answer, you will see that I was not suggesting that he should stop, but hearing himself might help him improve the sound he is producing. – Old John Sep 5 '15 at 20:12
  • Sorry. Let me try again. I'm looking for additional suggestions. He does also sing his pop songs when he's not plugged into the mp3 player. But he doesn't have the same hypersensitivity to annoying high sounds that I do. – aparente001 Sep 5 '15 at 20:22
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You can't sing along sensibly with headphones, falsetto or not. Not even studio musicians do that: the monitor mix in their headphones contains their own voice.

At best you blend your bone conductance into a total sound that isn't there to the listener. Just record him a few times to demonstrate and ask him to stop it, or go away yourself.

I doubt that this leads to bad singing habits all-in-all since it's so far remote from what singing is, but it's really acoustical pollution.

I've done this with a friend as a boy afor fun: one would sing along, one would record on tape. Then we'd listen in. Really, the singer has absolutely no clue just how awful this sounds until he hears a recording.

  • @JacobSwanson - Agreed! (Could you delete this one and re-do your comment in a gender-free way, e.g. "his/her son"? Thanks.) – aparente001 Sep 7 '15 at 13:35
  • He/she doesn't want his/her son to stop singing and doesn't want to go away. This doesn't answer the question. – Jacob Swanson Sep 7 '15 at 18:15
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People singing along to a tune when listening through headphones rarely comes out well. The problem is that the headphones mean the singer can't hear themselves - all they can hear is the music, and a muffled rumbling of their own voice through the bone structure in the head. Not much through the actual ear, so no tone to recognise as a note. This is true of in-ear phones and the type that cover your entire ear.

It helps enormously to remove slightly one headphone or wear them both a bit loose so that the singer can hear themselves through their ears too.

Regarding the habit of singing horribly while wearing headphones: I'm not sure singing technique will help (others will be able to help there if it does) so maybe it's a case of breaking the habit.

He obviously has some musical talent so maybe it'd work to appeal to that: record him singing like this and have him listen to it, so he can understand what you're talking about? Might seem a bit harsh but if he's good at music otherwise, it hints that he doesn't understand the noises coming from him.

Thie thing is not to discourage him though : Find a way of allowing that outlet, but being considerate. Hence the half-open earphone thing.

  • I can have him use one ear bud, with the volume turned down. This sounds feasible, thank you. (I'm still hoping to get some suggestions regarding vocal technique.) – aparente001 Sep 7 '15 at 12:03
  • no problem - I guess having him sing pleasantly is the ideal solution :-) – user2808054 Sep 7 '15 at 13:21
  • Actually, I've just thought about it a bit more : Here (UK), it's probably considered bad manners to sing to a tune while wearing headphones. Others can't enjoy any of it and it's intrusicve. Imagine you're on a train and someone is doing that: it's funny for the first minute and then you want to slap them, lol. If it's the same where you are, maybe it's worth getting him out of that habit when in company, as a point of consideration for others ? just a thought. – user2808054 Sep 7 '15 at 13:25
  • Oh, he doesn't do it in public. This is at home, en famille. – aparente001 Sep 7 '15 at 13:32
  • Oh! Ok I am beginning to understand your pain lol – user2808054 Sep 7 '15 at 13:35

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