How to support singers navigating voice change

I’m going to try to put you back inside the head of an adolescent choir member:
You arrive at middle school. The difficulty of the schoolwork starts to ramp up, and grades become more important, increasing the pressure. Puberty starts. You start forming more intense relationships with your peers. Your body starts to change, and you feel more self-conscious. You feel strong emotions that you can’t really control. And social anxiety escalates. Then there’s choir. You were always comfortable singing in front of your peers. But now your voice is changing. You want to make your choir teacher happy, but they get frustrated when students can’t control their voices. You’re afraid of embarrassing yourself in front of your peers. You don’t feel good at this anymore.

Now, every student is an individual and experiences these things in different ways and to different extents. But it should not be surprising that, with all this going on, many adolescent choir members feel a lot of anxiety about singing in front of their peers. In order for us to be successful middle and high school choir directors, it is critical that we are attuned to what contributes to our students’ anxieties and go out of our way to minimize them.

Let’s consider three sources of anxiety. The first is voice change. In order to minimize this anxiety, strive to establish a class attitude of, “Everyone is going through puberty, everyone is experiencing a voice change of some kind, everyone will work through elements of vocal adversity, and everyone will celebrate moments of vocal triumph.” Normalize voice change. Talk about it. When someone’s voice cracks, laugh and move on. Ensure that they don’t feel like they are going through this alone.

The second source of anxiety is performance anxiety. I’m not just talking about concerts, but also how well students perform in rehearsals in front of their peers. I encourage you to ask yourself:
What are my musical standards for my students?
How will I respond when students do not meet that standard?
How can I encourage them rather than discourage?
What percentage of rehearsal time might I spend pursuing peak performance?
And what percentage might I spend supporting my singers as individual musicians and people?

A third major factor in student stress is teacher stress. If you feel burnout or pressure about an upcoming performance, it is difficult to keep your students from feeling the same way. And a stressed classroom is not the ideal learning environment. So how will you ensure that you put your own health first? And how will you remind yourself to put your students’ needs before ensemble performance?

Every challenge is a learning opportunity. If you are pursuing peak performance, you will be frustrated when your students’ changing voices get in the way of that. But if you can change your perspective to put your students’ needs ahead of ensemble performance, you will be able to see these moments as opportunities to support each other and grow together. In order for students to feel that voice change is normal and something largely beyond their control and not something to beat themselves up over, you have to model that mindset. And in order to model it, you must truly let go of voice change as an obstacle to performance and accept it as a reality for your singers that is best treated with love and support.