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  • Writer's pictureSarah MacDonald

Girls and Boys come out to SING

CATHEDRAL VOICE FEBRUARY 2020 – © Friends of Cathedral Music

This article was first published in Cathedral Voice magazine.

Some months ago, I was invited to respond to the story of the girl whose mother sued Berlin Cathedral for not accepting her daughter into their boys’ choir,[i] and to Lesley Garrett’s berating King’s College Choir for not admitting girls.[ii] More recently, Rochester Cathedral announced the introduction of a mixed top line of boys and girls who will sing every service together—a first for a medieval UK choral foundation.[iii] The armchair-experts’ online grumbling was bad enough a few months ago; Rochester Cathedral’s decision caused social-media mayhem. In response, instead of another polemic, I offer a more dispassionate “logicising” of this issue.[iv]

One of the frequently-raised assertions is that boys and girls “sound different”. It is well known that in blind tests, even professional choir-trainers can rarely differentiate between individual unchanged boys’ and girls’ treble voices.[v] Conversely, if a 9-year-old treble and a 17-year-old soprano sound the same, then something is wrong. It is every conductor’s responsibility to ensure that each singer develops healthy, age-appropriate vocal resonance. In addition, a choir’s sound is moulded by its director: cathedral treble lines whose equivalent-age girls and boys are trained by the same person are often indistinguishable. Finally, the acoustic in which they sing must be considered: in Cambridge, the contrasting architecture of the chapels of King’s and St John’s is manifest in their choirs’ distinct sounds, even though both choirs are identical in size, age, and gender.

Concern is often expressed that if girls join an all-male front row, boys will leave. Unfortunately, the decline in the number of boys in parish choirs since the 1970s supports this argument. Martin Ashley’s insightful book How high should boys sing? attributes this in part to differences in performance motivation: whereas girls tend perform to impress adults, boys generally need to impress each other.[vi] The idea that society now considers the arts “girly” pastimes does not help—consider the recent media reaction to young Prince George’s ballet lessons.[vii] Moreover, since girls mature earlier (although their singing voices change later),[viii] even a mixed group of similar-age children will include those who are at different stages, both educationally and psychologically. Anna Lapwood’s excellent piece about this issue celebrates the shared experiences of trebles who are in gender-specific teams of their own.[ix]

Another recurring question is whether singing less frequently must necessarily dilute excellence. Only a handful of UK cathedral/collegiate choirs remain where a single top line sings eight services every week. Inevitably, with two front rows, there are repertoire gaps—I know myself what it’s like to realise mid-rehearsal that the boys and not the girls sang every last Fifteenth Evening in recent memory. However, with increasing academic pressure causing mental health issues even at primary school level,[x] as well as changing parental priorities,[xi] isn’t more flexibility simply a requirement of modern life?

Lest you fear I have forgotten, of course I acknowledge that girl choristers do not become the tenors and basses of the future. This is countered by the fact that not all boy trebles sing as adults, and not all adult male singers are former choristers. Indeed, the majority of the tenors and basses in all but the most elite Cambridge choirs are young men who discovered their love of singing after their voices changed. In addition, the lauded though relatively recent flowering of the UK’s professional choirs over the past few decades is surely due in part to the availability of more chorally-experienced women.[xii]

One indisputable fact is that fewer children at Rochester will benefit from a chorister education. Whereas there is currently provision for 40 choristers, in future this will halve. That the leftover resources will be redirected towards outreach activities for other children and young people in the diocese is very welcome, since it addresses the significant problem that in too many places, this training is only open to those who can afford to pay for it. In my view, this is a far greater concern than whether boys and girls sing together or separately.

When all else fails, opponents of innovation often resort to the age-old notion of “tradition”. As a child in Canada, I was baffled that tradition dictated that I was not allowed to sing in our cathedral choir, but my brothers were, despite the fact that I was more musically accomplished. We must recognise that the “priceless heritage” we so cherish is alive and breathing: it must be susceptible to change in order to grow and flourish, and indeed to survive. I hope that future contributors to this important discussion will be more circumspect than was evidenced on Facebook earlier this month. The views expressed, unlike the future front row at Rochester, were hardly balanced, and featured rather more invective than encouragement. Surely sharing our love of this life-changing music as widely as possible must be our objective, and indeed our joy?

Sarah MacDonald

[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] I am grateful to colleagues who contributed to this article: Edmund Aldhouse (Ely), Katherine Dienes-Williams (Guildford), Francesca Massey (Rochester), Timothy Parsons (Exeter), Oliver Hancock (St Mary’s, Warwick), and David Price (Portsmouth). [v] [vi] Ashley, M. (2009). How High Should Boys Sing?: Gender, Authenticity and Credibility in the Young Male Voice. Aldershot: Ashgate. [vii] [viii]MacDonald, S. E. A. (2019), ‘Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir: New Directions’, in Cathedral Music, November 2019 [ix] [x] [xi] [xii] Choirs such as the Monteverdi Choir, the Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen, Polyphony, as well as countless other smaller mixed professional ensembles were all founded in the past 50 years.

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