The Gendered Choir
It’s a mystery – even a frustration – that I see and hear every time an all-men’s vocal or choral group performs, especially in a setting or performance when an all-women’s group has also sung. The female group gets applause, from polite to enthusiastic, often but not always related to the excellence of the group. The male group gets riotous cheering, a standing ovation, also only sometimes in recognition of the quality of the performance. Why is this?
Can we trace it back to some gender identification that music, whether it’s playing the piano or singing, is more womanly and therefore groups of men singing are just that bit more unexpected or winsome? This difference is certainly not relevant when you consider the strong and long history of men’s choral groups in Europe and America. And it is clearly not true when you look at professional or semi-professional choral singing which is dominated first by mixed gender groups and second by male groups. The men’s collegiate glee club tradition goes back close to a century before any women’s group emerged. And consider single-sex groups today. How many male groups – dedicated to classical or popular singing – are there in comparison to female groups? To name two classical male groups and a whole movement – tonight’s Cantus, the California-based Chanticleer and the huge network of male barbershop groups – is easy. Can you name comparable female groups? Long-time supporters of the Norton Center may recall two wonderful performances by the female group Anonymous 4 but even that name doesn’t come to mind readily. The Sweet Adelines (female barbershop-style singing) are out there but relatively few in comparison to male groups.
Could the difference in audience reception be related to the dominance of athletics in young male lives that makes participation in drama or music pretty rare for young males and again pleasantly surprising? Boys play soccer, or football, or basketball; they don’t sing. Simply look at the make-up of most high school choirs; there are probably from two to four times as many girls as there are boys in these groups. What does the move to more competitive sports, longer seasons, and more practice hours for younger and younger children – boys especially but increasingly for girls as well – mean for active participation in the arts? Is this healthy for bodies and for society?
One other reason for the enthusiastic reception of male groups is certainly related to vocal characteristics. The male voice has access to falsetto – a high extension of range that can rival what even the highest soprano can do. So a male group can cover from one to two octaves more range than most women’s groups. This means that they are showier, can do more repertoire, and can explore more vocal colors. And male voices seem to blend more easily, likely because of the physiology involved. We may even find a correlation between men singing – think serenading a loved one – and the animal kingdom at mating season.
So I come to two different conclusions and goals. First, we need more boys singing – in schools, colleges, churches, and amateur groups. Guess what? This is one of Cantus’s primary missions: to ensure the future of choral singing by people of all ages and especially by boys. Second, we need to value and support female groups in equal measure. There is the potential for exciting sound, engaging repertoire, and success even in the commercial world for women who sing in choirs.
And the bottom line is: music – and especially choral singing – makes everyone healthier, happier, and a better citizen. It’s been proven in research; now you need to feel it by letting your voice soar in concert with others. Let your singing begin and let Cantus inspire us all, male and female.
Dr. Barbara Hall
H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Music Emerita
Barbara Hall retired as H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Music Emeritus in 2015, after teaching since 1980. She held the Stodghill Professorship in Humanities since its inception in 2004 and is the former chair of the division of arts and humanities. Before her retirement, she received the 2015 C. Eric Mount Jr. Award, for outstanding dedication and leadership, and the David F. Hughes Memorial Award presented by Omicron Delta Kappa for service to the College.
A veteran teacher, conductor, and performer, Hall directed Centre’s choral program, which includes student groups such as Centre Singers, Women’s Voices, and Centre Men. She teaches humanities, music history, theory, and conducting. Hall founded and directs the Danville Summer Singers and Sounding Joy, an auditioned women’s ensemble of 30-32 singers.
Hall is a member of the American Choral Directors Association, the National Collegiate Choral Organization, and the College Music Society. She is past governor of the Association of Teachers of Singing.
Hall earned a B.M. at the University of Michigan, an M.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a D.M. from Indiana University.
To read about Hall’s work with the student performance of Dido and Aeneas, click here.
To learn more about Cantus, performing at the Norton Center on February 13, 2016, click here.