Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Preserving the Boy Choir Tradition

When it comes to talking about the Cathedral Boys Choir tradition, I have to admit that I am completely, and unapologetically, biased.

A little background. A good majority of my early music education was due to my involvement with the Cathedral choir of Men and Boys at Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa. I joined the choir when I was eight years old, went through the various ranks of junior and senior chorister, and was Head Chorister for approximately three years (my voice not changing until I was over sixteen). Then I continued to sing as a countertenor in the choir for the next ten years. I also took organ lessons from the choirmaster, became assistant organist before I was twenty, and learned a WHOLE LOT about church choral music and Anglican liturgy. Looking at what I am doing now, and what I know now - this early education was invaluable.

So when I came across an article in the British Times Online, by way of Choralnet titled "Girls allowed, as cathedral choirs broaden their base". My immediate reaction was one concern. It's not the first time I've seen articles like this, or posts on other blogs, the one that most upset me was a post from January 4th on Chorlista (you have to scroll a ways down to get to the paragraph where the guest author rants on "the boychoir issue"). I'm over it now, and I said what I needed to in the comments of that post, and was pleased to see a partial retraction by way of reply.

The Times article is great and worth the read, and the comments to the article are also wonderful. It does raise a few of the major reasons for which I see a need to preserve this tradition, too much to talk about in one blog post, so I will only touch on one issue, which to me is the most obvious reason to allow this tradition to be preserved.

... what is the real future for boys' singing when there is now so much competition? “Well, it's disappeared, hasn't it?” says Edward Higginbottom, the formidable director of music at New College, Oxford, where the all-male tradition goes back to the 14th century. “In parish churches these choirs have gone altogether.” His concern is not just the disappearing boy trebles, but that ex-choristers who would otherwise have joined choirs as men, in the bass, tenor or alto lines, will simply not have the experience or inclination to do so.
Higginbottom has hit the nail directly on the head here. The success story which I present in my doctoral thesis on the Men and Boys choir of the Cathedral in Ottawa is evident in the number of boys who continue to sing in choirs today.

In elementary school choirs, where mixing boys and girls is common practice, there is a sure but steady decrease in the number of male singers. In the high school choirs, they are as scarce as palm trees north of the 45th parallel. This then trickles down through adult community choirs which are constantly looking to bring up the number of the male singers, and the ones that do sing are often considered the weakest of the sections, many of whom took up singing later in their life, and struggle with reading and vocal production.

It is not an issue of "politically correct" or "equality". It is a physiological issue, and a sociological issue. Trying to "fix" the problem of a lack of girls in the Cathedral Boy Choir tradition will surely end with a loss of the boys in these choirs altogether. Boys need time together, the need the ability to express themselves in a segregated environment, or they will leave it.

I am a big advocate of segregation of boys and girls in the school choir system. It is of course just a dream of mine that this would be the way all elementary school choirs would begin, however I do acknowledge that it is most unlikely - especially with the gradual reduction of music in our classrooms as it is.


Anonymous said...

Edward Higginbottom is a most excellent name for somebody involved in the British sacred choral tradition. Just sayin'.

Crimson Rambler said...

there is much to be said for segregating boys and girls in school, period...I think.

Anonymous said...

Boys' choirs are a dying breed. Take St James' Cathedral in Toronto. No longer does it have a boys' choir..it is a choir with men, women and boys'. I think it is a shame. One could say that boys just aren't interested, well why is it that there are still so many in this world? I think it takes a charismatic and inspiring choral conductor..maybe those are the things that need re-vamping.

ktdodat said...

I am an elementary choir teacher, just finishing my 2nd year in my school, I have built my choir from 8 students and no boys to 70 students and 10 boys this year. Next year I am going to split into boys and girls choirs and with that split I have about 70 boys saying they want to be in choir next fall. I don't know what I am going to do with all of them, but it is so exciting.