Tackle hard, choirboy!
How much notice should one take of social media postings? I was slightly irked last month to see the genuine concerns of those who struggle with a loss of boys in mixed gender treble lines dismissed as a “lot of nonsense”. Well, doubtless, some nonsense is sometimes written or spoken. To appear dismissive of the enormously problematic and extremely well-researched field of gender relations, however, is to say the least disingenuous. It is certainly dangerously misleading. If proof of this were needed, it came a few days later with another post about Mark Lawrenson (apparently a pensioned-off Liverpool footballer for those who, like myself, had never heard of him). Lawrenson was heard describing a player who was avoiding tackles and being generally a bit soft, as a CHOIRBOY! OK, I responded in Facebook fashion at the time!
But, in seriousness, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is a huge problem. It is part of the vastly complex and multi-faceted explanation for why girls greatly outnumber boys in choral singing. It is part of the explanation for the experience of so many (yes, there are some occasional exceptions) that the majority of boys leave when girls are introduced to a previously boy-only treble line. Those schooled in gender relations will appreciate that the use of “choirboy” as an insult of this nature is an example of what is known as “hegemonic masculinity” – the process described by R.W Connell as underlying patriarchal power relations. To express it as simply as possible, boys who are considered soft or “unmanly” are compared with girls, which is how patriarchal male power is preserved.
However, the “choirboy” insult is worse. “Choirboy”, used in this context, means a male who is “inferior even to a girl”. A boy who does what girls do is, according to hegemonic masculinity, a disgrace to his sex. To call a player who avoids a hard tackle a “girl” might these days risk censure from those in football who are either slightly more inclined to gender justice or perhaps just savvy about public relations. Instead, the male who is girl-like because he sings in a choir is used as a soft metaphor to conceal unacceptable attitudes. Lawrenson thus sidesteps offending the now-powerful gender relations lobby and with equal dexterity neatly avoids describing the “soft” player as “gay”. This too would now risk provocation of outrage – so the defenceless target of “choirboy” is employed as the last bastion of misogynistic and homophobic prejudice. How can boys deal with it?
This must not be allowed to happen. Those who care must expose Lawrenson’s attitude for what it is and state loudly and clearly that such attitudes have no place in a civilised and just democracy. It is precisely for reasons such as this that BKS made the film How To Get Boys Singing Not. If you have not seen this, maybe you should view it now. If you have, maybe you should watch it again! It’s here. Scroll to the bottom of the page (the .pdfs are also worth a look!) Is the film an exaggeration? Every year, I show it to the PGCE music groups I teach, and, without fail, somebody says “there’s a PE teacher exactly like that at my school!” We have a long, long way to go in achieving the kind of respect and gender justice necessary for boys and girls to participate with equal freedom and enjoyment in singing. So, yes, I am irked when very real problems are dismissed as “nonsense”!
This gender issue looks to come up at one of my more exciting engagements for 2015. The Berliner Symposium Kinderchor: 550 Jahre Staats- und Domchor. (how’s your German?)This roughly translates as a symposium on children’s choirs in celebration of the 550th anniversary of the Berlin Cathedral Choir. The title of my address is The Impact of American Research on Choral Work with Boys in England (more of that in later blogs!) However, I have also been asked to participate in a panel discussion of the differing national cultural contexts in which boys sing. Gender is very much on the agenda for this. I always find the German choirs an interesting contrast to the UK tradition and no more so the fact that the well known choirs such as Leipzig or Dresden appear hitherto to have made no provision for girls. I discussed this with some German colleagues in Lund last Autumn. Their response was along the lines of “well, why would they, they are boys’ choirs!”
This will be an interesting debate! My own position is one that broadly supports what has now become the dominant UK practice of two, usually separate, single-sex treble lines. There are many good reasons for this, but chief amongst them are a fundamental commitment to gender equality and the incontrovertible evidence that, under present conditions (i.e. a world populated by Lawrensons), the majority of boys are just not willing to sing alongside girls in a treble line. I have written a good many empirically-based papers that attempt to analyse why. I shall certainly be reminding myself of “Real Boys” and real boys in my preparation for the debate. The debate itself will doubtless be extremely interesting. I shall record it and take copious notes with a view to a new, updated paper on this perennial topic.
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