Thank you, Lesley Garrett!
I really have tried to retire from boys’ singing research, but some of the issues just won’t go away. I suppose I do care passionately about it or I wouldn’t be writing this! It’s also irritating to find the same old questions coming up time and time again with nothing moving on as a result of research. Well, right in the run-up to Christmas, Lesley Garret has capitalised upon the seasonal interest in choirboys and Christmas trees to throw her tuppence worth in. I can’t blame her for that as I used exactly the same tactic myself when I released the results of my research on earlier puberty and voice change – and got myself an appearance on the Today programme as well as lots of newspaper headlines! But she has irritated me! There again, King’s College Cambridge has also irritated me by not having a girls’ choir! They and other prestigious establishments that have no girls (St Pauls and the Abbey for starters) offer an Aunt Sally to anybody who wants to take pot shots at the male choir tradition. Yes, many cathedrals and greater churches now have both girls’ and boys’ choirs, with their mission greatly enriched as a result. But for as long as the world famous “top” places have no girls, the likes of Lesley Garret can claim justification in their assaults on patriarchy and boys’ choirs.
So here’s my tuppence worth. Interestingly, when I was the guest of the Berliner Domchor in 2015, I raised the question of girls in some of the great German choirs such as Leipzig. The reaction I got was something along the lines of “Mad English again! Why should anyone want Fräulein in a knabenchor?” But, that was Germany and this is England! We want gender justice and I believe that is right. But gender justice is not obtained by destroying boys’ choirs or reducing boys’ already highly limited opportunities to sing. Now that I am conducting research into children and steam railways, it’s clearer to me than ever that extra special efforts need to be made when young people are outside their gender comfort zone. Some years ago, I conducted research for the Institute of Physics who were very concerned by the lack of female scientists and in particular the take-up of physics A levels by girls. The results were fascinating and unexpected. Girls and physics is the mirror antimatter of boys and singing. To put it simply, if the physics teacher is “boring” and does nothing to stimulate girls’ interest, the subject is heavily male dominated because it’s a “boys’ subject”. If, however, the physics teacher is stimulating and makes the subject relevant to girls, guess what, girls do physics! Is this “rocket science?” Apparently yes, because a decade later, there still aren’t enough girls doing physics. Hopefully all readers of this blog will know that if the music teacher is “boring” and not bothered about boys, boys won’t sing. But if the music teacher is interesting, knowledgeable and really cares about boys, then boys sing!
Now I have an awesomely even bigger problem. Girls going into engine driving on steam railways? Never in the history of human endeavour has there been an enterprise so totally dominated by boys! It’s like the situation with choirs. If you have an average mixed gender choir with no positive action to encourage and support boys, there will be 28 girls and 2 boys in it (yes, Suzi Digby was right even though her methodology was dubious). If you take no concerted, positive action, you will have a railway youth group with 29 boys and 1 girl. What to do? Oh my, deep breath! (Maybe I should look at the Pony club . . .)
I was digging around in response to an enquiry by a student the other day and I found this paper I wrote for my visiting professorship at the University of Queensland in 2012. It’s not been published, but maybe it should be. Have a read if you’re seriously interested in this topic and worried about the decline of boys’ participation in choral singing.
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