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What girls are bringing to the choir party

27 May 2016

Girls now sing in most cathedrals, but the approaches vary wildly. Madeleine Davies reports


Outside funding: the girls’ choir at Ely, the result of a collaboration with The King’s School

Outside funding: the girls’ choir at Ely, the result of a collaboration with The King’s School

IN September, Gloucester will become the latest Anglican cathedral to add girls to its ranks of choristers. In an article in The Times marking this development, Richard Morrison, a former chorister, regretted that “well-heeled places”, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, had not followed suit. “The sexist signal being sent out from such places is lamentable,” he wrote.

It is now 25 years since Salisbury became the first English cathedral to form a separate and independent foundation for girl choristers. Today, almost all the choirs of England’s cathedrals have girl choristers, but the structure of the choirs varies. It appears that almost half of cathedrals share out duties equally between girls and boys, but that, at about 15 of them, boys still sing most of the services. At Manchester, boys and girls have been combined into a single line since the 1970s.

Dr Amanda Mackey, an academic in York, has written a Ph.D. thesis “New Voice: The patterns and provisions for girl choristers in the English cathedral choirs”. She believes that it is a mistake to see the differing structures simply as a reflection of cathedrals’ varying commitments to equality of the sexes. When she began researching her thesis, she was sure, she says, that she would emerge as a “feminist firebrand, pointing to certain cathedrals or individuals and shouting: ‘See? It’s only because these here are women-haters.’”

But her research left her with a less clear-cut picture. While she believes that, “in quite a few cases”, the lack of a will to overcome practical barriers to recruiting girl choristers was “due to misogyny”, in other cases there were “serious concerns” that could not be chalked up to sexism: problems of choir-school staff, facilities, and finances are not, she observes, “pro-girls or anti-girls”. Exact equality is “not always the best option, or even a viable option for every cathedral”.

Her thesis traces the evolution of girl choristers at several cathedrals, and the different paths taken. It tells the story of the financial struggles at Bristol Cathedral School until it became a state-funded academy in 2008. The structure of the choir — both girls and boys are recruited from the school — is now determined by government regulation, so that the youngest boys are now 11.

At Guildford, the boys are educated at the Cathedral School, but the girls are taken from several local schools. Dr Mackey also recounts the history at Wells, where a “significant restructuring” took place, after funding for the girls proved insufficient, and the fact that the girls were, on average older than the boys, and more experienced singers, resulted in “some negativity in the choir . . . as well as in public opinion”.

Dr Mackey included in her study an exploration of the many facets of each choir, among them the recruitment process, attire, and rehearsal style. This included some comparison of the respective strengths and characteristics of boy and girl choristers.

Almost all the directors agreed that girls “tended to be more sensitive to direct criticism, whereas boy choristers were a bit thicker-skinned with jokes and teasing”. She found that several directors of music identified that girls had “particular fortes” in certain styles of music, “specifically more rhythmic pieces, ones that require a lot of focus and precise counting to execute well, as opposed to more soaring melodies in higher ranges.”

At Salisbury she concluded that the girls “generally read faster, and can sweep through a piece of music”, while, at York, the older girls were “particularly adept” at offering each other support. “The boys are less pastoral; confident singing and model behaviour much more subtly express the qualities of leadership in the older boys.”

Among the cathedrals she studied in her thesis is Ely, where the girls’ choir sings two or three of the eight weekly choral services. Set up ten years ago, the choir is run and funded entirely by The King’s School. The cathedral “could not afford to set up a girls’ choir,” its director, Sarah MacDonald, says. Frustrated while she was growing up by being unable to join her brother as a chorister, she believes it is “crucial” that girls are given this opportunity. But although the aim is to give the girls the same “intensity of experience” as the boys, she says, it would be “unfair and inappropriate” to ask them to sing five services a week, given their school workload.

When Jeremy Suter, Master of the Music at Carlisle Cathedral, arrived in 1991, he found boys and men singing six days a week — an “incredible achievement”. Today, he has found, it is “not sustainable” to expect boys to give up this much time. Recruiting girls, and sharing out duties equally, was both a matter of both fairness, and enabling the boys to have a lighter schedule. Nevertheless, he has found that, when boys are faced with a choice between music and sport, “sport will win.”

A downside is that, with a reduced workload for the boys, the repertoire that each choir can sing is smaller. The boys have been “incredibly supportive” of the girls, he says: “It was not as though they felt that their status was being undermined. Quite the opposite: they were grateful to the girls for sharing some of their workload, and wished them well.” This term, he is experimenting with having the two choirs sing together on a Sunday. He attributes their working “incredibly well together” in part to the girls’ being recruited at the same age as the boys, rather than when they are “older, more experienced singers”.

David Poulter, director of music at Liverpool Cathedral, who founded the girls’ choir at Coventry Cathedral in the 1990s, remains opposed to mixing the two lines, except occasionally. He compares it to “mixing a flute stop on an organ with a diapason stop. I do cherish the distinct difference between the tone boys make, and the tone the girls make.”

Boys like being part of an “exclusive boys’ club”, he says; and while the girls are “considered equals with the boys”, it is important to keep the boy tradition alive, “because therein lies our source of adult altos, tenors, and basses”. He has seen changes of opinion among the congregation over the years. One woman sent him a message after Easter, confessing that “she had been completely wrong, and she now thought the girls were just as good.”

While Salisbury is often celebrated as a pioneer of girls’ choirs, girls have been singing at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, since 1978, and at St Davids Cathedral since 1966. Dr Benjamin Phillips, of the University of York, believes that the story at St Davids “really deserves wider recognition for being the first — and for leading the way in normalising it within cathedrals”.

He describes how, in 1966, a “severe shortage” of boys culminated in the organist’s discovering that, on the morning of a planned BBC broadcast of evensong, he had no choristers. To the rescue came the all-girls choir of a neighbouring grammar school. Three months later, the cathedral chapter formally admitted girls to the choir. “Local reaction seemed to be one of acceptance, and, from the papers I have seen and those with whom I’ve spoken, a general sense of ease in the treble line being secured.”

Reaction has not always been so muted. Harrison Oxley, who pioneered the introduction of girls into the boys’ choir at St Edmundsbury Cathedral (“I do not see why we should bar half of humanity from the benefits and opportunities of cathedral-choir membership”) resigned in 1984, after the Provost insisted on reintroducing a boys-only top line.

In the early days, Dr Mackey found, some of the lay clerks would use up their sick days in protest whenever they were scheduled to sing with the girls. Today, there remain concerns that admitting girls will have a detrimental impact on boys’ choirs. This was “creepy nonsense”, Mr Morrison wrote in The Times, and was held “without a shred of evidence”.

Adrian Lucas, the head of choral studies at the Royal School of Church Music, agrees that there has “inevitably been a bit of reluctance” about changing a tradition that dates back centuries. He agrees with other directors that there is a “certain chemistry” in an all-boys group that is different from that found in mixed groups. In mixed groups, the danger is that more girls are recruited, he says, and that boys start to feel that it’s a “girly thing to do”. He explains: “If you have a critical mass of 16 to 20 boys working together, it is like a football team: it has a camaraderie . . . which counterbalances that they will get flak from school for doing something musical.” For him, “balance is the crucial thing.”

The Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir (CTCC) is unconvinced by arguments that the recruitment of girls has not had an adverse effect on the boys. Lynda Collins of the CTCC reports that, in some cathedrals, the number of boys has dropped to “perilously low levels, some in single or barely double figures”, and that this is not due to other factors. “It is not unreasonable to presume that trying to recruit boys to sing alongside a frequently larger, older, and more musically mature girls’ choir will make a difficult task even more so.”

Dr Mackey, like Mr Morrison, says that she has found no evidence that the recruitment of boys suffers as a result of bringing in girls, although she agrees this was a worry, initially. Several cathedral directors have told her that there has been, in fact, an increase in auditions by boys, “because, like the little sisters of generations past who longed to sing in the cathedral like their big brothers, there also exist little brothers who want to be in the choir like their big sisters.”

She also agrees with Mr Morrison that the message conveyed by cathedrals that do not admit girl choristers but which have the money and resources to smooth over any “boy-recruitment wobbles” is “misogynistic”. She argues that it is an “obstacle to the spread of the gospel”. In an ideal world, she would like to see every cathedral have girl choristers on a “totally equal footing” with boy choristers, she says.

There are signs that she may see this in her lifetime. This month a spokesperson for St Paul’s said that it “constantly reviews the way in which it deploys its resources”, and is looking at the feasibility of introducing girl choristers “at some time in the future”.

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