TAKE a look at the front row of our cathedral choirs, and you will still see almost exclusively white, middle-class faces. Little has changed in terms of diversity since I became a chorister nearly 20 years ago. Why have things been so slow to change?
There are many barriers to entry for children from less privileged backgrounds: the enormous advantage given to those who can afford private music tuition; the intimidating nature of auditions; the challenging academic entry tests. But there is also a deeper, systemic prejudice that, I believe, is hampering diversity in our choirstalls. There is a pernicious rumour circulating in the choral world that the voices of black children change earlier than those of white children.
It is time to challenge this oft-repeated assertion. The idea that by assessing someone’s skin colour you could make a judgement about when their voice would change betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the science. The colour of someone’s skin is not a good predictor of their genetic makeup, and the belief that it has significant explanatory power is rooted in the outdated concept of race, which has little, if any, biological grounding.
Voice-change is a complex phenomenon, and additional study is required to clarify the relationships between the numerous contributing factors which determine age at onset of puberty (J. M. Lee et al., 2016). The timing of voice-change is dependent on the interaction of at least 29 different genes (Lardone et al., 2020), and there are extremely significant environmental factors at play, including poor diet and stress levels, both of which are strongly correlated with socioeconomic status (Kelly et al., 2017).
Any perceived difference in the age at which voices change is more likely to be a result of socioeconomic circumstances than a genetic tendency, and that is precisely why we must be so careful about anecdotal “evidence”; prejudice reinforces inequality, by reproducing the conditions that prevent people from flourishing. The bottom line is that someone’s skin colour is not a reliable predictor of age at voice-change. A much stronger predictor of age at voice-change is BMI (Busch et al., 2020), but there would be outrage if we started weighing choristers at their auditions.
THE youth choirs at St John the Divine, Kennington, in south London, led by the charismatic Ben Vonberg-Clark, are the perfect foil to the pervasive myth that black children don’t make good choristers. In one of the poorest parishes in the country, for the past seven years, Ben has run choirs for girls and boys from primary schools in and around Kennington, supported by the wonderfully ecumenical Fr Mark Williams.
Of the 80 singers who attend weekly, 75 per cent are from black and minority-ethnic communities. Each year, Ben, Joe McHardy, and I lead a summer school for the children, hosted by St John’s College, Cambridge. The choristers sing evensong at a cathedral near by (Bury St Edmunds and St Albans in recent years), and then sing for the Sunday services at St John’s.
The choir has tackled ever more complex repertoire, and, in 2019, the choir sang a joint evensong with the choir of St John’s. The Director of Music at St John’s, Andrew Nethsingha, is deeply supportive of the scheme. In 2019, he wrote: “It is hard to think of anything more valuable or enriching which has taken place in our Chapel in the past twelve months.”
There is a powerful sense in the choral world that access routes to choral music need to be widened. The organisations in London taking purposeful action on this issue include the Hackney Children’s Choir (run by the irrepressible duo of Tom Daggett and the Revd Niall Weir) and Inner Voices (the initiative of Ralph Allwood and Ed Watkins).
ACCESS to choirs is so important because choral music changes lives; it has long provided a back door to a top-class education, through the provision of generous scholarships. In recent years, there has been a steady stream of graduates from St John the Divine into other choirs, sometimes with scholarships to secondary school attached.
It is an explicit aim of the choral course at St John’s to make the children feel at home in the Cambridge colleges. Grandparents, parents, and younger siblings all make the journey to Cambridge to see the children sing each year. It’s wonderful to see those families comfortably inhabiting an area that, until recently, many might have thought unobtainable for their children.
In light of the past few months, the Black Lives Matter protests, the empty cathedrals, do we ever want to return to “normal”? This is the time for change. We need to start younger, with bigger choirs, and reach out to new communities.
The choir at St John the Divine is a win-win situation for everyone involved, enabling the church to bring more people into the pews, providing a fantastic education for the choristers, and preparing the next generation of singers. This is the new face of diversity; it is not a concession by the rich and powerful, but something that heals the wounds in our society, and enriches all our lives.
Edward Picton-Turbervill is Head of Music at Atlantic College, in Wales, and a former organ scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge.
A. S. Busch et al., 2019, “Obesity Is Associated with Earlier Pubertal Onset in Boys”, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, available at: doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgz222
Y. Kelly, et al., 2017, “Early Puberty in 11-Year-Old Girls: Millennium Cohort Study findings”, Archives of Disease in Childhood, available at: dx.doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2016-310475
M. C. Lardone et al., 2020, “A Polygenic Risk Score Suggests Shared Genetic Architecture of Voice Break With Early Markers of Pubertal Onset in Boys”, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, [online], available at: doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgaa003
J. M. Lee et al., 2016, “Timing of Puberty in Overweight Versus Obese Boys”, Pediatrics, available at: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-0164