This is inspired by a post from January 2007 about Minor Chords, the first women’s ensemble I ran.
How do mixed choirs and single-sex choirs differ, if at all? I was partly inspired to write this by an article on ChoralNet (Are women’s choirs different?). There are clearly some differences, but are they important and does one kind of choir have an advantage over the other?
In 2001 I set up a women’s singing ensemble called Minor Chords (a weak pun based on the fact that all members are also in the bigger choir Woven Chords). The group consisted of 12 women who had the singing skills and commitment to meet alternate Saturdays for three hours to tackle more complex and difficult material than the main choir.
I didn’t hold formal auditions, but required members to be able to hold a part on their own. Over the years the standard of the group rose considerably and it became harder and harder to find suitable new material which was sufficiently challenging.
In 2007 I decided I wanted to raise the bar even higher and work with a group to develop performance skills rather than simply teaching songs each session. I disbanded Minor Chords and formed a new group (by audition this time) called Vox Mondiale. It was still a women-only group.
Over the next couple of years I helped develop the group’s confidence and performing skills. Last year I took off the training wheels and handed over the group to its members to run without me.
In 2004 I decided to run a men-only workshop in an attempt to get more blokes singing. Over the next few years this became an annual fixture attracting between 20 and 40 men each year. It was a great opportunity to do some of those real blokey songs from Georgia mixed with a few sea shanties, chain gang songs and songs from other male traditions such as Corsica and South Africa.
I’ve also been involved in a couple of workshops where we’ve invited both men and women, but then split into gender groups to learn songs separately. We began with a joint warm up and taught a song to everyone, then split up for the rest of the day. At the end of the workshop the women sang what they’d learnt to the men, and vice versa.
Over the years I have noticed certain differences when running a men-only or women-only workshop.
When it’s men-only, there tends not to be any chit chat when lunch is being prepared (and no chat whilst songs are being learnt either!). One year a bloke who usually sings with a mixed choir pointed this out: “Quiet, isn’t it?”. The savoury course tends to be pies and quiches bought from Morrison's, whereas the sweet course is home-made cakes (made by the men themselves). Washing up and tidying up is quick and efficient.
With women-only groups there is plenty of animated conversation during breaks. In fact, it’s hard to get them back after tea breaks! There were always lots of cakes in the break when I used to run Vox Mondiale. In fact, I think it became a little bit competitive and the singing was maybe just an excuse to come and eat cake!
In a women’s workshop, the savoury course for lunch tends to be home-made healthy salads, etc. whereas the sweet course is almost always shop-bought gateaux and cheesecakes. Washing up is effective, but takes time (with all the chat going on).
Just my observations!
the origins of single-sex groups
In the Balkans it is typical for girls to form close friendships at school from a very early age. They will sing together with their friends in groups that will sometimes last a lifetime. Imagine how well they get to know each other’s voices and abilities!
Male groups of singers tend to be based around occupation (in Britain at least): coal miners, police, fishermen, etc.
All my community choirs have been mixed (when I took over Woven Chords it was women-only because the previous director thought men were too loud and disruptive!). Although men have always been in the minority.
There is nothing really to compare with a full-on four part (SATB) arrangement of a song with a meaty bass part. It’s nice to vary the diet every now and then so we do occasionally slip in a women-only or men-only song.
... of being in a mixed choir:
- you can do full-on four part arrangements
- it’s great to have the different male and female vocal qualities in the mix
- some people don’t like being in single-sex groups
- the men can impress the women with their voices and the women can impress the men
- men’s focus and discipline can be balanced with women’s sociability to make for a healthy mix
... of being in a single-sex group
- the voices blend much better
- there is just one dynamic within the group
- some people prefer to be in a single-sex group (e.g. some men are frightened of women!)
- you can specialise in a particular type of singing/ music
... of being in a mixed choir:
- there can be a clash of cultures – the way men and women approach things is different
- male and female tenors sound quite different
- men can be loud and overbearing which doesn’t help with overall sound balance
- there is possibly a different learning style for men and women
... of being in a single-sex group
- it’s hard to make four-part arrangements for equal voices without it being close harmony
- women’s songs miss out on a proper bass part, and men’s songs don’t have soaring high voices on the top
- it can be too much of the same thing – hard to have variety when you’ve only one voice type to play with
what flavour of leader?
Does the gender of the choir or workshop leader make a difference?
Bill Henderson of the Forres Big Choir reckons that the reason they have roughly 50% men in their mixed choir is that they have a male and a female leader.
Simon said that although his choir was lead by a husband and wife team, the husband made jokes at the men’s expense whilst the wife was more supportive and encouraging.
When the choir leader is of a different gender to the singer, there can be problems with pitching and giving starting notes (see Singing the same note – differently!). This can easily be overcome though. Women in my choir are used to automatically singing an octave higher than the note I give out. But when Michael Harper came to give a workshop (he’s a respected counter tenor) he gave the notes at pitch and the women freaked out when they couldn’t sing an octave higher than him!
what’s your experience?
Have you had experience of being in (or leading) both a mixed choir and a single-sex choir? Did you notice any differences? Does the gender of the choir leader make a difference? Can you think of any other issues that I’ve left out? Do drop by and leave a comment.