Sunday, March 04, 2007

Where are all the male singers?

I ran a gospel workshop yesterday and unexpectedly there was a good show of men. Must have been around 15 men in a group of nearly 50. We did a song which I got from the Soweto Gospel Choir and it made such a wonderful difference to the sound having those strong bass voices on the bottom!

Most of the time in my one-day workshops, men are in the minority (I’ve had just the one before now!) so I always make sure that the “tenor” part is in the women’s range. But every now and then I get caught out. I did a Beatles workshop in Coventry a while back and ended up with 20 men in a group of 40 – I had to very quickly adapt the tenor part!

Why is it that more men don’t come to singing workshops? Even in the regular mixed-voice choirs that I run the blokes are in a small minority. It has taken many years to build the bass sections up to a reasonable size so that the male and female voices balance. And even when we do manage to recruit some keen blokes, they often don’t stay for very long!

Three years ago I decided to run an annual men-only harmony singing workshop. I figured that maybe some blokes might find it intimidating to come into a mixed group where they would be in the minority, but might feel more comfortable with just other men. I hoped that I could get more men interested in singing in general, partly so that I could recruit for my own choirs, but also just to get more men singing. One year I publicised the workshop on two local BBC radio stations, sent a mail shot to all the local choirs in the East Midlands region, sent press releases to the local press in five separate towns, used word of mouth through relevant choir members, but still didn’t get a single ‘outsider’ – all the men who came were already in choirs or singing groups. So although the workshop itself gets more popular each year and I’m getting at least 25 men each time, I’ve given up trying to recruit men who might not have sung before in a group.

Why is it so hard to get men interested in singing? I thought it might be that men didn’t like being vulnerable in front of women (hence the men-only workshop), but lots of male voice choirs are having recruitment problems too, and many of them have an average age of 70+. I thought maybe that some of the stuff I do was a bit too esoteric (Georgian and Balkan singing), but I still got hardly any ‘regular’ blokes coming to the Beatles or ABBA workshops that I run. I thought maybe singing wasn’t cool and there weren’t any role models for young men, but we have bands like G4, Westlife, Take That and others, all featuring close harmony singing. There are plenty of men-only groups in other cultures with a healthy mix of ages, so is it just a British thing?

As we all know, there are so many fantastic benefits to singing, not least the stress­ busting and health side-effects. You’d think this would apply to many men in high pressure jobs. I also know that if a man can actually be persuaded to come along to a workshop, he usually ends up enjoying it. One man joined Global Harmony who hadn’t sung before in his life, and had been dragged along by a mate. He now finds himself singing glorious tenor parts in Balkan songs and having the time of his life.

This lack of men is not restricted to punters, it also applies to choir leaders. Of 220+ members of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network, only around 30 are men. I imagine it would be more comfortable for some men if the workshop leader was also a man, so perhaps there are simply not enough opportunities or role models.

In 2003, Community Music Victoria in Australia hosted a gathering to examine why singing isn't an everyday part of the male experience. 20 men and Fay White sang and talked the day away. The results of some of their discussion can be found on the CMV website.

How can we get more men involved in singing? All ideas welcome!!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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