Sunday, June 21, 2009

The problem with men: getting them, handling them, keeping them

May 2010 Since this post was written, I’ve done some more research which you can find at Why men won’t sing: a discussion

What is it with blokes and singing? In most open-access adult workshops that I run, only 10% of the participants are men. Many male voice choirs have an aging membership. Most mixed community choirs find it hard to recruit male singers (the 10% figure also applies to many choirs that I know).

I’ve looked briefly at this subject before (Where are all the male singers?), but thought it merited further examination. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any male problems in your choir, especially if you’ve found an interesting solution.

men and the arts

When I used to run theatre workshops, there were similar low numbers of men. I’m sure the same applies to dance, pottery, life drawing, etc. In fact, when I attend any kind of ‘arty’ workshop, I am often the only man there! Yet in the professional art world, many of the top names are men, so they must get their training and inspiration from somewhere.

There are many reasons I have heard why men won’t join any kind of arty class:

  • arts aren’t a macho subject
  • blokes like to hang out with other blokes
  • men prioritise their careers, not their leisure time
  • guys like to be in control and know what they’re doing, they don’t like the vagueness of art subjects
  • some men are intimidated by a room full of women
  • most chaps like to look good and competent, so they tend to do their learning in private
  • blokes are not particularly social animals and shy away from group activities (unless it’s football!)
  • community choirs are too egalitarian – men like hierarchical structures, competition and goals (maybe this is why there are so many barbershop singers?)

men and singing

Even if none of the reasons above apply to a particular man, he may still not want to join a choir or singing workshop, even if he loves singing. He might simply be hesitant to join a group that’s been going for a while. But as I pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not that daunting and Everybody has a place in the choir. Like many people, he may not think his voice is ‘good enough’ (whatever that means!) and most men don’t like to be vulnerable in public. Even if a guy thinks his voice is ‘OK’, he may have had experiences where the songs are too high or too low for his voice, so he figures that he just doesn’t fit in. This is because most men are natural baritones, not basses or tenors (see But I can’t sing that high!).

And if a bloke is not persuaded by the fact that singing in a choir is good for your health and he will be surrounded by eligible women, he can always check out that There are plenty of good reasons to sing.

It’s not only male singers who are thin on the ground, but also male choir and workshop leaders. For example, the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network has around 270 members of whom only 40 are men (many of whom are called David for some reason!). This means that most mixed community choirs (at least those run on Natural Voice lines) are run by women. This leads us onto …

men and pitching

Men can get easily confused (ah, bless ‘em!) when a woman is trying to give them their note. I’ve talked about this in an earlier post: Singing the same note – differently. A woman can sing the note at pitch for the tenors (in which case they might try to sing an octave higher!), but usually can’t get down low enough to pitch the bass part. And if a woman choir leader is (un)fortunate to get a male bass who sings an octave below all the other men, she will have a difficult job getting him back on track.

Sometimes you get a confident male singer who can blast out as good as the next man, but never seems to be able to hit the right notes. There are women who do this too, but the male voice tends to be louder and more noticeable. So we have this chap merrily singing along at the top of his lungs, really enjoying himself, oblivious to the fact that what he’s singing bears little relationship to his part (or even the main tune).

Often the bass part has only a few notes so is harder to remember than the tune. For someone not used to harmony singing, it is often the case that a bass can find himself trying to sing the tune rather than the bass part (usually without realising it!).

There is nothing inherently wrong with a guy not getting his part right, but if he ends up singing so loud that he puts the other men around him off, or if he stands out in the overall blend in the choir, then we need to do something.

it’s not just the men!

This is not just limited to men, of course, but it is perhaps more noticeable with male voices. The alto who is a little bit out usually manages to gently blend in with the others and nobody notices. Unfortunately, men tend to have louder voices, and perhaps more importantly, the male sections are usually much, much smaller than the other sections.

If a 60-voice choir only had six altos, then they would really be put on the spot, be very noticeable, and have to deliver their part forcefully and accurately. But that’s not usually the case, and that pressure ends up being put on the poor basses. Fortunately, the men usually have a good sense of humour and can put up with the barbed wit that I often send in their direction!

learning to listen

If, for any reason, you have a singer (male or female) who sings loudly and wrongly, then you have to do something for the greater good of the part they’re in, and of the choir. In fact, the only time I have ever, ever asked someone to leave a choir or workshop since I started doing this back in 1997, was when an over-enthusiastic member of the bass section used to consistently sing loudly and wrongly. I felt awful asking him to leave – we are, after all, an open-access choir, and I believe that everyone can sing. But he was putting the other guys off so much that they couldn’t learn their parts properly or sustain them accurately, and I was worried that some of them might leave.

So I took this chap to one side and pointed out that he needed to develop his listening skills. Too often we think there is a problem with the production of the singing voice, whereas often it’s just because somebody is not listening: to themselves, to the other voices in their part, to the harmonies, to the person teaching the song.

If someone is a bit nervous or unused to singing with others, they become focused on their own voice and stop listening to those around them. That’s when mistakes are made. We need to constantly bring singers’ focus of attention back to the here and now (“watch what I’m doing, listen to what I’m singing/ saying”) and to the overall mix of voices in their own part and of the choir as a whole.

Unfortunately in a choir, it’s not possible to give particular singers individual attention. As choir leaders we can introduce listening training into our warm ups, but that can only go so far. So I told this man that he would need to go away and do some work on his own to develop his listening skills. It wasn’t that he less able than the other choir members, just that he hadn’t had as much listening experience as them. I suggested he seek out opportunities to do unison singing: church, karaoke, football matches, folk club sing-alongs, etc. Once he had become more aware of his own voice and that he was fitting in exactly with the other singers, then he could come back to choir and begin to develop his harmony singing abilities.

male singers are for life, not just for Christmas

I don’t have any answers in how we can recruit and retain more male singers. I’ve tried running a men-only workshop each year. It’s great fun and we make a wonderful sound, but it’s usually men who sing in choirs already. It’s hard to attract new singers.

We’ve tried “bring a man, get 50% off” and similar variations on workshop fees. This can result in more men attending a particular workshop, but doesn’t convert into more regular membership of choirs.

Often, after a concert (usually at Christmas) I get several blokes coming up to me afterwards to say they want to join the choir. Last year I had four. One of them came for a few sessions, but I never heard from the others!

If I had the time and the energy, there is one thing I would like to try: instead of asking the men to come to a workshop (scary, unknown, not their kind of thing, too busy, need to get off my backside, etc. etc.), bring the workshop to the men! Find places where men gather naturally (pub, rugby club, snooker hall, freemasons) and just turn up to run a taster workshop for half an hour. I bet that there will be a few individuals who will be enthused enough to want to take it further.

Do let me know if you have had any similar problems, have found other solutions, or have any good ideas on how to recruit young(er) men to choirs.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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