13 February 2018

Gender Fluid Choirs

Apologies to the copyright holder - Hoffnung's Choir is gloriously gender-neutral
Choir directing is one of the most inclusive and non-segregative occupations there is.  In my time I have probably directed around 50 choirs.  These have been all-male, all-female, mixed, professional, amateur, members have included people with every imaginable disability, blind people, deaf people, people with limbs missing, people recovering from trauma, the battle-scarred, the very young, the very old, the white, the black, the brown, the lurid yellow (that was me with a bad attack of jaundice); you name it, it’s been in one of my choirs.  My father, at 100, has recently left his church choir, not because his singing has deteriorated, but because he can no longer easily process with the others.  Some of my very best friends have been in choirs, and some of my worse enemies.  The thing about choral singing is it is a complete and utter leveller, drawing in people of all shapes, sizes, creeds, colours, ages, abilities, sexual orientation and political affiliations.  It does not matter to the director; so long as you want to sing, there is a choir for you.

Yet I learn from a radio report this morning that choral directors are dinosaurs, stuck in the prejudice-laden segregation-obsessed mores of the past.  It seems that those of “fluid gender” (defined as “unwilling to accept the random gender stereotype imposed at birth”) feel dispossessed of their right to sing in a choir.

I once conducted a “gay” choir – which was just like every other choir but liked to parade under a banner which made them seem different – elitist – from others.  And from several choir tours I did with other choirs, I seem to have conducted choirs comprising a disproportionate number of people with an obsession with sexual relations with those of the opposite “imposed gender”.  If people want to give their choirs labels, let them; my rule is that if you want to sing, there is a choir for you and you should be welcomed in to it regardless of any other aspect of your psyche.

Of course some choirs are exclusive in their insistence on gender, occupation or vocal prowess.  Yet for every one of these, there are a thousand who accept those excluded.  In short, every choir director manages a complete balance with no hint that anyone would ever be excluded.  We, as a body of professionals, have never really thought about it, simply because inclusivity is endemic in the profession.

Back to the radio report.  A daft idiot (oh yes! I did once direct a choir made up of inmates from a hospital for the criminally insane) felt that in the world of choral singing, there were barriers caused by sexual stereotyping.  According to this twit, we expect women to sing with high voices and men to sing with low ones.  As a poor counter-tenor and highly able falsettist, that’s an assumption I never make – and I have had innumerable female tenors in my amateur choirs (although I have yet to encounter a female basso profundo – but I live in hope; it’s just about impossible to get hold of a male one these days).  Who expects women to sing with high voices and men with low ones?  Not choir directors, certainly.  Possibly only those who see an issue which does not exist and use it to promulgate their own private agenda.

As a result, choirs in one American state (I did not catch which one, I was off in search of the sick-bag at the time) are being forced to abandoned one-sex rules.  But it was not an issue of forcing barbershop ensembles to admit both men and women – after all that’s been going for years.  It was an issue of allowing those “real people” (according to Loony Toons) who genuinely do not know what their gender is and who choose to identify with no established gender.  Choirs, we were told, must be ready to accept those whose gender is fluid and who, therefore, cannot be boxed up in the prejudicial stereotypical labels of soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

I would say this is all bollocks – but that would be an unfortunate word given the context.  In all my experience I have never once encountered anyone changing gender during a choral rehearsal (let alone a performance).  I’ve certainly encountered plenty of people whose voices change from high to low in mid-flow; but the breaking of a boy’s voice, tragic though it seems at the time, is not indicative of a gender shift – more a natural process of gender confirmation. 

However, I do concede that there might just be something to learn from all this.  The labels we have long given to the voices do have gender implications which, perhaps, are no longer relevant.  Technically you cannot have a male soprano (that would be a treble), a male contralto (that would be an alto) or a male mezzo-soprano (that would be a counter-tenor).  Funnily enough it does not work the other way round, and while we assume tenors, baritones and basses will always be men, choral directors know otherwise.  Although I am a stickler for correct nomenclature, I am willing to let this drop if it helps make choirs seem more inclusive.  Bring on the gender-free sopranos and the gender-neutral contraltos; anything to prevent anyone thinking that they are excluded from what is the most enjoyable and wonderful activity known to man, woman or gender fluid.


  1. Dr Marc,
    Your recent flurry of postings (always interesting and enjoyable, and often prompting me to think hard on why I cannot agree with your views), raised a question in my mind: why are the postings so “lumpy” ? Nothing for several weeks, and then several in quick succession. Do you write when travelling, or during low periods of work, or only when the moon is full ?

  2. Spot on. Interesting and funny.
    As an aside, what do you think of Trinity Laban's recent announcement that half of the music performed next year will be by female composers ?

    1. To be honest, I believe composers should be judged on merit not gender. The Proms is going to have a quota of 50/50 male/female composers for new commissions, and I suspect that many of the female composers will imagine they have only been invited to make up the quota rather than because they are any good. There is a legacy (mostly dating from the 19th century) of anti-female bias in music, but to redress that requires more imagination than merely raising the mediocre because of their gender. And I would add that, in my opinion, some of the very best composers, musicians and coach drivers are female. I fear transgender people will never do so well, simply because they spend so much of their time (and their advocates concentrate so much on being) screwed up about what they are, they forget to think about what they can do!