Developing young professional female singers in UK cathedrals

Graham F Welch, Institute of Education, University of London, WC1H 0AL

The numbers of cathedral girls' choirs in England has steadily increased since their inception at Salisbury in 1991. At present, around one third of the cathedrals, minsters and major chapels that educate and train choristers for the singing of regular services include girls. This has been a break with a musical tradition that has celebrated the 'uniqueness' of the male chorister voice for over 1,500 years.

Over the past decade, a number of related studies have examined the assumption of 'uniqueness' to see if this has any basis in perceptual phenomena. The available data on child and adolescent vocal anatomy and physiology indicate considerable similarity between the sexes until the onset of puberty. Nevertheless, perceptually, gender differences in untrained children’s singing voices become more evident as children progress through childhood. However, the perceptual data on trained singers is more equivocal (cf Welch & Howard, 2002), suggesting that there is considerable potential for female choristers to be confused as male, depending on the choir and the choice of repertoire. In part, this is believed to be a product of the particular traditions, expectations and cultural practices of the socio-musical environment to which choristers are inducted.

The presentation will focus on a year long research project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), that sought to clarify and understand better how the musical culture of a cathedral choir impacts on the musical development and performance of its female choristers with regard to an ‘appropriate’ sound.

The prime elements of the research methodology were both qualitative, through observation, semi-structured interviews, analysis of printed materials (such as music and service schedules) and quantitative, acoustic analyses of recordings of female chorister singing behaviours in practice rooms and rehearsal spaces (including the Cathedral Chancel and Nave) and services. Participants were aged eight to sixteen years. Across the research year, (i) 52 individual female chorister recordings were made, each following an established protocol; (ii) 23 hours were spent observing choristers singing in rehearsals, services and individually and (iii) an additional 15.5 hours was spent in interviews.

Preliminary analyses of the 15.5 hours of semi-structured interview data, related to 23 hours of observation, have generated four main classification categories (‘individual’, ‘group’, ‘environment’ and ‘relationships’) and fifteen sub-categories. The latter have been generated by a clustering of thirty-nine different elements that are identifiable as having a reported impact on chorister development. Although the data analyses are ongoing, a picture is beginning to emerge in which the female choristers may be seen both as part of an established tradition, but also as having a ‘transformational’ impact on it. The customary tripartite relationship in music (Small, 1999) between the physical setting, people (performers and listeners) and musical soundscape constrains the variety of possible musical outcomes, but this relationship has also changed to take account of the new female chorister membership. The changing gender makeup of the formerly all-male choir is bringing about a modification of cultural and musical expectations.

Small, C. (1999). Musicking – the meanings of performing and listening. Music Education Research. 1(1), 9-21.
Welch, G.F. & Howard, D.M. (2002). Gendered Voice in the Cathedral Choir. Psychology of Music, 30 (1), 102-120.

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