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Opinion:
Girl Choristers - should they sing in Church?

The question of girl choristers was brought sharply to my attention recently. A onetime choirboy of mine, now a very dear friend, was talking about the education of his children. "I would love to send my sons to our old choir school," he said, "but I don't feel it's right to give them a musical education the school denies to my daughters."

This is a man of integrity and intelligence and it clearly demonstrates the contemporary dilemma facing some Cathedrals, particularly those with residential choir schools.

The tradition of choir schools, residential and non-residential, has survived fairly extensively in England. Some still exist in Europe but not that many. It's a very old tradition which has been the backbone of high English church music for centuries. But times they are a-changing and we need to take a long, hard look at those Cathedral and collegiate establishments which still exclude girl choristers from singing to God at the same level as their brothers.

There are many opinions, deeply held and frequently aired, on whether boys' choirs are tonally more satisfactory than girls', whether they should sing in separate groups or together. This is really a matter of subjective opinion Ė what you like and what your personal judgment is. There's no objective answer to the question.

But there's no doubt that a good girls' choir is as musically effective as a good boys' choir. The girl choristers bring different qualities but, when it comes to musicianship, there's little to choose - both groups are excellent. Iíve worked with boys and with girls and have found the girl choristers better at sustaining lengthy, concentrated work. They seem to have a greater maturity and this can be of immense help when practicing.

The problem starts when comparisons are made between the vocal tone of boys and girls. Yes, it is different - but both have incredible beauty. Choirboys, because of the way their voices change, have a greater power than girl choristers at the age of puberty, but power isnít everything!

I love the sound of boy choristers, I love the sound of girl choristers and I love the sound of both singing together! A really good choirmaster can get a wonderful sound from a boy/girl group, retaining, blending and developing the unique qualities of both.

Who's a Sissy?

I favour the combined boy-and-girl choir, but it does throw up cultural problems. Boys of a certain age tend to be embarrassed when singing with girls and think there's something sissy about it. Their attendance slowly but surely falls away. This is a very real difficulty and its solution lies in the quality of adult leadership within the choir and the commitment of the parents.

"Playground" or "Schoolyard" talk is difficult to combat, but with supportive parents who value the educational and social opportunities offered by choral singing, it can be countered. Every encouragement should be given to boys who want to sing in a choir.

Male domination in most Churches is universally breaking down, and itís no longer possible for the Church to justify its position of denying to girls that which is available to boys. I hope that Cathedrals without girl choristers will shortly become an anachronism. Discrimination of this nature is unacceptable and it's only a matter of time before it's eradicated.

Choir Schools

Residential choir schools pose a big problem. Often the central city locations and the ancient buildings offer no space for mixed facilities.

In such cases a compromise could be to retain a boys' residential school while at the same time having a non-residential girls' choir. Whatís important is that no damage is done to the musical and educational standards of choir schools.

Should boys and girls sing together? How many services should be sung by girl choristers and how many by boy choristers? Should the girls sing with the lay-clerks so that they have equal access to the complete repertoire? Should both choirs be taken by the same choirmaster?

The answers to these questions will have to be found according to local circumstances. And everybody should be included in the debate - clergy, parents, teachers and musicians.

Is the Writing on the Wall for Residential Choir Schools?

This, of course, begs the question of whether there's still a place these days for the residential choir school. Many such schools find it difficult to get children for their choirs, as parents question the wisdom of sending young boys - aged 7 to 8 - to boarding school. One thing is certain, they will not survive without the highest standards of care and education being in place.

Undoubtedly, it would be a pity to lose all our residential choir schools. They underwrite high musical standards - because the boys are constantly available the practice schedule is better - and the esprit-de-corps is unique. As beacons of excellence they are important. As beacons of discrimination they are unacceptable.

Cathedral music is evolving rapidly. Educational standards, concert-giving, tours, the commissioning of music for new liturgies, are continually under development. The musical as well as the general education in many choir schools is excellent. I hope that within this wonderful activity girl choristers will soon find equal place alongside the boys.

Colin Mawby


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