There was film many years ago called What Women Want. It was a terrible film and mostly nonsense about a guy who electrocutes himself and then finds that he can hear what women are thinking. I can’t remember much more about it than that. But I’m fairly sure it wasn’t that interesting. At least not to me. Quite frankly I’m not really that bothered about what other people are thinking – half the time I’ve no idea what I’m thinking. Nevertheless this concept made itself into a fairly successful film, and one which probably resonated with both sexes in one way or another.
When it comes to community singing, it seems there are 3 types of choir. Male Voice Choirs which are full of men. Ladies choirs which are full of women and Mixed Voice choirs which are also full of women. Men, it seems, are quite happy to sing in Male choirs but remain reluctant to join mixed voice choirs. This is nothing new and indeed many authors have pondered this question and come up with suggestions to improve the balance in choral singing.
My best way to approach this question is to look at my own choirs. Currently (heading rapidly towards the end of 2019) I run 3 choirs. One is a Male Voice Choir and the other two are exclusively Female groups. Adopting Grove’s standard definition of choir, the two latter groups are choirs too although one describes itself as an A Capella Octet and the other a Jazz Group. At various points in the last decade I have also run a larger female voice community choir, a couple of chamber choirs, an NHS Choir and numerous workplace choirs.
Over the last couple of years, all of my 3 current choirs have had to recruit new members. To put this into context, the two female groups are of fixed number so for the most part are not looking for new members. The BlueBelles are a female Octet and so only have 8 members at any one time, whilst Blue Notes is a Female Jazz group with 12 members. That said only 4/8 of The BlueBelles are ‘founder members’ from 2014 and since taking over Blue Notes in 2016 we have also welcomed 4 new members. Cirencester MVC, by contrast, is currently around 35 strong and always on the look out for new men to join them.
Before you all start throwing things at the computer screen, I am aware this is not an entirely valid or fair comparison. Obviously if I only wanted 8 or 12 men in my male voice choir I would potentially have no trouble at all achieving this. Nevertheless it is curious that when I have sought new members for the female groups someone has usually be found within a matter of days, or even hours in some cases. When it comes to finding new men, however, this ends up being the subject of numerous committee meetings and involves the despatch of many thousands of flyers which often doesn’t then lead to a huge surge in membership.
In order to address this I have done some research into Male Voice Choirs to find out what can be done. There are many encouraging examples. Leeds Male Voice Choir for example run a series of ‘Find Your Voice’ workshops over a number of weeks as a way of welcoming members. Without checking I believe the last such venture found them something north of 40 new members whilst a new course is starting this January with a similar vision to encourage new men into choral singing. Closer to home in Wiltshire there are the Magnificent AK47 directed by Chris Samuel. This is a male voice choir quite unlike any other and focusses very much on the ‘bloke’ aspect. Blokes together doing bloke things and generally ending up in the pub.
Now, I must be careful here as I do not want to give the wrong impression or in any way trivialise this choir. Their singing is quite outstanding (I can vouch for this first hand) and their repertoire ranges, in their own words, “from serious Georgian choral pieces, through the odd Wagnerian operatic piece, to less intellectual stuff employing hats and related costumery. Personally I think what Chris has done in forming the AK47s is quite possibly the most dramatic leap for male singing since 900 AD when a 2 part score was written and dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany.
So this tells us that men can be recruited to sing with other men and it’s quite easy to find women to sing alongside others of the same sex. But what about mixed choirs? This is a whole different problem and one to which I don’t pretend to have the answer. Mostly I escape this conundrum by running single sex choirs. For the most part the only mixed voice choirs I am involved with is when I run corporate workshops or workplace choirs. Until a couple of years ago I was running an NHS choir which had a membership comprising of around 30 ladies and 1 chap. Most of the ‘office’ choirs I run have a similar balance.
I do not believe the issue is about getting men to join choirs or to embrace singing. A few weeks ago I went to a football match. No, it’s not really my scene but it was my Father’s 80th birthday treat – Brighton vs Wolves. Despite not really understanding football or being particularly interested in it, I actually had a good time. But most importantly there was singing. As the players came out onto the pitch, 30,000 people (mostly men) sang ‘Sussex by the Sea’. From what I understand Rugby matches are the same – possibly the singing is even better! It is clear, men can and will sing. But from what I can see, men prefer to do this together in a ‘manly’ way. Perhaps what we need is more choirs like the AK47s?
Jules Addison currently directs 3 choirs in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Surprisingly, if you add up the total membership of them all, there are far more men than women….