Four ways to make chapel and cathedral choirs more inclusive

For this final weekend before Christmas, we have a guest post from Emma Hall, an Oxford music graduate and keen choral singer who wrote an ethnographic dissertation about gendered power dynamics in Oxford choirs.

For many people, the Nine Lessons and Carols service broadcast by King’s College Choir is one of the defining features of Christmas, and one of the most beloved and well-known representations of the English choral tradition. This choir’s setup can be characterised by several features which are replicated in many other cathedral and college choirs across the country.

It is a choir made up exclusively of men and boys, with young trebles singing the soprano line in an SATB texture. All members of the choir are classically trained, with the older members of the choir expected to have had significant experience singing in church choirs before they join, many of them having been choristers themselves when they were younger. The conductor, almost always a man, is also expected to have had a similar experience with church music, having been a chorister, choral scholar or organ scholar. The choir is geographically laid out with the conductor at the centre, and the highest parts on the front rows, closest to the conductor. This reflects the way in which members of the choir are expected to behave – the large number of children singing the highest part are more closely monitored by the conductor, whereas the men singing the lower parts are expected to take more responsibility for their own performance, given that there are only a couple of them per-part on each side.

Although these features are thought to be essential, or at least beneficial, for the cultivation of a successful church choir in the English cathedral and chapel tradition, there are many ways in which these characteristics are actively exclusionary towards many, most obviously women. Many would argue, quite rightly, that single-gender choirs make up the minority of the UK’s church choirs, representing only the most elite and traditional groups. However, I would assert that the vast weight of historical bias still burdens women singing within church choirs because they are participating in a system which was not created for them.

The insertion of women into this traditional choral model increases the quantitative representation of women, which is of course a good thing. However, if no other aspects of the model are changed, women, particularly sopranos, are at a disadvantage.

Until recently, it was very difficult to find opportunities for young girls to sing in church choirs of a high standard. An environment where childhood church experience and formal classical training is expected for male singers, but not for female singers, can lead to a situation in which the skills of women are doubted and underplayed much more than those of their male counterparts, regardless of either party’s respective levels of experience or skill. This is exacerbated by pre-existing societal pressures which encourage women to under estimate their own skills and worth, leading to a negative feedback loop. Although this is also the experience of female altos, it is worth saying that it might be more common amongst sopranos who are often regarded to be ‘more female’ than altos because of their higher vocal range. The linking of femininity to a lack of skill is clear in soprano stereotypes, pervasive in the choral world, which characterise sopranos as being girly divas who are bad at sight-reading even though they have the easiest part (‘the tune’).

The fact that adult sopranos occupy the same space as the child trebles, both physically on the lower front stalls under the watchful eye of the conductor, and vocally, in their role singing the highest and most audible vocal line, creates an uncomfortable conflation of women and children’s roles. The connotations of this are not just that sopranos are less skilled than other parts, as above, but that they embody childlike qualities such as weakness, purity, innocence and angelic-ness which should be reflected in their vocal timbre. If the imitation of a treble tone is encouraged, it can be damaging not just to the vocal technique of sopranos singers, but to their sense of value within the ensemble, as they are expected to limit and compromise their personal contribution to the choir’s overall sound in a way which other parts are not. Further pressure for sopranos to compromise or self-censure is created by their proximity to the conductor and the exposed nature of their physical and aural positions – their conspicuity means that they are more likely to receive (negative) feedback from the conductor than other parts.

The relative abundance of sopranos also means that they are less likely to receive personalised feedback, as their personal sound is not as distinct as in a section of, say, only four people. This abundance also creates a sense that sopranos expendable or superfluous in a way which members of other sections, for example tenors, are not. These interlocking factors all suggest that women have a more negative and more difficult choral experience as members of church choirs compared to other male members.

So far this has been a negative and bleak perspective on the problems facing women in a choral system. Although several of the more pervasive aspects can only be changed by slow systematic shifts, there are lots of modest ways to tweak the current choral model to make it a more inviting environment, not just for women, but for everyone. So without any further ado, here are four easy ways to smash the figurative choral patriarchy.

  1. Question existing methods

    One of the first steps to creating a more inclusive choir is to simply recognise that the traditional church choir model, though ostensibly prestigious and desirable, is not necessarily the best or most equal way to run a modern choir. In a church environment where the accessibility of worship is paramount, it is important to create an atmosphere where all singers, and by extension members of the congregation, feel able to participate fully. By recognising that ‘common sense’ models might be driven more by internalised values and biases than by a genuine commitment to the fostering of a fulfilling choral experience, we can start to look at what changes can be made to bring choral pedagogy more in line with aims of inclusion.

  2. Collaborative leadership

    In most choirs the conductor is seen as the locus of all power, however many would argue that this environment does not encourage singers to become personally invested in the success of the choir and does not create a situation whereby singers feel personally valued. Through fostering a more collaborative atmosphere where discussion and musical responsibility is encouraged, the conductor allows members to contribute in a more meaningful way. If possible, chances for musical and verbal contributions should seek to equalise the vocality of each member rather than replicate existing power imbalances. One way of doing this is to consider what values underly what is considered a ‘good’ contribution. It might be tempting to give more precedence to the views of choir members with extensive choral experience or formal training, however it might be just as enlightening to receive contributions concerning, for example, the emotional or religious facets of the music and how they are experienced by individual choir members. Allowing choir members to contribute on their own terms is an important way of publicly acknowledging that every person has value within the choir as a whole.

  3. Vary the layout

    It is important to recognise that the layout of a choir affects both the way in which singers feel when singing, and the way in which the conductor perceives them. Try swapping around the position of the singers, with the ultimate aim creating an environment in which all singers, regardless of part, spend an equal amount of time in the most conspicuous positions, i.e. those that are most visible or audible to the conductor and the listening congregation. Depending on the level of the choir, it might also be beneficial to arrange the singers in ‘scrambled’ positions where singers are not placed directly adjacent to other singers on their part. Although this is often daunting, it can serve as a way to allow members of large sections to hear themselves and take responsibility for their own sound in a way which would not be possible should they be seated in parts.

  4. Improve opportunities for women

    In recent years, there have been a growing number of opportunities opening up for female singers, organists, conductors and composers. Most notably, there are now a 24 out of 42 cathedral choirs which admit girl choristers and, since the decision to introduce Carris Jones as an alto layclerk at St. Paul’s, there is also precedent from one of England’s most prestigious institutions for including adult women in high-quality church choirs.

Although advocating for opportunities for women in existing institutions is an important way of providing training, jobs and role models to women in music, it often takes a considerable amount of effort and time to bring any changes into effect. It is also possible that having too much of a focus on trying to insert women into existing androcentric institutions may have the negative side-effect of reinforcing the gatekeeping practices seen in the traditional model that only allows those with sanctioned choral experience to participate fully. There are, however, more local ways to improve opportunities for women within existing mixed choirs in such a way which side-steps these concerns. For example, the occasional programming of pieces for women’s voices can serve to give choir members a chance to explore different roles within the choral texture and to see what its like singing with fewer people to each part. It also serves promote the value of upper voices, showing that they need not have the accompaniment of men to create a full and satisfying choral sound. Other opportunities for including women can be created by programming music written by female composers and by choosing a variety of music which doesn’t relegate upper voices to easy melodies or sections connoting gentleness, purity and innocence.

Further reading:

Nana Wolfe-Hill (2017). ‘Collaboration and Meaning Making in the Women’s Choral Rehearsal’. In: Abrahams, F. and Head, P. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 185-204.

Patricia O’Toole (1995). ‘I Sing In A Choir But I Have “No Voice!”’. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, 4/5, 65-76.

Patricia O’Toole (1998). ‘A Missing Chapter from Choral Methods Books: How Choirs Neglect Girls’. The Choral Journal, 39/5, 9-32.

Liz Garnett (2016) ‘On Sopranos, Stereotyping, Sexism and Strain’. Helping you Harmonise Website [Personal Blog]. Retrieved from:

MacDonald, Sarah (2016) ‘Something to sing about: the rise of the cathedral girls’ choir’. Telegraph Online. Retrieved from:

2 thoughts on “Four ways to make chapel and cathedral choirs more inclusive

  1. Thanks for this, Emma! Just 2 things:

    1) 36 of the 42 cathedrals include girls in the choristership line up in some way, not 24.

    2) Whilst Carris’ appointment at St Paul’s is probably unprecedented in the history of the cathedral itself (especially considering it is one of the 6 with no girl choristers), it was not unprecedented in the wider cathedral sphere with Durham, York, Peterborough, Newcastle and Exeter all being examples of places where women have held choral scholarships and Lay Clerkships.

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