From the InspireChoir Team

Young Men and Choral Music: Where the Wild Things Aren’t…

Let’s face it.  Guys aren’t naturally drawn to sing in choral ensembles, as evidenced by the uneven proportions of girls and guys in choirs.  We often see lots of girls, a few boys, and the majority wander the halls as “coulda, shoulda, woulda” choir kids.

At InspireChoir, one of our missions is to promote positive choral experiences for all students, especially those in at-risk situations, underserved, or underrepresented populations.

The following is an expanded article originally titled “Where are the Boys,” and published in the October 2013 edition of the Southwestern Musician.

It’s 8:30 a.m. and you enter your “jungle” known as first period: a 40-voice JV mixed choir full of energy, adrenaline, and hormones. Students are busy grabbing their folders, getting water, and a group of them are in a corner singing the newest #1 song on iTunes while others are discussing the latest break-up in Hollywood. The bell rings and as you prepare your choir vocally, the obvious imbalance (or should we say, “wall of soprano”) reminds you that of those forty voices, only four of them are boys. Of them, three are basses (or so they think) and two are non-pitch matching. After hearing what resembles something between an Eric Whitacre cluster chord and a fascinating interpretation of a Schöenberg tone row, your internal dialogue goes: “…but they work so hard…I’m just happy that they are here…I’ll get them in shape, just you wait.”

Too often, these scenes are replayed in choir rooms across the country. What once seemed unnatural to choral educators is now labeled as commonplace, simply because we are excited to have the warm bodies in our choir rooms. What we sometimes fail to see in our moment of slight panic is the underlying problem: Where are the boys? I see them in the hallway, on the sports fields, and socializing with friends, but they aren’t singing.

The downward trend of male enrollment in choral ensembles is an often discussed and researched topic in our field. We attend conferences, read articles, and resort to stalking the hallways, looking for our next big find: another male to sing tenor. Often, we find him, but at what cost? Long hours at work? An unintended male bias?   Let’s face it…what we’re doing isn’t working. Yes, there are wonderful examples of boisterous male choirs and balanced mixed choirs in our state, but as a whole, it is nearly as common to see choirs with four boys in them as it is to have a program with four girls-only treble choirs. In his 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, author and educator Stephen Covey advises readers to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Let’s get to work…the wild things are waiting.

Understanding Our Roots: It Hasn’t Always Been This Way

Male choral singing in America established its roots in the colonial years of the early eighteenth century. Singing at this time was highly a male-dominated activity and was expected by society (Gates, 1989). Men were proudly singing in taverns, at sporting events, and in churches throughout New England. Additionally, they were songbook writers who established singing schools and authored articles to encourage women to sing. This was especially common in church settings, as the Protestant Reformation in Germany and England expected all members of the congregation to sing in church music services and their ideas came to America through immigration (Birge, 1928; Gates, 1989).

For much of the nineteenth century, males continued to be the leading force of choral singing in America. The end of the Civil War brought two striking changes to choral music: the formation of the first male glee club at Harvard University in 1858 and the beginning of a cultural shift regarding the singing in America as effeminate (Jones, 2008; Koza, 1990). Male glee clubs were formed throughout the country to fill musical voids for soldiers who were returning to college after battle and had strong musical influences from their German lineages (Jones, 2008). Concurrently, popular women’s magazines and female authors detailed the pursuit of music making as a feminine activity and suggested that instrumental, not vocal music become the new pursuit for males (Koza, 1990). Although it is hard to pinpoint a specific event that caused the shift, it is clear that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a significant change in society’s views of choral music in America (Williams, 2011).

By the turn of the twentieth century, the feminization of choral music was strengthened by the creation of music clubs, with almost an exclusively all-female membership (Campbell, 2003). These clubs, in line with the time period’s advancement of women’s rights, became strong advocates for a female presence in music education, ensemble singing, and music composition (Koza, 1993). In the 1932-33 school year, the gender gap had nearly vanished, as 29.9% of females and 28.3% of males were enrolled in school choral ensembles (Gates, 1989). While males were singing in college glee clubs and as members of military units, World War I and II and their inherent masculinity led to significant declines in male choral music participation. This, combined with the rise of female participation, only worsened the downward trend of male participation from which we still suffer today (Gates, 1989).

Did You Bring the Map? Where Are We Now?

Data measuring choral enrollment over time is limited and sporadic. In fact, it was not until 1983 that another comprehensive study of choral enrollment was completed. From 1932 to the 1980s, choral enrollments saw a significant decline, as choral participation fell to 24.9% of females and 9.1% of males, a drop of over 19 percent (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1983). By the end of the decade, Gates (1989) calculated the ratio of females to males in secondary choirs as 5:2. The 1990s brought little to no improvement; however, both genders saw small drops in choral enrollment with a 1996 study reporting 22.5% of females and 9% of males singing in high school choirs (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996). While studies found downward trends occurring in choral music, unfortunately, most research ceased after 1996 due to the cost and labor-intensive nature of these studies.

The next (and most recent) study of choral enrollment was not completed until 2011. Through study of members of MENC, Williams (2011) studied choral enrollment gender ratio, organization, and several factors influencing male enrollment in choral ensembles. Male choral enrollment nationally was found to be 26.9 percent of the total enrollment, or a ratio of slightly less than 3:1 when compared to females. Average middle school choral programs were found to include 105.5 students, 26.5 male while high school programs were slightly smaller, but included higher ratios of males, averaging 92.9 students overall and 27.1 male.

Through investigation of choral division by gender, Williams reported that 93.7% of choral programs contained at least one mixed voice choir, 62.8% had one or more treble choirs and 27.1% contained at least one male chorus. Perhaps most noteworthy to Texas choral directors is that the Southwestern Division MENC enrollment was the highest of all divisions, with secondary choral programs comprised of 31% males; however, it important to note that Texas, although in the Southwestern MENC division, did not have participants in this particular study. Encouragingly, participants in this study from the Southwestern division also ranked highest in responding “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “male recruitment is a high priority for me.”

Teacher gender closely mirrored the trend of decreasing male choral enrollment, as 2 of every 3 choral directors in the 2011 study were female. When looking specifically at middle school choral directors, the ratio of female to male teachers was 4:1. Gender, age, educational attainment, experience, and teaching level of the choral director were all found to have no significance to male participation in choral ensembles.

It’s a Jungle Out There: Assessing the Situation

For adolescents, especially males, the choice to sing is not always an easy one, as both internal and external factors influence them to, oftentimes, refrain from singing in school choral ensembles. Recruiting and retaining young males in choral ensembles is perhaps one of the most documented problems of secondary choral directors. The lack of males create imbalances of parts and/or voices in choirs, especially mixed voice choirs, leading to inefficient pedagogical practices, choirs not fully reaching their musical potential, and most importantly, they fail to effectively teach students necessary intrinsic and extrinsic values (Castelli, 1986).

When boys look at the choral program as an outsider, what do they see? What is the choral program’s image in ten seconds or less (often the attention span of a middle school boy)? Are boys encouraged to sing? Are they participating in large numbers? Administrators, counselors, and even parents can often be the catalysts keeping boys from singing in choir, as they fail to see its benefits when compared to the increased attention to tested subjects and shrinking in school budgets (Abril & Gault, 2008; Sweet, 2010). To complicate the problem, many choral problems have had struggles with master schedules, as choir courses are scheduled against single-section offerings such as advanced placement or, worse, athletics (Phillips, 1988).

In her recent study of American choral directors, Williams (2011) found that the average choral director had completed just shy of fourteen years directing choral ensembles. Using conservative logic for the sake of argument, let’s say the director was female, had been teaching every year since graduating with her bachelor’s degree at age 22, meaning that she began teaching in 1997 (the birth year of most eighth graders when this study was taken). Since 1997, pop culture is undoubtedly different, but have our teaching methods changed over the years? Our pedagogical approaches to teaching boys, knowledge of the male voice change, literature selection, and strategies used to motivate boys to sing from elementary through high school have all been found to have negative effects on male choral participation (Gates, 1989; Killian, 1997; Koza, 1993; Usher, 2005). Sadly, choral directors still struggle with many of these problems. To provide an example, only 60.7% of choral directors feel like they are adequately prepared to deal with the adolescent male changing voice (Williams, 2011).

What is often overlooked and/or disregarded are the social connotations of singing in choral ensembles. To participate in choral ensembles, males have to be slightly rebellious, or at least ignorant to the negative stereotypes associated with singing in choir. Males must be prepared to deal with social harassment, bullying, homophobic labeling, and/or significant peer pressure when signing up for choir, all of which take a toll on their self-esteem, already fragile from the effects of puberty and voice change (O’Toole, 1998). Often, the social contexts of chorus are the most difficult to overcome, especially in schools where singing is not seen as “cool.”

From a young age, American culture expects males to avoid feminine associations; however, American media and culture have reaffirmed the idea that singing is effeminate since early in the twentieth century (Koza, 1993; O’ Neill, 1997). Choral directors acknowledge that this is a problem and 39% agree that stereotypes prevent male students from participating in choir (Williams, 2011); however, due to the sensitive and political nature of these stereotypes, directors often shy away from facing these problems in fear of offending someone and/or disciplinary action. Fortunately, the idea of overcoming stereotypes in American society is neither new nor impossible. For years, it was expected that females care for the family and home and leave work and physical labor to males. With the advancement of Title IX and equal rights, school-aged females began to participate in athletic pursuits and from 1971 to 1994, female participation in school sports rose 623%, giving hope to choral directors that the challenge of overcoming long-standing stereotypes is an achievable one (United States Department of Education, 1996).

The Food Chain: Are We at the Top?

The food chain is a brutal place. Predators, starvation, and natural selection swallow up the weak, leaving only the strong and those that evolve still in the race. In many ways, the course selection card is similar – a cacophony of required classes, “get credits now” courses, foreign languages, athletics, and more. Where does choir fit into this mix? Are we near the top? What motivates boys to select choir? Many times, students align their course selection with their future careers and interests (Gates, 1989). In a 1996 survey, only 4.2% of males in high school intended to pursue music as a major in college (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996). While we do not expect our students to become choral directors, we must find a way to promote our subject’s benefits to boys other than preparing them for employment as a musician. Through interviews of participating male singers, boys have acknowledged that effective repertoire choices, teacher influence, affirmation of singing ability, and the enjoyment of singing are the main reasons they elect and continue to sing in choir (Kennedy, 2002; Parker, 2009). While boys may join the ensemble because of peers or the prestige of the program (in fact, the reputation of the program is most effective recruiting tool we have), their decision to continue must be internally driven (Clements, 2002).

Sailing Home: Navigating the Winds of Change

There are numerous examples of choral programs with lots of boys enrolled in choir, but as a general rule, they are exceptional. To find solutions, one must not only examine successful programs, but more importantly, look to what is working on a larger scale. Many countries, including Samoa, South Africa, Iceland, and Finland, have a cultural acceptance of singing, where song is a means of communication that largely defines who they are as people (Demorest, 2000; Durrant, 2005; Faulkner & Davidson, 2006). A closer examination of these countries sheds light into the impact that male singing has in their country. To provide support, one can look at Iceland, where the all-male choir is a way of not only fostering masculine self-identity, but is also considered a way of showing off masculinity to women. Singing was hegemonic and became monumental in helping lead their country to political independence (Durrant, 2005). While the culture of male singing in America does not hold the precedence of Iceland, remember it was once revered by our country.

So how do we as choral directors engage the young boy to pursue singing in hopes that we can create a culture of singing in America? The task is not easy and will not be achieved quickly. To do this, we must first establish a foundation. While it would be idealistic to hope that mothers and fathers were singing to their children in their infant and toddler stages, assuming this would be both naïve and unrealistic. Therefore, we must control the things in which we have control, beginning with music instruction in the preschool and elementary school settings. In preschool, boys are already forming opinions about what music they like and dislike, and by fourth and fifth grade are deciding whether or not they enjoy and will continue singing. Music programs emphasizing singing by all, most notably the Kodály method, help to effectively provide a much-needed foundation for singing at a young age. This must be reinforced through consistent musical education, which often can be difficult to achieve due to academic pullout and schedule conflicts. Elementary schools should offer and support the formation of choral ensembles that serve as enrichment to the curriculum rather than be seen as extra-curricular. Students, especially boys, have more outside-of-school conflicts than ever with gymnastics, athletics, clubs, and other events all competing for this precious time. Any efforts by music educators to advocate for elementary choirs during the school day or in a homeroom time will eliminate the need to choose and encourage boys to enroll in the choir.

It is of great importance that the boy is not lost during the transition from the elementary to middle school, because once he leaves, he may never return. Responsibility for this should be shared by both the elementary and middle-level teacher, with the elementary teacher promoting the upcoming opportunities for singing at the next level and the middle-level choral director playing an active role in being both visible and a supporter of singing in choir. If possible, choral directors should visit or clinic the elementary choir and/or support elementary choirs through attendance at their concerts.

As students continue to the middle school/junior high level, programs must be structured for optimal success through the creation of all-male choirs, as early as possible. In a 2011 study of Texas middle and junior high school choral directors, programs dividing their programs by gender had a significantly larger number of boys enrolled in choir than those with mixed choirs. Additionally, evidence was found to support the creation of beginning male choirs at the sixth grade level, with an additional boost to male enrollment provided (Dame, 2011). The all-male choir serves many purposes, including but not limited to: alleviating the embarrassment of the voice change, providing a safe environment in which to sing, easier facilitation of classroom management, and establishing choral singing as a fraternal activity (Dame, 2011; Freer, 2006; Williams, 2011). Audiences and especially women view male choirs positively and provide needed encouragement to boys following performance. After achieving an enrollment where boys feel secure and successful when singing, they learn to become their own advocates, often defending their male choir when faced with budget cuts and stereotypes.

Male choirs quite effectively play into the idea that male choral singers are “rock stars.” Males often do not want to sing in choirs, but have the dream of becoming a famous member of a pop-rock band. The interest for music is there, but why is being in a rock band accepted and choral singing is not? Culture both wildly accepts rock music as a masculine activity, and financially supports it by spending $168 billion in the first decade of the 2000s (Lee, 2012; Zilman & Gan, 1997). Males prefer many genres of pop-rock music, but are drawn specifically the genres of hard rock, heavy metal, and any rock band with a male singer (Millar, 2008, Russell, 1997). While not advocating that choral ensembles sing only pop-rock tunes, choral directors would be wise to program this genre in concerts, either through pop/show choirs or through its inclusion in spring concerts.

Additionally, directors should use innovative pedagogical techniques to connect the two together. An example would be using a video of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine singing a popular tune in which he facilitates the chest-head voice passaggio to demonstrate it for changing voice males. Regardless of the subject taught, when directors “get outside of the box” and try new teaching techniques, they often find students understand concepts much more quickly. The best way to recruit more boys to choir is to motivate and encourage the ones that you already have, as few as they may be. Students in your choirs are your public relations firm and go to work pro bono 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Hopefully they are positively promoting choral singing. Either way, they will share their opinion with their peers. Are they leaving your choir rehearsal “on fire” with choir or are they frustrated because they drilled the same four measure phrase or sight-reading interval for 20 minutes to end class? Sometimes, all it takes is getting that one student on your side and the rest follow in what can best be described as a snowball effect.

Just as middle school directors should be active with their elementary school music programs, high school directors should be visible in their feeder choral programs. Often, they are better equipped to do so than middle school directors with more flexibility in the academic schedule to visit feeder campuses, larger budgets to provide recruitment and social activities for school feeder patterns, and/or having additional staff to cover classes and provide assistance. Not only is it crucial for the directors to be involved, high school males must also be visible to provide younger males with a much-needed role model. The director should seek out well-rounded students to encourage junior high boys to continue singing into high school choir, allowing them time to answer questions and promote the high school program. Ultimately, males are attracted to success and if the choral program is both successful and promoted, they will come.

Taming the Beasts – You’re the King…

Now, take a snapshot of your male choral program. Are you happy with the image that you see? Is your choral program a good representation of the student body? Does your community hold choral singing in high regard? Is male singing viewed as masculine? Frequent self-reflection and critical analysis provide are key to a successful choral program. Are you analyzing your curriculum after a long school year? Networking with other directors? Identifying your weaknesses? Seeking out solutions for improvement? These questions provide much-needed introspection and the answers provide our students with innovation that keeps them interested and new blood that follows in its footsteps.

Let’s face it, male choral singing is not held in the highest regard by American society. We are not a revenue-producing competitive sport, and frankly, never will be. If our battle is fighting football coaches in an effort to gain superiority in our school, than we have already lost. Instead, we must choose our battles, determining how choir can learn from the athletic successes of football and enhance what is already working in our schools, with the goal of creating young men who are well-rounded in academics, athletics, and the arts. Remember, we teach young men and women and have the privilege of sharing choral music with them. Values first, music second. 

A Fork in the Trail: The Future of Choral Music

When the book “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak was originally published, it was banned it from inclusion in the schools, finding its content disconnected from current pedagogy. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling was the same way. In a display of rebelliousness and differing beliefs, students flocked to these two books and made them part of their own culture and ideals. As time progressed, both books were accepted, grew in fame to become staples of children’s fiction and pop culture, and eventually morphed into major motion pictures.

While it is unrealistic to assume that male choral singing will duplicate in growing into the multi-billion dollar industry that is Hollywood, it stands today at a crossroad. With popular shows and movies such as Glee, The Sing-Off, American Idol, and Pitch Perfect (to name a few), singing is becoming an often-duplicated theme in American pop culture. We must determine if we are going to embrace this culture and use it to our advantage to benefit choral singing, or dismiss it (as simple as it may be) as inaccurate, unpleasant, and tasteless. We must examine our own philosophy as choral directors to determine if it is better to stick true to the traditions of choral music, succumb to our new media-developed image, or perhaps, combine the two. Failure to act can have lasting consequences which are already being seen in Australia and in Canada, where almost no boys sing and male choirs are seen as a thing of the past (Harrison, 2007; Punke, 2009).

Ultimately, each school, community, and teacher are unique. No one single factor affects whether boys will sing in choral ensembles, but when put together they can make or break the success of a choral program. While we cannot make the choice for them, we can work to remove the barriers to male participation so that singing is accessible to all young males in America. Perhaps Sendak’s view of Max, the young boy in “Where the Wild Things Are” can be applied to all: “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” If your “jungle” (the choir room) has both love and encouragement of singing, you are on the right track, and the wild things will find their way. They are out there and looking for a place to call home. Let’s bring them together and “let the wild rumpus start.”


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