Abstract lecture WSCM 2017 (Eng)

Boys, keep on singing!
A project for boys’ voices

The Children’s Choir
As professionals we devote most of our attention to the development of children’s voices, repertoire, education and rehearsal didactics. But speaking of ‘the children’s choir’, do we not usually mean girls? Well then, don’t boys sing? Why does the vast majority of all youth choirs consist of girls only? And shouldn’t we be worried that 25 years from now there is no man left who sings in a choir? There are many causes why an ever smaller number of boys and men sing. A choir tradition of centuries shows that boys also like to sing, and that their pleasure seems to fade if girls sing in their choir too. The ‘men only’ sentiment seems to play an important role here.

Almost twenty years ago, I was asked to become the conductor of the Dutch City Boys Choir of Oldenzaal. I was not unexperienced as a conductor, had led various choirs, among which children’s and men’s choirs, but never before had I dealt with a group of only boys. A whole new world opened up to me. It certainly took some getting used to! The first rehearsals were difficult, as the boys could simply not sit still. By watching many other childrens’ and boys’ conductors, reading books, attending festivals and conferences and – not in the least – using my own experience, I have by now found my way. With great pleasure I have been singing with boys and young men of different ages for many years now, several times a week.

It is a general trend that ever less children sing. But out of the children in the Netherlands who do sing, the percentage of boys today is alarmingly low. In 2015, the City Boys Choir of Oldenzaal celebrated its centenary. To celebrate it, I wanted to share my experiences. In the project Boys, keep on singing! I focused on singing with just boys and on the question how we can ensure their continued interest in singing.

What can we do?
In 2015 we organized a conference and a boys’ choir festival for boys’ choirs in the Netherlands and Flanders and professionals who specialise in boys’ voices. This pooling of knowledge is needed, as the decreasing number of singing boys also threatens the existence of a specialism. We wanted to inspire more professionals to sing with boys. Next to that, we created the songbook Boys, keep on singing! together, consisting of existing and new compositions meant exclusively for boys’ and young men’s voices. The central theme of this compilation is the development of the boys’ choir and the boys’ voice, with repertoire written especially for boys of different ages and levels. Why? Given the fact that so many girls sing, ever less repertoire is available that is really fit for boys. We encourage composers to write especially for boys!

Threat to cultural heritage
Everywhere around us, we see the number of singing boys and men decline. We see it in  our direct surroundings, but also more and more clearly at the main choir festivals. Exclusive attention to singing by boys is therefore crucial for the future of choral singing. There is a link between the way in which boys are introduced to singing until they are approximately twenty years of age and the extent to which these boys later decide to sing or to take up singing again in a choir when they are adults. If boys do not have a positive impression of singing or if they are not or hardly in touch with other singing peers and/or men, they will not be encouraged to sing or take up singing again at a later age. This explains why there has been an alarmingly strong decrease in the number of singing men during the past few decades. The result is that a lot of mixed choirs have too little male members. Due to this growing capacity problem ever more choirs struggle to survive and our cultural heritage is under threat too. Various compositions are hardly performed anymore and many choirs are dissolved. Other groups decide to become women’s choirs, after having tried for years to solve the lack of men.

Pursuant to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), girls could also take part in the Roman Catholic liturgy. As a result, various mixed children’s choirs were set up. Many girls subsequently decided to join a mixed choir. Only a few years later the number of boys had dropped significantly. As women were now admitted to mixed church choirs too, boys’ voices (soprano, alto) were no longer needed to sing in mixed voices. Next, in 1968, separate education for boys and girls was abolished in the Netherlands. Only a very small number of boys’ choirs survived these developments. Combined with the fact that singing is ever less practiced in primary schools, the number of boys who enjoy singing or who are introduced to singing through music education has reduced significantly during the past 40 years.

According to a Dutch research from 2001, boys love to sing, but preferably with other boys. The ‘men only’ sentiment plays an important role here. Boys also have a strong need to form their own identity, and they do not develop in the same way as girls. Also due to women’s emancipation and the feminisation of education and the amateur arts, less attention is given to the different development of boys and girls. Boys are more physically present, seem less able to concentrate and are playful up to a later age. This typically boyish behaviour is today often seen as hyperactivity and difficult to deal with, both by teachers and choir conductors. But also girls in a choir or a class cannot endure such characteristic behaviour very well. If it is consistently labeled as something negative, boys will no longer take pleasure in singing. And as long as boys only see girls sing in children’s choirs, they are not likely to get a positive impression of singing in a choir.

Vision and Mission
It’s time for change! Maybe we have forgotten that boys and girls grow up in different ways, and we may subconsciously tailor our pedagogical and didactic strategies more to girls. Give boys space to develop in their own way. Boys are more physically present, find it hard to concentrate and simply have different interests. See it as a challenge to take this into consideration when working with a choir of mostly girls. If this typically boyish behaviour is consistently labeled as something negative, boys will soon loose pleasure in singing. Let the boys sit together. Make a Boys Only group and challenge those boys to present themselves during a concert.

Boys, keep on singing! aims to convince the world of choirs and singers that exclusive attention to singing by boys is crucial for the future of choral singing. We would like to offer guidance to the international choral community in the promotion of singing by boys and men. Boys love to sing. They are most likely to flourish in an environment that is attractive to them and where they feel comfortable. Boys, keep on singing! therefore wants to bundle and share professional knowledge and experience in the interest of anyone who is devoted to boys’ voices.

Mariette Effing
Abstract lecture  July, 23 & 24 World Symposium on Choral Music, 22nd to 29th July 2017 Barcelona