Twenty-first-century Woman: girls can’t be choristers

Alexander L'Estrange as a chorister at New College, Oxford

Alexander L’Estrange as a chorister at
New College, Oxford

There’s something unique about the sound of a boy’s unbroken, treble singing voice. Theirs has been the soaring top line in cathedrals the length and breadth of the UK since the middle ages and long may it continue for another millennium and beyond. Nowadays a boy chorister not only has the joyous and incomparable experience of being trained to sing from as young as 7 within the context of a professional choir, but the scholarships offered by many choir schools also enable him to have a world-class education at a fraction of the price. I know this because my sons are currently benefiting from this system (St John’s College, Cambridge) as did my brother (Guildford Cathedral), my husband and my brother-in-law (New College, Oxford) and, last time I counted, at least 90% of my male singing colleagues. My nephews (St Albans Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral) and my father and uncle (Hampstead Parish Church) also had the experience of being choristers; my father says that he learnt all he knows about music – this is a lot – from Martindale Sidwell, the then director of music at Hampstead.

My husband, when invited by the Choir Schools Association a few years ago to write a sentence about the impact his chorister experience had had on his life, wrote
My years as a chorister at New College, Oxford, have informed everything I have done since, both musically and otherwise.
Harry L'Estrange with Tasmin Little

Harry L’Estrange with Tasmin Little

For him, it wasn’t just the professional singing training, the coaching in different languages (Latin, German, Russian, French, Mandarin…), the foreign tours and CD recordings, it was the prep school education that went with it that made it all so worthwhile: the team sports, the drama productions, the trips, the subsidised instrumental lessons and on it goes. Our son Harry plays the violin and, through being a chorister, has had the opportunity to have masterclasses with world-renowned violinists Jack Liebeck and Tasmin Little. He also took part in the CSA chorister composition competition this year and was joint winner. He’s still only 10! What a lucky boy. (And, don’t you worry, he knows it.)

If only their voices had the same unique beauty, I’m certain that girls would have been given the same opportunities for the past 1,000 years. And if women had only been clever enough they’d have been doing all of the jobs which men have been doing for centuries too. Hm. The fact of the matter is rather that boys’ choirs were borne out of the male-only monastic establishments of the medieval age where boys were given music lessons and also a rudimentary education by the choir master and, once their voices had broken, they became the singing men of the next generation (not to mention the priests, lay vicars etc) and so and so on. Since girls weren’t allowed anywhere near those medieval monasteries, they weren’t on the scene when choir schools were founded and choral scholarships established and, consequently, were forgotten about.
Nobody thought to question this until, in 1966, on the morning of a planned BBC broadcast of evensong from St Davids Cathedral in Wales, the organist suddenly found that he had no choristers – they were all off sick. So he brought in the all-girls choir of a neighbouring grammar school to save the day and, shock horror, they were pretty good! Three months later, the cathedral formally admitted girls to the choir and set the ball rolling. St Mary’s Cathedral in Scotland followed suit by admitting girls to their choir in 1978. England joined the party when the brand new girls’ choir at Salisbury Cathedral sang its first evensong on October 7th 1991* [see footnote]. I remember it well as I had just arrived for my second year as a music undergraduate at Oxford when news filtered through. I recall having conflicting emotions: while I was delighted for those girl choristers I also felt somewhat cheated out of an experience for which I’d have given anything as a child. When I’d asked if I could be a chorister I’d received the response “girls can’t be choristers.” Until the age of 18, my sole experience of choral singing had been in my little village church choir where my younger sister and I helped to bring down the average age by several decades. My foster father, Richard, loves to tell the story of how I had recently declared myself “too old for Sunday school” – I was 7 – and so he thought I could join the choir instead. I am eternally grateful to him for this decision; cathedral-standard we certainly were not, but there I learnt to sing Psalms, hymns and, most crucially of all, to sightread, a skill which got me successfully through an otherwise terrifying audition for Schola Cantorum of Oxford in my first term as a student and set me on course for 25 years (and counting) of singing in professional choirs.
Peterborough Choir Tweet

Tweet from February 2019

Happily, most of the UK’s cathedrals now have girls’ choirs as well as boys’ and some are admitting female altos too. Things are definitely looking up. Not all of the girls’ choirs get to sing an equal number of services a week to the boys’ choirs but at least girls now do have the opportunity to have the chorister experience. Peterborough Cathedral this week tweeted that one of their girl choristers was going to be conducting an anthem during evensong; what an absolutely brilliant experience for her. Who knows? That may well be a defining moment in her career as a choral conductor. Within the Oxbridge collegiate and choir school system the wheels of change turn more slowly but they are turning: ten years ago St Catharine’s College in Cambridge blazed the trail for collegiate girls’ choirs and, in September 2018, Pembroke College in Cambridge launched its girls’ choir, directed by the brilliant Anna Lapwood. As an organist, she is also an important role model for any girls who may still be wondering if “girls can’t be organists”. Oxford has been slower to catch up but, in 2014, a group of forward-thinking parents helped to set up Frideswide Voices which gives girls the opportunity to sing evensongs in Oxford college chapels and, two years later, Merton College set up its girls’ choir.

This is all well and good but anyone in the UK choral scene knows full well the boys’ choirs continue to dominate. Since 1928, when ‘Carols from King’s’ was first broadcast, it has been a mainstay of Christmas and now millions are able to listen to it across the world. For girl choristers, there are still no scholarships or other financial incentives towards their education which are equivalent to those offered to boys. The good news is that people have started to notice the inequality; the bad news is that polemical articles, designed to sell newspapers rather than to effect change, do more damage than good because they risk alienating or even vilifying the very people we need to get on side. As someone who spends a lot of time in Cambridge, attending evensongs at St John’s, conducting my all-female a cappella group Aquila and coaching the choir of Trinity College in their jazz repertoire, I can confirm that there is genuine fear that introducing girl choral scholarships will somehow dilute or spoil the boys’ experience or, even worse, kill it off completely. Don’t forget that in state primary schools it’s near on impossible to get boys to sing at all, hence the need for the brilliant initiative Sing Up , and so we must tread carefully (and get our facts straight). What we need, if girls in Oxford and Cambridge are ever going to be offered a chorister experience which is on a par with that afforded to boys, is a level-headed, well thought through, properly organised and brilliantly executed plan. Plans are afoot and nobody need worry. The future is bright. Watch this space.

* It has been pointed out to me since the publication of this article that there were other girls’ choirs in England before 1991, including at Leicester Cathedral in 1978. However, Salisbury Cathedral was, I believe, the first to form a separate girls’ foundation. Thank you for your comments.
I welcome any comments which are helpful to the discussion from people who understand the complexity of this matter better than I do. The more informed we are, the better chance we stand of finding a solution which is good for boys and girls. Thank you.

• King’s College Service (RSCM) world premiere is on 4 March 2019 at King’s College, Cambridge, as part of their celebration of women composers for International Women’s Day.
Twenty-first-century Woman is available to download from all music platforms on 8 March 2019, International Women’s Day, raising money for girls’ education globally.
A place for us maids world premiere is on 28 April 2019 at Trinity College, Cambridge, celebrating 40 years of women being admitted as undergraduates at Trinity. 
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