Choral Research Journal Issue Two

Papers on any aspect of choral singing are always welcome for this journal. abcd is an organisation for choral directors and a key aim of the journal is to encourage, promote and facilitate research informed practice by all who perform the role of conductor or director of one or more choirs. Of course, the journal also exists to be a suitable organ through which academics working in related fields may receive peer feedback/critique as well as an outlet and audience for their work. There are some, of course, who both conduct choirs and undertake related research. We would hope that this becomes the journal of choice for them.

No theme was specified for volume 1 but by chance we ended up with a focus on pitch and pitch drift. For this volume, we did particularly request contributions on women and girls and on ethnic minorities in choral singing. We had hoped that women composers might feature, but this was not to be. Instead, the interest has centred on girl choristers. Nick Graham has tackled the thorny issue of whether there is a difference between girls' and boys' voices. This is a topic that has received a lot of attention ever since the opportunity to sing in cathedral choirs was opened to girls and young women. Not all that has been said or written has been objective or useful. The passion aroused by what can only becalled the "girls v boys" debate is surely itself an object of study. Those of us whose work is with young adolescent voices can be forgiven for a "here we go again" groan every time the topic comes up in social media or indeed the mainstream press. Why are such intense passions aroused? In what social groups are these passions aroused and why? I would happily supervise a PhD that set out to answer such questions if there were any takers.

So, does Nick's paper add anything useful? His literature review has been very thorough, and this is always welcome, if only because it can introduce new students to what is known and has been said. But there is also empirical work on the speaking voices of young children. Nick has chosen to look not at choristers but immature, untrained voices where he finds that there are perceptible and measurable differences at a statistically significant level between boys and girls. This is not entirely new knowledge, but Nick adds usefully to it through his research on formants and through his contextualisation. Those interested in gender conditioning in early childhood might take note of what can be learned from such voice research. If, as seems probable, the differences are explained by cultural factors and the learning of speech patterns, the significance of the findings extends far beyond the choral world. The challenge for the choral world then becomes to explain why such differences diminish when the subject of study is the blended choral sound of older, trained children.

With this in mind, I was delighted to receive the paper from Sarah MacDonald and Lucy Poole on what happens in a cathedral girls' choir that is attentive to the relevant research. Much more has been written about boys' changing voices than girls' changing voices. This may be because the change in boys' voices is more immediately obvious to the lay person who assumes (wrongly) that voices "break" when boys "hit" puberty! It may also be because there is long-standing concern about the loss of young adolescent boys to choral singing and potential shortages of tenors and basses. However, it is also a question of vocal health and the care of young voices, a topic that applies at least as much to girls as to boys. So, a paper that examines the application of Lynne Gackle's work in the context of an English cathedral choir is extremely welcome. I was fascinated to read that, though Gackle's work describes reliably and accurately what happens to girls in ordinary school choirs, it is far less of a guide to the intensively trained voices of "professional" or "elite" choristers.

I have found exactly the same applies to John Cooksey's work with boys, though it is still difficult to challenge the received wisdom that Cooksey "had it nailed". Neither he nor Gackle "have it nailed" in the case of voices that are subject to the choral training equivalent of the young elite athlete. This is one reason I look to other sources such as Michael Fuchs in Germany (as well as my own, empirical work, of course!) There is so much more to be done here. Sarah and Lucy's paper will, I hope, take its rightful place alongside the seminal work of David Howard and Graham Welch at Wells Cathedral that has been ongoing for some years, but we need also new work where the point of comparison is not between boys and girls but between the intensively trained and the regular amateur child singer. Sarah and Lucy have set some of the questions, but there are more to be formulated and it is to be hoped that new research blood is encouraged to tackle them.

Looking outside the orthodox Anglo-American axis the third paper in this set reflects work in Germany and work that was planned for Norway but did not take place because of the pandemic. I myself reflect on the experience of speaking in Germany at the Universit√§t der K√ľnste in Berlin. This is where the boys of the Berlin Staats-und Domchor are educated and trained through a very impressive regime. The paper itself is a version of a further talk that I was due to give at the Nordic Boys Choir Festival in Norway during 2020 - well and truly scuppered by the covid pandemic. That was a great disappointment and I doubt now that the talk will ever happen, so a reviewed paper is what can be salvaged. It has been prompted in part by ongoing contact with the Staats- und Domchor. They were one of the choirs that took part in my 2020 pandemic study First Choirs Standing, and their conductor has also been in touch for advice about what to do when girls start demanding to join! What to say? In 2015 I asked them whether there were plans to admit girls and, language barriers aside, I gained the impression that they thought me a little mad. How could one have girls in a boys' choir? Indeed, that question makes perfect sense as a semantic issue, but behind the semantics, there may be an existential crisis. My paper attempts an analysis in which earlier voice change in boys is a significant issue.

And so, to the pandemic. What an odd, exasperating, and disappointing year for everybody! Some have seen an existential crisis there, predicting the end of choral singing as we know it. If I might be allowed to indulge personal feelings for a moment, some of the debates and postings on social media have been tiresome to say the least. Of course, people need to let off steam, but if there is confusion, frustration, and lack of clarity, it is not only the government to blame. I must pay tribute here to the sterling work of abcd's paid staff. They have worked tirelessly to read and interpret what the DCMS have been saying and make the relevant facts plainly known in digestible form to abcd members.

If nothing else, the pandemic has offered us all a chance to pause, reflect, take stock of what we do and envisage different futures. Different in some ways, perhaps, but hopefully ultimately better than what we had before. Surely, one would think, this would be a rich time for research. There must be papers to be written about the proliferation of technology for on-line rehearsal and streamed performance? Looking beyond that, so many choirs have had to adapt to singing with fewer resources, and with their singers spaced out in a way that surely challenges what we know about the self to other ratio. I have heard stories of how young choristers have thrived under such conditions whilst older adult amateurs have floundered, but they are only anecdotal. Few papers addressing pandemic themes have been submitted. Perhaps they are yet to come. The virus spreads rapidly. Academic publishing proceeds at slightly less than the speed of a glacier.

We do have two papers on relevant topics. The first, by Liz Garnett, addresses the social and bonding aspects of choir work. We have heard endlessly during the pandemic about how good choral singing is for mental health and how people have suffered socially because they have been deprived of choir attendance. Liz's paper was written just before the pandemic and comes as a timely analysis of how true such claims might be. As with most topics where there is an uncritical assumption that what is advocated is entirely and self-evidently a "good thing", Liz's paper raises many questions for conductors about the conduct of their rehearsals. It should be studied closely by all abcd members, and by the wider choral community beyond. The second, by David Lake, should be of interest to all who have struggled with why Zoom rehearsals are so difficult and who have asked on social media why it is so hard to get voices together in time. David explains how the internet works and how issues such as latency or buffering arise. The first submission was very technical, and the reviewers asked for the revision to be more accessible to choral directors. Nevertheless, I found both versions fascinating. My knowledge of the technicalities of data packaging and how and where things are stored and distributed has increased immensely. It should be part of everybody's general knowledge, and I am grateful to David for his efforts.

Finally, to my great disappointment, we have nothing on ethnic minorities in choral singing. Nothing at all was submitted, despite repeated calls and pleas, so what lesson is to be learned here? Perhaps it is a simple time lag. We have not yet made enough progress in involving ethnic minorities in our activities. The research papers will follow when we do. Perhaps the academy is itself still dominated by white, middle-class males and there are just not yet enough members of minority groups active in academia to permeate the more peripheral research areas such as choral singing. Or perhaps we still have much to learn as an organisation and changes to make in our own practices and approaches?

Martin Ashley

<< back to Issue Two article abstracts