Treble trouble: A gendered problem?

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An interview with Anna Lapwood, Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge

Choristers at King’s College have an unbeatable start to life. These are the words lauded across the website of the famous Cambridge College, and they are difficult to disagree with. But the question remains: is there a place for girls? 

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the choir and its famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which celebrated its hundredth-anniversary last year and has become a staple part of Christmas celebrations worldwide. 

However, Lesley Garrett’s claims that defenders of the all-male intake are ‘backwards-looking traditionalists’ has thrown the choir, and others like it, into a world of debate surrounding equal opportunity in the Anglican choral tradition. I spoke to Anna Lapwood, Director of Music at Pembroke College, to ask: is proposing that all-male choirs accept female choristers really the best way forward? 

‘From the outside, it may seem simple: we need more girls singing, so get them to join King’s too. The reality is much more complex: adding girls would either mean halving the number of boys who could be choristers, or halving the number of services they sing.’

‘The truth is that many more school-age girls sing than boys. The boys need as much help as they can get, and the choral tradition is a key source of nurture and encouragement for young male singers. As someone who is regularly having to book singers, I have never struggled to find sopranos or altos, but often find it hard to find tenors and basses.’

The choral tradition is a key source of nurture and encouragement for young male singers

In light of Lesley Garrett’s ‘backwards-looking traditionalists’ remark, Lapwood continues ‘I certainly don’t regard myself as a backwards-looking traditionalist, and I defend all-male choirs on an almost daily basis!’

To Lapwood, improving opportunities for girls is a more effective solution: ‘King’s provides a tantalising glimpse into our cloistered world…it is therefore the obvious target for those looking for a quick and easy solution.’

‘I feel it should be about creating more opportunities instead of diluting pre-existing ones.’

‘The reality is that all-male choirs are already in the minority, and by getting rid of the most high-profile of the all-male choirs, the likelihood that the rest of them survive is slim.’

‘With the right amount of motivation, determination, and money, it should be possible to create an equivalent opportunity for girls without having to sacrifice the education of boys.’

I asked Lapwood about the opportunities that she has been creating for girls since taking up her position at Pembroke College three years ago: 

‘I realised I had a responsibility to create as many opportunities as possible. When I was growing up, there weren’t really any young female organists or conductors visible as role models to me, so I didn’t even consider it as a career.’

‘I set up the Pembroke Girls’ Choir to coexist with the girls’ choir at St. Catherine’s College. The girls get to see a female conductor and organist on a weekly basis and several of them have already expressed an interest in organ and conducting lessons.’

Lapwood also believes that there are benefits to practicing choral music as a gendered activity: ‘The girls love singing together, but they also love the sharing of the challenges that girls encounter as they grow up.’

It should be about creating opportunities

We conclude with a discussion of the other problems facing choral singing today: 

‘Race and class are both big issues; the Pembroke Girls’ Choir strives for a 60:40 state:private ratio, but obviously there is still much more that needs to be done.’

‘Ralph Allwood and James Day’s Pimlico Musical Foundation has been doing great things to offer a musical education to children of all different backgrounds. It’s almost impossible to tackle everything at the same time, although I wish I could!’

Image: Roman Boed from Creative Commons via Flickr

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