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Why do so many choirs exclude women? It's time for this outdated practice to change

Christmas carols, royal weddings and state occasions: these are the times most people get to hear a choir. They’re a remnant of monastic medieval life that has survived in cathedrals and communities. Singing in a choir is increasingly touted for its health benefits. It relieves stress and is an excellent place to engage socially. Evensong attendance has even increased as it becomes an opportunity for people to pause from their daily lives.

But for the singers who are involved in choirs, there’s a stark difference between having a passion for singing and being able to make it your career, and much of it due to gender.

Catholic and Anglican cathedrals as well as royal chapels employ a group of musicians known as lay clerks. Their duty is to provide music during services – in some cases, daily. It’s a dream job for those who are passionate about choir singing. Yet there’s a catch: to be eligible, in most places you must be male.

Leslie Garrett, soprano and board member of the English National Opera, has commented that King’s College Choir, one of the most famous choirs in the world, should let girls participate in their trebles. “To set a precedent of an all-male choir does seem cruel to a girl who adores music and singing,” she said. But the problem goes much further than King’s College Choir. It starts early in a female singer’s life and reverberates into professional level.

Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral School offers a scholarship for students taking part in the choir, worth 50% of their school fee. Yet, though it’s a co-ed school, the choir is comprised only of men and boys. Through the choir, the school is clinging to a tradition that harks back to a monastic era that can only fit with an ultra-conservative stance on modern life.

Across the city is St Mary’s, which is the only Catholic Cathedral in the southern hemisphere with an on-site choir school. At St Mary’s, boys aged eight to 14 with aptitude for music are offered the opportunity to work alongside 12 lay clerks – professional singers. The lay clerks have a busy weekly schedule but more importantly, they are paid on a permanent part-time basis with leave and the ability to pursue additional musical commitments. This kind of opportunity is unique and precious in an industry that often uses passion as a justification for underpaying performers. But if you’re not male, you’re not eligible for the job.

Studies have found that the line between boy and girl trebles is much blurrier than most people think

St Mary’s does encourage women to be involved in their music establishment. The Cathedral also offers opportunities outside its main choir. The St Mary’s Singers is a voluntary choir comprising men and women who love quality liturgical music. The choir usually sings once a month, boosted by other opportunities such as concerts and recordings. There are also places for budding soloists to lead worships as a cantor. But the difference between being able to access the professional and volunteer opportunities is entirely based on gender.

Why does it matter?

The truth is, no matter your level of passion and talent, to become a professional singer, you must work for it. In a lot of ways, singing is like sport. It boosts health, it’s fun to take part in and can be full of adventures. But all the talent in the world won’t make you an elite performer if you aren’t willing to commit to training and working hard. And, until recently, women’s involvement in professional sport has been severely limited. They have had to work very hard to prove that they are worthy of funding and that their performances are just as compelling and exciting and technically proficient as that of men. The tide is turning in sport: why not in singing?

One argument often made to justify excluding women is that men and boys alone offer a unique sound. And there are a lot of defendants of the tradition. Yet studies have found that the line between boy and girl trebles is much blurrier than most people think.

One mixed voice choir that stands out for its excellence is the Choir of St James, which made the switch from only men and boys to mixed gender in the 1980s. Its trebles might be women, but it doesn’t suffer any inferiority of sound or performance because the musicians are apt, willing and committed.

In some historic cathedrals such as Durham, there’s a black line that marked the boundary past which women were not permitted. It’s relegated to stories told to tourists about those monastic times. Times have changed, and nowadays women can access most parts of the cathedral. So why not the choir?

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