Season of Advent Dan Soper Dan Soper

Girls' Choirs

  • Do please ensure you read my disclaimer.

    Yesterday, Rochester Cathedral announced their intention to introduce a mixed treble line in the Cathedral Choir. This immediately fired up a lot of emotions. After some reflection, I responded with the following tweet:

    ...and then followed up with the following thought about my change of career choice in 2016:

    You can read more about my change of career here.

    The Cathedral responded to my first tweet with some encouragement:

    Much later in the day, they decided to reply to my second tweet, as follows:

    Completely ignoring the fact that after years of training I had to change career because I couldn’t cope with the working environment of a Cathedral, this tweet sought instead to defend further their decision. I was not happy with this reply, and gave them the opportunity to delete it—which they declined. I decided to explore all the things I was thinking and write a post.

    Backstory

    The Cathedral was quite early to the Girls’ Choir scene, founding theirs in 1995. By the time I started at Rochester as Assistant Director of Music in 2006, an extra choir, the Senior Girls’ Choir had been founded, for the Girls’ Choir leavers who wished to continue singing. At this stage, the Girls sang a weekend or two each term, alongside a weekly weekday evensong. The Senior Girls sang every now and then. At this point, the Girls’ Choir was overshadowed by both the Cathedral Choir of Boys, and the Senior Girls. For the sake of equality, it was decided to increase the age range of the Girls’ Choir, disband the Senior Girls’ Choir, and increase the commitment for the Girls, so that they did roughly half the number of services that the Boys did. Consideration was given to breaking the link with King’s and have the boys and girls both recruited on equal terms from any local school, but this was considered too much of a risk. It was out of the question to force the girls to all go to King’s, and it was also considered that too much would be lost by merging into a single treble line.

    Alongside these decisions, the Cathedral decided to solve the problem of lack of lay clerks by establishing a Choral Scholar scheme, and a system of Deputy Lay Clerks.

    I wasn’t responsible for any of these decisions (I was a mere Assistant DofM) but I was heavily involved in drawing up budgets on how to manage the transition, and creating systems. So I was considerably invested, and a keen supporter of the changes made in 2008.

    Some Success

    Once the 2008 changes had settled in, things seemed to be going pretty well—both choirs went through a very strong period, and the new lay clerk system meant that choristers were supported by a wide variety of excellent singers.

    But even then it was clear that the itch hadn’t gone away:

    • There was at least one boy chorister who we had to reject because they could (or would) not attend King’s.
    • Although the Girls now had a much stronger identity, there were still some feelings of being second-class citizens—starting with the fact they were directed by the Assistant, not the Director of Music.
    • Choosing which choir sang, and communicating this to the choir parents, was a significant administrative burden. I sometimes enjoyed this challenge, but not always (especially when things had to change at the last minute).

    New Ideas

    rochester choir graphsThe decision to merge the treble lines solves some of the above, though it introduces new problems:

    • Now all boys and girls will be required to go to King’s.
    • Presumably the size of the single treble line will be c.20, so overall the number of opportunities is halved.
    • Treating boys and girls 100% equally ignores the fact that they aren’t 100% equal and (generally) girls reach vocal maturity at about the same time that boys lose their treble voices.
    • The new schedule will require a significant step up in commitment from the choristers—and their families transporting them to and from the Cathedral each day.
    • Some say that boys are more likely to lose interest in a mixed environment than one geared to them. So will this be mostly girls in 10 years’ time? The answer for now is probably “No, because we will safeguard 50% of all spaces for boys”. But, given the choice of breaking this, or surviving with half a choir, it’s likely that in the future girls will be recruited to fill the gaps if no boys are available.

    There are clear advantages, some of which are detailed in their press release.

    • The quality of singing is likely to improve from the extra commitment. From what I understand, some rebuilding is currently required.
    • A single treble line will be able to enjoy the full repertoire, rather than have gaps because it’s in the other choir’s repertoire.
    • With all choristers coming from King’s, this enables a more consistent safeguarding approach. Despite best efforts, for some reason Rochester has not fared well with safeguarding over the last decade.
    • The staffing levels required will be lower: both musically and administratively. Although making the third organist redundant in the last few years has probably offset some of this.
    • Fewer choristers means less money on bursaries. I don’t believe Cathedrals are in a good place financially, and good efforts to raise funds have been received unfavourably by some, so cutting costs makes sense.

    Overall, on the decision itself, I’m disappointed that the choir that I loved directing is effectively being disbanded, and I’m worried that (looking to save money) other Cathedrals will copy this decision without enough consideration. But I can see how this may well be the right next step for Rochester, and I’m sure Francesca is the right person to make it work.

    First Reactions

    So why was my first impression of the decision more negative than positive?

    • The announcement is given a very positive spin, without any mention of the historical context, or the fact that there are risks involved, or the fact that this means disbanding a choir and reducing the number of opportunities. The first comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “well done”, presumably because they had no idea that opportunities for girls were already there (and arguably more flexible).
    • The extras in the announcement (youth choir and sixth-form choral scholars) are clearly there to add further weight to the positive spin—both of these things could be done without changing the treble lines. And there’s no mention of the fact that they’ve just axed a (different) choral scholar scheme.
    • I invested a lot of time in the 2008 changes—they were the solution for that current Chapter to the problems of the time, and, within the confines, were a big move in the direction of equality. Having only experienced this system working well, my first impression is bound to be that changing it is a mistake. The fact that the announcement makes no mention of this work does a disservice to those involved at that time and implies that no consideration has been given to the reasons for the decisions made then.
    • Francesca only started as Director of Music in September, so it seems too soon to be making changes. It’s likely that these changes were already in motion before her appointment (like the changes to the lay clerk system), which does seem unwise—and indicative of a Chapter who may not respect the opinions of the Music Department as much as it should. [Edit: I have since received clarification that Francesca is fully behind the proposals and is independently of the same mind as Chapter]
    • The biggest problem for me, which is more a subject for a different post, is that Cathedrals seem to always be in a state of change. There’s always a new member of staff or Chapter who has a different solution to an existing problem, who believes that their way is better than what has gone before. The truth is that in 10 years, someone is likely to be regretting something in this decision, and another iteration will begin.

    Conclusion

    The changes we made in 2008 were quite revolutionary, and I’m sure there were many who were against them. Luckily there wasn’t such an opportunity for opinions on social media back then.

    These new changes are again quite revolutionary, and just like in 2008 there are risks and compromises. The fact is that there is no way to run a Cathedral Choir in the 21st century without making compromises somewhere. I very much look forward to seeing the choir re-flourish under the new system.