Statistically, women outnumber men when it comes to church attendance, so it makes sense for there to be more women than men in all church auxiliaries. What doesn’t make sense is the ever-diminishing presence of men in the choir stand. This imbalance is not reflected in clergy and isn’t reflected in the band, so why the choir? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying a nationwide epidemic, my assertion is this: Men have vacated and will continue to vacate the choir stand because…
MOST MEN ARE BARITONES, NOT TENORS!
I can hear you choir directors now. If they would only breathe correctly… If they weren’t so lazy… If…
Imagine this. You join a choir at the age of 9. You sing your little heart out. You continue to sing as a preteen and sound better than ever. You turn 13 and everything changes. Everything except the notes you’re expected to belt out on a weekly basis. If you’re a teenage girl, you simply move from the soprano section to the alto section (or from the alto section to the tenor section). As a teenage boy, you have no other option, but to continue to sing tenor. So what do you do? Split!
It is a known fact that baritone is the most common male voice type, however most Gospel songs are written for tenor (read: male Mariah Carey) voices. Don’t believe me? Let’s inspect one of Gospel’s top hits, “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood. I know, I know, it’s a classic. It’s perfect in all of its ways. I assure you these accolades are not shared by a typical male choir member. You know why, because after the first few lines of this song the tenor part is no longer in a baritones’ range (click here to find the range of baritones). Once the line “You are the source of my strength” comes, only a real tenor can sing this without vocal strain, employing dangerous technique, and angst!
Let’s take another example. How about one of my favorites “Souled Out” by Hezekiah Walker? This song starts off in the top third of a baritones range. By the time we get to the crux of the song, “and that’s the reason I’m souled OUT,” most men have no chance. Couple that with a spirited director who loves to repeat the highest section of every song and a tenor’s misfortune becomes even more tortuous. I could go on and on with examples, from James Hall’s “God is in control,” to Kirk Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb,” to just about every Kurk Carr song. But I’ll just say, thank God for the alto section or extinction would be the fate of over half of the women as well!
So why is Gospel music written so high? My best guess is high singing is the easiest way to convey the feeling of emotion. I mean let’s be honest, nothing communicates joy or pain like a back-bending holler! On the other hand, how important is male presence in the choir? Is it more valuable than our Gospel aesthetic? What are the implications of the lack of male participation. Does it help or hurt the church? Or neither?
I believe the lack of male presence, particularly in the choir stand, not only diminishes the beauty of the mixed gender sound, but also has an adverse effect on male participation in the pews. When you don’t see yourself, you tend not to think what’s being demonstrated is for you. The reality is worshipping God through music can be traced all the way back to the pentateuch. From the beginning of time God has received honor through singing from both men and women. So why should it be any different now?
Because I never like to present a problem without solutions, here are 3 suggestions minsters of music can consider right away to close the gender gap in the choir stand.
1. Transpose songs – Now this can be seamless or end in disaster, it just depends on the song you transpose. Straight forward praise and worship songs work best, like “Break Every Chain.” Tasha Cobb’s original is in A, but you can easily transpose this to G, or even F. Hezekiah Walker’s “Better,” is originally in E with a number of modulations, but you can take this down to D and nix the modulations for a more accommodating rendition. All you would need is a talented “adlib-er” and this song would still be a hit. Now, of course, this can’t work for every song without comprising something musical, but until Gospel songwriters broader the range of their songwriting, it’s certainly worth a try.
2. Feature male leads – One way to really boost male presence is to feature male leads; even if they’re in the style of James Fortune or Kirk Franklin. If you have males in your choir take full advantage of songs by Donnie McClurkin, Brian Courtney Wilson, William Murphy, etc. Grant it, most of these men sing rather high so singing their songs might be a challenge, but that’s when solution #1 comes in handy.
3. Enforce the gender neutrality of singing – Dispel the myth that choirs are inherently feminine by eliminating choreography, uniforms, and activities that attract only (or mostly) women. Form committees that include men and women and always value the opinion of each gender. Conduct a survey targeted to the men in the congregation about the perception of the choir and take their responses to heart. Word will travel that men are being valued and once one man joins, other men are bound to follow.
Ultimately, both men and women are necessary for the success of ministry. Without one or the other we sacrifice the fullness of God’s glory and misrepresent the body the Christ. It may not happen overnight, but progress can definitely be made.
What do you think contributes to the lack of men in the choir stand?