“Gender diversity has recently been much talked about in multiple contexts, and the choral world is no exception” writes Julia Lainema.
In January 2023, the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper published a story on gender-based practices in choral music, and the Kulttuuriykkönen programme on Finnish radio (YLE) took up the same topic a week later. The discussion has been lively ever since, and I for one am pleased that the Tampere Vocal Music Festival has chosen to address this important topic. In the panel discussion on gender diversity in choirs, I will be exploring the issue with voice teacher Laura Salovaara and choral singer Tuija von Konow.
The voice is a unique instrument in that its sound is created within the human body. Because of this, anything that causes discomfort or anxiety has an impact on the singing voice. Choral singers can use their voice in a relaxed and healthy way in choral communities where they feel safe. This thinking has led me to examine my work as a choir conductor critically and to consider how I can be more gender-sensitive when working with singers.
Gender manifests itself in choral music for instance in the language used and in guidelines for concert attire. Some choir members may feel that these traditional gender-based practices are limiting or discriminatory. Gender is a complex issue on which a clear-cut binary division cannot be imposed. Nevertheless, in choral music singers are nearly always referred to as men or women.
It is up to the choir conductor and the choir community to consider the language and imagery used in rehearsals and in conversation. It matters whether we refer to voice groups as tenors or basses or collectively as ‘male voices’ or ‘the men’. Using voice part names avoids gender-based labelling.
There are many idioms that are gender-based even though we may not be aware of it, being based on imagery that not all singers can identify with. To take a random example, choir conductor Jooa Sotejeff-Wilson has renamed the “ploughman’s stance” – a posture intended to help singers focus on their breathing – as the “agrifood entrepreneur’s stance”. Neologisms may introduce a certain level of humour to rehearsals, but the main thing is that the underlying images are correctly conveyed.
One way of making choirs more accessible is to abandon gender-based guidelines for concert attire. Instead of instructing women to wear a dress and men to wear a suit, singers might be allowed to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. It is entirely possible for a choir to be reasonably unified in dress and sufficiently formal for a concert if they are simply instructed to wear “something smart and black”. Gender diversity is, of course, not the only reason to take a critical look at choral wear: a garment that is too tight or does not sit well may impair breathing and thereby affect the singer’s voice.
The right to feel safe when singing in a choir is independent of gender. I hope to be able to lead by example in what kind of language is used in my choirs. However, the entire choir community must commit to such efforts. Come join us in discussion (in Finnish) at Tampere Hall on Friday 16 June!
Text: Julia Lainema