The Times – Body and Soul, December 23 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Many a man can ding dong and hark the herald with the best of them — so why won’t they join choirs?

’Tis the season to be vocal, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaah, when even the most curmudgeonly among you are likely to be coerced into doing a ding dong or harking the herald. But among the host of carol singers or church choirs, in how many will female voices swamp the males?

Which prompts me to wonder (not for the first time), what is it with men and singing? For three or four years now, ever since joining my first proper (or, possibly, improper) choir, I have been puzzling over this question. During this time I have asked all manner of men — friends, certainly, but also taxi drivers, hairdressers, waiters, supermarket check-out guys, florists, teachers, scaffolders, bankers, lawyers, handymen — whether they like to sing.

This line of inquiry has sometimes seemed to be redundant since it has been provoked by this or that fellow warbling along to a song on the radio or background Muzak.

At other times, there has been something particularly pleasing about the tone of the man’s speaking voice that has prompted the question. But the reaction is invariably the same — a panicky high-pitched squeak (the subtext being “Oh Gawd, is she some kind of religious zealot trying to recruit me?”) — followed by a rapid descent into gruff denial: “No, really, no, no, I’m hopeless, totally tone deaf, honestly . . . just ask my wife/girlfriend/kids.”

Very often it transpires that the men got the idea that they couldn’t sing way back in their school days, often at the time that their voices broke. It makes me quite angry when I discover how many teachers are responsible for destroying so many young boys’ confidence in their ability to do something natural and joyful, and how this has created a lifelong handicap. For if you have been silenced at such a tender age — told to mouth along to the words but on no account to make an actual sound — it is hardly surprising if you grow up with a hang-up about your voice.

When we started the Brighton City Singers (BCS) three years ago, for a long time there was often a scant handful of men singing alongside 20 or so women. Our doughty founding BCS men hung in and we are now fortunate enough to have about 15 solid male voices (and twice as many females), so we can all experience the thrill of four-part and, on occasion, even eight-part harmony.

This means that when a brave-soul solo male potential recruit walks into our rehearsal room, he no longer feels quite so exposed and vulnerable, and is thus more likely to stay.

Now I have joined another newly formed singing group in London — the South London Choir (SLC) — and it’s the same old story. Ten months on, there are 45 members and yet only three or four of them are men. One evening, there was much rejoicing because we had as many as seven chaps at the back. But this leaves me as exercised as ever as to why so few men are attracted to the idea of singing in a community choir, when so many women clearly find it so appealing.

Here are some additional questions: how come men in crowds sing with such uninhibited enjoyment at football and rugby matches? (Tradition? Alcohol? Vicarious sports euphoria?) Why is it that in Scotland, Ireland and famously in Wales men sing in choirs and pubs and at each other’s homes as a matter or course? Why do scaffolders tend to sing with such abandon, suggesting that they feel invisible even at their most visible? Why do my teenage sons think it is somehow “girlie” to sing in choirs when one is a music scholar and the other is heavily into bands that favour vocal harmony? The mysterious male ego seems to enter the equation, too. While the majority of men seem to suffer from lack of confidence, the obverse is also true. In both the BCS and the SLC, we have women members who have sung in rock bands, West End musicals and the like, but who seem to relish the way that the musical director — MJ (who is herself a professional entertainer) — can coax a magical sound out of this blend of members, many of whose voices are completely untrained. But it is also true, from my observations, that men who have sung professionally will join us only for the big high-profile shebangs of the annual festival or one of our specially commissioned works. That is, they are not prepared to come week in, week out, for regular rehearsals which are the life-blood of a choir. Again, I can’t help wondering why? I have seen what a difference it can make to a person’s wellbeing to sing on a regular basis. Only the other day a choir member told me that she had been extremely depressed for a variety of physical and emotional reasons but had completely forgotten about her unhappiness for the two hours that she was singing. Men are notoriously reticent when it comes to acknowledging that they have a health problem, let alone tackling it. Singing is a proven tonic, and the feel-good factor is enhanced substantially when your voice is joined by others in a friendly community setting. It seems sad that so many men deny themselves such an accessible pleasure when there is so much they could gain from it.

Richard Frostick is an unashamed evangelist for the health benefits of singing. He founded the Islington Music Centre in 1992, running weekend sessions for children and young people from the ages of 6 to 18 (the numbers have grown from 60 to 400) as a way of getting them to explore musicality outside the school framework.

His favourite quote is from Peter Pears, the great tenor, who once said: “A voice is a person.” He, too, feels that there is nothing funny about the idea that someone cannot sing, since what could be more revealing or personal than the sounds that come out of a person’s mouth.

First of all, Frostick says that boys’ voices don’t “break”, they change. “The idea of a ‘broken’ voice is not helpful when you are trying to persuade a 13-year-old boy that he sounds OK! There are changes that occur in the vocal folds but — despite the misguided orthodoxy that still prevails — boys can actually sing safely and happily through the change, even though they may croak and crackle or sound gravelly. It’s better for boys to continue singing through this period than to drop singing altogether.

“Young boys can be noticeably more insecure about singing than girls of the same age, but I’m a great believer in just getting on with it and once the children are singing wholeheartedly in a group, the pleasure of the experience is often all you need to convince reluctant boys; they just get swept up in the general enthusiasm.” Female voices change during puberty, too, but less dramatically, as the vocal folds (formerly known as cords) thicken. Girls’ voices may become deeper and richer but then all our voices continue to change over a lifetime as a direct consequence of changes in our hormone levels. (Joni Mitchell’s smokey deep register in her 2000 version of A Case of You, for instance, sounds nothing like the girlish swoops of her Seventies original.) Few people, Frostick says, are tone deaf and yet “so many have been told this by bad teachers in the past. Nearly everyone can be taught to sing in tune but we don’t have the workforce of teachers that have the skills to do this. Primary teacher training in this country is seriously inadequate when it comes to training teachers to sing in the classroom.

“There are signs that singing is making a comeback and the Music Manifesto has just announced a national campaign,” says Frostic, of the government-backed initiative to provide the young with more musical opportunities. “I really can’t think of a better way to get a child musically literate than through singing.”

As a parent, I know how much difference it can make to the whole atmosphere of a school when you are lucky enough to have an inspirational music teacher.

At my sons’ local state primary in London, Honeywell, we had the fantastic Alexander MacMillan, a Guildhall graduate whose general demeanour (punky hair, multiple earrings) may have been helpful in sending out the message that there was nothing remotely uncool about playing an instrument or singing a classical song. But it was his personality and commitment that made the difference to his pupils’ lives. Every year, for instance, he would put on a musical extravaganza at the Battersea Arts Centre which gave every child, from every sort of background, an equal chance to play an important part in making it a success.

Frostick gets his “reluctant” boys to name as many male singers as they can; all styles, from Top Ten pop to jazz, rock and classical. Once the board is covered with names, he looks them in the eye and says: “Now tell me that singing isn’t a male thing.” So we may have a steer on how to handle and enthuse reluctant young boys to sing freely, but what can be done about their reluctant fathers? Choral singing seems to be all the rage: just think of the terrific car park Honda ad, in which a choir sings the noises of a car’s engine; and the recent BBC Two series The Choir. Even a supreme cynic such as Simon Cowell, with his group Angelis, seems convinced that what the nation needs to listen to now is glorious choral harmony. But will any of the above persuade all the men out there — who would have such a blast if they only dared to rise to the challenge — to turn up to any number of the community choirs that exist around the country and make our day? I asked Frostick, finally, if he thought there was any essential difference between English men and women that might explain the gulf in their attitude to singing. “After 25 years’ experience, what I would say is that it goes very deep. Men’s relationship with their voices is an emotional one. You can disguise your speaking voice to conceal what you are thinking, but it’s far harder to do this when you’re singing. Women are more prepared to take risks with their vulnerability. Men find it more hard to let down their guard, and I do think it’s a particularly English thing. But once they’ve broken the barrier — wow! It’s a life-changer.”

Singing your way to health

A study of children, aged 4 to 6, published this year in the journal Brain, indicates that music can make kids brainier. The children who were taking music lessons had greater brain development than those who were not.

Singing means better breathing and lung capacity, according to a survey of the choral society from Canterbury Christ Church University College. Over half of the members said that their breathing control had improved through singing. To breathe like a singer, pull your diaphragm down, and visibly move the ribcage outwards.

Australian scientists at a pain clinic decided to get their patients singing to see whether it would help with their chronic pain. All of the singing patients improved their ability to cope with pain.

Singing even helps your body with bug-busting. A German study found that singing in an amateur choir not only boosted mood, but also the immune system.

Great posture is also a bonus. Jenevora Williams, the vocal adviser to the National Youth Choir, says to imagine that the crown of your head is being gently pulled towards the ceiling, the shoulders and chest widening and the spine straightening. And, relax.

As part of a rehab scheme for stressed people in Norway, singing increased the confidence and drive of patients.

Singing may be a cure for snoring. The success of Singing for Snorers, a CD by the signing coach Alise Ojay, which has sold 1,000 copies and promises to cure even severe cases of sleep apnoea by strengthening throat muscles, has inspired researchers at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to launch a two-year clinical trial of her exercises, the results of which are due next year.

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ALL TOGETHER NOW
To find a choir near you, visit www.gerontius.net

South London Choir (SLC) and Brighton City Singers (BCS) rehearse every week (from January). Male voices welcome. For SLC, email the director mjzino@hotmail.com; for BCS visit www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk

Islington Music Centre 020-7254 4452