by Emma Margutsch
Self-identity is a very important aspect to one’s choices, dispositions, actions, and thoughts. During adolescence, the importance of identity increases, as adolescence is particularly a critical time for identity formation and the creation of values and one’s own ideas. Adolescents are constantly surrounded by the values and standards of the world around them, and are “particularly vulnerable to cultural materials, and their imitation of them is presumed to be so automatic” (Bennett & Ferrell, 1987, pp. 345).
Specifically considering the importance of musical and vocal identity, Freer (2010) states “the process through which adolescents construct their personal sense of musical identity is [important]… because of the potential for self-perceptions to influence musical behavior throughout the lifespan” (pp. 17).
Most school and extra-curricular choirs are noticing a drop in participation by adolescent boys. From my first-hand experience working with some choirs, there is a clear difference in numbers between girls and boys. Even with my private voice teaching, I do not have any male voice students, but have a number of female students. Colleges and friends of mine are noticing similar trends in their voice studios, as well. So, why?… I don’t believe it’s a full removal from music, because adolescent boys are listening to pop music. Is it just ‘formal’ and ‘traditional’ music, adolescent boys are not interested in?
Research suggests there is an increasing reluctance for adolescent boys to participate in choral music. Koza (1993) defines this problem as the ‘missing males’ as there is a clear absence of participation by adolescent boys in choral activities. Adler argues this is the result of boys making a conscious decision not to sing in elementary and secondary school due to both sociological and psychological messages that it is not an appropriate activity for males past a certain age (as cited in Hall, 2015, p. 44). Research into adolescent identity also suggests attitudes towards singing are not only related to their perceived ability, but rather by gender, socioculture, along with other sociological factors (Hall, 2005, pp. 16).
So what exactly is causing the lack of adolescent boys in choral music? With Adolescence comes puberty, and the onset of puberty for boys brings numerous physical changes to the vocal tract caused by hormone changes.
With these physical changes to the vocal tract, the voice often becomes breathy and unstable, and ‘cracking’ often occurs (Freer, 2008; Welch, 2006), and these physical changes could easily cause emotional strain and feelings of self-consciousness.
Choral singing is also often associated with femininity because it is perceived as being ‘for girls’ as western society promotes a strong sense of gender roles (Green, 1993). Is being associated with something ‘girly’ not ‘appropriate’ for boys?
Picture of a Choir Singing. Retrieved from Choral Canada Website.
Since the ‘missing males’ issue is still prevalent, I have to wonder if we are doing enough as music educators to change the way choir and choral music is perceived? I believe we as music educators need to do as much as we can to create a positive musical and vocal identity for adolescent boys; they need to feel comfortable, enthusiastic, and have a positive self-image about music and signing in choir. We need to build their confidence, not break it! The consequence of embarrassing and marginalizing boys during adolescence could worsen their self-identity, and increase the negative perception and delineations associated with choral singing in subsequent generations.
But how can we do this? I believe we, the music teachers, should in a sense, go ‘back to school’. From experience in my own studio, one of the best way we can help our students is to know exactly how to help them because we have learned what they are going through, and educated ourselves to the greater issues within sociology, culture, and society. Being able to have the knowledge and tools to properly help our students navigate these physical changes, building their confidence in the process, also by breaking down these preconceived gender delineations is how we can create a positive music and vocal identity of these adolescent boys.
Another option that I believe could work well is to change the dynamic of choir and choral singing. Choral music often follows traditions, even if they are unintentional. Often, similar repertoire is chosen annually – like, Ave Maria or True Colours. Choral directors and music educators could choose more popular music as repertoire – like Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself, or even ask their students what songs they would like to learn, and follow through (provided there is an available choral arrangement). Giving students autonomy and allowing them to be involved in the decision making process has shown to increase their participation levels.
Overall, it is important that as music educators and choral directors we ensure we are doing everything we can not to increase negative self-identities for our students. We need to ensure we are ‘building our students up’ not ‘tearing them down’. Fostering welcoming, positive and inclusive musical environments will aid in the positive musical and vocal identities of our adolescent boys – and all of our students!
Bennett, H. & Ferrell, J. (1987). Music videos and epistemic socialization. Youth & Society, 18(4), 344-362.
Choral Canada. http://www.choralcanada.org.
Freer, P. (2008). Boys’ changing voices in the first century of MENC journals. Music Educators Journal, 95(1), 41-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30219193.
Freer, P. (2010). Two decades of research on possible selves and the ‘missing males’ problem in choral music. International Journal of Music Education, 28(1), 17-30. doi:10.1177/0255761409351341.
Green, L. (1993). Music, gender and education: a report on some exploratory research. British Journal of Music Education, 10(3), 219-253.
Hall, C. (2005). Gender and boys’ singing in early childhood. British Journal of Music Education, 22(1), 5-20. doi: 10.1017/S0265051704005960.
Hall, C. (2015). Singing gender and class: understanding the choirboys’ musical habitus. In Burnard, P., Soderman, J., and Hofvander-Trulson, Y. (Eds.) Bourdieu and the sociology of music, music education and research (43-60). Farnham: Ashgate.
Koza, J. (1993). The “missing males” and other gender issues in music education: Evidence from the “music supervisors’ journal,” 1914-1924. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41(3), 212-232. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3345326.
Welch, G. (2006). Chapter 16: Singing and vocal development. In McPherson, G. (Ed.), The child as musician: A handbook of musical development (pp. 311-351). New York: Oxford University Press.