The Single-Sex Chorus and the Single-Sex Director

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Well, yes, directors don’t get a choice about this – we’re either male or female, and even if you go for re-assignment, you’re still one or the other. It’s like whether or not to play repeats in Mozart sonatas – not something you can fudge. You do get a choice about how much you make a feature or downplay your gender identity in your interactions with your choir, but even here the choice isn’t only in your own hands. As some of our past discussions about conducting and gender showed, even those conductors who wish to ‘leave their gender at the door’ may still be ‘read’ in gendered terms by their singers.

Today’s subject isn’t the general question of gender and directing, however, but the specific question of the dynamics between a director and a single-sex choral group.

There are two main opinions about this: one, that it doesn’t make any difference (or shouldn’t – it’s usually expressed as a correction to whoever asked the question), the other that it does make a difference. The second position has a multitude of opinions within it as to the sort of difference it makes – of which more anon.

Now, whilst the liberal feminist in me agrees that all combinations can and do work, I wouldn’t agree that it makes no difference. The dynamic between director and chorus is affected by the sex of each, but that doesn’t mean any of those dynamics is inherently better or worse. It’s all human beings and singing, after all – we can do this.

The main difference between same-sex and cross-gender director-choir relationships is between a dynamic of solidarity (brotherhood/sisterhood) versus a dynamic of implicit flirtation. I’ve heard members of male choruses say, for instance, that they find it easier to sing love songs meaningfully with a female director than a male one.

Of course, you do also get dysfunctional versions of the cross-gender dynamic where (and this is a real-life example from only 10 years ago) a male singer refuses to watch a female conductor because ‘a woman has no business bossing around a group of men’. But I’m happy to regard that as a relic of by-gone era, and indeed in that case, the rest of the men persuaded the one with the problem to cooperate.

And of course, the relative genders of singers and director are a minor part of the whole dynamic. This is something that flavours, that inflects the interactions; it doesn’t determine them. Whether or not a director is successful is really nothing to do with this – that’s to do with their musicianship and interpersonal skills – but the manifestation of those interpersonal skills will be affected by the social relationship within which they occur.

There is one danger of the cross-sex director-chorus relationship that I have noticed, however, that you don’t see talked about so much, and I think is worth noting. This is the effect on the director’s ego of having lots of people of the opposite sex paying them close attention. It’s more dangerous if the director is good (they’ll garner more admiration) and/or if they’re young and good-looking (they’ll be more attractive).

The danger is that a moderately hot young director (where ‘hot’ can refer to both their musical and sexual prowess) can be led into thinking that they are exceedingly hot. This danger exists in mixed choirs, too, but is inherently damped down by there being more competition for attention.

This is a problem for several reasons. First, it can lead the director to play up to the chorus, becoming the performer watched by the singers, rather than the facilitator to help the singers be the performers addressing the audience. Second, it limits their growth, since the flood of adoration insulates them from the self-criticism that might otherwise make them push themselves further.

This is true both musically and socially, moreover. I’ve been aware of these questions for many years (as long as I’ve been working with single-sex groups, indeed), but the prompt to write it came from watching a talented and good-looking male director lead a very effective performance by a women’s chorus. He had a fine, dashing demeanour and exuded confidence in both his musical control and his physical attractiveness. I was quite willing to be won over by both his musical and physical charms, but found myself thinking that his directing technique and his looks were just a shade more ordinary than the panache of his presentation would suggest. Just a shade – but enough to make me wonder whether he had it a bit too easy with the female attention.

And this isn’t to begrudge him the adoration he clearly gets from his chorus. It’s clearly a happy relationship. But it’s an artistic problem if an audience member finds themselves losing the suspension of their disbelief as a result.

N.B. I’m aware that this is something of a hetero-normative argument. But it’s based on the observation of hetero-normative choral cultures. And most of the LGBT choirs I know are mixed, so less susceptible to the more over-heated versions of director-choir flirtation. But if you made me guess, I would hypothesise that LGBT folk are rather more self-aware about the relationship between sexuality, identity and social role than heterosexual folk as a matter of course. So they’d be more likely to exert a little more conscious control in the way they use implicit flirtation within their musical interactions.

As I say, that’s just a guess. But my purpose here isn’t to present fully-tested theories, but simply to point out things to think about that can help us be better directors.

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