Legal matters: Rationale for dividing JH choirs by Gender
Many thanks to all you experts who responded to my plea for help in
defending a move to gender-specific ensembles at the middle school level.
The real issue at my school seems to be scheduling gender-balanced classes
that meet at the same time.
Special mention should be made of a couple of references. The January,
2000 issue of *Music Educators Journal* (Vol. 86/No.4) is dedicated to
middle school choral music, and there are several good articles, with
excellent bibliographies. John Cooksey's four-part series, "The
Development of a Contemporary, Eclectic Theory for the Training and
Cultivation of the Junior High School Male Changing Voice", appeared in the
*Choral Journal* vol. 18, nos. 2,3,4,and 5 (1977-78). Cooksey's work
serves as a benchmark for anyone who works with changing voices. Another
great resource is Ken Phillips' book, *Teaching Kids to Sing*. Read
chapter four. Meanwhile, here's the compilation of responses, with my
I'd be pleased if you decided to post the responses. I should think a number
of us would be interested. Thank you.
I know Los Angles Unified School District has done some work in this area.
I have been an employee there. Ask information for Don Doyle or someone in
music department for the district. Call 310-555-1212 and get LAUSD
headquarters and ask for music department. I forgot - Don Dustin also
works there. One of the Dons should be helpful.
I hope you are successful.
I'm currently working on a thesis about male enrollment, and one of the
issues has been this very issue of split gender choirs. I've found about 7
sources that support this concept--and no sources that question or condemn
The most recent version of the MEJ has an article by Steven Demorest who
discusses the topic breifly. Phillips has also discussed the topic from
time to time.
I'm still in process on the thesis, but it's clear to me that splitting 7th
grade between genders has a positive impact on male enrollment at the high
school level. I've suggested this course of action to our assistant
superintendent, he has no desire to pursue such a concept.
I'll let you know what the other sources were.
I don't know the "texbook" rationale for splitting genders in the choral
setting...but I can tell you it works. I grew up in the West Houston Public
Schools....the choirs at my Jr High were gender segregated and it made an
incredible difference, especially when you combined the two in order to
create a mixed choir for contest (you'll find evidence in the numerous
sweepstakes awards year after year). Here's my personal list (with a little
reminiscing) of why its good. If your school has a study hall period during
of the day (everyone in my time had it the last period of the day)...this
becomes a great time for holding the "occasional" rehearsal
1. It becomes easier to focus on your work...because...
2. The hormone changes in adolescents (male in particular) are a prime
concern with the changing voice...
3. Having a gender specific choir reduces the feelings of inadequacy that
youth often feel in the presence of their peers, male or female.
4. It reduces hostile competition, promotes growth and allows each sex to
show what they can do in a positive way with confidence.
5. Its great exposure for the kids to know that there's great literature
made just for them. And when you combine the ensembles...they learn still
6. Its great for teaching sightsinging and musicality the voices sound the
SOmewhere in the Choral Journal of the 1970's is where John Cooksey published
his first big article (actually in 3 separate editions) about boys changing
voices. I have had a boy's choir at my middle school as an extra curricular
activity and I can tell you that you would be surprised how much they can
achieve without girls to distract them. They are so self-conscious about the
change of voice, and if they continuie to sing, then the change is much
easier for many of them. Also, they are quite capable of 4 part music. I have
a boys' choir at my church--ages 7-17, and they are amazing fellows--who
don't have to be there, but come because they love it, and it is feeding the
men's choir with new members. Good luck. There are many resources on this
subject-- Anthony Barresi from the U. of Wisconsin is one, John Cooksey is
It IS a tough sell to principals who don't understand. This is my 4th year
at our middle school, and I JUST got the gender-specific 7/8 choirs this
year. Let me say this: it's delightful.
My 6th graders still sing all treble music, so I can't help you with that
(and personally, my experience has been that they can handle that just fine).
I have 35 boys (7/8) and 47 girls in two separate periods. When they perform
mixed music, I rehearse them either after school, during lunch, or during the
other group's period (which works well). I often only do 1 or 2 mixed
rehearsals before the performance. If they know the music really well, it
has not proven to be a problem. As far as the standing formation goes, I've
had the girls' standing formation split down the center (soprano/alto) and
put the boys right in the middle of them. This makes an easy transition, can
happen without much rehearsal (since everyone is standing in their regular
places, just with others), and seems to work well when, for example, the
tenors and sopranos are singing unison and the bari/bass and altos.
As far as scheduling goes, our school also has gender-specific PE this year,
so it has worked out well. Many of the classes, however, are gender
imbalanced. BUT--this is a good place for you to start addressing the issue
of ages, sexual maturation, and all the social complications that go along
with that. If other teachers try it, they often find that the
gender-specific classes (or, in our case, ALMOST, as many classes have 20 of
one sex and 10 of the other) are even more workable.
I find that teaching the girls by themselves gives me ways to address them,
work with them, work with their voices, etc. without a lot of the personal
fears that are present when the boys enter. Ditto with the boys. Be aware
that the boys learn entirely differently than the girls. My girls are
content to stand still and stay quiet for the entire 40 minutes we have
together. My boys need to move... A LOT! Dancing works very well (African
pieces with simple side-steps). They find it VERY difficult to stand
still--so harness that energy and you've got it made. I find my boys sing
with more energy and the girls with more discipline (or something sexist like
Anyway, you must explain--strongly--how important it is to address the
musical changes these boys are going through, especially. We have found it
entertaining and exciting to "chart" the boys' voices as they change. I
evaluate them each quarter, and they look at the chart on the wall to see
"how low they can go", etc. Additionally, I have found that they can sing
INCREDIBLY well on pitch--in more parts, in fact, than my girls--but you must
be VERY CAREFUL about choosing repertoire. It is so limited--and i'm
speaking specifically in terms of range here. My tenors (generally unchanged
and first stage of changing) sing to an F below middle C (most!), and my
baritones (I don't like to call them basses because I think it gives them a
false idea), as a group, to and octave below middle C (some can, of course,
sing a G below that, but they're fewer).
I think you also need to express all the social characteristics of this age
group. They are EXTREMELY self-conscious: sexually, socially, personally,
you name it. Being in gender-specific classes, I find they are less
inhibited, more prone to succeeding sooner, and more comfortable (even if
they DO complain about "no girls" or "no boys"--some will!).
This is a big issue--but if you can get your principal to buy into it, you
get 3 choirs out of 2, and a great experience for all involved, too.
I taught intermediate school/jr high vocal music for many years. We had
separate boys and girls choirs in 6th and 7th grade, and mixed in 8th.
If I had it to do over again, I'd keep them separate in 8th grade as
One of the most obvious reasons has to do with the boys' changing
voices. They are very self-conscious, as you know. In our boys choir
we did SAB music (or SA if the voices indicated) and there was no stigma
attached to singing the high parts. In my opinion, the worst thing you
can do for boys is to have them try to force their voices down so they
can sound like 'men'.
We built up a great aura around the boys' choirs - they were special and
we told them so regularly. Of course, having a choir made up only of
boys will drive you crazy at times because of discipline concerns, but
it's still worth it. They performed frequently in the community, at
teachers' conferences, and for other students. One thing we really
pushed was the discipline during performance. They were VERY well
A couple of warnings:
Don't let it get to be a dumping ground for the kids that can't get
scheduled any where else.
If you have a male high school director or other role model, involve
them as much as possible in interacting with the boys (supervising at
contests, dropping in at rehearsals, etc.)
I would schedule joint rehearsals after school. Another option is to
have girls/boys meet at the same time on alternate days, and then beg
that teacher to give them all to you a couple of times before the
concert. I did that with a keyboarding class, and it worked well.
One big advantage of this plan is that our male enrollment stayed high
throughout high school. If you can involve instrumental players in your
choirs, even better. I would not audition these groups, because you
want you very strongest singers as leaders/role models for the weaker
ones. An auditioned group might be nice, but don't drain the top off
these gender-specific choirs.
Hope this helps.
Jo Anne Taylor
Middle School Choirs
4200 West River Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Voice: 612-721-3359 ext. 2031
** My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing and make music with all my soul. - Psalm 108:1 **