We are delighted to reprint this fine article by Lindsay S. Pope taken from the January, 2014, issue of "Mass Sings," the newsletter of the Massachusetts chapter of the ACDA. Thank you, Lindsay.

Sing Out Loud: Empowering Women's Choirs

by Lindsay S. Pope
Massachusetts ACDA, Women's Choirs R&S Chair

popeI have the unique privilege of working at an institution where the women's choir is the premiere choral ensemble. This is because I teach at Mount Holyoke College, the first all-women's college in the United States, which is both my place of employment and my alma mater.

I direct three choirs of varying sizes and abilities, and while I was a student, at one point or another, I sang in all three of these ensembles. It wasn't until I went to graduate school that I became aware of how often in a co-ed institution the women's choir is treated like the "second-class citizen" of the choral program. While I understand that this attitude is not necessarily intentional, it is still a serious problem. As choratextbox1l educators, we need to start thinking about what kind of message we are sending to women. Are we empowering them through language, programming, and sound development, or are we furthering gender stereotypes that could make women believe that they are indeed "less than?"

Language matters
Language is a powerful tool for establishing relationships and defining one's identity, both of which are integral to a choir's success. Language is also linked with social progress. Consider the role that language plays in the civil rights movement. In this same vein, we need to monitor the way we address the female members of our choirs.

If you conduct an SATB ensemble, address your males and females using equal terms, such as "men and women," "gentlemen and ladies," or "guys and gals." So often I hear conductors address the tenors and basses as "guys" or "men" and the sopranos and altos as "girls" or "ladies." While I understand that the intention behind this gesture may be one of gentility, you are actually doing your female choir members a disservice. Before even giving a note on the music, you are setting up a dichotomy between the solid, dependable "guys" and the dainty, dependent "ladies." In fact, whatever the make-up of your ensemble, be wary of using the terms "girls" or "ladies" whenever you address your sopranos and altos. Addressing your women as "women" is easy enough, and with it comes associations of empowerment and self-sufficiency a la Rosie the Riveter.

If you have transgendered members of your ensemble, use language that is even more inclusive, such as "singers" or "sopranos and altos." We are choral musicians because we believe in the power of communal singing. We cannot accomplish this if we do not make our members feel like they are part of a fair and inclusive community.

Down with unrequited love and flowers
One of the challenges facing women's choirs is the lack of truly great repertoire. One can only program Holst's Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (3) and Poulenc's Litanies a la vierge noire so many times. This presents an exciting opportunity for conductors of women's choirs to be adventurous in their programming not just by exposing their students to different genres, eras, and cultures, but also perspectives.

When I first began teaching at Mount Holyoke, I frantically educated myself on the breadth of women's choral repertoire. I was disturbed to find that so much of the repertoire had text centered on unrequited love or picking flowers. While both of these subjects offer valid insights into the human experience, they speak to antiquated expectations of what a women's choir "should be singing about."

Professional female ensembles like Cantus in Norway (dir. Tove Ramlo-Ystad) and Lorelei Ensemble in Boston (dir. Beth Willer) serve as inspiring examples of what women's choirs can program (and commission).

Program pieces that feature women at work, such as through kulning. Kulning is a semi-improvisational music indigenous to Sweden that imitates herding calls. Women traditionally sang this music while they were tending to the cattle. In addition to offering a perspective of traditional women that is not hearth-centered, kulning teaches vocal independence through improvisation.

Program pieces that present women in unconventional roles. "The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish," composed by living composer Robinson McClellan, features text by Irish poet Eavan Boland. The text responds to the Irish myth of the Selkie in which a seal transforms into a beautiful woman. In Boland's poem, the story is reversed as a woman turns into a sexless, cold fish and as a result feels liberated. In summation, program music that breaks down gender stereotypes and creates space for progressive perspectives.

Women should sound like women
Always encourage your women's choir to sing with a full, connected sound. So often, especially in the US, women are taught to speak (and sing) like little girls. The movie In a World… (2013) demonstrates this point so clearly; I highly recommend it!

Warm-ups present a wonderful opportunity to shape the sound of your choir through vocal technique and vowel modification. I have also found folk music to be an effective way of teaching women how to sing with connection.

My own interests have brought me to the Republic of Georgia and Corsica to study folk music, which my choirs otextbox2ften perform. The Georgian music from the Svaneti region is particularly transferrable to women's voices. This music sits low in the female range; it requires a rooted, centered stance and a supported chest voice. Once I have taught my choir how to sing this music authentically, I find that I can transfer this sound to more traditional repertoire, especially when a strong, deep color is required. I have found that simply revealing to my students that these big and powerful sounds are within them boosts morale and gives them ownership of their voices.

Final Thoughts
There are larger stigmas against women's choirs that also need to disappear.

The women's choir should not be the leftover choir for those who did not make it into the premiere SATB ensemble. The women's choir should not be the test choir for graduate conductors. The conductors of women's choirs should not be pigeonholed as solely that, never to be taken seriously as conductors of an SATB ensemble.

While these are prejudices that will take time to diffuse, right now you can begin to shape an ensemble that fosters progress rather than negates it. Through language, programming, and sound development, encourage women to sing out, unapologetically, with individual and collective empowerment.