Enya Doyle (front row, centre) with members of the National Youth Training Choir and conductor Lucy Joy Morris, August 2018. Image: NYCGB

22 November 2018

As musicians celebrate their patron saint's day, NYCGB speaks to Durham University PhD candidate and NYCGB course staffer Enya Doyle about her research into the choral gender gap, and her hopes for the future.

What is the title of your PhD?

I’m still playing around with it, and it changes about every five minutes, but at present it is: ‘Liberating Voices: A Transdisciplinary Study of Gender Diversity in Anglican Cathedral Music’ …which is a fancy way of saying that there are a number of key issues which affect gender equality in cathedral music. I’m still taking recommendations on what should go before the colon in the title. Tweet me your suggestions! @enyadoyle

What is the current state of gender equality in choral music at Anglican cathedrals in England?

Pretty poor, I’m afraid to say – here are some facts. 1) There have been three women in the history of the 42 Anglican cathedrals to hold the position of Director of Music (Referred to. at many cathedrals, as ‘Organist and Master of the Choristers’). 2) There are fewer than 10 permanent female lay clerks (adult singers) in Anglican cathedrals this year. To put that in context there are around 168 alto positions in these choirs. 3) At least five cathedrals do not currently have girl choristers as part of their main cathedral choir set-up, and many cathedrals have a girls’ choir which sings significantly fewer services, and/or receive scholarships of lower value than those received by boys.

What does this mean for girls?

Well, it seems that many of the girl choristers don’t stick around the cathedrals. They don’t learn the organ and they don’t become choral scholars or lay clerks, even though girl choristers have been increasingly included since the introduction of the first permanent girl chorister line in 1991 at Salisbury. This plays out alongside positive initiatives: Anna Lapwood’s ‘Play Like a Girl’ organ day, and initiatives like NYCGB’s ‘Women in Song’ 2018 season focus are great examples of increasingly prominent efforts to showcase women and girls in choral music. However, there are still clear issues in terms of representation, and of the wider musical environment. Cathedrals are still extraordinarily male-dominated, and the implications of that are extremely damaging for both boys and girls. If all the music you sing is written by men, if all the conductors and organists you work with are male, or if you come into contact with a maximum of only one or two female musicians in your entire time as chorister, then it’s pretty hard to convince yourself that there’s a place for you if you identify as female.

What are the main obstacles to achieving equality for the cathedrals themselves?

Money seems to be the biggest issue. Of course, there are still pockets of the Church of England which don’t believe women should lead, and that girls somehow ruin the sound of cathedral choirs. Although these groups are relatively small they’re still quite vocal. So, I think often money gets used as an excuse where the actual issue is a reluctance to stand up to bigotry. Beyond that, cathedral music is male-dominated because it always has been… and the only way to get over this obstacle is to actually involve, employ and perform music by women. I firmly believe that progress drives progress, so more feminists (male and female) need to go for leadership positions and push for equality until feminism is no longer a dirty word, and empowering women is no longer a token gesture.  

How far off is gender equality?

Unfortunately, I think it’s quite a way off. This is particularly true in the sense that the cathedrals cannot claim to have achieved equality until the opportunities are repeatedly and wholeheartedly extended to musicians of colour, those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, and musicians with disabilities (physical and mental). In all of these cases, females from these groups are significantly less likely to succeed than their male counterparts. That needs to change and choirs are absolutely places where that change can be effected. When I’m feeling positive, particularly when I’m working with the astonishingly talented National Youth Training Choir gals (pictured above), I think these girls will run the world someday really soon! Then I return to the library and ponder how far off gender equality is and I think ‘year 3000?’ However, many cathedrals have indicated that they’d like to utilise the findings of my PhD to help them make progress, so I hope after my PhD I’ll be in a position to advise them on best practice - and also identify and raise some really fundamental flaws in cathedrals who think they are doing a grand job!

A Choral Evensong featuring only music by living female composers - go!

 There’s certainly a wealth of magnificent music by women out there that I don’t know about, but I’d say:

  • Responses: Cecilia McDowall (2010)
  • Canticles: Kerensa Briggs, Gloucester Service (2017)
  • Anthem: Roxanna Panufnik, Ave Maria (2018)
  • Voluntary: Judith Weir, The Tree of Peace (2016)

And to anyone who says that ‘all-female’ services are counter-intuitive, I would say that there are weeks and weeks of music each year (and hundreds of years of previous service sheets) with all-male orders of music. As I said before, there’s quite a long way to go and it’s everyone’s battle, not just a female one! So whether you’re a singer, composer, or conductor (or all three), working in or outside cathedrals, shine a light on the talents of the females around you - equality can only benefit the future of music!

Enya Doyle is a PhD candidate in Music and Theology at the University of Durham. Her research is funded by the St Matthias Foundation.

Further resources and reading

Cecilia's List - Lists of sacred music written by women, sorted for Church seasons.

Multitude of Voyces - Association promoting and supporting inclusive community through music

Music by female composers and arrangers - repertoire list compiled by NYCGB for youth and community choirs