Vocal Performance and Young Masculinities

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Fac Creative Arts, Humanities &Education


Context. Singing is often perceived as an 'uncool' activity for boys and it is harder for choirs to recruit adult male than female singers. Where boys are reluctant to participate in singing, important doors to the development of musicality can be closed. Since the 1950s, popular musical culture has exalted the star performer and it is now more common for young males to 'consume' vocal performance than create it through membership of singing groups. Many traditional sites, such as the class singing lesson or the church choir have become increasingly marginalized. In many performance contexts or genres, young male and female voices are arguably interchangeable. The main audience for such genres is seldom the performer's peer group and commonly an older generation. Such tensions discourage young males from singing and can create social difficulties for those who do. There is uncertainty about who the role models might be for young boys who might become interested in singing and about the status of young male vocal performance outside the accepted norms of popular youth culture. The views of the peer group audience on a broad range of young male vocal performance styles need urgently to be sought.

Aims and Objectives. A key aim of this research is to study the cultural factors that discourage young males from singing. Gender is said to be a 'performance' as young people create their social selves through public behaviour which has gendered meanings. The research will investigate the problems faced by young males who make significant public statements about themselves through voice, movement and dress. Recognising that social class is also significant, the research will additionally examine the cultural rift attributable to the tastes of different generations. It will explore the degree to which certain styles and repertoire create audiences that are far removed from the performer's peer group, and the degree to which this is a problem. An important reason for doing this is to discover young people's views on what kinds of performance might encourage them to participate as singers themselves, discounting prejudgments about what young people's tastes are assumed to be. The clarification of the repertoire through which musicality can be developed is thus important, as is the investigation of what really counts as boys' performance when the repertoire for young males is shared with female voices.

Potential Applications and Benefits. The documentation and analysis of peer group reaction to a broad range of young male vocal performance genres will refresh the debate on what is 'uncool'. The research will address very positively any misconceptions held about singing and masculinity, challenging self-perpetuating stereotypes. It is unlikely that the work will have an immediate major impact on the gender imbalance in singing. However, it will contribute to building the basis for greater understanding of cultural diversity and greater social tolerance of difference amongst young people. Our knowledge of how to present the young male voice in all its cultural diversity to young people will be significantly enhanced. The work has the potential to bridge some of the gap between peer group audience and performer, with the subsequent benefit of increased participation in singing. Choir directors who find it harder to recruit tenors and basses than altos and sopranos may be beneficiaries, as may be the diverse range of organizations which subscribe to forms of cultural outreach to young males. Claims that singing enhances wellbeing in a variety of ways are frequently made, but the hard evidence does not yet build a case that is compelling enough to inject large scale funding and resources into school music and singing opportunities for all. This research will contribute usefully to that evidence base.
Title Monday Afternoons 
Description CD Recording of the development of a young male singer 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Greater understanding in primary schools of the capability of boys voices - the research demonstrated a significant lack of understanding amongst primary school teachers of how the upper register or "head voice" is produced in a boy and what it sounds like. 
URL http://www.martin-ashley.com/sound-archive/monday-afternoons
Title Swing and Sadness 
Description CD recording of new genres for young male voice 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2008 
Impact A new series of choral leaflets (OUP) 
URL http://www.martin-ashley.com/sound-archive/swing-and-sadness
Description (1) Boys' reluctance to sing is not so much a fear that they "might sound like girls" (though this can be encountered). More often, boys avoid singing (in public) because the majority believe that girls can do it better. Fear of feminine success is deeply damaging to the emerging male psyche. This, of course, is a problem for the male psyche, not a problem for girls!
(2) There is a significant problem with the audience for boys' singing. Fundamentally, boys very rarely listen to other boys singing treble. The musical world for most boys is created by the female vocalist or the young male rock star (whose voice, of course, has changed.)
3. The term "vocal agency" was developed through this research. It refers to the empowerment of young males to use their voices to support the kind of public identity they wish to create. A boy might decide as an act of autonomous will whether he wishes to retain as long as possible his former treble voice or develop his newly emerging adult voice. There is a period in a boy's life when both forms of singing are possible.
Exploitation Route This research was further developed in collaboration with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, funded by AHRC as "Widening Young Male Participation in Chorus" - a project that has reached out quite widely to schools, choirs and music services. Anybody concerned with the development of singing strategies, as required by the National Music Plan will continue to find much of value in it. It will also be of use in the context of the creative and cultural industries as it points towards new opportunities for the young male voice in composing, performing and recording.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.martin-ashley.com/research/boys-vocal-identity
Description These research findings were published during the period of government funding for the National Sing Programme (Sing Up) 2007 - 2011. The findings were used to promote singing for boys and to address the ongoing gender imbalance in attitudes to singing. Sing Up commissioned several articles for the Sing Up magazine, including the special feature "Boys Will Surprise YOu" for the publication Sing Into Secondary. The findings informed and were further developed by the AHRC funded knowledge transfer programme "Widening Young Male Participation in Chorus" and have been influential in developing the cambiata concept in the UK.
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title An audio appendix of the young male voices (singing and speaking) referred to in the project 
Description Recordings to illustrate the case studies described in the monograph Teaching Singing to Boys and Teenagers and the book How High Should Boys Sing? 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2010 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The web pages are regularly consulted by readers of the books and students of singing and the adolescent male voice. 
URL http://www.martin-ashley.com/sound-archive/boys-in-the-books
Title Speech Test 
Description A smartphone app that analyses a boy's voice and determines the stage of pubertal development and singing range appropriate to the stage. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact A collaboration has been developed with Professor Gary Butler (UCL and UC Hospital) and Professor David Howard to undertake a validation study based on recordings of the Speech test app and salivary testosterone samples. The study is currently funded by the University of York. Subject to a successful outcome the app will be further developed as a commercial project in conjunction with the UK National Standards for Adolescent Growth. 
URL http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/clnr/uk-national-standards-for-adolescent-growth/