Culture and gender in a cathedral music context: an
activity theory exploration
Graham F Welchi
Institute of Education, University of London
‘As soon as they have read the psalter attentively, small boys are able to understand the meaning
of all books’ (Guido d’Arrezo in 1025, quoted by Mould, 2007, p.6)
The intention of this chapter is to use cultural historical activity theory as a lens to
explore the antecedents to the successful introduction of female choristers into English
cathedrals in the late 20th century in musical, developmental and socio-cultural terms. In
addition, activity theory is used to assess the contemporary impact of this major
innovation and to offer an insight into how the established musical culture of the
cathedrals shapes, promotes and constrains the range of possible musical behaviours by
the individual female choristers, but is also itself expanded.
Introduction: mapping the cultural historical context
Choral activity has been part of the daily ritual in cathedrals, minsters1 and major
chapels2 across the United Kingdom since the foundation of the first Benedictine abbey
by St Augustine at Canterbury in 597AD. This choral practice is believed to have its
origins in the musical traditions of the song school of the Jewish Temple from the first
century BC (Grove, 2004). Subsequently, the Canterbury model of religious foundation
was repeated at Rochester (604), London (St. Paul’s) (604) and York (627).
In Canterbury, young male novices were inducted from the age of seven to ensure a
supply of new clergy and monks as part of Augustine’s mission to bring Christianity
from mainland Europe. Five years after the original foundation, a monastery was built at
1 Minsters are large and important churches that have the status of cathedrals and that were customarily
part of a monastery.
2 Depending on their original foundation status, there are three major categories of religious institution in
the UK that have choristers. The vast majority are cathedrals, with a very small number of Abbeys and a
few so-called ‘Major Chapels’ (such as at Kings College, Cambridge). Throughout this chapter, the term
‘cathedrals’ is used as a collective term to signify this overall set of broadly similar settings for the
performance of religious choral music.
King Ethelbert’s command alongside Augustine’s church as part of the extension of the
religious activity to other parts of the region. On entry to a religious foundation as a
novitiate, an individual’s new identity would be marked by a change in appearance (such
as through special clothing – the ‘habit’ – and tonsured hair styling for boys, or perhaps
the wearing of a ring to demonstrate betrothal to Christ for a nun3). In the relatively
closed environment of the monasteries (compared to the more secularly organised
cathedrals4), children would have had little subsequent contact with their family (Mould,
op.cit.). The religious community was expected to provide the children with sustenance,
both physical and spiritual, in order to ensure the continuation of the mission of the
particular religious order. A central part of the children’s education and induction into
religious life would have included the singing of the daily liturgy (e.g. mass, lauds,
vespers, psalms) by the quire (Mould, 2007). Some monastic buildings had an adjacent
cathedral (the seat of the Bishop – such as at Canterbury) and all would have had their
Religious practices, including music, were often subject to severe disruption in many
parts of the country during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was the result of attacks from
Viking invaders from the latter part of the 8th Century through to the 11th Century.
Following the Norman invasion in 1066, there was a period of relative calm in which
musical practices flourished with a large expansion in the numbers of churches and
chapels (Mould, op.cit.). Nationally, by the time of the plague associated with the Black
Death (1348-49), it is estimated that there were over 1,000 monasteries and nunneries
across Britain, embracing 14,000 monks and 3,000 nuns (Sacket & Skinner, 2006).
Customarily, these religious foundations would have had boys (in the monasteries and a
few nunneries) and girls (in the nunneries) involved in the musical life and daily worship.
In contrast, music in the cathedrals would have continued to be all male.
The expansion was also characterized by the emergence of more diverse forms of
musical polyphony, rather than plainchant, a change that required the singers to be highly
expert musicians and vocal performers. At Canterbury, it was not until 1438 that a small
group of eight almonry boys were identified separately in the abbey records as having
been selected to sing in the Lady Chapel (Page, 2008). This number of male choristers
3 When taking their religious vows, young women wore white, as in a marriage ceremony, and had a ring
placed in their finger (Laven, 2002, p23).
4 By the 12th Century, nine of England’s seventeen cathedrals were secular with boy choristers (Mould,
2007, p.23). Each cathedral was (and is) managed by its own staffing ‘Foundation’, headed by a ‘Dean’ with
support from a small number of appointed ‘Canons’. Religious activity is managed on a regional basis
across the country, with each region being headed by a Bishop whose ‘throne’ (‘cathedra’ (Latin) = chair,
one of the symbols of office) is located within a cathedral.
appears to have been relatively commonplace at that time in choirs (who also included
adult men), with the exception of the chapels at Winchester, New College (Oxford),
Eton, King’s College (Cambridge) and Magdalen (Oxford). Between them, these five
foundations ‘employed…eighty singing boys, almost matching the ninety-seven required
by the whole body of English secular cathedrals at their height’ (Mould, op.cit., p.46). The
sixteen boys specified for New College (1379) and then Winchester College (1382)
subsequently became a model for the numbers of choristers in major choral foundations
that persist to the present day.
The split with the Church of Rome by King Henry VIII in 1534 led to the two
Acts of Dissolution in 1536 and 1539 and resulted in the closure of many religious
communities. Consequently, all the children who sang in monasteries and nunneries (the
latter often responsible for the education of young boys as well as girls) lost their
opportunities to perform the daily liturgy. Although there were continuing opportunities
for boys to sing in cathedrals and chapels across the successive centuries (apart from the
political hiatus of the Commonwealth in the 17th century when such musical practices
generally ceased), no equivalent opportunity was to become available again for girls for
over 400 years.
The introduction of female choristers into English cathedrals in the late 20th
century, therefore, must be seen as a relatively unique historical event. Cathedral music
has been all male in performance since its inception in Canterbury. Although Bradford
(established as a cathedral in 1919 from an older Parish church), Bury St Edmonds and
Leicester (established similarly in 1914 and 1927 respectively) had female choristers at
various points during the 20th century (see below ‘Impetus for change’), it was only in
1991 that Salisbury (established 1258) became the first old cathedral foundation in
England to admit girl choristers.
Notwithstanding the controversy that surrounded this initiative, its powerful
political impact has been reflected in a rapid increase in the establishment of choirs for
female choristers in other cathedrals across England. As can be seen from Figure 1, in
the year before Salisbury’s action (1990), over 95% (n=46) of cathedrals in England had
boys’ only choirs (Leicester being the exception at that time, with Bradford being mixed),
but by 2008 boys’ only choirs are in the minority (40%, n=19). Over half of English
cathedrals (57%, n=27) now employ both boys’ and girls’ choristers of the same age
group, albeit usually singing the daily services separately and only occasionally
performing together for particular major festivals or concerts.
Figure 1: Changes in the make-up of cathedral choirs in England
by sex from 1990 to 2008
Furthermore, Salisbury’s initiative appears to have had a relatively rapid impact on
other English cathedrals, with 17 new girls’ choirs being created within the next six years
(see Figure 2), followed by a steady stream of others to the present day, as well as
possible additions under discussion (Durham) or proposed (Newcastle).
Figure 2: Names and numbers (n=27 to 2006) of English cathedrals by year of their
introduction of female choristers in addition to their established boys’ choirs to sing the
Some cathedrals, such as Portsmouth and Salisbury, have created additional, more
community focused, choirs that bring together both sexes to sing on a regular basis. At
Portsmouth, there is a new mixed choir called ‘Cantate’ for 12 to 18 year olds that began
5 Original data provided by Claire Stewart (private correspondence, February 2008) and from additional
correspondence with individual Directors of Music. Newcastle is planning the introduction of a girls’ choir
later in 2008.
1975 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
1 2 3 2 4 3 3 1 1 1 2 3
Birmingham Bristol Exeter Lincoln Chester Blackburn
Wakefield Coventry Sheffield Norwich Peterborough Derby Liverpool Ely (planned for late 2008)
Wells Rochester Ripon York Lichfield
in November 2006 and who sing Evensong each Thursday. Salisbury began a ‘Junior
Choir’ of 70 members of both sexes aged 8 to 14 years old in 2007 that rehearses each
Saturday morning, with performance opportunities within the cathedral services, as well
as concerts. These are two examples of outreach activities by cathedral choirs into their
local communities. The Choir Schools Association (CSA) report that the first such
activity was in Truro, Cornwall at the turn of the millennium, followed by 21 similar
programmes launched up to and including 2007. Most recently, cathedrals have been
encouraged in their outreach development by an additional £1m per year under the UK
Government’s National Singing Programme ‘Sing Up’ (2007-2011). This programme is
focused on ensuring a high quality singing experience for all Primary school children
(ages 5 to 11), with the cathedrals using their considerable expertise and experience in
children’s singing development by taking choristers into schools, promoting joint
concerts for ‘junior choirs’ and encouraging wider music making and sung performance
within the cathedral itself6.
Each addition to an established cathedral foundation has necessitated the
generation of new funding. Salisbury, for example, reported that £0.5m was needed to
endow sixteen scholarships and Wells Cathedral established a ‘Girl Chorister Trust’ to
secure a permanent endowment fund to provide the eighteen female choristers with the
same ongoing opportunities (including choral scholarships) as their boys.
The impetus for change
The impetus for change in the first three cathedrals to admit female choristers
(Bradford, Leicester and Salisbury) embraced similarities and differences.
Prior to becoming a cathedral in 1920, Bradford had been a large parish church, in
common with several other cathedrals of late nineteenth and early twentieth century
foundation. By the early 1980s, Bradford had two large choirs of boys and men.
However, a reported ‘falling out’ between the choir director and the cathedral authorities
led to the former resigning his post and to many of the boy choristers leaving. As its
musical traditions were relatively recent compared to those within the oldest English
6 See http://www.choirschools.org.uk/2csahtml/outreach.htm The CSA reports that ‘more than 1,200 of
the 21,500 boys and girls in choir schools are choristers’ (retrieved from
http://www.choirschools.org.uk/2csahtml/aboutcsa.htm 16 March 2008)
cathedrals7, there were no long-standing, substantial funds available with which to
support the strong recruitment of boys at a time of unexpected shortage. By 1986, there
had been a further change of musical director and it was around this time that girls were
recruited, probably to boost the number of choristers and perhaps also to improve the
overall musical quality (Stewart, private communication). A large influx of young female
singers allowed the cathedral to create two mixed choirs, one to sing the morning
services and one for the evenings. Since that time, Bradford has continued to have a
mixed choir, notwithstanding recent discussions to create separate, single sex choirs
Leicester Cathedral’s female chorister initiative arose from a similar, related need8. It
was customary for the cathedral to have two evening services on a Sunday. The first was
held at 4pm as a full choral evensong sung by the choir, with settings of the Responses,
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, followed by an anthem, but no sermon. At 6.30pm, there
was another evensong that included a short psalm, the Canticles sung to Anglican chant,
ferial responses, a short anthem and sermon. Unlike the earlier service, the music of the
second evensong was sung by eight boys, four of whom were probationers and the other
four on a rota system from the main choir, supported by a small number of men (but not
members of the main cathedral choir). As the musical quality was not reported to be
particularly satisfactory, auditions were held in 1974 and a choir of 16 girls was formed
from 1975, all aged between 12 and 14. Despite the choristers’ success and competence,
by 1984 the congregation for this 6.30 service had declined to such an extent that it was
decided that a choir was not needed. The girls were offered the opportunity to transfer
their singing to the Saturday evensong to replace the male only choir (boys and men).
However, the girls were reported as being reluctant to do this and so the choir was
disbanded. A new female chorister choir was formed just for Saturday evenings and this
continues to the present day.
Whilst the impetus for change at Salisbury has echoes of that in Bradford and
Leicester, there were several other factors involved. Salisbury Cathedral was founded in
1075 and had existed for over 900 years without the need for any innovation in the sex
of its choir membership. Nevertheless, like many cathedrals, the regular and sustained
recruitment of boy choristers was an ongoing challenge and the innovatory changes at
7 Eighteen English cathedrals were founded between 597 (Canterbury) and 1133 (Carlisle), a further five
were created in 1542, with the remainder dating from 1836.
8 Detail provided by Geoffrey Carter, ex-Assistant Organist at Leicester Cathedral from 1973 to 1994, in
correspondence with Claire Stewart.
Bradford and Leicester are likely to have prompted several discussions amongst cathedral
authorities over whether or not this was an appropriate form of action to increase the
pool of available choristers. There was also widespread interest at the time in the action
of St Mary’s cathedral in Edinburgh where the first female chorister had been admitted
into the cathedral choir in 19789. The organist, Dennis Townhill, had agreed to a
suggestion six years previously by the headteacher of the cathedral’s Music School that
girls with a particular interest and ability in music should be accepted into the school (but
not cathedral choir). Townhill gave a talk to the Cathedral Organists’ Association (COA)
in 1987 at their conference in Coventry, with the vote of thanks being provided by
Richard Seal from Salisbury. Subsequently, the COA had a two-day meeting in
Edinburgh in 1990 and its members attended daily services at St Mary’s and also
observed a choir practice with the boys and girls being rehearsed together.
Then a meeting took place in London at Church House, Westminster on Tuesday
10th October, 1989 which included discussion of chorister recruitment10. The occasion
was a joint meeting of representatives of two major cathedral groupings, namely senior
clerics (the Deans and Provosts) and organists (Seal, 1991). Agenda item 7 focused on
‘Cathedral Choir School and Chorister recruitment’. The official minutes record the
‘There was a wide-ranging discussion of the desirability of training girls to sing in
Cathedrals, perhaps in separate choirs. There was an agreement that the subject
must be aired thoroughly…It was clear from the views expressed that this is an
immense and complicated subject which cannot be tackled quickly. All agreed it
is vital to maintain the excellent tradition of boys’ choirs in the Cathedrals.’ (Seal,
According to Richard Seal, at that time Director of Music at Salisbury Cathedral who
attended the meeting, this discussion provoked much thought and self-reflection about
implications and possibilities. He recalled,
‘To this discussion I contributed nothing of note, other than to take on board
what had been said. When I boarded the train at Waterloo, however, for some
reason best known to my maker, I began to address the problem of how on earth
9 Although Scotland has had a mixed sex cathedral choir at St Mary’s Edinburgh since 1978 and is claimed
to be ‘the first British cathedral to establish a treble line of boys and girls of the same age’ (Townhill, 2000,
p. 121), there are reports that St David’s cathedral in Wales had a mixed sex treble part from the early
1970s, initially because girls were drafted in at the last moment to cover for the boys who fell ill just prior
to a radio broadcast. The girls were so successful that they remained until 1991 when they were separated
into two single sex choirs, but with girls singing most of the services (Stevens, 1999, p.12).
10 As recalled by Richard Seal in his notes for a speech given to the Precentor’s Conference at Durham,
18th September, 1991.
girls could be incorporated into this great tradition…By the time I reached
Salisbury an hour and a half later, I had formulated a plan.’ (Seal, ibid)
Reflecting on the customary weekly pattern of services for Salisbury’s boy choristers,
Seal recognised that the introduction of new, female choristers could be accommodated
on the two evenings each week (Mondays and Wednesdays) when the boys were not
required to sing. There was also an opportunity to reduce the boys’ busy weekend
workload from four services to three. Girls would, therefore, be able to sing three
services each week, whilst the boys would continue to sing six, rather than seven services.
An added bonus would be that the boys would have the same amount of rehearsal time,
but for slightly fewer musical items each week.
The discussions on the possible introduction of female choristers into the all-male
Anglican choral tradition in the late 1980s can also been seen within a wider political
debate related to equal opportunities in society. The political landscape in England at
that time included a significant concern on matters related to social justice. This was
exemplified by the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission (established 1975) and
included investigation of the ongoing impact of recent legislation concerning moves
towards equal pay and the reduction of sex discrimination (HMSO, 1975), as well as
legislation on race relations (HMSO, 1976) and disability provision, the latter specifically
focused on special educational needs (Warnock Committee, 1978; DES, 1981).
Musicians and clergy in the cathedral were unlikely to have been immune to these
public discussions and new legal imperatives11. In the case of Salisbury, this was
exampled by the sister of a Salisbury boy chorister who sent in a request to a highly
popular weekend BBC TV programme.
‘I realise that I can never sing in a Cathedral choir like my brother, but please can
you fix it for me to sing with them just once?’ (Seal, op.cit. p.4)
Her wish was granted on 20th December 1989 when the Cathedral choir travelled to
London to sing with her on television. Just under two years later, Salisbury’s eighteen
female choristers, including the TV performer, assembled on 9th September 1991 for
their first rehearsal (‘a truly historic moment’ – Seal, op.cit. p.5) and one month later sang
their first cathedral Evensong on October 7th. Richard Seal subsequently recalled the
television request as one of the key events at that time that confirmed his wish to
11 In a small-scale survey of why cathedrals had introduced female choristers (Stewart, 2006), half (49%) of
respondents reported on the importance of providing an equal opportunity for girls.
‘What has really motivated me to go ahead with this project [the creation of a girl’s
choir] has been an overwhelming desire to see a cathedral church opening its choir
stalls to both boys and girls, so that girls too can benefit from the unique education
afforded at an English Choir School.’ (Seal, op.cit. p.6)
Seal was not alone in his push for change. He reports that he received much support
from colleagues, including Richard Shephard from York Minster School (although it was
another six years before York had its own female chorister choir) and the Director, as
well as the ex-Director, of the Royal School of Church Music.
An underlying moral imperative for change was also emphasised by the Very
Reverend Hugh Dickenson, Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, in his sermon on the occasion
of the 10th anniversary of the founding of Salisbury’s girls’ choir on 15th of July, 2001
‘Since the beginning of recorded history, patriarchal societies have systematically,
institutionally, and personally conspired to oppress women and to deny them the
freedoms which are their God-given rights…It is less than a hundred years since
women were given the vote or allowed to sit for degrees and less than two hundred
since married women were allowed to own property. Discrimination and male
chauvinism still poison many of the transactions of our public life, in politics,
business, the civil service – and the Churches.’
In July 2001, Salisbury hosted a ‘celebration weekend’ to mark the first decade of the
girls’ choir. The weekend included a Gala Concert with the international soprano Emma
Kirkby and over 300 girl choristers from 19 different cathedrals. An accompanying
pamphlet contained interviews with ex-choristers who were part of the original female
intake. They spoke of their sense of ‘family’ and of the long-lasting ‘friendships’ that
developed amongst choristers who were living a close life together, as well as of the
advanced musical skills that they acquired and how these had been an asset in their
subsequent engagement with music, whether as professional musicians or as relatively
skilled musicians within the amateur community.
As demonstrated in Figures 1 and 2, throughout the 1990s and subsequently, there
has been a continuing shift towards the introduction of female choristers in English
cathedrals. By 2006, the ground breaking initiative at Salisbury, foreshadowed at
Bradford and Leicester, had been copied by the majority of the English cathedrals. The
two sets of choristers often come together for special musical events, such as radio and
television broadcasts, concerts or major festivals. Nevertheless, with the exceptions of
the mixed choirs at Bradford and Manchester (since 1992) – Bury St Edmonds was
initially boys, then mixed to 1984, then became boys only again – they tend not to sing
the daily services together. Instead, they alternate, usually with the boy choristers
continuing to perform the majority of sung services each week (for example, a small scale
survey for the COA (Stewart, 2006) revealed (i) that the ratio of boys to girls in the
regular performance of the liturgy in cathedral services was 2:1 and (ii) that boys tended
to sing most of their services with the men as a full, four-part choir and fewer services on
their own, whereas girls had fewer services to sing overall and these were approximately
equally split between singing along or with the men.)
Reactions to change
These innovations in the composition of the traditionally all-male cathedral choir
were not without controversy. The Dean of Salisbury Cathedral reported in his 10th
Anniversary sermon (mentioned above) that ‘…we knew that there would be screams of
shock horror in some places’ and ‘…we encountered stiff, sometimes almost venomous
opposition.’ The professional music journals, such as Cathedral Music, Church Music
Quarterly, Classical Music and BBC Music Magazine, as well as other news media including
Le Monde and TIME magazine have often carried articles expressing arguments for and
against the innovation of girl choristers in the cathedrals.
One particular collective of concerned people created the Campaign for the
Traditional Cathedral Choir (CTCC, formerly labelled the Campaign for the Defence of
the Traditional Cathedral Choir) with the object ‘To champion the ancient tradition of
the all-male choir in Cathedrals, Chapels Royal, Collegiate Churches, University Chapels
and similar ecclesiastical choral foundations’ (retrieved from
http://www.ctcc.org.uk/objects.htm 10 March 2008). The CTCC website offers a ‘guide
in pictures to the demise of the all-male choral tradition’. They suggest that the
introduction of female choristers will lead to fewer opportunities for boys and
subsequent problems in the recruitment of adult male singers (male altos, tenors, basses)
because they report that many of the men in cathedral choirs are ex-choristers.
The CTCC also express concern that the ‘uniqueness’ of the boy chorister voice will
be lost, along with its centuries old performance tradition. Several empirical studies have
explored the extent to which the sound of trained boy choristers is ‘unique’ compared to
that of girls, whether acoustically, perceptually or both. Certainly, there are acoustic and
perceptual differences in the singing of untrained children’s voices. A study of the
singing of 320 (untrained) children aged 4-11 years found evidence that listeners were
able to identify correctly the sex of the singer in just over 70% of cases, with older
children more accurately identified than younger (Sergeant et al, 2005). Subsequently, the
relatively consistent age and gender cues in untrained children’s singing were examined
acoustically though analyses of their Long-Term-Average Spectra (Sergeant & Welch, in
press[a]; in press[b]). These revealed that there were no significant acoustic differences
between the sexes for the youngest age group (4-5 years), but that the older two age
groups (6-8 and 9-11 years) had demonstrable and statistically significant sex differences
in their sung spectra. Shifts of spectral energy from higher frequency regions to lower
frequency regions were found to be present in data for both sexes as they got older, and
the fulcrum for these changes in spectral tilt was approximately 5.75kHz, i.e. the energies
at frequencies above 5.75kHz decreased over age, and energies below 5.75kHz increased
correspondingly. However the shifts were not uniform between sexes, with the shifts
beginning earlier for girls than for boys.
In comparison, perceptual and acoustic studies of trained chorister voices, in choirs
and singly, indicate that listeners' perceptual accuracy of singer gender varies according to
the nature of the musical example (Sergeant & Welch, 1997; Howard, et al, 2001;
Howard, Szymanski & Welch, 2002; Howard & Welch, 2002; Moore & Killian, 2000-
2001). There is evidence of particular individual girl and boy soloists, as well as girls' and
boys' choirs, being consistently identified or misidentified in relation to particular items
of musical repertoire. It would seem that not all boys' cathedral choirs exhibit a 'unique'
and archetypal male vocal timbre that is sustained over time; the experimental data reveal
that some boys’ choirs can be mistaken as female in their composition. Conversely, it is
clear that some girl choristers, both singly and collectively, are able to produce vocal
timbres that are perceived to be within a 'boy/masculine' category’.
‘With regard to perceived singer gender, a summary of recent research data indicates
that, whilst it is possible for an untrained solo singer’s sex to be identified relatively
accurately from around the age of eight onwards, it is also equally possible for
trained female choristers from the age of 8 to be systematically mistaken as male,
depending on the particular piece of music being performed. However, once the
female chorister moves into her mid-teens, the voice quality becomes more
characteristically identifiable as “female” (“womanly”)12. (Welch, 2006, p321)
Furthermore, the concept of an “appropriate” vocal timbre for all boy choristers in
performance also appears to be socially located. For example, when appointed as
organist of Westminster Cathedral in 1947, George Malcolm said that he disliked the
12 For a detailed review of the literature on gender and chorister voice, including similarities and
differences in the underlying anatomy and physiology for singing, see Welch & Howard (2002). For data
on the perceived gender of untrained children’s voices, see Sergeant et al (2005).
“artificial and unnatural sound” produced by English choirboys. He set out to produce a
sound that was different and more “natural”. The outcome was subsequently termed
“continental” by contemporaries (Day, 2000, p.131), being perceived as not
stereotypically “English” because of a greater emphasis on vocal “colour” and “strength”
Despite the strength of the male chorister tradition, one of the paradoxes of the
research data on child and adolescent singing development is that girls tend to be
reported as more competent singers in each age group and usually report that they enjoy
singing more. Recent and ongoing research under the auspices of the UK Government’s
National Singing Programme into the singing development of 3,500 children between the
ages of 7 and 11 has found that, as they age, boys characteristically often dislike singing
in school and in public contexts (Welch et al, 2008). Yet the cathedral choral tradition has
been based around the singing skills of boys for more than a thousand years.
It remains to be seen whether the creation of girls’ choirs alongside those for boys
has any particular impact on traditional chorister recruitment. The Liverpool Echo (20th
January 2006) reports a Liverpool cathedral administrator as saying ‘Only one boy
chorister passed auditions in June, but we were overrun with girls’. The paper speculates
that it may be the heavy schedule for boy choristers – Monday, Tuesday and Friday
evenings, as well as half day Saturday and all day Sunday – that was acting as a
disincentive. Other press reports suggest that any difficulties with (male) recruitment are
likely to be related to competition from other opportunities for play, recreation and
exploration within contemporary childhood, such as offered by a wide range of
technologically based media. It may also be that the recruitment of girls has a negative
effect on the formerly exclusive status and identity of male choristers, not least because
the females may be slightly older, more mature and able to remain in the choir for longer
because of the relatively minimal impact of their adolescent voice change on singing
performance compared to boys.
Although there were (and are) concerns that the innovation of girl choristers would
weaken or even destroy the ‘all-male’ musical tradition, the evidence (such as in Figure 2,
above) suggests that this has not happened so far. Any particular challenges in boy
chorister recruitment appear to be long-standing (at least as evidenced by the minutes of
the meeting in Church House of 1989 cited earlier). Across the cathedral sector, there
has been no change in the number of boys’ choirs since the relative innovation at
Salisbury. With the exception of the two cathedrals in England with mixed choirs
(Bradford and Manchester), all the others continue to have choral activities in which
boys sing on their own or with men. It may be that the introduction of female choristers
has led to slightly fewer services for the boys to sing each week, but this reduction is
likely to be a small proportion of their total workload; in general, boys continue to sing a
greater number of services than their female peers. Furthermore, where girls’ choirs have
been introduced, the number of rehearsals for the boys is often the same as they
experienced previously and so the level of their singing skill should be at least sustained,
if not improved, under the new dispensation – a suggestion supported by the available
data in survey responses from Directors of Music (Stewart, 2006).
Chorister tradition and innovation: An activity theory
It is evident from the above cultural and historical narrative that the past two
decades have been marked by a major cultural shift in cathedral music in England. From
a social psychology perspective, one possible explanation is available through the lens of
what has been termed as cultural historical activity theory (e.g. Bedny et al, 2000)13. This
theory (also known as ‘activity theory’) is concerned – inter alia – with how the structure
of an organisation generates messages and possibilities for its participants as to what is
appropriate action (Daniels, 2004). The theory also takes the perspective that individual
learning is mediated by action that is related to cultural artefacts and membership of
groups within a wider community.
The grounding to the theory has been traced back to the work of Luria, Vygotsky
and Leont’ev in the early decades of the twentieth century (cf Bannon, 2008; Cole, 1999).
These Russian psychologists explored how learning and development were the product
of inter- and intrapersonal behaviours that were shaped by cultural artefacts14 (e.g.,
literature), alongside tools (including psychological tools, such as language and other
13 An initial exemplification of how activity theory might be applied in music education, with examples
from the introduction of the female chorister into cathedral choirs may be found in Welch (2007).
14 According to Cole (1999, p90), an artefact is ‘a material object that has been modified by human beings
as a means of regulating their interactions with the world and each other. Artefacts carry within them
successful adaptations of an earlier time (in the life of the individual who made them or in earlier
generations) and, in this sense, combine the ideal and the material, such that in coming to adopt the
artefacts provided by their culture, human beings simultaneously adopt the symbolic resources they
symbol systems), expectations, ‘rules’/conventions and norms. The internalisation of
artefacts was also seen to facilitate the agency of the individual, such that the artefacts
themselves became modified through personal use, enabling the possibility of
consequent change within the culture.
Figure 3: The structure of a human activity system (Engeström, 2001b, p136)15
A key concept is ‘activity’ which is defined as ‘…the engagement of a subject toward
a certain goal or objective’ (Ryder, 2008). One widely cited model of an activity system is
that provided by Engeström in his discussion of the evolution of the theory (Engeström
& Miettinen 1999; Engeström, 2001a – see Figure 3). In the upper triangle in the figure,
Engeström draws on a Vygotskian conception that the ‘object’ of an action by (or on) a
‘subject’ is culturally ‘mediated’ by some form of ‘artefact’. This relates to Vygotsky’s
notion of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vygotsky, 1978), being the realisation of
potential development under the guidance of an expert or more capable peers. The upper
part of the figure is extended in the lower part to encompass Leont’ev’s perspective of
individual and group actions being embedded in a collective, interactive activity system
(Leont’ev, 1978) in which ‘rules’, a sense of ‘community’ and ‘division of labour’
(division of effort) are also evidenced. In the overall model, the ‘object’ of the activity is
15 The circle in Figure 3 indicates that ‘object-oriented actions are always, explicitly or implicitly,
characterised by ambiguity, surprise, interpretation, sense making and potential for change’ (Engeström,
perceived as a cultural entity (Engeström, 2001a) and the ‘outcome’ may or may not be
the same as the intended ‘object’.
Engeström also posits that several activity systems can co-exist and interact, such
that the ‘object’ is jointly shared or constructed, or is seen as an opportunity for
‘expansive learning’ (Engeström, 2001b, p137) where culturally new patterns of activity
emerge16 (see below).
Engeström (2001a, 2005) articulates five basic principles for activity theory as
• The prime unit of analysis is ‘…a collective, artifact-mediated and object-oriented
activity system, seen in its network relations to other activity systems’ (2001a, p.6).
The activity system is the set of relationships between elements (see Figure 3:
Engeström, 2001b). ‘Goal directed individual and group actions…are relatively
independent but subordinate units of analysis, eventually understandable only when
interpreted against the background of entire activity systems’ (ibid).
• Activity systems are ‘multi-voiced’ (2001a, p.7), embracing multiple viewpoints,
traditions and interests. ‘…participants carry their own diverse histories and the
activity system itself carries multiple layers and strands of history engraved in its
artifacts, rules and conventions’ (ibid).
• Activity systems ‘take shape and are transformed over lengthy periods of time’,
suggesting a concept of ‘historicity’ (ibid). History embraces both ‘the local history of
the [particular] activity and its objects’, as well as the wider ‘history of the theoretical
ideas and tools that shape the activity’ (ibid).
• Change and development arise from ‘contradictions’ that are ‘historically
accumulating structural tensions within and between activity systems’ (ibid).
• Activity systems are subject to the possibility of ‘expansive transformations’ (ibid).
These are the product of the ‘aggravation’ of contradictions, such as when individuals
‘question and deviate from established norms’ which ‘escalates into collaborative
envisioning’ towards an alternative collective viewpoint.
Whilst it is possible to conceive of answers to such questions in any particular
educational context without drawing on activity theory per se, Engeström (and others)
believes that the theory provides a framework by which a more holistic and
16 Engeström (2001b: 140/145) provides an example of how organizational tensions in children’s health
care in Helsinki were made explicit through an analysis of (minimally) three interconnected activity
systems, representing the local children’s hospital, the primary care health centre and the activity system of
the child patient’s family. The eventual outcome was a new, negotiated care agreement model for the
improvement of healthcare for children.
environmentally sensitive conceptualisation of behaviour is possible17. Support for such
an approach may be found in other relatively recent, educationally sensitive
conceptualisations, such as ‘situated learning’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and ‘communities
of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) in which the social location of individual action and
understanding is central. Taken together, these perspectives suggest that individual and
collective behaviour are grounded in situated practices (Johansson, 2008)
Activity theory and the introduction of female choristers into English cathedrals: a
cas e st u dy
One use of activity system theory is that it allows the investigator to combine both
macro and micro perspectives.
‘The analyst constructs the activity system as if looking at it from above. At the
same time, the analyst must select a member (or better yet, multiple different
members) of the local activity, through whose eyes and interpretations the
activity is constructed. This dialectic between the systemic and subjective-partisan
views brings the researcher into a dialogical relationship with the local activity
(Engeström & Miettinen, 1999: 10)
The underlying principles that inform Engeström’s model of activity theory can be
used to explore the recent introduction of female choristers into English cathedrals. For
example, Wells Cathedral in the West of England introduced girl choristers in 1993, two
years after the Salisbury innovation and in a context where male choristers have sung in
the choir since 1354. In 1999, the author began a longitudinal series of (ongoing)
research visits to investigate the nature and development of the female chorister voice
and the impact of the introduction of female choristers on the previously all-male
cathedral culture. The multi-methods, case study approach embraced observations, semi-
structured interviews, analyses of printed materials (such as music and service schedules),
field notes and acoustic recordings of individual and collective singing behaviours in the
different settings (including a vacant practice room in Wells Cathedral School, rehearsal
spaces – the Cathedral Undercroft, Cloister, new Choir Centre and Nave – and (with
17 Activity theory has been applied to a wide range of studies into ‘cultural practices and practice-bound
cognition’ (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999, p.8), such as human computer interaction (HCI) (e.g.,
understanding web-based activity, the process of software design), workplace learning, markets, healthcare,
childhood play and certain categories of education. The theory’s application in the field of music education
and music psychology appears to be relatively recent (e.g. Smith & Walker, 2002; Barrett, 2005; Walker &
Smith, 2001; Welch, 2007; Johansson, 2008).
permission) choral performance at Evensong18. Opportunities have been taken during
each visit to speak to individuals and small groups of female choristers, as well as to
significant adults, such as the cathedral’s Organist and Master of the Choristers (with a
change of post holder in 2004) and adult male singers from the choir (the ‘Vicars
Choral’), plus others with special responsibility for the general welfare of the choristers,
including the Head and Deputy of the Wells Cathedral Music School where the
choristers receive their specialist education. The prime focus for the interviews has been
to explore the experience of becoming and being a female chorister and to contextualise
these with views from adults who are closely involved in their support and development.
The semi-structured interview data and observational field notes were transcribed
into Microsoft Word and analysed using Atlas.ti 5.0 (a specialist qualitative analysis tool
produced by ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH). The analyses
generated thirty-nine different elements that were identified as having a reported impact
on chorister development. These clustered under four main umbrella categories and sub-
categories, with examples as follows:
• Personal/individual identity: Under this heading, responses demonstrated the
singers’ sense of their emergent self and its development. Choristers commented
on (a) improvements in their vocal technique ‘My voice is getting stronger. I am more
able to do long phrases and sight read and all that’; ‘I just use my diaphragm more’; ‘I’ve got a
lot stronger and I feel more confident with like intervals and stuff like that’ [as a
probationer]), (b) changes in the vocal quality, which can be positive ‘a clear
sound’; ‘a laser beam from your forehead’; ‘Well, I listen to the older girls in the choir and they
probably have the voice that you want to get …’; and sometimes negative: such as being
frightened by the emergence of ‘vibrato’ [at 15 years old], (c) a growing awareness
of gender differences ‘Young boys’ voices are ‘pure’, girls are ‘more breathy’, boys are
sometimes ‘annoying’ and ‘show off’, as well as ‘embarrassed to do certain things [singing
in front of girls]’ and (d) of singing being an emotional experience ‘I loved it…I
really enjoyed it’ (ex-chorister); ‘I would be lost without it’. They also commented on
personal strategies for learning ‘I can’t sight read, but I listen instead. If I can sing really
quietly the first time, the next time its all there’.
18 To date (March, 2008), there have been seventeen site visits, 301 recordings of 59 individual choristers
(some recorded regularly over a period of up to six years), observations at seventeen rehearsals and an
equivalent number of evening sung services, as well as over twenty-five hours of semi-structured
interviews. Two colleagues (Professor David Howard, University of York and, more recently, Evangelos
Himonides, Institute of Education) have been closely involved with the voice recordings and with the
(ongoing) acoustic analyses. Part of the research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board
under grant B/SG/AN8886/APN14717 (2002-2003).
• Group identity: Comments revealed a sense of collectivity in their music making
and of belonging to the choir ‘I prefer singing with the girls’ [rather than singing
together with the boys]; ‘We’ve got a bit more tone’ [than the boys]; ‘There was about a
hundred of us’ in the combined concert at Salisbury to celebrate their tenth
anniversary which was ‘great’; ‘We get on really well, we like bond…That’s part of being in
a choir, bonding with people’; ‘It’s just fun…its like really sociable’; and talking about the
men in the choir ‘Well, I never used to like know them before we went on tour. But when we
went on tour, I got to know them really well and it was good’. They also commented on
the influence of others and of experiencing singing differences in shaping their
musical identity ‘Mr A says ‘get a ping girls’’; ‘It doesn’t take that long’ [to become part
of the choral sound as a novice]; ‘Sometimes I still get lost in some of the bits where it all
gets loud’; ‘She’s louder than me. And I’m a year older than her’. ‘On Saturday we did a
concert in Bristol cathedral. We each got a chance to sing a piece on our own, each choir. There
was Exeter, Salisbury, Bristol…I think Wells is different in that it doesn’t sound so girly’;
Although comments from non-chorister peers may not always be positive,
particularly as the girls grow older, these can also contribute to the sense of
chorister identity ‘Gosh, you sing in the choir, why on earth do you do that?’; ‘They sort of
always assume that you’re singing really strange stuff like operas, like totally sacred and
everything, but that’s not all, you know, we sing other stuff as well…’.
• Environment: The vocal sounds are shaped by the expectations of the religious
rituals and buildings, as well as from within the musical culture. ‘On Saturday we
had a concert for the tenth anniversary of the girls’ choir…and people in the audience were
making comments that how on earth did we sound like boys so much’; ‘My voice changed a lot
[whilst I was in the choir] because mainly of the people around me’; ‘The most important
thing is vocal [music] first, then the words’; ‘One girl left because her voice just broke, it just
got too kind of rich. Too rich for the choir. She just didn’t blend at all with the rest of the choir’;
‘Mr A strongly advises that everyone plays the piano here’ [to improve their general
musicianship skills]; ‘You have to put your hand up’ [when you make a mistake].
• Relationships: – the sense of being part of a community of practice in which the
senior choristers, for example, have a key role ‘Most of the seniors have very good
voices’; ‘It helps to listen to all the people around you’; ‘When I was nervous, they were always
telling me I’d be fine and everything’; ‘…they are supportive’; ‘We went on tour last Easter to
France, Belgium and Holland and we basically kicked ass ‘cause we just sang everything and
we sang really beautiful pieces. We did such a range of things that we really proved that we could
do anything if we really wanted to’.
Although the data analyses are ongoing, a picture is beginning to emerge in which
the female choristers may be seen both as part of an established tradition, but also as
having a ‘transformational’ impact on it. The customary tripartite relationship in music
(Small, 1999) between the physical setting, people (performers and listeners) and musical
soundscape constrains the variety of possible musical outcomes, but this relationship has
also been modified through the innovation of choristers who are female.
The introduction of female choristers has been in the context of a primarily all-male
musical culture, with its established rituals, processes (including teaching and learning),
rules, expectations and communal perspectives. Although the prime purposes of those
proposing the innovation embraced a moral imperative, they believed also (on the basis
of experience elsewhere within the cathedral music community) that it was possible to
introduce female choristers without risk to the musical quality or repertoire expected
within the sung religious services. That this should be accomplished successfully, for
example, as evidenced in the empirical perceptual data on the acoustic similarities of
trained male and female voices – see Welch & Howard, 2002 – and in the growth in the
numbers of female choristers nationally, is testimony to the strength of the established
musical culture. The lens of activity theory suggests that there is a dialectic development
in which the novice cathedral chorister is nurtured and supported to become an
accomplished performer. Yet, at the same time, there is evidence of cultural
transformation as the dominant all-male culture adapts to unforeseen pressures from the
creation of girls’ choirs, such as exampled by the recent development of cathedral
outreach activities that seek to address the moral imperative by bringing younger and
older singers of both sexes together from outside the cathedral to perform with the more
At Wells, the data suggest that chorister development is nurtured, shaped and
constrained by systemised cultural practices (see Figure 4 from Welch, 2007). The novice
female cathedral chorister is inducted into the musical culture by regular attendance at
rehearsals (most days at least once, sometimes twice), as well as singing in religious
services on selected Weekday evenings and on a Sunday. A typical morning rehearsal of
50 minutes begins just before 8am with the twenty choristers (including ‘probationers’)
processing from the School in pairs, led by the Head Chorister and with the senior
choristers keeping a close eye on the younger members, followed by the Organist and
Master of the Choristers. They enter the rehearsal room (formerly the Undercroft next to
the Chancel, now the new Choir Room complex) where they hang their cloaks and
divide into two groups (‘sides’ – Cantoris and Decani) standing behind rehearsal pews
(very similar to those in the Cathedral where they perform) either side of the grand
piano, with some of the shortest and youngest members requiring small boxes to stand
on so that they can see and be seen. The less experienced singers are placed between the
senior choristers who provide support and guidance and who also act as vocal role
models. Normally, two choristers give out the music to be rehearsed that session.
Choristers are expected to have pencils to annotate their copies of the music as necessary
(such as to indicate particular elements of phrasing, or for the avoidance of errors in
Figure 4: An example of the activity system that frames the development of the novice
(female) cathedral chorister (Welch, 2007)
The rehearsal begins customarily with five minutes of vocalises to ‘warm-up’ the
voices. These typically include such musical activities as nasalized humming, ascending
and descending on patterns across the first five pitches of the scale, with starting pitches
transposed up by step and then down; then arpeggios up a ninth and back; then vocal
glides on different vowels. On the morning of 12th November 2007, for example, the
warm up session was followed by choristers singing through the Schütz ‘Magnificat’ in
German for Evensong that day. Then they rehearsed Bach’s motet setting of ‘Lobert den
Herrn’ (Psalm 117). The vocal pitch range embraced an octave and a sixth from c4
(middle C) to a5 (top a) and much of the part writing is designed to be performed
allegro. First the choristers sang through the piece without stopping, accompanied by
with piano. This was followed by the rehearsal of smaller sections that focused on
aspects of pronunciation and phrasing, with and without accompaniment, including the
final ‘Alleluja’ where the emphasis was on word stresses and with much evidence of
pencils being used. There were also questions from the Master to be answered on aspects
of the score. No errors in performance went unremarked and all prompted further
rehearsal of that element until it was correct. Particularly rhythmic phrases were modelled
on the piano and sung by the Master. The singing was impressive, performed accurately
at speed, in German. There was evidence of significant cognitive loading (cf Owens &
Sweller, 2008) during the rehearsal, as the choristers were required to process the
auditory experience of the music, its notation, the text in a foreign language, as well as
specific features required in performance by the Master. After 38 minutes, the focus
shifted back to the Schütz with its double choir and two soprano lines. Particular foci
were word rhythms that crossed bar-lines, pronunciation, entries, phrasing. The rehearsal
ended just before 9am in time for the choristers to begin morning school. Throughout,
the emphasis was on sustained sung performance, with little evidence of choristers being
‘off task’ and the behaviour being shaped (as in Figure 4) by the ways that the ‘tools’
(musical and linguistic, over time) were used and shaped by the ‘rules’ (expectations and
roles) for the rehearsal within the ‘division of labour’ (roles) as required by the choral
This pattern of focused activity in which time is carefully managed is also
characteristic of the school day as a whole. When asked to describe a typical day, a
chorister reported a fourteen-hour series of activities, often from 6.30am to 8.30pm. The
after-school period is particularly structured around music and community. At Wells, for
‘On Choir day, I'll do like I do it today - you go to, at four o'clock you go to Cedars, have like
a cake and a drink, then you line up in ranks at five past four and then at ten past four you set
off down to the Cathedral. You have Evensong. You have a rehearsal from twenty past [four]
‘till five o'clock. Quarter past five you get, um, to go into the service. Six o'clock it's, um, the
service ends. You go back out and then at quarter past, it's tea and then after tea you go to Bat
House, have salad, do your prep at seven. At half seven you come back from prep, have your
tuck; quarter to eight upstairs, teeth and pyjamas, um, and a quiet read from quarter to eight
till half eight and lights out half eight.’
Similarly, at Canterbury, the modern boy choristers have an equally circumscribed day:
‘Here is a typical chorister's working day: 7.05 am — rising bell at Choir House; 7.10 am
— first breakfast bell when half of the boys have breakfast while the other half have
instrumental practice; 7.30 am — the two halves swap. Followed by teeth cleaning and
changing from slippers to outdoor shoes; 8 am — bell to line up for practice. In crocodile (and
silence). They file across to the song school for one hour's practice of scales and arpeggios and
music for Evensong; 9 am — all pack into the minibus and travel to St Edmund's and a
normal school day follows; 4 pm — they have a drink and a slice of cake after which the
minibus returns them to Choir House. Here they have shoe cleaning and hand washing
supervised by a monitor; 5 pm — the boys are back in the cathedral where cassocks are put on
and they practice for half an hour; 6 pm — fully robed and with surplices they process in. After
Evensong they return to Choir House for supper.’
http://www.ofchoristers.net/Chapters/Canterbury.htm, retrieved 4 Jan 2008.
Another way that the culture sustains itself is in the pattern of different ages within
the choir. The female choristers represent overlapping annual populations because there
is always some change of chorister personnel at the end of each summer term. When the
female chorister choir was initially created at Wells in 1993, the senior female choristers
were required to ‘retire’ from the choir at age fourteen, the same age as their male
counterparts. Customarily, new, younger female singers, usually aged between eight and
ten years, replace those who leave. However, a temporary shortfall in female chorister
recruitment one year led to a membership rule change by which female choristers could
opt to stay on to the age of sixteen, but without holding ‘office’ in the choir (such as
Head Chorister). This, in turn, had the effect of changing the overall range of female
vocal timbres available and allowed the (then) Master of Choristers to choose (and
compose) new repertoire that exploited the opportunities afforded by this ‘changed
colour palette’ (his words). Further outcomes (positive and negative) were that the more
junior members of the choir had highly experienced, mature voiced, senior colleagues
that they ‘idolised’ as powerful performers and role models, but meant that some also felt
that their own individual contributions were overpowered.
One ‘outcome’ of the dominant culture is the way that it ‘shapes’ the individual
chorister’s singing towards an accepted acoustic product. Nevertheless, this singing style
is only one of several that the choristers can employ. For example, as part of the research
process, individual choristers have been recorded singing examples of the different vocal
genres that are part of their daily lives, some public, some private, both within and
without the cathedral and school settings. These examples range from the sacred music
of the cathedral, individual pieces being studied in school (usually classical, but also some
from popular music theatre) and their ‘own’ music that they listen to at home or when
relaxing with their peers. Each musical style has its own performance ‘rules’, established
cultural ‘artefacts’ and implied musical identity.
Consequently, the success of the culture in creating accomplished young female
singers who are capable of sustaining and enriching the existing musical programme with
its characteristic vocal timbre may also contain ‘contradictions’ at a personal level. As
these adolescent girls get older, their voices take on the acoustic characteristics of a
young woman, both in speech and in singing, often with the latter embracing increased
pitch and dynamic ranges and ‘new’ vocal colours, such as vibrato (cf Gackle, 2000).
For some successful individual fourteen-year-old female choristers, the vocal
mastery gained through choir membership, allied to a powerful emotional engagement
with their own, non-sacred (popular) vocal music, has been sufficient for them to leave
the choir to pursue their own musical interests, such as forming a rock group, learning
music theatre repertoire, or ‘just starting a new phase in my life’. Drawing on the proposition
by Engeström (2001b, p137 – cited earlier) that several activity systems can co-exist and
interact, it is possible to see how the collective ‘object’ within the choral tradition – to
produce new, expert choristers – may, for some, become mismatched with their
developing individual identity, both as an expert solo singer and also as a performer
drawn to other musical genres that are perceived to be more closely related to their peer
identity (see Figure 5). Object and outcomes can then become dissimilar. The vocal
stylistics that characterise jazz or music theatre are not the same as required in classical
music performance and the reference group for such genre-sensitive vocal behaviours –
their communal membership – is less the cathedral and more the listening preferences
and popular performers that are enjoyed by the peer group. The ‘outcome’ is an expert
young female singer whose maturing vocal identity moves away from the ‘object’
expected in the collective performance of choral repertoire as this becomes less satisfying
and aligned musically at a personal level. An ex-chorister, for example, reports on the
benefits to her voice since leaving the choir: ‘In the choir you sing every day. You sing how they
want you to sing. You sing. I mean, really it doesn’t give you much chance to be free, have your own really
full voice. I mean, not having so many choir lessons has really helped not having so much pressure on my
voice…it’s fuller, less pure, um it’s supported in a completely different way. To be free, you can’t hold
onto a pitch, but to get in tune, you have to get in tune some other way.’
Figure 5: Two activity systems: one that fosters the development of the cathedral
chorister; the other that frames the development of the individual singer’s identity,
within and without sacred choral music
Several choristers recognised that the possibility of individual singing lessons in the
school from the age of fourteen could present challenges to their singing identities: ‘…if
we all have separate singing lessons and our voices develop um…they won’t blend ‘cos we’ll all have to
develop our own techniques and stuff’. When asked about the future, one senior chorister said
that she would like to transfer to a school that specialises in popular music: ‘I went to look
around there and it was just really friendly and you do all styles of music, ‘cos I’ve only really been in a
choir. I’ve only really done church music and stuff and so I want to do some different styles of music…’
Activity theory and the introduction of female choristers into
English cathedrals: some general findings
The five summative principles that characterise Engeström’s model of activity
theory (2001a; 2005 – see above) can be interpreted in relation to the historical cultural
introduction of female choristers across the cathedral music sector. This particular
framing of activity theory provides explanations both for the maintenance of the choral
tradition, as well as its relative transformation (termed by Engeström as ‘expansion’).
Principle 1: ‘…a collective, artifact-mediated and object-oriented activity system, seen in its network
relations to other activity systems’
The musical culture and choral tradition are subject to ongoing sustenance each day
through the combination of elements embraced by the theorised activity system (Figure
4). Nevertheless, at the level of the group and individual, as well as the wider choral
tradition, change is evident because there are social, cultural and musical processes
embedded in the daily ritual. These processes generate opportunities for diversity and
transformation – such as in musical repertoire, choral behaviour, individual voice
development, role-play, leadership, apprenticeship and in what counts as ‘ideal’ in sacred
choral performance. Although the overarching ‘object’ may be the same across the
cathedral music sector in terms of producing expert choristers (irrespective of sex) that
are capable of performing the musical repertoire, there is variation within the sector in
the organisation of the choral activity at a local level.
Within each cathedral context, the local culture is characterised by various linked
object-oriented activity systems. An individual student is likely to be subject to several of
these, such as pupil, musician, or chorister – each with related, but different, educational
‘objects’. For example, the female choristers of Wells Cathedral (with a few exceptions),
normally attend the Specialist Music School at Wells – one of five within England – that
is located within a co-educational independent (fee-paying, non-state aided) school for
pupils aged 4 to 18 years. Physically, the three components (independent school, Music
School and cathedral) are in one complex that nestles around the original medieval
buildings. The closeness and similarities of the geographical spaces are integral to the
dominant musical identities and the way that these are shaped. These encompass the
choristers identities in music – as musicians, instrumentalists, singers, performers, as well
as the way that music becomes interwoven in their personal identity, as young people,
female, educated at Wells (cf Hargreaves et al, 2002 for a discussion on ‘identity in music’
and ‘music in identity’).
Principle 2: Activity systems are ‘multi-voiced’ embracing multiple viewpoints, traditions and interests
Members of the cathedral staffing – the clergy, administrators, voluntary helpers,
musicians, caterers – each bring their own perspective, collective and individual, as to
their purpose within the collective identity. The regular members of the cathedral
congregation and the many thousands of visitors from the UK and overseas also bring
different expectations to bear on the activity and how this is perceived. Although the
music is a key component of cathedral life, its centrality will vary, depending on whether
the perspective is from one of the professional musicians, including the choristers (and
their parents), or consumers of, and audiences for, the music (whether official cathedral
employees or others).
‘Multi-voicedness’ is evident in the multiple viewpoints that are made manifest, both
between different cathedral choirs, as well as within the choral community, e.g., with
Wells girls often reporting that they see themselves as ‘different’ from the boys, in
behaviour, maturity, and – sometimes – vocal sounds. A recent survey (cited earlier), for
example, of why certain cathedrals had introduced female choristers reported diverse
explanations at the local level (Stewart, 2006). Some Directors of Music suggested that it
was a result of difficulties in male chorister recruitment; others said that female
recruitment provided an opportunity to reduce the pressure on their boys, whilst many
felt that they needed to address issues of equal opportunity.
Principle 3: Activity systems ‘take shape and are transformed over lengthy periods of time’
The all-male cathedral choir in England has a fourteen hundred year history. This
powerful tradition has managed to survive across the centuries despite major political
and physical upsets in the country at large. Yet, even within this tradition there has been
change, such as in the increased numbers of male choristers in the choir, the constant
additions to the musical repertoire, including the design of the layout of the psalter
(changed in the mid-eighteenth century to include ‘pointing’ to indicate changes in the
chant in relation to the text - Mould, 2007) and the inclusion of hymns, as well as
variations in the number of sung services across the week. Similarly, the introduction of
female choristers at Salisbury in 1991 had several precedents earlier in the twentieth
century, most notably in key cathedrals in Wales and Scotland and, for equally pragmatic
and professional reasons, in the English cathedrals in Bradford, Bury St Edmonds and
Leicester. These examples would have been well known within the professional
community of people with the responsibility for directing the cathedral choirs. This is a
relatively small community – the Choir Schools Association, for example, has 44
members – with its own informal and formal professional networks, including the
Cathedral Organists Association. Members meet regularly, share experiences and are
aware of what is happening locally, regionally and nationally within the cathedral music
community. The musical employment itself embraces an apprenticeship system where
an Organ Scholar in one location might become an Assistant Organist somewhere else
and then Organist and Master of the Choristers in a third location.
At Wells, there is evidence of ‘historicity’ in that the introduction of female
choristers in 1993 after a period of over six hundred years of a male-only tradition had a
profound effect on the local community, being strongly welcomed by all the parents of
girls in the choir (past and present) and school, promoted as a sign of being ‘in tune’ with
society’s equal opportunities policy, and generating a formalised review of what features
of the existing chorister tradition needed to be incorporated to ensure that the expected
musical culture continued. When interviewed in 1999, having just finished their choir
membership, the first female choristers to be appointed at Wells reported that they had a
sense of being pioneers, not least because they all joined as a group, whereas the current
senior choristers had entered an established choir a few at a time, with senior role models
available to ease their induction into the choral tradition.
Principle 4: Change and development arise from ‘contradictions’ that are ‘historically accumulating
structural tensions within and between activity systems’
It is possible to recognise the importance of ‘dialogicality’ (the formation of ideas
through dialogue), ‘multivoicedness’ (a recognition that actions and ideas are informed by
many voices – Daniels, 2004) and ‘contradictions’ in the ways that different organisations
and groups responded to the innovation at Salisbury. The data suggest, for example, that
the ‘activity’ of the all-male choral tradition needed to adapt to explicit socio-political
expectations concerning the provision of equal opportunities in wider society. Individual
members of the public and the cathedral music community challenged the basis for the
all-male hegemony and the ongoing exclusion of females. Yet, the dominant patriarchal
perspectives that supported traditional chorister membership had both physical and
socio-psychological foundations. The perceived bias in the type of sound produced
traditionally by boy choristers drew on the structure and function of the young male
voice within liturgical and musical contexts. Because this sound was fostered by existing
musical practices, as well as by expectations within the cathedral community, a gendered
assumption was made that this type of vocal output was ‘unique’ to the young male voice
and unavailable to the young female. Examples of gendered practice are evident
elsewhere, such as in parental behaviour, mass media images, choices of children’s toys
and musical instruments. Not surprisingly, by the ages of 6 and 7, ‘most children achieve
gender constancy – a mature understanding that gender is stable and not influenced by
superficial changes in body appearance or dress’ (Lippa, 2002, p161).
However, notwithstanding the gendered discourse (cf Mills, 2003), evidence began to
accumulate from a small number of cathedrals in various parts of the United Kingdom to
suggest that girls could sing as well as boys if they had the opportunity. Furthermore, the
argument about the ‘uniqueness’ of the all male sound was weakened subsequently by
various empirical studies of gender attribution to chorister vocal products. These
demonstrated that differences in physical sex need not equate to perceived differences in
vocal output and also challenged the cultural stereotype of the chorister voice as ‘male’.
In the case of Wells, change and development are evidenced in how the cathedral
and school authorities and choir members have needed to address certain emergent
‘contradictions’ since 1993, such as in seeking additional female chorister recruitment
from another local school; changing the ceiling of the female choir leaving age from
fourteen to sixteen at a time of low recruitment, which itself then offered new
possibilities in the vocal timbre available for performance from the oldest choristers;
adapting to changes in senior personnel, such as the appointment of a new Master in
2004 – with concurrent subtle changes in rehearsal and performance expectations and
practices; establishing appropriate financial support for female choristers; and in ensuring
that the school and cathedral organisation systems interrelate effectively.
Other ‘contradictions’ that have emerged from the introduction of choristers across
the cathedral sector include dealing with the effects of boys singing less regularly.
Although this could be a benefit if the rehearsal time remained constant, some Directors
of Music have voiced concerns that the introduction of girls may mean insufficient
practice of actual sung performance. Others suggested that the boys may be slower in
learning new repertoire and have less opportunity to be expert in the complete Psalm
repertoire if they do not sing all the services, as well as being less prepared to take part in
radio broadcasts and recordings (Stewart, 2006).
Principle 5: Activity systems are subject to the possibility of ‘expansive transformations’
The few (rare) examples of successful female chorister introduction in a small
number of cathedrals in England, Wales and Scotland earlier in the twentieth century
appeared to have had little impact on the all-male hegemony. But Salisbury’s innovation
– as the first old cathedral to embrace female choristers – was the catalyst for a major
transformation (as portrayed in Figures 1 and 2). The contradictions that were evident
across the sector (see Principle 4 above) produced seeds for change, yet within a way that
has ensured the overall survival of the choral tradition.
The commonality of the liturgy provides a framework in which certain elements are
known and recurrent, such as the customary organisation of sung elements within Choral
Evensong (psalms, canticles, responses, anthem). But there is also variety across the
sector in the choice of music, in the allocation of roles and responsibilities within the
choir and in which elements of the personnel sing which services during the week. This
inherent diversity provided a framework for expansive transformation. At Salisbury in
1991, the females began to share the services with the males by singing Evensong on
Mondays and Wednesdays. At Portsmouth in 2006 the male chorister routine meant that
they were not required to sing on Thursdays. This provided the opportunity for a new
female and male (including ex-chorister) adolescent choir to sing Evensong without
requiring any reduction in the weekly workload for the boys. The innovation of female
choristers has been an ‘expansive transformation’ in the established chorister culture
across the sector (with individual variability), as well as within the organisation of a local
cathedral activity system. For Engeström (2005, p. 321), an expansive transformation
occurs when individuals question accepted practice ‘and it gradually expands into a
collective movement or institution’. That so many young females are now able to
participate in cathedral music is testimony to the effects of questioning the all-male
tradition, particularly at Salisbury.
‘Once in place, gender stereotypes influence people’s behaviour in many ways’
(Lippa, 2002, p.161). In terms of the appropriate sex for a cathedral chorister, there is a
fourteen hundred year tradition to suggest that choristers stereotypically should be male.
Nevertheless, the historical cultural system that maintained this notion has been subject
to various challenges since its English inception in Canterbury in 597AD, some recent,
others being much older. Until the 16th century, related religious foundations – nunneries
– had both male and female intakes and their daily liturgy would have been celebrated
around similar music being performed by young female voices. Then, for approximately
four hundred years, an all-male hegemony existed until, for various pragmatic reasons,
individual cathedrals in different parts of the United Kingdom introduced females to sing
daily services during the latter part of the 20th century. However, the innovation at
Salisbury was the ‘tipping point’ (cf Gladwell, 2000) that encouraged the cathedral music
community as a collective to engage formally with the possibility of including young
female singers as choristers. Much has changed, yet the choral tradition – in terms of the
musical repertoire and the characteristic vocal tone – persists. Boys continue to sing,
either alongside girls (in two English cathedrals), or alternating with girls (now in the
majority of cathedrals). The musical culture has adapted and, in doing so, has expanded
(literally, in terms of the numbers of choristers across the country, as well as theoretically
in relation to the activity theory notion of expansion as change). Some commentators
have expressed concerns that the changes have created a persistent ‘threat’ to the
continuing existence of the all-male choir. In contrast, supporters of female choristers
note that there is not yet full equality across the sector, either in the numbers of services
being sung, or in the funding available to support them. Overall, this range of
perspectives is another example of the ‘multivoicedness’ within the system (cf Engeström,
2001a) and evidence of the possibility of further change in the future.
The application of ‘activity theory’ (cf Engeström, 2005) has been useful in
suggesting that the dynamics of this tradition are identifiable and powerful, yet flexible.
The theory has also been useful in illuminating how the development of an individual
chorister’s musical identity is shaped towards the dominant cultural model, yet, at the
same time, is not immune to wider socio-musical forces within the dominant musical
landscape outside the cathedral. Tradition and transformation co-exist at different levels
and are exampled in the individual pathways that young singers follow as they move
from childhood into adolescence. Whatever the future brings, we should celebrate the
cultural shift that has brought a widening of contemporary access to a unique choral
tradition and the increased numbers of young people who are becoming expert in its
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i The research that informs this article was supported in part by the UK Arts and Humanities Research
Board under grant B/SG/AN8886/APN14717. I am also grateful to (i) Claire E. Stewart for her research
into the details of Anglican choral foundations in UK cathedrals, including information on the background
to the innovations in Bradford and Salisbury, (ii) Professor David Howard, University of York, for our
ongoing collaborative work gathering acoustic data on female chorister singing and (iii) Evangelos
Himonides for his specialist technical support in our recording of individual choristers.