By Libby Sternberg
During a live-streamed funeral service for a beloved Episcopal minister in our community, two startling voices rang out in the nearly empty church—the voices of women singing. Not just singing but singing as women, with warm tones, even small vibratos.
Listening to those sweet voices felt like a balm during a sorrowful service, and I realized, as I waited for each hymn just to hear them, that the reason it was so refreshing was because the one area where women’s voices continue to be suppressed in the modern church is in music ministry.
Suppressed might seem like a strong word, considering the fact that nearly 40 percent of the ministers in our national church are women now, and women fill many roles on the altar, including singing in praise bands and folk groups.
But in adult choirs, women are still often expected to sing like boys, to use straight tones in adult choral music, even straight tones in solos and small ensembles. The message is clear: If you don’t sound like a boy, or try real hard to sound like one, your mature woman’s voice isn’t so welcome in this space.
I know some choral directors might object and point out that it’s easier for straighter voices to blend. That’s true, but when we’re talking about mature women’s voices, we’re not talking about “warblers,” voices with vibratos so large they could be mistaken for trilling coloraturas. We’re usually talking about a warmer sound with some vibrato, contrasted to one where the singer has to expel all the breath in her lungs to get out just a few straight-sounding notes. That’s not healthy singing.
The mainline Protestant churches trace their musical heritage back to a time centuries ago where male voices dominated, a misogynistic era in church life where women were not just “less than” but one step away from being considered witches.
The male voice was so prized throughout the ages, in fact, and female ones deemed so unworthy, that boys were castrated to retain their pure, otherworldly soprano and contralto tones. Castrati were still alive in the early twentieth century.
If you’ve ever heard a male contralto (or countertenor), you can usually tell immediately it’s not a woman’s voice, even though the vocal range he sings in is the same for the female vocal part. It’s a strangely asexual sound, with virtually no vibrato. A woman singing an alto part would be hard-pressed to emulate it, even if she could rid her voice of any lingering vibrato.
This fetishizing of the boy soprano sound should stop. We’ve kicked out most of the vestiges of the church’s sad sexist history. Let’s get rid of this last bit, too.
While much beautiful music was written for boys and men’s choirs, churches are not museums where art has to be presented in its original form. We use modern instruments, after all, to play old works. Why not use “modern” voices to sing old works? That is, let women sound like women. Stop telling them to sound like boys.
A musical acquaintance of mine who sings in a national choir, one that does residencies in cathedrals all over the world, recounted this story to me:
“After one of our services, the head verger spoke to me and said how delightful it was to hear adult women’s voices. He greatly appreciated the warmth of healthy, mature female voices and felt they added a great deal to the worship experience.”
To that I say: Amen.