Soapbox: The Sexual Politics of Volume

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I have written before about the cultural discomfort with women singing loudly, and how some successful female singers have dealt with this. I'm going to get more pointed today, though, and specifically criticise the habit of some male coaches of systematically and radically reducing the volume at which the women they are working with sing.

First, I'm going to go out on a limb and say there is no such thing, in an absolute sense, as 'too loud' when you're talking about the unamplified human voice. When Isobel Baillie said, 'Never sing louder than lovely,' that was a statement about relative qualities, not absolutes.

You may have 'too loud for the room' if you've got powerful voices in a small space with a lively acoustic, but even that is pretty rare - people with voices that powerful are usually experienced enough not to make that error.

You may have 'too loud for the current level of technical control', or 'too loud for the tone quality', or 'too loud for the singer's capacity for artistry'. But these are likewise relative issues. Someone with better technical control, who was able to produce a lovely sound with nuance and shaping at that same volume level would not be perceived as too loud.

Another relatively common musical problem that gets labelled as 'too loud' is 'insufficiently varied'. If you sing at full blast the whole time it does get rather wearing for your audience; if you save the full force of your voice to the music's most powerful moments, people find it exciting rather than overpowering.

But in all these cases, you can solve the problem by increasing skill as much as by decreasing volume. And, yes, you may well want to come back from full throttle in order to develop the necessary control. So, to be clear, I'm not saying that yelling and screaming is a good thing, okay?

But I am saying that when a coach starts off their session by asking singers to sing at 'half that volume', then to 'make it quieter still', and then leaves them there, we have a problem. It will, to be sure, radically reduce any raucousness - but then so would sorting out the ensemble's vowels. It will also reduce their vocal support, personal commitment and pleasure in singing. There are some things it will add of course, such as vocal tension.

Oh, I know such a coach will usually tell singers that when they reduce the volume they should 'maintain the energy', but that's a really hard thing to do. When somebody has basically said, 'Less, less, even less!' without any positive reason for a hushed tone, the natural instinct is to feel discouraged. Quiet singing can be magical, for sure, but you don't achieve magic by telling people to shut up; they need some kind of musical motivation.

Everything I have written since the first paragraph is entirely gender neutral. But I have flagged this up in the title as an issue of sexual politics because I have only ever seen this particular dynamic between a male coach and a female ensemble. (If you have experience of female coaches doing the same thing to male choirs, they're equally wrong to do so, and please ask them from me to stop it.)

Sometimes when I've seen this, there's been some kind of Isobel Baillie rationale. This is why I included paragraphs 2-6, in order to point out (a) it is more useful to fix the artistic or technical deficit than simply tell people to be quieter, and (b) you don't necessarily have to get radically or permanently quieter to solve this problem. Other times, though, it has just been an instruction to lower the volume without any kind of justification.

And that's the point where I get angry. If someone stomps on a bunch of women's joy in their own vocal power in the name of improved loveliness, well, it's a short-sighted and somewhat limited approach to coaching, but you have a sense there are some kind of musical values underlying it. If someone just tells them repeatedly to sing quieter until all the joie de vivre has disappeared, then professes himself satisfied, that's just mean.

Actually, it's more complex and more insidious than simply mean. The men I have observed doing this are generally nice people, and I am sure they are not deliberately intending to spoil women's fun. But what they are doing is enforcing a particular model of femininity in which 'ladylike' equates to gentle, soft, unthreatening. It circumscribes women's sphere of vocal activity in the same way that Victorian domesticity (and its renaissance in the post-war feminine mystique) limited women to home-making and child-rearing.

Nothing wrong with home-making and child-rearing of course, in the same way that singing softly is sometimes just the perfect thing to do. But if that's all that's made available to you, your other capacities get frustrated, and you are doomed to a life of valium and of straining your throat on the high notes.

I agree entirely with the idea that to continually encourage an ensemble to 'sing more quietly' with no justification can be demoralising but I'm having some difficulty understanding the gender aspect of it. If it was the case that it is only, or predominantly, men requiring it of ladies then I would agree, that one might make the leap into believing it is the males attempt to 'enforce his model of femininity....but it seems a leap too far to me. I have been coached by males and females asking our ensemble to 'sing at half the volume'. Raucous singing is no respect of gender, everyone is capable of singing louder than they should and surely it is the job of the director, be it male or female, to rein the singers back in. To turn it into a gender issue seems almost like looking for an issue that really isn't there.

Hi Lacy,
Well, as I say, if you are finding it in other gender combinations, then it is equally unhelpful, and please ask the perpetrators, from me, to desist.

If the issue really isn't there, then it will do no harm to caution against it. If it is, as my observation suggests it may well be, then alerting people to the wider cultural dynamics that can underlie what masquerades as a 'purely' musical issue can help them undo the damage that such coaching can do to an ensemble's technique and confidence.

And if it were, really, a case of 'reining in' obvious over-singing, then yes I may be over-interpreting. But I'm generalising from incidences where healthy levels of support and resonance were undermined by radical volume reduction requested with no accompanying rationale. I'm carefully not identifying the events and coaches involved, as my intention is not to pick on individuals but to learn from examining striking patterns of behaviour that repeat across different circumstances - but I do also recognise that it makes my evidence base for the argument hard to access :-)

When talking about a loud volume of singing, I automatically equate it to a loud voice with developed vibrato - is that what you mean ?

I am a singer who's often been told to 'sing quietly' in choirs. But I think the real problem surrounds vibrato not volume alone.

My assertion is that England's cathedral choral tradition means that in our collective cultural memory we have the ideal of a 'pure' treble voice on the top line. This is linked to 'purity' of the singer (!) and therefore is a 'suitable' sound for 'nice' women to make.

Vibrato, and the louder volume which often follows, is equated to a fully female persona who is considered sexual and therefore somehow this is not a 'suitable' sound for 'nice' women.

I personally don't like to hear mature women who sound like boys.

In countries where opera is indigenous (eg Italy or Germany) I believe that this problem doesn't exist as they have the fully developed female voice in their cultural memory.

Interesting, isn't it ?

Rosalind, I think you have a good point there about geographically-specific cultural associations with particular vocal timbres. And of course the cathedral tradition training has long been a foundation for many of the people who go on to become musical leaders in British musical life, so that cultural memory gets reinforced.

You may also be interested in a post I wrote some time back on vibrato in a choral genre that tends not to welcome it:

Thanks for dropping by!

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