If you lead a mixed choir (male and female voices), you may well be familiar with the common problem of not having enough tenors and basses. The dearth of chaps is caused by a number of factors, some demographic, some social, but the upshot is that in most parts of the western world at least, you’re likely to struggle with recruiting men to your choir. Here are a few ideas about how to handle that situation.
Stop recruiting women!
It sounds trite, but if you don’t have enough men in your choir, think carefully before you let in any more women. Even if you have an unauditioned, all-comers choir, you need to have an eye on the balance between the vocal parts (unless you’re planning to do only repertoire where everyone can sing together – see my next point).
If you keep allowing women into the choir, you could end up with a rather distorted line-up. You can’t expect to perform arrangements for mixed choirs if you have dozens of sopranos and altos, but only a couple of voices on the tenor and bass parts.
For a long time, I had a shortage of tenors and basses in my auditioned chamber choir and had to make the decision to put a cap on the numbers of sops and altos I was prepared to let in. It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal numbers. I stuck at 12 sops and 12 altos when I had 6 tenors and 6 basses.
Choose your repertoire carefully
If you’re short of men, look around for repertoire that gives you some flexibility and doesn’t put too much pressure on the tenors and basses. Try ‘SAB’ arrangements (soprano, alto, baritone), where all the men sing together, instead of SATB. The compromise isn’t always perfect, but if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t get enough chaps together for a performance, it can be a lifesaver.
Check any SATB repertoire very carefully before you decide to go ahead. A lot of choral works of the romantic period (late 18th/19th century), for example, rely heavily on the tenor and bass parts, which are often divided. If you’ve only got a handful of voices, are they going to be able to handle the divisi?
It can sometimes work to ask some of your altos to sing along with the tenor line. However, it will affect the sound. The altos will be singing low in their voices when the tenors are singing high in theirs, so there’s a very different timbre to the result.
Finally, it can be helpful to look for arrangements that simply have ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ parts, ie that are designed to have mixed voices singing together. That can give you a lot of flexibility, particularly for performances where you might not get a great turnout of singers.
Give the guys a chance to shine
If you have a small gang of male singers, it can be helpful and confidence-building to give them a showcase number in a performance. You could choose something they sing on their own, or something where they’re backed by the female singers. A lot of rock and pop repertoire favours the top line for the melody, so the basses in particular can end up with a lot of ‘oom-pahs’. Make sure they have the chance to shine now and then.
Shout about recruitment
Don’t assume that everyone knows that you want more male singers. Encourage your choir members to bring along new recruits, hold open rehearsals and advertise locally.
If you’re really struggling and there’s a particular piece of music that you want to perform, could you team up with a local male voice choir, or just ‘borrow’ some extra singers for a specific performance? Some of them might even stay on!