What to do when you don’t have enough men in your mixed choir

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!

Comments on What to do when you don’t have enough men in your mixed choir

  1. Avatar Carolyne says:

    Are there great web sites to buy arrangements for woman voices ?
    Thank you

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Carolyne,

      Absolutely! Check out our very own music store Total Choir Music which has some fabulous arrangements. :)

  2. Avatar Charlie says:

    As many have already stated, finding men who want to sing in a group is becoming harder and harder. I think this may be affected in the USA by school systems not seeing the value in the arts for nearly 30 years. Nearly two generations who were not encouraged to sing. In the church world, evangelicals have not emphasized choirs and gone towards a small group leading music. Some denominations (Southern Baptists) have not given up tradition so easily and continue to have graded choir systems and produce trained and interested singers, both mail and female.

    I have a single tenor who does not read music and must learn by rote. I also have two VERY low altos who sing tenor part. The blend is adequate. However, only one lady singing tenor has the training, passion, and ear to hold onto their part so if she is missing, things want to not go well. In addition, the group will be bringing a preteen boy into its fold in the very near future. Hopefully, we can encourage other mails to join. If not, SAB will be the choice for future music selections.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Charlie, I think it’s interesting to hear different perspectives on the issue of recruiting men. I hope you are soon able to grow your tenor section and if it’s a slow process then adapting your arrangements to suit your current choir’s needs with SAB as you mention is a great idea.

      All the best with this.

  3. Avatar Lynda says:

    I am starting a brand new chorus at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. I just found out 40 singers have registered (no auditions). I don’t have a roster yet so I don’t know how many men have signed up. So far all the arrangements are SAB. I would like to know more about recruiting men.
    Thank you

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Lynda. Congratulations on starting your choir. I think you’ll find that word of mouth will be your most powerful recruitment tool, so don’t worry about it right now. Get started, then concentrate on creating a great experience for your singers. Best of luck!

    2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Lynda, Congratulations on starting up your new choir, how exciting for the new year! Fantastic also to already have 40 signed up.

      As for recruiting men for me personally this took time. When I just had one or two men in the choir I found sometimes men coming to try it out were maybe put off feeling it was predominantly a women’s choir. However, I was lucky to have a small group of men join who were pals from a local golf club. This boosted the number of men in the choir and meant that other men coming along were encouraged. It took time but I now have a good section of men in the choir and it changed our sound which was lovely and enjoyed by all. Perhaps you can try targeting men directly in some of your advertising for the choir or hold a workshop or open rehearsal session? Word of mouth is fantastic for recruiting new singers so getting those who join you to get the word out about how great the choir is will help too.

      We wish you every success with your new choir. :)

  4. Avatar Steff says:

    Hi, reading your article from Canada… I am a guy, a classical singer. Similar problems here, not enough men want to sing, especially classical. One of the reasons could be that the voice needs some time and practice, and many are not willing to invest in it. Another reason is that there are not enough decent voice teachers, or even good singers who could help male voices develop. The North American way of singing and teaching voice is rapidly losing connection with the belcanto technique, and the modern voices lack in quality and, I dare say are not attractive enough for many men. Environment and talent have to go hand in hand. Good singers of the past, especially the great Italian masters ( Caruso, Volpi, Gigli, Schipa, del Monaco, Corelli, Bergonzi, Pavarotti, Fisichella etc) were able to inspire people into singing, but now, most are gone, and their way of doing things is disappearing. Unless we revive the old school of singing, with its passion, beauty, and hard work, I am afraid we will lose an important part of what made the Western civilization great, and we will be stuck with small voices, and dull singing, which is amplified and auto-tuned to insanity.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Steff. Thanks for your comment and expressing your opinion so eloquently.

  5. Avatar Augustus Loppy says:

    I have a choir in the Gambia were only four men an 16 girl sing but the four sometimes do not come for practies what should i do.

  6. Avatar Narelle says:

    The female tenors can produce more sound if they add more resonance. Think forward and lifted.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Narelle,

      Forward placement always makes such a difference not only to the sound but also the clarity of the words, a great tip.

  7. Avatar Narelle says:

    Thank you for your resources. They will be so helpful.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      You’re welcome Narelle,

      Glad you find our resources useful.

  8. Avatar Shelagh M. Rogers says:

    I think of myself as lucky because I can manage tenor, alto and mezzo, but it is as well to remember that it’s very difficult to move from tenor to alto and back several times in a rehearsal – if you must ask your singer to change part, it is best done once only, at the coffee break!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your tip Shelagh

  9. Avatar Jeanette says:

    I run a community choir in South Australia of around 33 singers. The choir itself has recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. I’ve been a member for 35 years and during my years with the choir, we have ALWAYS struggled to recruit men. Nowadays, since I’ve been Music Director, I look for pieces mainly SAB and that works well.
    A couple of pieces in our current repertoire are 2 parts. I have often included in a concert programme a couple of group items, giving the guys a chance to sing something on their own. We value our band of male singers very much.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Jeanette,

      Some really good advice which I’m sure makes all your singers feel valued and gives them a chance to shine.

  10. Avatar Folu Adedeji says:

    You guys are really doing a great job. I lead a choir of 10 here in Lagos. Nigeria. I have found your website really helpful. thanks a bunch.looking forward to the resource material.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Folu,

      Really pleased you find the site useful. Good luck with all your choir ventures.

  11. Hi, you didn’t mention woman tenors. We have several in our mixed choir. We have plenty of basses and a small number of male tenors. Generally, the female tenors are not able to be so loud, but they help create a more confident, coherent and socially enjoyable tenor section overall.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      That’s a very good point John. We have a woman tenor in our chamber choir.

  12. Useful stuff! I was the only man in our “Singing for Fun” group of 14 when we started. Now have 5 men after some networking for 2 years. However, 2 of the men are too loud and drown the ladies. Despite my best efforts the message is not getting through. I do not wish to dampen their enthusiasm. Ideas welcomed!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thank you for your message. Glad to hear you have built up the number of men in your singing group. I find the best way to tackle issues of some singers being louder than others is to work with the choir as a whole on blend. Never single people out but simply direct instructions at a section of singers. Using a piece of repertoire or an exercise ask your singers to identify who has the melody and who is on a harmony. The melody of a piece should always be at the forefront and not be drowned out by a harmony or oohs. Sometimes the melody may be passed amongst the sections in a piece. Work with you singers on getting this balance correct. Hopefully those prone to singing louder will think more about balance and quieten down. You could also do some work on dynamics getting your singers to sing a simple round or song and trying out some loud and then soft sections. Finally mixing up your singers or as you’re a small group walking around and singing might help everyone to understand blending more. You can tell them that they should be able to hear what’s going on around them and not just their own voice. Hope this helps and good luck with your choir.

  13. I run a choir in France. I gave up with the men in the end! I now just run an upper voices choir – GREAT repertoire these days. Thanks for the excellent website.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Anne

  14. Avatar Arona says:

    Great advice. I’m a female but sing in the tenor range. Our choir only has a “low part” consisting of myself and four others (including another woman). I like the idea of giving the “low part” a melody or a showcase piece, will definitely bring this up with our conductor. Do you have any recommendations for songs that have a tenor leader that make a good showcase number?

  15. I posted this question online. I have a chamber choir of grade 8 – 12 (14-18). We have only 6 or 7 boys for 30 girls every year. My question was is it better to get SAB arrangements (often the line is too high for the deeper voices) or do SSA arragements and the boys sing the 2nd sop line?? Very hard to get rep that accomodates all the boys, especially those whose voices haven’t really changed yet – but they don’t want to sing with the ‘alto girls’. One boy does.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Carla. Your problem is a bit outside our area of knowledge, I’m afraid. We don’t have much experience of children’s and teenagers’ voices.

  16. Avatar Heather Constantine says:

    We are a U3A choir with, predictably, very few men (3 currently in a 25 strong line-up). Yesterday the men joined in with the 2nd sop line but an octave below. (Our sops are fairly quiet) For the purist, the sound might be a tad eccentric but we muddle cheerfully along!
    Looking forward to your SAB arrangements.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Heather,

      Thanks for your message. I don’t see any problem with that at all. It can be tricky when you have so few men. At least by joining the 2nd sop they’d have felt part of a larger section plus sounds like they all had a great time.

  17. Avatar Brenda Adams says:

    Thanks for this. I have a choir of 22 and only three are men plus one women who sings with them. I mostly do two part harmony and have some SAB arrangements but two of the men often want to sing tenor. Most of the women want to sing soprano to which adds to the problem. Trying to balance the voices is a challenge but I don’t want to limit the numbers joining so will have to do the best I can. Looking forward to your music store and trying out some of your arrangements.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Brenda. Balancing numbers in parts is always a challenge for choir leaders. We hope you will enjoy our new arrangements.

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