Martin Ashley writes as a social scientist with a life-long involvement in and love of music, particularly church music, and as the father of daughters. He makes a point of placing himself and his experiences firmly in the picture, but in fact one of the strengths of this book is the objectivity that he brings to a topic often clouded by personal bias.
Ashley’s study began as an investigation into the motivation of a group of boy choristers in a city parish with a thriving music tradition founded on an all-male choir. In expanding his research he widened his perspective to embrace not only an extraordinarily thorough mapping of the church music scene but extensive interviews with singing and non-singing boys in schools and secular choirs throughout the UK. He included a number who have had professional careers as solo trebles, from Aled Jones to The Choirboys. Only a handful of the interviewees are identified and anonymity has enabled many of them to be remarkably honest about their experiences and in their opinions.
The result is one of the most important and comprehensive books on the subject of boys’ voices ever written. Ashley explores the reasons why boys do sing and why they don’t, taking into account not only the physiological changes that inevitably challenge even those who relish their singing, but the myriad of other sociological and psychological forces that come into play. He does not shy away from discussing the homoerotic element that is often associated with admiration of boy choristers, but argues that admiration by ‘grannies’ mitigates just as forcefully against boys singing. One of the biggest problems is that as trebles they have no audience among their peers.
The book’s title reflects Ashley’s regretful conclusion that, while boys certainly can sing high, they probably should not if they want to survive socially. But he applauds the efforts currently being made by individuals and by the Sing Up campaign to find ways of encouraging boys on the threshold of puberty to sing in a more masculine way and to revel in their changing voices. His book should be required reading for every choir director.
Clare Stevens, Classical Music
About the author: Martin Ashley is Head of Research in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University, near Liverpool. After an early career in sound recording with the BBC, he trained as a middle school music teacher and taught for seventeen years in state and independent middle schools, including a period at a cathedral choir school. He has acted as a consultant for the UK government’s National Singing Programme, and for the associated Choir Schools’ Association Chorister Outreach Programme. He has recently completed a major project on widening boys’ participation in choral singing with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.