Over the course of my career, I have had multiple opportunities to conduct ensembles made up entirely of women’s voices. The sound and purity of women’s voices is something that always amazes me, whether it be emerging voices at the middle school level, a collegiate choir, or the maturity of a community choir. Certainly at the middle school level it is advantageous to separate singers by gender for rehearsal purposes, even when the ultimate goal is to come together at some point as an SAT or SATB ensemble. At the high school level, women’s choirs become an entity unto themselves, either as a training choir or conversely, an advanced ensemble. Colleges and universities have long seen the value and beauty of choral ensembles which specialize in the timber and quality of sound, specific only to a well blended group of female voices.
Women seek music that goes beyond pleasant, light melodies, which move at a rather slow pace and often have texts which speak only of spring, love, happiness and the beauty of nature. Texts that are relevant and empowering, that are uplifting and revere the human spirit; melodic lines which are artfully crafted; interesting harmonic structure and challenging rhythms are much more relevant to today’s female singer no matter what the age.
We must nurture our young women with repertoire which serves as a vocal model and musical teaching tool, but just as importantly, it must offer a glimpse into the lives of women of great character, integrity, and personal strength. By way of example, Andrea Ramsey’s composition “Lineage” asks women to look back to their female ancestors to find their own strength. Joan Szymko’s “Malala” is a setting of the young Nobel Prize winner’s own words in response to the Talaban’s efforts to silence her voice. “Three Poems From the Parlor” is a three song set by Eleanor Daley of poems written by Jane Austin, her mother Mrs. George Austin, and her sister Miss Cassandra Austin in a parlor game where every phrase had to end with a word which rhymed with “rose”. The poems are all very different, but incredible in their humor and textural cleverness. The composer has done a masterful job of giving each piece the musical personality its author intended. “From Dusk to Dawn” by Gwyneth Walker tells the story of Liberian women protesting the civil war which tore their country apart until 2003. Led by another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, the women prayed, marched, sang and resolutely waited for peace. The music is rhythmic, energetic and powerful, reflecting the determination of these “peace mothers”. There are at least two wonderful settings of “And Ain’t I A Woman” – one by Susan Borwick and the other by Sandi Peaslee. The text is taken from the famous speech delivered by Sojourner Truth to the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, which reportedly saved the day for the cause of women’s rights. “Remember The Ladies” is a remarkable setting of a letter written by Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams in March of 1776, advising him on what to put into a proposed constitution. The composer, Carol Barnett, does an admirable job of capturing the intent of the letter in a musical style similar to what would have been heard in Europe in the late 1700’s.
These are some of my particular favorites, which I have found suitable for a wide variety of ages and ability levels. However, I have barely begun to scratch the surface of repertoire in this genre. I encourage choral conductors/educators to take the time to teach their female singers not only how to make beautiful music together, but to help them find their own strength, character, and humanity through the music they sing.