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Vocal Training – Discrimination of Women as Singers and Public Speakers through Vocal Music History
In America, when the word Discrimination is mentioned, the most common thought is that of the treatment of African Americans during the era of slave trade. Negro Slavery, in America, was introduced by law in 1517. In 1442 the first Negro slaves were imported into Europe. They were taken from Africa to Portugal in ships of Prince Henry, the “Navigator.” From that time there was little traffic in Black Slaves until after the discovery of America. When the great destruction of the American Indians occurred by war, and disease, the importation of Negroes into Spanish America was begun in order to fill the void in the labor market.
Slavery as an institution ended after 345 years on Sept. 22, 1862. United States President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that he later called “the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century.” The proclamation promised freedom for slaves held in any of the Confederate states that did not return to the Union by the end of the year. Black discrimination in American Society, of course, has continued for many years, with the last 30 years seeing tremendous improvement in race relations.
So, why am I talking about Black Slavery in a Vocal Training article? Because the word discrimination should also cause us to reflect on the Institutional and Cultural Slavery of Women that has occurred for, as far as we know, a few thousand years. Personally, I am more disturbed by this act than anything the African Americans had to endure. This is because it has been a worldwide epidemic documented from the beginning of human history and continues in full force today in many cultures. Even today, in many cultures, women are abused legally and forced to dress certain ways or they can be killed. Those who founded America brought with them these same ideas, often taught in their religion, and “The land of the free” was only really for white men.
I have tried for years to understand this and have never been able to. I recall, when I was younger, having some of the same thoughts of male dominance after being brought up in a “Baby Boomer” culture where society was taught ” A woman’s place is in the kitchen.” I thank God I do not think this way now. I believe that all people have a responsibility to be independent personally and financially. If you are a woman or a man that is expecting someone else to take care of you and not understand the absolute necessity of using your own brain, personal vision and spiritual power to “conquer your world” then you are a Slave to some degree. Just ask any woman who has been through a divorce, left to fend for herself and finds herself with no skills to make a living. This should never happen. She should have done everything possible to train herself and be independent even though she was married. The responsibility for not preparing oneself for life with a personal vision for success is, ultimately, always the fault of the individual.
Now I want to discuss the main reason for my topic. In the institution of Singing and Public Speaking, there has also been incredible discrimination through the ages. Especially in the Dark Ages during the Medieval time period.
Some of the earliest references in culture to women singing are in the Bible. Singing seems to have become a regular profession at quite early date among the Hebrews. David had his troupe of “singing men and singing women” at Jerusalem (2 Sam 19:35), and no doubt Solomon added to their numbers. Isa 23:16 suggests that it was not uncommon for foreign female minstrels of questionable character to be heard making “sweet melody,” singing songs along the streets and highways of Judea. Nor was the worship of the temple left to the usually incompetent and inconsistent leadership of amateur choristers. Talented women played their part in temple ceremonies.
The truly darkest days of female musical and vocal expression were the oppressive centuries of the medieval time period generally 500 to 1450 AD. This was an age where European males influenced by other European males hoarded what they perceived as power. Other voices of the time, specifically women, were silenced by politics and religion.
During this time, the composition and performance of all music, in general, was also extremely oppressed. (I will discuss this in my next article)
During the Renaissance when the Catholic Church decided, “God had changed his mind,” women did become more active in the arts but progress was slow all the way through the beginning of the 1,800’s. That’s 1,300 years of female oppression on many cultural levels as well as Music and Speech. Surprisingly, this action was created and supported by the Catholic Church. I am at a loss to understand how “men of faith” could be so immature that they had to do this to women to feel powerful and control their world. This is a question that we still ask today when we see women covering their heads and being submissive to men in the name of religion. Who can honestly accept the notion that God would be pleased with one of his beautiful creations being oppressed this way?
Due to the blossoming of Choral music compositions during the Renaissance that required music be performed at a wider range, during the Baroque period, from 1600 to 1750, young male sopranos and altos comprised about 70 percent of all Choral and operatic singers. These vocal parts extended the upper range of music. This can be compared to music played on the right half of the piano keyboard. Sadly, women were still considered a minority.
But, when these boys with a woman’s range faced puberty with their voice dropping an octave, a solution to keep boys in the female range had to be found. The answer? Castration, to prevent the hormonal change that occurs during puberty. (Is this what happened to Michael Jackson?) Since male sopranos in opera were a necessity, in Italy, 4,000 – 5,000 boys were castrated annually. (Ouch!)
During puberty a boy’s vocal chords enlarge and lengthen, caused by an increased production of androgen hormones. Castration prevents the necessary flow of hormones and arrest growth. Since the Vocal Chords do not grow longer, lowering their pitch, afterwards the castrato would have the high voice of a boy soprano, but the lung power of a full-grown man. (Strange! That is kind of how ET looked!) Castration was performed by cutting the blood supply to the testicles, or by amputating them altogether. (Ouch Again!)
Women, especially in countries where the Catholic Church dominated, were forbidden on the stage. (So much for women’s lib!) The justification for prohibition against women singing in the church choir had its origin in the bible: “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak.” (I Corinthians 14:34). (It appears that “God” has changed his mind!) Nearly every church choir used pre-pubescent boys to sing the high parts in choral works because women were also not allowed to participate in church services. (You’ve come a long way baby!)
It was not until the nineteenth century before women were regularly found performing in opera houses or in church music. From the early monasteries and convents in the Middle Ages, women and men were separated in a religious context. Women possessed no role in the mass setting, and this naturally extended to an exclusion from all church music as well. Politically they were inferior to their male counterparts, generally translating to women not owning property, voting, or holding leadership positions of any consequence within society. It is such a tragedy to realize all of the amazing female talent that was unable to express itself due to institutional, male dominated discrimination.
Fortunately, there has been tremendous progress made as women have been liberated to pursue Musical, Speech and Acting careers. Considering the female discrimination that still exists in many of the world’s cultures, I hope women will appreciate the progress America has made. We are not perfect but we certainly are world leaders.
Can you imagine never hearing a Beverly Sills, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday, Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand? I sure could not. Yet, these talented women would have been told by those who claimed to represent God that their singing would be an offence to God. May we all honestly admit that God certainly restrained himself from throwing lightning bolts at these creeps?
I will end the article with my personal hope and prayer.
May every person, male or female, possess personal passions for all their goals and achieve every one of them so our world will continue to thrive through positive and not negative creative energy.
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