The Whiffenpoofs were the capstone of my Yale experience. The friendships I formed and the experiences I had were indelible: We entertained embassy guests in London, Madrid and Caracas; we sang on the steps of the Temple of Dendur at the Met; we marched out of an alpine forest in Austria to serenade newlyweds with Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens.” I can understand why female Yalies (at least, those who enjoy a cappella, admittedly a plurality at best) might look jealously at the Whiffs as a final bastion of old white male privilege, unfairly denied them on the basis of their sex alone.
But those who argue against an all-male Whiffenpoofs typically discount its legitimate musical justification. Male voices, as a whole, do sound different than female voices. Male groups, with a tenor-tenor-baritone-bass (TTBB) range, achieve a blend that is simply not possible in a typical soprano-alto-tenor-bass (SATB) mixed vocal group. Perhaps more significantly, the entire Whiff repertoire was written for a TTBB ensemble. In a very real sense, the repertoire is the group. Were the Whiffs to be reimagined as an SATB group, they would have to throw out a century of repertoire — a tradition that comprises much of the group’s very reason for being.
This aesthetic standard, however, does not provide a justification for refusing women altogether. Some women are indeed capable of meeting the performance requirements of the Whiff repertoire. A woman who can sing in the tenor range and blend well with men is rare, to be sure, but not unheard of.
A useful analogy may be found elsewhere on campus. Is the men’s football team obligated to try out a female defensive lineman? No; the basic job requirements of mass and strength are met by few, if any, females. But a female place kicker? Absolutely. If she is capable of playing the position, the team must allow her a tryout — not just under Title IX law, but more importantly under the basic principles of fairness and equality.
By this logic, the Whiffs have no right to discriminate on the basis of gender. But the group retains the right to define artistic goals, and to select only candidates who meet them.
Critics of the Whiffenpoofs, even when they acknowledge this right, counter with a more nuanced argument. The Whiffs, they say, use this reasoning as a fig leaf to cover willful gender discrimination. This is a difficult charge to either prove or disprove. However, it’s fair to suggest that decades of coeducation without a single female member places the burden of proof squarely on the Whiffenpoofs. And if the Whiffs wish to justify their admittedly exclusionary artistic definition, they have an obligation to show that musical capability is indeed the criterion on which membership turns.
How might the Whiffenpoofs meet such a standard? There is a simple solution. For decades now, symphonies and university music departments have implemented “blind” auditions. In this process, candidates are referred to only by number, are hidden behind a screen and do not speak during the audition, so as to avoid disclosing any characteristics that might induce bias. A noted study by economists Cecilia Rouse and Claudia Goldin found that blind auditions had a dramatic impact in increasing female representation in major U.S. orchestras. Selecting the new Whiffs using this method would pre-empt any reasonable claim of gender discrimination.
Critics of the all-male Whiffs should not call for the destruction of a beloved musical tradition in the name of fairness. Still, there is every reason they should insist on a demonstrably gender-neutral standard for admission. If the Whiffs wish to maintain fidelity both to their traditional musical identity and to the ideals of equality taught at Yale, they should employ a blind audition process.
Devon Copley, a former member of the Whiffenpoofs, is a 1995 graduate of Branford College.