The Duke’s Men of Yale, a traditionally all-male a cappella group, inducted its inaugural all-gender tap class last week after a July decision to abolish gender restrictions.
In its first year as an all-gender group, the Duke’s Men of Yale saw fewer than 10 auditions from women and non-binary students out of 60 in total, according to Duke’s member Jerome Walker ’19. The group’s newest tap class consists of six men and one gender nonbinary student, Morgan Baker ’21.
“We’re trying to extend an invitation to people who could be a part of our group but may have felt excluded because of their gender identity, particularly identifying about trans and nonbinary folks,” said Walker, the group’s former musical director.
The Duke’s Men announced its decision to open auditions to all students, regardless of gender, in a July 20 Facebook post, amid growing calls for greater gender inclusivity on campus. It is the first all-male a cappella group to abolish gender restrictions since the 1980s, just after Yale College began admitting women.
“It doesn’t feel like manhood is central to being part of the Duke’s Men,” Baker said. “I wouldn’t have joined the group if I didn’t think they had put thought and effort into making sure the group was an inclusive space once other genders were included.”
Baker said she was initially concerned that the Duke’s all-male history would prevent her from connecting with the group but soon found that was not the case. At a group retreat last weekend, Baker had the opportunity to sing with the group for the first time, calling it “magical.”
In the past, all-male singing groups have argued that lifting gender restrictions would “change their sound” and alter historical arrangements of music, said Singing Group Council Co-Chair Sarah DiMagno ’18. However, in its July statement, The Duke’s Men promised to maintain its current musical configuration — two tenors, baritone and bass, or TTBB — as it integrates.
Baker, who has never received any formal vocal training, will sing tenor one with the Duke’s Men.
Although she belongs to The Duke’s Men first all-gender tap class, Baker noted that some single-gender spaces can serve as valuable spaces of empowerment.
“I rushed all women’s groups and I really loved their space,” Baker said, adding that it is important to examine the reasons for keeping certain single gender groups.
Baker, a resident of New York, graduated from the all-female Buffalo Seminary, where she said she learned how to lead “in the context of a male-dominated society.”
“Being able to sing our repertoire as it currently exists or participate in our community is not contingent on a person’s biological sex or gender identity,” the group wrote.
According to DiMagno, all-male groups sometimes struggle to recruit men who can sing a tenor one part, the highest vocal range of the male singing voices. After the integration, groups could incorporate vocalists who feel comfortable in higher ranges, instead of requiring lower vocalists to use their falsetto, she added.
Given that students’ gender may not always correlate with specific vocal ranges, Walker said the group hopes that the a cappella community think “a little less explicitly about gender and more about voice parts.”
Last November, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group, voted not to admit women for the coming year. The group, which has held regular votes over whether to integrate since the 1970s, has inducted honorary female members and performed with women onstage, though the group never formally accepted female students.
Some current Whiffenpoofs members argued that accepting women would siphon membership from Whim ’n Rhythm, Yale’s all-female senior a cappella group, but others argued that equal opportunities should be open to nonmale students. Whereas the Whiffs has the financial capability to support students who take a leave of absence from Yale to go on tour for a year, members of Whim are forced to balance academic obligations with commitment to their a cappella group.
A February petition urging the Whiffenpoofs to admit women garnered 135 signatures and reignited the debate over single-gender singing spaces at Yale. But when 15 female and nonbinary students auditioned for the group the following week, none were accepted.
In a statement to the News, public relations coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center Mary Miller ’20 said the center is excited about the Duke’s Men welcoming their first all-gender tap class. In addition, she said she hopes the Duke’s Men will set a precedent for other male-only groups on campus.
“We hope that the remaining single-sex spaces on this campus, especially male-only spaces, feel pressured to reevaluate the aspects of their organization that feel threatened by the prospect of becoming all-gender,” Miller said. “The Duke’s Men have the potential in this moment to become a wonderful example of the benefits of including all genders in creative and social spaces, and the Women’s Center sincerely hopes that they do become that example.”
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