Duke's Men

Two months ago, the Duke’s Men of Yale became the first traditionally all-men’s group in Yale’s Singing Group Council to induct an all-gender tap class, which consists of six men and one gender nonbinary student, Morgan Baker ’21. But other single-gender singing groups have not followed suit.

At the time, Jerome Walker ’19, the group’s former musical director, told the News he hoped the decision would inspire other a cappella groups to think “a little less explicitly about gender and more about voice parts.” However, members of three all-women singing groups interviewed — Proof of the Pudding, The New Blue of Yale and Something Extra — said their groups do not plan to extend membership to students of other genders in the foreseeable future, or expressed qualms about the prospect of opening auditions to more students. Multiple all-men groups did not respond to requests for comment.

Snigdha Nandipati ’20, a member of the all-women’s group Something Extra, said her group is a source of support and comfort, and that she fears opening the group to all genders could change the current social dynamic.

“Something Extra is a sisterhood. I fear that this space I turn to will be compromised if SE ever became co-ed. Likewise, I’m sure that all-men’s groups feel the same way about their space,” she said. “There are some things that just can’t be shared as easily in co-ed groups as they can in single-gender groups.”

Sita Strother ’20 told the News that her group, The New Blue, would accept anyone who identifies as a woman, sings well and whose voice blends with the rest of the group.

A member of Out of the Blue, Eric Li ’20, noted that singing groups that plan to open to all genders may run into challenges as they choose whether to rearrange songs that exist in their repertoire to accommodate traditional female voice parts or to accept only women who can sing tenor, baritone or bass parts.

Although Baker belongs to the Duke’s Men’s first all-gender tap class, they noted the importance of all-women’s organizations and communities as spaces for empowerment. Still, Baker maintained that students should not be barred from joining the groups in which they would feel most comfortable.

“An ideal a cappella landscape would be one where people can find the best fit for them, musically and socially, without gender being a limiting factor,” Baker said.

For Baker, the Yale Whiffenpoofs’ decision to remain an all-men’s group conflicts with this ideal. The Whiffenpoofs take a leave of absence every year to tour the world — something no other singing group at Yale has done — and Baker said it would be unfair to bar those who are not men but are able to sing tenor, bass or baritone vocal parts from this experience.

Still, Baker explained that they were unsure if they would like to be a member of the Whiffenpoofs as the group currently stands, based on the fear that they would have to fight for a sense of belonging in a group that has been less open to gender integration than the Duke’s Men.

“Gender integration must be intentional, and it has to include serious, ongoing introspection about the group’s traditions, practices and language,” Baker said. “I’m grateful that the Duke’s Men began that work before I stepped into the audition room.”

The Duke’s Men is not the first formerly all-male a cappella group at Yale to offer membership to all genders. The Yale Russian Chorus, founded in 1953 as a four-part men’s chorus, opened membership to women approximately 20 years ago. According to Meredith Derecho ’18, one of two women currently in the group, as many as three women have been in the Russian Chorus at one time.

Derecho, who sings as a tenor 1 in the chorus, said she has little trouble blending her voice with male voices in her part and added that she is generally not expected to sing notes lower than would be comfortable for her. She often sings unique descant parts or adds high notes that would be out of range for most male voices.

“Obviously, it’s not ideal that I can’t sing all of the notes, but I think that the presence of some women in the group adds much more musically than it detracts,” Derecho said.

Baker also reported few musical challenges as a member of the Duke’s Men. While their vocal timbre is slightly different from that of the other tenors’ falsetto ranges, Baker called the concern of vocal blending between male and female voices “a non-issue.”

Like Derecho, Baker noted that their vocal break can be an asset to the group. The Duke’s Men’s musical arrangements are “ambitious in terms of range,” they said. However, the point at which Baker switches from their lower to upper register is higher than the equivalent point in the group’s male voices, and this may make higher tenor solos more natural for them to sing, Baker said.

“The bottom line is that nothing about my voice makes me a bad musical fit for the group,” Baker said. “Speaking candidly, I honestly think that people who make a fuss over female voices not fitting in men’s groups just don’t want women in their boys’ clubs.”

Opportunities for women and nonbinary individuals to join all-gender tenor, baritone and bass ensembles are still somewhat limited. Derecho explained that most members of her chorus believe that either all-male voices or a combination of male and female voices must sing the tenor 1 part in order to preserve the traditional sound of the group’s repertoire, and the group does not plan to formally change its existing arrangements.

Derecho said the decision not to alter existing tenor, baritone and bass repertoires will cause even all-gender groups to maintain a perpetual gender imbalance, as female voices often cannot reach below the tenor 1 range. Derecho noted that this imbalance could discourage other women from joining such organizations, but added that, in her experience, she generally feels “valued, appreciated and comfortable” as a member of the group. Baker said the same of their experience with the Duke’s Men.

“When people ask what my experience has been like, it sometimes feels as if they’re looking for some tension or drama, but the truth is: the Duke’s Men have been great for me,” they said. “I did a cappella at my all-girls high school, and I don’t feel like my social experience in the Duke’s Men is all that different as a result of the gender makeup. The camaraderie and good vibes are still all there.”

The Yale Singing Group Council consists of seven all-gender groups and nine single-gender groups.

Natalie Wright | natalie.wright.nw287@yale.edu