Gender-Specific Choirs for 5th and 6th Grade Singers

Gender Specific Choirs for 5th and 6th Grade Singers
by Garth Starr, Northeastern Lower Michigan Area Representative

For the last two years I have been given the privilege to isolate my vocal music classes by gender. I teach eight classes of fifth and sixth grade students every day for nine weeks and then I get a new group of students for the next nine weeks. The reason for me to make this change was based on ideas similar to researchers such as Janice Killian who stated that there were definitely voice changes occurring among many fifth and sixth grade boys and noted that repertoire selection continues to be a problem for this age group of boys (Killian, 1999). So to help boys during this vocal transition I worked with the gym teacher in my building to combine our classes that we would have that semester allowing me to have the the boys together for nine weeks and then the girls would be separated for the next nine weeks. Keating (2004) states that the adolescent singer has better chances of success in an ensemble of like voices by gaining a sense of self-worth and accomplishment that is more difficult to gain in an ensemble with treble voices. Over the past two years I have been able to see these studies proven in my classroom.

When the boys are among only boys they have been more willing to try solos and to explore their singing voices, not worrying about cracking or sounding “like a girl”. Also, the competitive nature among the boys fosters an environment where the other boys want to prove that they can do it too. So besides the in-class competition I prompted an interclass competition by adding a progression chart in the room to keep track of the progress of all the classes to drive all the boys to do better; when they see that one of the classes has accomplished a song ahead of them they want to work harder and sing the song again to catch up and, of course, pass the class ahead of them. I have seen not only more work come from the gender specific choirs but also better quality in the performance. Hall (2005) indicates that peer modeling achieved increased levels of vocal participation highlighting its importance as a strategy to improve male participation. Once a boy was discovered by their own friends to be a “good” singer, he was encouraged by his friends to sing a solo and he inspired others to try also.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve come across with a boys choir for this age group is finding repertoire conducive for the changing male voice. I’ve had to change keys of songs to fit the range my boys could sing, and I’ve flipped parts around so that the high part would be sung an octave lower by the low voices and the other part could be sung as written by the high voices; you have to watch out for awkward intervals and harmonies being created, but it has worked out for me many times. Sometimes I needed to drop the harmony and just sing it in unison or sing only two parts of a three-part song; I had to overcome the idea of having to sing the music exactly as it was printed by the editor, sometimes you just have to make the music work for your group. Here are several songs that I have used the last two years among my boy choirs.


Title Composer Publisher
Africa by Toto

Flipped voices in B-section

Arr. Roger Emerson Hal Leonard
Coney Island Baby with We all Fall

Dropped the baritone part

Les Applegate Barbershop Harmony Society
Free At Last Arr. Barbara Sletto Colla Voce
Gone, Gone, Gone

Changed key to fit the ensemble

Arr. Andy Beck Alfred
Home Greg Holden Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine

My Shot Lin-Manuel Miranda Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine

Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone Sherri Porterfield Alfred
Singabahambayo Arr. John Higgins Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine

Soul Man Arr. Kirby Shaw Alfred
The Bare Necessities Arr. Tom Anderson Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine

The Coasts of High Barbary

Sing unison except for echo parts

Jeanne Julseth-Heinrich Heritage
The Lion Sleeps Tonight Arr. Roger Emerson Hal Leonard
The Red River Valley Emily Crocker Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine

The Sailor’s Life for Me

Changed key to fit the ensemble

Mary Donnelly Alfred
Three Quotes by Mark Twain Andrea Ramsey Santa Barbara
Yo Le Canto Todo el Dia Mark Brunner Boosey & Hawkes
Zangelewa Will Schmid Hal Leonard

Music Express Magazine


I have found that the Music Express Magazine by John Jacobson is a great resource for songs that fit this age group. The keys are usually already set for their vocal range and the arrangements are shorter and more concise than the original to help make learning the song easier.

Too often the researchers who study this age group have focused on benefits for boys being in a gender-specific choir, but there are benefits for the girls too. The first time I noticed the difference was when my sixth grade girls started singing together in an all girls group. They seemed to blossom more, compared to their performance the previous year. My experience had been that the girls tended to back off during their sixth grade year when in a co-ed choir. May and Williams (1989) suggest that directors must attend to the psychological concerns of self image, self esteem, and peer acceptance during this time. The girls are often more concerned with how they look and don’t want to risk looking or sounding foolish in front of the boys.

When the boys were asked if they liked being in a group of only guys the responses were very supportive.

  • “I like singing with only boys, I’m afraid to make mistakes and look stupid”.
  • “Singing with just guys is just cool”
  • “The other guys are really encouraging”
  • “My brothers are my family”

When the boys were asked to mention anything they didn’t like about singing with only guys:

  • “I miss the girls”
  • “Not really, the guys are fun”

When the girls were asked if they liked singing with only girls:

  • “The boys can be mean”
  • “The boys talk too much”
  • “We get more done without the boys”
  • “I like singing songs I want to sing”

When the girls were asked to mention anything they didn’t like about singing with only girls:

  • “Nope”
  • “I miss the low voices”

My own exploration of gender-specific choirs for fifth and sixth grade singers has shown me that students at this age level and vocal development level are more comfortable exploring their voice with voices of like type and can experience music that is written for their vocal range and current development. As a director it is fun to find music that can be culturally specific for boys or girls, themes that might not be as popular for the opposite gender to participate in. There is something grand about a stage full of boys singing a pirate song or a bunch of girls singing about their handsome feller. Probably the most wonderful aspect to gender-specific choirs is that students share feelings and thoughts more openly with others of like gender since they are less worried about looking good in front of singers of the opposite gender. I have had huge success getting greater productivity out of my students in gender-specific choirs and would encourage any director contemplating the idea to create the opportunity for an all boys choir and/or an all girls choir. My goal was to create an environment for my boys to excel in and to have pride in themselves and their group. Not only did we achieve that goal but we also accomplished the same for the girls. Don’t feel limited or constrained by your current programming or the repertoire that is currently available, your biggest limitation is your own imagination.


Hall, C. (2005). Gender and boys’ singing in early childhood. British Journal of Music Education, 22(1), 5-20.

Keating, B. T. (2004). A choral organization structure for the developing male singer. Dissertation Abstracts International, 65(09), 3210A. (UMI No. 3148392)

Killian, J. N. (1999). A description of vocal maturation among fifth- and sixth-grade boys. Journal of Research in Music Education, 47(4), 521-535.

May, W. V., & Williams, B. B. (1989). The girl’s changing voice. UPDATE: The Applications of Research in Music Education, 8(1), 20-23.