Why is Penn’s Glee Club still all-male?

Dear Benny:
I recently saw the Penn Glee Club perform, and thought the group was terrific. But I’m curious—why is the singing group all-male? Aren’t most glee clubs these days made up of both male and female members?
—Choral Confusion

Dear Confused,
You’re correct in thinking that glee clubs these days are comprised of both male and female members, and in fact, Penn’s Glee Club does have female members—just not in the chorus. According to Club Director Erik Nordgren, female students have participated in the organization for the past 50 years. The Club’s very first female member was a piano accompanist from the Class of 1960.

The reason for single-sex choral ensembles, Nordgren explains, has more to do with biology and musical acoustics than sexism. Simply put, male and female voices sound different. “An all-male choir will have a different sonority from that of an all-female choir or a mixed-voice choir,” he says. “None of these ensemble types are ‘better’ or ‘worse’; they are simply different.”

It’s not as though Penn’s Glee Club is the only music group in which students can participate. Nordgren notes that more than a dozen established singing groups are out there, each with its own size, style and gender makeup. “Pretty much any young man or woman at the University has ample opportunities to find an outlet for their vocal talents.”

The appeal of Penn’s Glee Club is understandable, since it’s one of the oldest collegiate glee clubs in the country and the oldest performing arts group at the University (founded in 1862 by eight male students).

Throughout its history, the Club has performed on television and at professional sporting events and each year, produces elaborately staged productions. The Glee Club has also toured the country and the world since 1959. Last year, the group went to Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. For more information, go to www.dolphin.upenn.edu/gleeclub.

Got a question for Benny? Send it via e-mail to current@pobox.upenn.edu or via regular mail to the Current, 200 Sansom Place East, 3600 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106.

Originally published on March 4, 2010