Choirboys & Gangsters: The importance of male role models

Written By Andrew Mahon, Posted on June 12, 2020

For ten years, as a boy, I sang in the choir of Gentlemen and Boys at Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, rehearsing every Tuesday and Thursday evening in preparation for the Sunday morning service.

Despite my reluctance to advertise the fact to friends at school, I was fortunate to be a choirboy, and not only because I am now a professional classical singer, but because it provided me with a formative influence that was lacking in my education at school.

In school, we were segregated by age but not by sex; in the choir, we were segregated by sex and not by age.

The move to segregate children based on age is found in schools and sports and other organized activities. In many ways, it’s an obvious thing to do since all of the children will be at the same level of development, which certainly streamlines the task of educators. But something precious is missing from this scenario.

The centuries-old Anglican choral tradition is a cherished progeny of English culture that is preserved in churches all over the English-speaking world. Its most common manifestation is the choir of men and boys, and its most treasured expression is the service of Evensong, taken from the Book of Common Prayer.

In cathedrals and collegiate churches in England, these choirs tend to include boys aged 8 – 13 in front of a back row of professional men providing the alto, tenor and bass sections, signing up to eight services per week. In Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, cathedrals and parish churches have for generations maintained a less intense schedule but a no less robust tradition. Often in parish churches, the age range of the boys is wider. In my case, I joined at six and sang treble until my voice broke at 14

It is this age range in an all-male environment that provides an advantageous developmental experience for boys, both younger and older. For the younger boys, it is an environment in which they learn from and look up to older male role models, not only in the boys’ choir but also in the men’s sections.

For the older boys, it teaches leadership and responsibility, which is informed by having gone through the same experience as the younger boys. This was an essential and beneficial environment for me, but it was so much more so for those boys who didn’t have a strong, positive male role model anywhere else in their lives.

Having since sung in many such choirs, I know a considerable number of former choristers who attribute the success they achieved in life to the stability and positive influence given them by the choir. Some even attribute their very survival to the grounding force of the choir, without which they might not have had anything resembling a family, and might have otherwise pursued a life of drugs or crime.

The men of the choir became father figures to them, the other boys like younger or older brothers. To a boy who doesn’t have that at home, it’s of incalculable worth.

Drugs and crime have further relevance here because the efficacy of church choirs in this respect has a direct parallel in gang life. It’s an error to think that by merely exposing young kids from poor, crime-ridden neighbourhoods to public education and opportunity, they’ll jump at the chance to be rescued from their predicament.

The gang life offers them so much more. Like a choir of men and boys, a gang provides the young males with older role models, with goals to strive for, with a ladder to climb. It instills a desire to succeed and an eagerness to earn the respect of elders and peers. And it gives the older, more successful gang members younger males to teach, to guide, to support when they do well, to discipline when they perform poorly.

It’s no coincidence that gangs thrive in societies where single motherhood is common. It is in the gangs’ interest to perpetuate a culture where men shirk family responsibility in favour of gang life, leaving their boys with no other male influence than local drug dealers.

These communities enact a vicious circle in which the gangs both destroy the family and replace the family. Add to this the opportunity to make a lot of money, and you have a culture that is indefatigable to all efforts to transform it.

For there to be any hope of change, there must be a structure that offers the same sort of brotherhood and mentor-protege dynamic to rival the lure of the gang life. Putting your son into an Anglican church choir isn’t the worst idea. Sadly, the three that existed in Toronto when I was a boy are no more, and in all of Canada, only one or two such choirs remain. There are various reasons for this—boys don’t want to join choirs, choral directors with the necessary skills are hard to find, and political agendas are always at play demanding that girls be allowed to participate.

Of course, there are other examples of this kind of environment. I expect the boy scouts and the military offer boys and young men a similar camaraderie. On the other hand, I’m also convinced that the appeal of joining a terrorist group such as ISIS is not unrelated to this same fundamental character.

If society is serious about dissuading boys and young men from the lives of crime or terrorism, it has to do better than age-segregated public schools or age-segregated organized sports, where the mere presence of the opposite sex can be a more substantial influence than any constructive male bonding.

It must encourage participation in an all-male environment where the young have the opportunity to learn from the old, to be inspired and influenced by positive role models and where the former has the chance to share what they’ve learned to help guide the young so that boys can learn how to become responsible men. Repudiating this idea in our educational institutions only encourages it to thrive in the most destructive parts of society.

Andrew Mahon

One response to “Choirboys & Gangsters: The importance of male role models”

  1. joe bissonnette says:

    a thoughtful and wise piece of writing.

    This summer we had our children and grandchildren (an 8 month old boy and a 7 month old cousin in utero) all under one roof. Of course everyone was captivated by the 8 month old, and wondered at the baby behind the veil. One son-in-law is a student of Rene Girard, and Girard’s idea of mimetic desire offers a way of thinking about why we were so captivated by that 8 month old. The child was seeing everything for the first time, and as we were drawn into the openness and wonder of the child, the familiar became fresh for us too.

    When I was young I would have thought that any benefit to be had by the interactions between the young and the old was to be gained by the young. But there’s much more to it.