A number of years ago I found myself engaged in an interesting conversation about the formation of boy choristers with Mr. Gregory Glenn, founder and director of the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City. He had spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London in the early 90’s in an effort to understand the inner workings of the choir school and he continually asked those he encountered “How do you form the boys to be able to do what they do?” To his amazement, no one could really answer the question.
The Men and Boys of Westminster Cathedral could arguably tackle any literature in the repertoire on any day of the week and pull it off extremely well, but they couldn’t articulate how they did it.
Dr. George Guest, the legendary director of the Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge, once quipped that the choir had at any one time somewhere in the vicinity of 1300 choral works in its repertoire, a staggering number by any stretch of the imagination. How did he do it?
Review the Holy Week Music Lists of the Regensburger Domspatzen, St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, or St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, and ask yourself how such a feat is possible without knowing how it’s done.
As Mr. Glenn continued to ask his question he realized that the institution itself was the formator. Westminster’s choir master at the time, Mr. James O’Donnell, hadn’t been hired to figure out the educational methods necessary to teach 25 squirming boys how to sing Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices. He had been hired to tell the boys “That’s the Kyrie–now sing it!”
In much the same way the military takes young men, even today’s millennials, and turns them into soldiers, ready to fight and die for their country. The army (at least traditionally) doesn’t put men through “manhood” classes. A sergeant simply slams a gun in the young man’s face and yells that failure is not an option. He either learns how to fight or he will die–and get a lot of other men killed in the process. Choir training can be similar.
I remember early in my career teaching our parish choir Faure’s Requiem Mass. We had worked tirelessly at it for 3 months but things weren’t coming together. I knew they could do it, but they didn’t know that, so I blasted them. With only one rehearsal left I half yelled that if they couldn’t pull things together, I was going to send them home and hire professionals to sing in their stead–I had had it. Lo and behold they arrived the following week as capable as any professional ensemble. We flew through the evening having more fun than anyone should be allowed to have singing a Requiem Mass. My choir members needed to know that we had a job to do and we were going to do it. Failure was not an option.
It’s no different in the great choral foundations and choir schools. The boys don’t know any differently. The music list states they have to sing Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi munera that evening alongside motets by Victoria and MacMillan, plus the full list of propers. Failure is not an option. The routine becomes the norm and the norm becomes the routine.
While it’s true that great musicians are at the helm of these institutions and the choristers are in possession of incredible amounts of natural talent, we have to remember that when Sir Stephen Cleobury passed away last fall, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, didn’t cease to function. Daniel Hyde stepped into his place to continue a tradition stretching back more than five centuries. Each spring, as the 8th graders walk through the halls of the Madeleine Choir School for the last time, Mr. Glen doesn’t sit around wringing his hands wondering how the tradition will continue. Other children simply step into their places and the tradition continues.
Sometimes I think we overcomplicate the musical education of children (and adults, too, for that matter). Everyone is searching for a silver bullet. Perhaps it’s a certain education method, a special book or a technique. Standing somewhat in opposition to all of these various techniques and methods is the English choir school, where the director stands in front of the boys and says “that’s an A, now sing it!”