RAY TELL, how do they do it? How does the choir school take a young boy, full of spit and vinegar, and form him into a consummate artists and musician, able to tackle the most sublime of repertoire with an eye toward communicating the deepest thoughts and emotions, hopes, fears and eternal longings of the human race? It ain’t easy. Continuing the theme of the Institution as Formator, I hope to describe in more depth and detail the inner workings of the choir school in order to understand how they do they work they do. The choir school is an incredible institution—the only place I know of today where children, usually boys, are expected to put in the work of full-fledge professionals on a daily basis. Unlike other young men today, they also posses the knowledge and satisfaction of a professional job well done.
Because the majority of these institutions educate boy choristers, and because that is a tradition in itself worthy of continuing, I will make most of my references to boys in the following post, but realize that a number of choir schools today educate girl choristers as well as boys.
The Raw Material
I don’t wish to downplay the importance of the choirmaster or the organist, the pastor or the teacher in the workings of the choir school, but we must remember that they aren’t the ones ultimately responsible for singing in choir. The boy himself forms a critical link in the choral chain and we might well ask ourselves “who is a ‘right fit’ for the work of the chorister?”
In the first place, the prospective boy needs to posses a naturally fine voice, free of physical ailments or conditions that would prevent him from taking up his choral duties, but that isn’t enough. He should have a good ear, one that’s capable of hearing a melody only once and repeating it back verbatim. Sight-reading skills are not essential at this point (rather, does the boy have potential?), but he must be a quick learner, a “bright boy” of above average intelligence, who can learn the craft quickly and be able to tackle all of his other studies, because time for homework will be greatly curtailed. He should posses the spirit of the “team player,” of entering into and becoming an integral part of the choir. He doesn’t have to give up his family, but he needs to accept that he will have a second family (ideally both would support each other). Finally, he should simply love to sing. This should be his joy!
This scenario is quite different from that of most children’s parish music programs. Even in my own situation I accept every child into the program who is able to match pitch and is free of physical issues and ailments that would prevent pleasant singing. On a few occasions I have even temporarily accepted children who struggled to match pitch (and given them extra help until they could). Quite frankly, I need every child who is willing, but more than that, I feel that each one should (at the parish level, not in the cathedral) experience making good sacred music. As one’s program grows, there will naturally be greater opportunities to create various choirs according to the strengths of the singers so that the music in a decent size parish might very well rival or even surpass that found in the great cathedrals. Regardless, the point remains that a cathedral’s music program, unlike that of a parish, should function at a fully professional level, shining as a beacon for other churches in its vicinity, which necessitates a very high standard for boys entering the choir. Once we realize how high that standard is, it becomes easier to understand the boy’s rapid musical progress.
Sense of Purpose and Personal Discipline
The chorister quickly learns that he has become part of an incredible institution, and in some cases an ancient one. While he “belongs” to the institution, the institution also rightly “belongs” to him and relies upon him and his work in order to bring about its full flourishing. This gives the boy a sense of mission and purpose.
The chorister also realizes that what he needs to accomplish in one day to make the choir school “work” is more than other boys might hope to accomplish in a month or even a year, and he must make every action count. He has to keep what is important and essential at the forefront of all he does and let go of the superfluous. He doesn’t have time to procrastinate or work to a lower standard than his compatriots.
I personally find that this ingrains a sense of self-discipline in choristers not readily found in children in “regular” schools, and not necessarily because the teachers in the choir school doggedly “lay down the law.” Rather, the sense of professionalism in the choir school, especially when modeled by the choirmaster and men of the choir (“lay clerks” or “choral vicars”), imparts in the boys the desire to become part of this professional elite. Does this mean the boys never act up? Of course not. They still posses the ability and potential to be the very worst of offenders. Nevertheless, the choral experience directs, molds and shapes the raw material of the boy into early manhood. Choir schools are also vigilant about providing ample opportunities for healthy and vigorous exercise outside of the choral routine.
Obviously, all of these qualities and habits make a great deal of difference before a boy ever enters the choir room, but when he finally does, he is ready for greatness.
Some schools, like the Madeleine Choir School, admit children (in this case, boys and girls) in kindergarten. During these first young years children learn to sing expressively in the head voice, amass a large repertoire of folk songs and become familiar with various rhythms, intervals and other musical concepts, with the goal of recognizing them on the printed page and knowing what to do with them.
In most choir schools, however, boys are admitted later, often around the age of 8, 9 or even 10, and immediately commence studies in music theory and sight-singing. What is crucial, though, is the weekly piano lesson, where he puts abstract concepts into immediate and daily use. Notes, rhythms, intervals, key-signatures, notes names, dynamics, expression, AND becoming aware of more than one musical line at a time all become part of the boy. Some choristers take on a second instrument as well.
In recent times most choir schools have hired a vocal coach for the boys, providing individual instruction that is otherwise difficult to give inside the choir rehearsal. A boy generally has the opportunity to perform in front of the other choristers and it is amazing how solo singing and/or playing for one’s peers brings out the best in the one who is capable of handling the pressure, and all of this spills over into the rehearsal room.
Daily Singing within the Sacred Liturgy
Lastly, each boy “performs” a lot of music on a daily basis within the Mass and Office. I once enquired of Sarah MacDonal, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir, how often she believed a chorister had to “perform” in order for a child to really learn to sing at sight and she felt at least three services per week were necessary. Daily singing within the Sacred Liturgy, where there is no possibility of a “do over,” is the crucible in which the boy is pushed into the world of the professional. He is thrown into the deep end and will either sink or learn to swim.
This, then, is the quality of the boys accepted as choristers into the major choir schools.