Choristers sing for their supper
– Jane Capon, Information Officer of the Choir Schools’ Association (CSA)
We no longer sing and dance. We don’t know how to. Instead, we watch other people sing and dance on the television screen. Christmas, which was once a festival of active enjoyment, has turned into a binge of purely passive pleasures,’ says Tom Hodgkinson, a writer and co-founder of The Idler magazine.
Some of what he says is true. Indeed, it is borne out every Christmas Eve when millions worldwide tune in to watch or listen to King’s College Choir, Cambridge, getting the festive season underway with their festival of lessons and joyous carols.
Both at Christmas and Easter there will be opportunities to enjoy broadcasts from other choral foundations. However, ‘live’ shows, be it regular sung services or concerts, go on daily, giving members of the congregation or audience a chance to participate. Many choristers are also actively engaged in promoting singing in primary schools.
Boy choristers have sung the daily liturgy in our cathedrals and collegiate chapels for fourteen hundred years but it was only in 1990 that girls began to have the same opportunities as their brothers when Salisbury Cathedral introduced the first girls’ ‘top line’ in an English cathedral.
Some 1,200 boy and girl choristers are educated in the 45 choir schools belonging to the Choir Schools’ Association (CSA). They are part of this country’s centuries-old choral heritage which is the envy of the world.
Each year 200 seven- to nine-year-olds take their places in the choir stalls for the first time – embarking on some of the finest musical training in the world. At the same time they benefit from a first-class academic and all-round education in the choir school. They acquire self-discipline and a passion for music that stays with them for life, whatever career path they choose to follow. Sportsmen Alastair Cooke and Lawrence Dallaglio have both publicly declared what they owe to their time as choristers. Other well-known former choristers include Aled Jones, actor and comedian Alexander Armstrong, and actor Simon Russell-Beale.
Back in 1928, only 14 of the 32 schools in the Choir Schools’ Association insisted that their choristers (all boys then) should be boarders. By 1986 three-quarters of the CSA’s member schools required them to board. Twenty-first century choir schools are more flexible. Some still insist on all choristers boarding and many only admit day choristers. However, there are a growing number offering the choice.
Help with fees
Most choristers qualify for financial help with fees from the school or its foundation in return for the singing. Combine this with the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA) and choir school for the young singer in the family becomes an attractive option. Choir schools are part of the government’s Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) which helps talented young musicians and dancers with additional means-tested financial support at specialist schools.
Being a chorister demands time and energy from child and parent alike, but it is rare to find any regrets. If a child can sing, and enjoys doing so, there is no finer training. Choristers revel in the regular broadcasts, recordings and concerts they take part in during the year, on top of their daily workload.
During term time the routines of each day are carefully structured to enable choristers to get the maximum out of their work, their free time and their choral and instrumental duties.
But there is a downside. Remember the choristers are contracted to work on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. The children love the preparation and thrive on the additional challenges these very special times in the church’s calendar present. It does, however, make it even more important that family members or friends are nearby to support them.
As Roger Overend, Headmaster of King’s Rochester Preparatory School says: ‘Boarding at Christmas and Easter time is great fun, with not only wonderful music to sing, but parties, trips and entertainment just for the choristers. A boarding chorister really does have an excellent chance to make long-lasting friendships with children who share their interests.’
To be a chorister is the most fabulous opportunity for a youngster who enjoys music and singing. For many, it opens doors that would otherwise be far beyond a child’s wildest dreams. Singing, in itself, is one of the most natural acts in the world, and choristers learn naturally. They learn by experience the importance of teamwork, of self-discipline, of concentration and of managing their busy lives – quite apart from learning specific musical skills to an extremely high level. Anyone who has sung in a choir will recognise these facets, and choristers develop them as easily as blinking.
Visit our website www.choirschools.org.uk to read more about choir schools, look at the checklist of what is required and then we hope you will contact the school or your schools of your choice directly.
Jane Capon is Information Officer of the Choir Schools’ Association (CSA). As well as supporting the day to day work of choir schools, CSA also promotes chorister outreach programmes, using choristers to boost singing in primary schools. The Government adopted the Association’s model as part of its National Singing Programme from 2007–10 and Jane managed 45 Cathedral and Choir School projects on their behalf. The good news is that most of the projects are continuing with local funding. Her career began at one of the country’s leading PR firms before she moved ‘in house’ to set up the press office for the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS). On becoming freelance she worked for a variety of educational organisations before concentrating on choir schools.