Last week I wrote about the affect that the founding of roughly 350 choir schools in the United States would have upon our general level of sacred music within a single generation and provided a number of resources for the novice and not-so-novice who would like to know more about choir schools, but who are currently unable to visit these great institutions.
Today I would like to continue this thread of thought in order to discover more about what makes a choir school tick. I also want to tie the choir school concept to several real models that I feel are every bit worth imitating in one way or another. Along the way I hope to provide more resources for our readers should they wish to dive further into the subject.
In order to begin our conversation, I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the church musician is to provide the most beautiful music possible for the sacred liturgy and NOT (necessarily) to create a school. This is perhaps why in England cathedral choirs are often referred to as choral foundations. For example, there has been a choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London since 604 A.D., but it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1123 A.D. that a school was established by the bishop of London to educate boy choristers. The important thing is the choir that sings for the services. The cathedral does not announce each week that St. Paul’s Cathedral School (where the choristers are educated) sings for the cathedral’s services, but rather that St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir sings for the services. It is, therefore, possible to have a fine choral foundation without an actual school (Rippon Cathedral Choir). However, I firmly believe it is more difficult.
Another point to keep in mind is that there are very few “real” choir schools left in the world. What I mean by this is a school whose sole raison d’être is the education of a certain church’s choristers and no other students. Two such elite programs that readily come to mind are the choirs schools at Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican). Both of these schools are residential and educate only the boys who sing in each church’s choir. As far as I am aware, the Schola Puerorum, the school for boys of the the Sistine Chapel Choir, also exists solely for the purpose of educating the choir’s choristers, but it is not a boarding school (are are Westminster and St. Thomas). The same is true for St. Paul’s Choir School (Boston). The obvious reason for such schools is that the musical education of the choristers becomes the guiding principle for all of the school’s education decisions and programs. The downside, however, is that educating such a small number of children is EXTREMELY expensive and strong in will and perseverance would have to be the rector of any church to attempt building such an institution.
Much more common today is the choir school that educates non-choristers as well as choristers (and often both boys and girls, even where the choir remains open to boys only). This list includes choir schools such as Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic) and the Madeleine Choir School (Utah). The Madeleine Choir School has always educated non-choristers, whereas Westminster Cathedral Choir, like many other European choir schools, began educating non-choristers in order to keep the school financially viable. St. Paul’s Cathedral School (London) is another well known choir school that now educates both choristers and non-choristers (I would recommend readers watch the 1978 documentary Paul’s Children, the first part here, during the tenure of the legendary Barry Rose). Some, like Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are boarding schools (at least for the choristers) and some, like the Madeleine Choir School, are simply day schools. In choir schools that educate both choristers and non-choristers, there can exist a tension between plotting an educational course that provides the best environment for choristers and one that favors non-choristers. The Madeleine Choir School implemented a creative approach to this issue, allowing the school principal to plot a course for the daily educational needs of all students, but retaining the cathedral choir director as the school’s pastoral administrator, a position above the principal, which allows him final say should there ever arise an conflict between chorister and non-chorister interests.
The mission of all of these choir schools remains the training of their choristers in the art of sacred music. The main difference, however, among all of the schools I have mentioned, is how much control each school is able to exert over a chorister’s formation. The greatest amount of control is exerted by the residential “real” choir school that can plan all of its educational and extra-curricular events around the needs of the choir. This lessens slightly as one descends to the non-residential “real” choir school, then to the residential choir school that educates both choristers and non-choristers, next to the non-residential choir school that educates choristers and non-choristers, penultimately to the regular school that partners with a cathedral or church choir and lastly to the choir that exists as an after (or before) school model.
As I just mentioned, there are regular schools (non-choir schools) that work in partnership with a church’s choir to provide an ideal setting for the musical education of that church’s choristers even though the school is not a choir school. This model is perhaps more common in England where there is no-separation between church and state. It is also somewhat easier to facilitate because English schools generally begin much later than American schools (around 9 a.m.), which allows for a choir rehearsal at school each morning at a reasonable hour before the school day officially starts. (I have personally tried this at my own American parish and a 7 a.m. choir rehearsal somehow sounds much more cruel to choristers and parents than an 8 a.m. choir rehearsal.) A wonderful example of such a choir is the London Oratory Schola Cantorum, directed by Charles Cole.
Take a moment to visit these choirs’ websites to find out about the history and structures of each one. Is the choir attached to a school? How often does each choir rehearse and when? How many Masses, parts of the Divine Office or services does each sing weekly? Where are the choristers educated? Do choristers received a reduction in school fees because of the time they give to the cathedral or parish in service to the liturgy? Do choristers receive a thorough grounding in music theory? How many services does each choir sing on a weekly basis? What kinds of music does each choir sing? Are choristers required to take lessons in piano or in other instruments? Are choristers given voice lessons as part of their musical education? Who sings the alto, tenor and bass parts in these choirs, professional singers, boys with changed voices or a combination of both? Are there other organists or helpers on the music staff (educating choristers is VERY time consuming)? Does the choir take part in musical events outside the liturgy, and if so, does this help them to sing at a higher level within the liturgy?
These are things a choir director needs to think about as he plans to build a successful choral foundation at his own cathedral or parish. And because I do think it is indispensable that liturgical musicians in American begin to build choir schools for the training of our own future musicians, next week I will begin taking readers through the histories of the founding of various types of choir schools. The schools I have selected were all founded in the 20th century and therefore have many more documented histories available to help the church musician of today create his own blueprint for such an incredible institution.