Last Friday I wrote about a website entitled Of Choristers, which gives a brief history of many of the Anglican choir schools in Great Britain. While they are not Catholic choir schools, there is, nevertheless, so much that we can learn from them (I often frown when a pastor or friend from a parish with a school tells me how awful the music is and how there is no one to provide better. It seems obvious to train the children in the school. I don’t know why this is such a hard concept). And to be honest, a large portion of their repertoire is Catholic (one is bound to hear much more Catholic music in an Anglican cathedral than in a Catholic cathedral, something that grieves my heart).
Today I would like to begin going through these choir schools and share with you what I have learned, so I will start with the Bristol Cathedral Choir and School. The first thing you should do is listen to a recording. The following is a YouTube video about their recent trip to Poland. Focus on the choral sound. Is it something you like? Why? Do they sing just the notes on the page, or do you hear joy in their voices as they sing Jubilate Deo?
Visit the choir’s website. I always like to see how many singers are in the choir. In this instance there are 14 boys and 14 girls (who are called choristers) and 10 men, 6 of whom are lay clerks and 4 of whom are choral scholars. Now you ask, “What is a lay clerk?” The word clerk comes from the word cleric, referring to the time when the choir was comprised of clergy. A lay clerk is a layman who stands in in the place of a cleric. The choral scholars are usually men around college age who sing with the choir and receive some sort of a scholarship at a local university and possibly receive specialized vocal training as well. The boys and girls sing only the treble line, while the Gentlemen of the Choir sing countertenor, tenor and bass. Usually the choir sings 6 services per week, although sometimes only the men, or boys or girls alone sing a particular Choral Evensong. They practice each morning before school and before each service. You can also visit the Bristol Cathedral Choir School webpage. I noticed there are more than 400 students enrolled. So…what can I take from this brief look. Here are just a few things I noticed.
1) There are only 28 students in the choir. It is amazing to me that only 28 voices fill a very large Cathedral. You don’t need a choir of 80 children (or even 40) to fill your parish church. Does your parish have at least 28 students? More than likely.
2) The choir school educates 400 plus students, none of whom board. I work for a parish with a school of 400 students (none of whom board). Why can’t I recruit at least that many for a children’s choir (to be honest, I already have!). Priest, why don’t you consider using music instruction time in your schools to teach liturgical music?
3) The choristers only sing the treble line, while professionals, or at least very competent male singers provide alto, tenor and bass (this doesn’t mean the choristers don’t harmonize–very often, the soprano part is split). Most parishes will not be able to afford professional singers to sing the lower parts (even if a parish could afford it, it is hard to find them unless you are in a large city or near a major university), but children can be taught to sing in harmony, so the soprano and alto lines are taken care of.
4) The choristers sing roughly 6 services per week and practice 5 days a week, plus rehearsals before services. I will admit, if you want to teach your choristers to sight-sing to the level of such a choir, they will need to sing at least 3 services per week with as many practices. Sight-singing is an art and takes constant practice. If your parish has a school and your choristers come from the school, why couldn’t they sing for Mass on Sunday and twice for daily Masses (often the school children already attend Mass once or twice a week as part of their routine).
If you really feel bold, email the choir director. Tell him you direct a children’s choir (with a short description of how many children, how long the choir has been in existence and how often you practice) and that you have admired his work. Then ask him a question. Perhaps you would like to ask how he auditions the choristers or how he runs the choral warm-ups. Very often they are very willing to help. You never know how much this might help your choir? Basically, learn as much as you can so that you can help your singers. They will thank you for it!