Peter Hannigan on the role of choir schools
I EXPECT, like me, you received several cards at Christmas showing choirboys, perhaps processing through snow towards a village church, or perhaps up to some mischief in the choirstalls. Choristers are very much part of our English Christmas and it is no surprise that the Festival of Carols broadcast from King's College, Cambridge, has established itself firmly in this country and indeed around the world.
Choristers are an essentially English phenomenon, for there are concentrated in the British Isles more cathedral choirs of men and boys than in the rest of the world put together. And the boys are nearly all educated in choir schools, many of ancient foundation.
What sort of places are these choir schools?
Let me try to explain and to reassure.
Whilst they vary very much, the majority of the 37 schools in membership of the Choir Schools' Association do have certain things in common. Each is attached to a cathedral, an Oxford or Cambridge college, or in a few cases to a parish church. It will have non-chorister pupils, often in very large numbers so that the choristers form only a small percentage of the whole (Westminster Abbey has the only purely chorister school left in England), and often girls as well as boys. Whilst it will be independent (though there are two voluntary-aided schools at Peterborough and Southwell), it will draw its choristers mostly from maintained primary schools.
It will educate its boys from eight to 13 and prepare them for the common entrance examination to an independent secondary school, though boys who prefer to re-enter the maintained system at 13 do so perfectly easily. Most of its choristers will win music scholarships on leaving, so that parents will have benefited from heavily reduced fees, or even free places, for the ten years up to "A" level. It will be an Anglican foundation because it is the Anglican Church which has put European culture forever in its debt by fostering the English choral tradition since the Reformation.
However, there are two Catholic members of the CSA, St Edmund's at Liverpool and the Choir School at Westminster Cathedral, as well as others doing the same work who are not yet members, notably St John's, Hayling Island and St David's Cardiff.
What sort of boys do our schools produce?
Of course we try hard to select carefully at eight. A boy who comes to our voice trials will have to show that he is innately musical with a good ear, that he has the promise of a voice, that he is academic enough to keep abreast of his classwork despite at least 15 hours per week in the cathedral, that above all he is the vibrant, energetic, vital person.
What will a boy gain from being a chorister? The answer is simple — much. By 13 he will be confident (not arrogant, his peers will have seen to that); highly disciplined; pretty reliable; usually good company and at ease with adults because he will have mixed with a wide variety, many of them distinguished in their field. He will have learned how to work, how to organise his time and how to be punctual. He will be a tolerant and often a surprisingly kind member of a close-knit team.
Instrumentally he will have developed to a high degree and will have had considerable orchestral and chamber experience. He will have been on foreign tours, sung in broadcasts and royal concerts, made recordings and brought joy to his local hospital with carols in the wards at Christmas.
These are the remarkable boys, products of a unique English system, who perhaps will inspire us next century when they are in their prime and when they begin to influence the worship of the Church as the choirmasters, organists and composers we so much need. Perhaps then we shall see the significance of Cardinals Vaughan and Heenan establishing in this century as integral parts of their newly founded cathedrals at Westminster and Liverpool two English Choir Schools.
The author is secretary of the Choir Schools Association and the headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School.