What is a choir school? It is a private school serving the choristers of a cathedral, college or large parish church. The choristers can be boys or girls or boys and girls depending on the institution with which the school is affiliated. The United Kingdom enjoys a long history of this genre of private school. As the Choir Schools Association notes:
"Choir Schools are amazing places where young choristers enjoy learning and playing. Their work takes them into stunningly beautiful buildings on a daily basis. There is no better educational and musical training start for boys and girls aged seven years and up who love to sing."
Residential and day choir schools have seen a steady decline in their numbers since the 1950s for three reasons. Two devastating world wars in Britain drastically altered the social and economic landscape in that country. Changing values in modern society throughout the world have seen parents choose alternative forms of education for their children. Finally, the tremendous cost of educating children in a choir school has forced many sponsoring institutions to close their schools.
Why send your child to a choir school?
I remember a parishioner years ago asking me to support her son's application to Saint Thomas' Choir School. He was an only child and, frankly, she was the quintessential velcro mother. I was pleasantly surprised that they were keen on the residential choir school at Saint Thomas Church in New York City. It was a good solution to her circumstance of being a single working parent. He was a smart, musical boy, so it was a good fit from that point of view. Finally, the financial aid package which the school provided made it affordable for her.
I think that Saint Thomas' addresses another parental concern well:
"Myth: Boarding school is just for people who want to send their children away. I love my son and our family is really close.
Fact: Ask any Saint Thomas parent and you’ll get a similar answer: “I never thought I could send my young son to boarding school!” It’s difficult, but we can assure you that Saint Thomas is a warm, caring and happy place where boys thrive. Our full-time faculty live in the building, and the boys develop deep bonds with their teachers as well as their classmates. Additionally, there are two houseparents who live on the dorm floors and ensure that boys are settled, healthy, calling home regularly, and prepared for each day.The boys often refer to themselves as a band of brothers, and these close relationships endure long after their time at Saint Thomas. Indeed, the young alumni are invited back for the night before Thanksgiving each year, and it is always heartwarming to see how many return to reconnect with their friends and their 'home away from home.'"
Saint Thomas' Choir School in New York City is one of three schools of its kind worldwide and the only residential church-affiliated choir school in the nation.
A day school option
Boston is home to the only Roman Catholic choir school in the United States. Saint Paul's Choir School in Cambridge is a day school which educates boys who sing in the choir at Saint Paul's Church. Its website describes its purpose:
"The Choir School seeks to embrace the great cathedral school tradition as it unites a rigorous musical and academic curriculum with our Catholic faith and moral tradition, preparing each student to grow and flourish in a dynamic and changing world."
Keeping these schools alive
Why, then, have some schools survived while others have simply folded their tents and disappeared into the mists of history? There are no easy answers, but survival seems to depend on shrewd marketing, inspired, competent leadership and sound financial support. In many cases the latter has been secured by the munificence of wealthy patrons decades, even centuries ago.
Recordings have been the best marketing tool for just about every choir school out there. The Vienna Boys Choir plays to sold out houses every time it tours for example. No doubt about it, recordings beginning with the earliest forms to the latest DVD's have gotten the message out. I personally benefited from exposure to the artistry and the sounds of choirs from around the world thanks to recordings. From the astonishing success of the treble Ernest Lough's 1927 recording of Mendelssohn's O For The Wings Of A Dove to Paul Phoenix's remarkable 1996 rendition of the popular song My Way, discography has spread the sound of boys' voices far and wide. Choirs too have produced a rich catalog of offerings enabling anybody who wants to explore this genre to do so widely and in great depth.
Deeply rooted in the church, boy choirs have existed throughout the centuries for one purpose: to beautify and adorn the sacred liturgies. Their sound and skill has attracted the attention of the best composers and musicians. As a result, a vast repertoire written exclusively for boys' voices extends from 11th century Low Country Guillaume Dufay to the 21st century American Ned Rorem. It's a treasure trove of music.
Every good musical establishment, whether it be a symphony orchestra or a choir school, requires inspired, competent leadership and administration. Artists concern themselves only with art. Administrators worry about paying the bills. Tying it all together requires a delicate balancing of priorities artistic and financial.
Every health musical establishment, ballet company or choir school, requires generous benefactors to endow the fabric and the operations of the institution. The cost of educating a chorister is staggering. St. Thomas Choir School, for example, states that the cost of educating a chorister exceeds $70,000. The school charges approximately $16,000. 93% of their students receive financial aid.
So, then, why should you consider a choir school? Choir schools are an option for gifted children who deserve an education with an emphasis on music. They must be stretched musically and intellectually to realize their fullest potential. A choir school enables that stretching. While not every chorister goes on to become a musician in later life, the poise and experience which they bring away from performing regularly positions most of them for success in their adult lives.
Choir schools: a rare breed. Won't you learn more about them and help this special art form survive? Don't leave the task to another. Buy the CD's. Support a choir school near you. Cherish these extraordinary national treasures.
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