Blog Series 1 - A Life of Two Halves
BEING A CHORISTER: A LIFE OF TWO HALVES
In the first of a new series about what makes Salisbury Cathedral School special, we focus on our choristers and how they learn so much more than incredible music.
Salisbury Cathedral is looking for ten new choristers – 5 boys and 5 girls – in 2021 to join its professional choir. To audition you need to be aged between 7 and 9, have a musical ear, and love to sing. David Halls, Director of Music at Salisbury Cathedral, is very clear that he is not looking for exceptional singers, he is looking for children with the potential to become exceptional singers.
The children selected will find themselves in the unique position of being both modern children studying at a leading prep school and professional musicians before their age even hits double figures. In this way, chorister life is one of two distinct halves. Choristers are both everyday school pupils and also working representatives of Britain’s oldest cultural heritage. Before and after their lessons, choristers walk in the footsteps of their predecessors, in their robes, between school and Cathedral every day to rehearse and perform complex music as a team.
David Halls explains, ‘we [the choir] are a small slice of a tradition which stretches right back to the 11th Century. I often look at the weight of history and feel proud to play our small, yet significant, part.’
One of the reasons being a chorister is so unique is that the children who step into this role are treated as equal members of mixed generation choirs. They have to balance this responsibility with the usual demands of school, participating in lessons, homework, sport and play. Their lives are busy and demanding, but the benefits derived from their efforts really stand the test of time.
As one famous ex-chorister, English Actor, TV and radio presenter, Alexander Armstrong says: ‘any child who has been a chorister is destined to have an interesting and fulfilling life’. In this article, we ask how the double-sided childhood experienced by choristers sets them on a path to such enjoyable and accomplished lives.
Firstly, to be a professional musician, at any age, takes both discipline and a desire to succeed. The hectic schedule of chorister life quickly builds the necessary discipline, alongside increasingly good ability to prioritise, but the desire to succeed must come from within. That’s why David Halls says he is not only looking for a musical spark but also . . . ‘a sense they [the children] really want to do it and that they want to be taught’.
If you have ever heard a professional Cathedral choir sing you will not be surprised to know that choristers rehearse every morning of the school year and into traditional holiday time too. They also sing Evensong multiple times a week as well as participating in formal concerts and recordings. This is all in addition to school. All chorister pupils at Salisbury Cathedral School participate in the same level of academic work and co-curricular activities – including sport, outdoor learning and creative endeavours – as the non-chorister pupils. You may well ask how on earth do they ever manage to fit everything in?
‘The children [choristers] have to learn to prioritise. They do a lot of singing and they need to fit their other responsibilities, such as homework and sport, around it. This means they experience competing priorities at a young age and quickly learn techniques to manage,’ explains David Halls.
A chorister with conflicting deadlines, such as revision for a maths test and an extra rehearsal, may well to have to approach their tutors and discuss their options in order to find a solution. They have to learn to listen, present their opinions and participate in dialogue. To start with these interactions may be intimidating and take the children outside of their comfort zone, but over time they become easier. In fact, every interaction is like a brick and together they build a firm foundation of confidence the child can rely on throughout their lifetime.
Furthermore, living as choristers teaches children a number of other lifelong skills which will serve them in any future career. First and foremost, they learn to be integral members of a team. A choir is the sum of its many voices. To sing in a choir requires an individual to blend their voice with those of their equals to create music with a life of its own. One of England’s greatest sportsmen, cricket’s Sir Alastair Cook puts it succinctly in his autobiography, ‘Choir school taught me about an individual’s responsibility to the group’.
Choristers also learn to stand still for long periods of time in both rehearsal and concerts. As part of a professional choir they are required to take good care of their appearance at all times even when operating within a tight schedule. They are often on show and sometimes the audiences they face are enormous. As the years go by and the new recruits become old hands natural leadership often emerges. Older boys and girls proactively begin to care for younger children, tying their shoes and turning the music to the right page for them amongst other things.
Overall, the high standards required from day one helps every chorister develop a taste for excellence which will guide all future endeavours. This is well illustrated by Sir Alastair Cook who famously credits his cricketing success to his early years as a chorister. He explains that, ‘we were expected to learn quickly about the power of concentration and performing under pressure’. He continues to say, ‘there is absolutely no doubt the experience [of being a chorister] made me the cricketer I became.’
Choosing the path of a chorister is undoubtedly a big commitment, for both the child and their family, but the rewards are equally large. The children chosen are directly compensated in two ways. They benefit from an independent education at the prep school associated with their choir at a reduced rate and are also paid for professional recordings and some concerts.
Indirect compensation is less tangible but probably more valuable. For example, the skills developed by choristers include ability to prioritise, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, teamwork, discipline, ability to communicate (choristers regularly interact with adults as equals), leadership, and a natural expectation of excellence. To top it all off, choristers often travel extensively in their work and, of course, receive the most outstanding musical education available.
Bearing all this in mind, it is not surprising to hear David Halls say, “I was never a chorister but now, being immersed in this way of life, I wish I was!”