Why choose a choir school
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph's educational supplement and we are grateful to them for their permission to use it here. The author, Dr Brian Rees, is Headmaster of The Pilgrims’ School, Winchester, and Chairman of the Choir Schools’ Association.
"Choral schools offer an outstanding education to choristers and non-choristers alike", argues Dr Brian Rees
The Prime Minister was a pupil at The Chorister School, Durham Cathedral, though not a chorister himself. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news presenter, attended The Pilgrims’ School, the choir school of Winchester Cathedral, and was a chorister. Look down a of people in almost any walk of life – public life especially – and you will find that many attended a choir school, even if they were not themselves professional choristers.
The 44 schools that make up the Choir Schools’ Association (CSA) are all attached to cathedrals, churches or college chapels.Together they educate more than 21,000 children, some 1,200 of whom are choristers. Each choir school is unique, and many, like Canterbury, Hereford and Rochester, are of very ancient foundation. Almost all are in delightful, historic settings. Most are co-educational, like King’s College School, Cambridge, but some, like Westminster Cathedral Choir School, are for boys only; some are boarding, some are day or a happy mix of both. Most have a blend of choristers and other pupils: Westminster Abbey Choir School alone remains exclusively for boy choristers. Some are stand-alone prep schools; some are junior schools or departments attached to senior schools. Most are independent, but three are successful maintained schools; most are Church of England but four are Roman Catholic. It is these differences that are the strength of the Association: each represents something special.
Since 1991, CSA bursaries and the Department for Education’s music and dance grant scheme have assisted some 80 to 90 children a year in taking advantage of a chorister education. Three of the choir schools - Wells Cathedral, Chetham’s in Manchester and St Mary’s in Edinburgh - are part of the Government’s programme of specialist music schools. DfES funding has also allowed CSA recently to begin a new outreach programme to help reinstate singing in maintained primary schools.
The advantages of a choir school education are many. Like other church schools, choir schools have long been celebrated as having a special nature with strong pastoral care and solid discipline. Music, to the highest standard, pervades each one.The fun, satisfaction and fulfilment that come from making music well, through choirs or instrumental ensembles, are part of the schools’special quality.
At Pilgrims’, for example, a double choir school educating the 22 Cathedral Choristers and the 16 Quiristers of Winchester College, nearly all of the remaining 160 boys choose to learn instrumental music. As soon as they start learning to play an instrument, they become involved in groups for performance. Singing, now lamented as dying out in many state schools, pervades Pilgrims’ and is part of every assembly and special celebration. But music, though prominent, is only one aspect of what a choir school offers, and one does not have to be musical to attend one.
The self-discipline, motivation and commitment fostered through music spill over into other aspects of schooling. High academic expectations and achievement are often a direct result of the musical advantage gained, and, conscious of the demanding schedule of choristers, there is little sympathy for the claims of a non-chorister that he is too busy to complete his work to the highest standard. In 2004, for example, both the Head Quirister and the Head Chorister of Pilgrims’ won both academic and music scholarships to Winchester College: it was a rare accomplishment but it does underline what is possible academically, despite – or perhaps because of – the pressures and demands of practice and performance.
So too, the team spirit and deep cultural awareness that make choral work possible ally naturally with drama, painting and sculpture. The daily chanting of the Psalms – the meat of choristers – fosters in all an awareness of beautiful language and articulate expression. And sport is never overlooked. Boys and girls need regular exercise, and daily sport is the routine for most, as it is in most independent schools: often there is extra determination and skill present.
Choir schools are complex, lively, cultured places with an outstanding record of success in many fields. Uniquely, they provide one of the greatest and most treasured of British institutions: sacred choral music where the treble line is sung by professional boy and girl choristers. The rugby boots sometimes glimpsed under the cassock of a chorister hint at something more, as do the honours boards of academic awards. The confidence to speak or perform in public, or to go into a neighbouring school to encourage singing and the playing of an instrument, are all part of the benefit gained through this exceptional education.
For further information contact the Choir Schools’ Association at www.choirschools.org.uk or telephone 01359 221333.