Choir schools: Singing from the same hymn sheet

Like a beautiful garden, our choral tradition needs to be nourished and nurtured, says Neil Chippington, Head at St John's College School, Cambridge

The Choir Schools’ Association was established exactly 100 years ago in response to a perceived threat to the existence of choir schools. It was Reverend W.E. Morgan of Westminster Abbey Choir School, who together with Mr C.R. Jelf of King’s College School, Cambridge and Reverend R.H. Couchman of St Paul’s Cathedral School who, in 1918, decided that they had better be proactive, rather than await the unintended consequences of a new Education Act which they feared would impinge, even destroy, our choral tradition.

Thankfully, choir schools have continued to this day and there are currently over 40 members of the Choir Schools’ Association – private and state schools as well as a few overseas. I believe our unique choral tradition, of which we can be justly proud, is as strong as ever. That is not to say there are no threats to the survival of Cathedral and College choirs and the schools which serve them. In an age when fewer families go to church services and singing in primary schools is not as prevalent as it used to be, it is hard to persuade parents that the right route for their child might be singing in a choir in a church. Nevertheless, if you have a young child who is continually singing around the house, and not just in the bathroom, this might just be the right direction for them.

Importantly, a place in a Cathedral or Collegiate choir comes with an education in an excellent school and, if a private school, often with significantly reduced fees. There are also bursaries available, including from the Choir Schools’ Associations own Bursary Trust, which means that access to such an education is open to all.

I have been fortunate enough to be Head of two choir schools, firstly St Paul’s Cathedral School in London and currently St John’s College School in Cambridge.

I have also been privileged to go on tour with both of these choirs and the reception that they receive abroad brings home to me the unique quality of our choral tradition and the high esteem in which it is held all over the world. It really is a beacon of excellence for our country. Here at home, one only has to witness great national occasions such as a royal wedding, a state funeral, a celebration or memorial of national significance and there, at the centre, will be the choir bringing an element which cannot be expressed in words. We are often moved by these occasions just as the then Chancellor, George Osborne, was rather publicly moved to tears at the funeral of Lady Thatcher a few years ago. It is this music, though, that anyone can hear day in and day out in our great buildings of worship.

It would be impossible to put into words the feelings that would be felt if this was lost. The challenge for our choir schools today, therefore, is to support this unique choral tradition and our musicians.

Those schools which are independent must help in ensuring that there is access to all whatever their financial background or means. We can all champion the importance of singing, however, and what it means to us as human beings. One important piece of work the Choir Schools’ Association supports and encourages is outreach programmes which many institutions now undertake to bring the joy of singing to as many children as possible. There is, though, much more work to be done in this area.

I am in no doubt that the excellence which our choristers aspire to and achieve every day has a palpable impact on the schools in which they are educated. To know what excellence feels like and how to achieve it is transferable to any walk of life: just ask those former choristers who are now at the top of their chosen careers – there are plenty of them.

For children to hear and see what their peers can achieve through hard work, commitment and dedication can only be beneficial.

Next time you walk into a great Cathedral, Church or Chapel, I hope you will take the time to stop and listen to the choir sing a service. In our increasingly busy world, it can be the most important part of your day to stop and listen to the heavenly sound. Like a beautiful garden, our choral tradition needs to be cared for, nourished and nurtured. It is hard work producing anything of great beauty but worth every moment and sacrifice.