Choristers at Christmas: In perfect harmony
Amid 11 hours of cathedral rehearsals and five services a week, the conventional education rolls along as normal at Chetham's School of Music. Still, it takes a special kind of dedication to be a chorister – and, as Ian Herbert has discovered, a chorister's parent
It's the time of year when our friends look at us like we've all taken leave of our senses. While they're gearing up for holidays, we're still on the school run – and we will be until Christmas Day. It's what we signed up to, four years ago, when we posted off the letter accepting the offer of a choristership at Manchester Cathedral for our youngest son.
It has meant no Easter holidays, either. And very few free weekends. But, for George, these have been years filled with incredible music, experiences and learning, which on Sunday evening will equip him to take in his stride the cathedral's service of Nine Lessons and Carols – a mainstay of the festive period for so many people across the country.
When The Independent's photographer arrives, the 12 junior choristers are rehearsing for that service, as well as for the Choral Evensong at which they are about to sing – as they do four times a week. So there is no time to reflect too much on the imminent challenge of performing Samuel Sebastian Wesley's "Ascribe unto the Lord", which takes your breath away when they deliver it, in the enormous stillness of the ancient building. No big deal for them or for Christopher Stokes, cathedral's organist and master of the choristers, who carries the responsibility for all of this music. But, for us, another indelible memory.
The intricacies of the chorister way of family life was relatively unknown to us when we became aware that George had an ear for music. It began with a casual audition in the Cathedral song school – the wood-panelled room where they rehearse – in which our boy calmly batted back a quick-fire series of aural tests. Then we walked under the historic arch into Chetham's School of Music, where the choristers undertake their general education, and just had a feeling that this was where he needed to be. So we took the plunge.
And it really was "we". This was a decision that would affect the whole family. Weekends would not be the same with rehearsals and services every Saturday and Sunday, and Easter would be very different, too. (If anything, that season is even busier than Christmas.) George's sister, Emily, was about to begin high school at the time and we knew we would have to become deft jugglers to make sure that her life would not have to revolve completely around cathedral schedules. She accepted that she would have to get her homework done in the cathedral kitchen ("her kitchen" as she now proprietorially calls it). And, fortunately, the Manchester Cathedral Choir is one of very few that mixes boys and girls so, although it was not a path she wanted to take for herself (not enough time to play hockey), she soon found an additional circle of friends among the choristers. We also knew grandparents would need to be roped in to help when we all had to be in different places at the same time.
The logistics of Christmas are especially complicated, though. For the choristers, Christmas Day really starts on Christmas Eve, when they file into the cathedral for Midnight Mass. That means we will all be home by about 1am, to catch some sleep before George does it all over again. We all troop back in to drop him for a 9am practice before a 10.30am service for the congregation, swollen in number by coach parties that squeeze into the cathedral every Christmas morning. Opening Christmas presents has certainly become an afternoon concept.
None of the choristers would have it any other way, though. The experience has taken them to levels of achievement of which they probably did not think themselves capable. When Stokes, as always, asks one of his 12 choristers to open the "Nine Lessons" service on Sunday, by singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City", it will mean an 11- or 12-year-old delivering the words unaccompanied to a packed congregation in the hushed darkness of the cathedral. That he or she will not flinch is testament to the way Stokes prepares them. They are gradually introduced to responsibility. It may be a year before they sing solo and even longer before they are surpliced – a ceremony less painful than it sounds, in which a chorister's progression sees them wear the familiar white gown over their cassock, marking that they have reached the required level. By then, they are immersed in the music; live and breathe it.
Many choristers have attested from first-hand experience to what a remarkable form of training this is, among them the broadcaster Jon Snow, England cricket captain Alastair Cook and Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond. One of the remarkable aspects is how, amid the 11 hours of cathedral choir rehearsals and five services there are each week, the conventional education rolls along as normal. When the instrumental study that the choristers undertake at Chetham's is factored in – where they may audition to stay on as musicians when the choristership ends in Year 8 – a third of their school timetable is taken up with music. Yet English, Maths, languages and all the rest are compressed into a narrower window of time, to no detrimental effect. Chetham's sixth-formers leave for university courses in law, medicine and literature, as well as to become jazz musicians, arrangers, DJs or conductors, festival directors – or none of the above.
The perennial task for Stokes is replenishing the numbers, as choristers move on, and recruiting boys is a particular challenge. "We are unusual, in that we are a cathedral school in the middle of a northern industrial district," he says. "Recruitment is certainly easier for the smaller southern cathedrals. Since we introduced girls to the choir in 1995, the proportion of them has gradually grown, but I'm certain that the difficulty of recruiting boys has nothing to do with them not wanting to be in a choir with girls. The mix isn't a problem for them."
For us, these four years have flown by in a blur of train timetables, shoe-polishing, skin-of-the-teeth diary management and, above all else, extraordinary music. With poetry, too. One of the cathedral's senior clergy, Canon Andrew Shanks, shares with his congregations at every opportunity his passion for the work of RS Thomas, George Herbert (no relation), Edmund Spenser, and his passion for the beautiful ancient words of liturgy.
"What about all the religion?" some friends have asked us over the course of this time. Choristership has certainly meant taking occasional church-going to a new level, with the discovery that many Sunday morning sermons really are worth listening to, even if some might be better prepared for with a slim novel sneaked inside the service sheet. We have also grown to love the meditative, formulaic anonymity of Evensong, a service delivered almost entirely through music and, for many in the congregation, an antidote to what a frantic day has thrown at them.
Now, all too soon, we are gearing up for George's last Christmas as a chorister. In his time, he has sung in the presence of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and for the enthronement of the new Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker. He has sung red-nosed for Comic Relief in Manchester's Arndale shopping centre and at the funerals of Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes – the Greater Manchester's policewomen murdered last year. He has sung in St Paul's Cathedral for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Service and in live broadcasts for the BBC.
The musical foundation, the self-discipline and the huge pleasure that this brief window of time has provided will stay with him and serve him well throughout his life. He has learned the importance of teamwork (there's no room for single-minded soloists in a good choir – it is all about the blend); of modesty and mutual respect; and of never taking himself too seriously. Because while every service is sung with polish and poise, there is a sharp wit and healthy sense of humour behind the scenes. It has been some journey for us all. The fruits of the educational labour are there to behold, at a cathedral near you this Christmas.
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