Schooling the sound of innocence: Young voices have an angelic but transient beauty. Charles Oulton reports on how King's College School maintains a tradition

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The Independent Online
AS THE candles flicker, young voices soar into the darkness with crystal sharpness. Once In Royal David's City, a carol so familiar, but in these surroundings and with the choir of King's College Cambridge, how exciting, moving, bright and new. An intake of breath, all eyes on the choirmaster, and another musical phrase glides away. The trebles in one of the world's most famous choirs are looking and singing like angels.

They are angelic, and yet there is something about them that is sad. Although these choristers may continue to look cherubic for some time, those ethereal voices will put us in mind of the angels for a limited time. We know we are listening to a gift which, like a flower, is only allowed to bloom for a certain duration; unlike the flower that will bloom again next year, the treble voice will break around the age of 13, and will have gone forever.

However, philosophising about life's transience is not part of the daily timetable at King's College School, Cambridge; there is no time for that, particularly with Common Entrance round the corner and Christmas coming up.

From 8am, the time of their first practice, to the end of evensong, the choristers have been dovetailing a normal day's work in the classroom and on the games field with the demanding schedule required of one of the world's most famous choirs. That schedule includes the traditional BBC broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, recorded last Sunday, and a live service on the same day for Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. Before Christmas, the choir will also be making a record for Decca, as well as giving several evening concerts.

Choristers at King's College School have a long tradition to live up to. It started in 1441, when Henry VI founded King's College and decreed that 16 choristers should sing each day in the chapel. In those days, the choristers were taught by a member of the King's College domestic staff in a room over the kitchens or near the present porter's lodge. The choristers were expected to help serve at table in the college hall.

In 1878, a school was built at the western end of the college grounds, and today the preparatory school that provides the choristers has 280 boys and girls aged between 4 and 13. Although there are still only 16 who sing in the King's College choir, with eight probationers training for it, the school has three choirs, and 80 per cent of the pupils learn up to three instruments.

Although the school emphasises that its non-choristers are not regarded as second-class pupils, the choristers set the standards by which the school has always been judged. All are boarders - the rest of the school are weekly boarders - and are almost permanently on duty: there are daily services in the chapel, regular rehearsals, instrumental lessons and practice and school orchestra and ensemble playing. The choir sings for chapel services at Easter and Christmas, at weekends during half-term in October and February, and sometimes for a week in July, all of which involves them staying at school out of term.

They also make three records a year, give concerts around Britain and go on an annual overseas tour in the summer.

To become a chorister, each boy undergoes a trial in which he has to display an ear for music, vocal potential, and a rudimentary knowledge of music. On the morning of the trial, Stephen Cleobury, the college's director of music, asks each boy to sing scales and exercises. The would-be chorister has to pitch several notes played on the piano, to pick out notes from simple chords, and to repeat simple tunes and rhythms. Members of the school staff then give tests in English (writing and comprehension) and mathematics. If the boy plays an instrument, he will be asked to play for Charmian Farmer, the school's director of music.

Early in the afternoon a shortlist of candidates is announced and those boys chosen undergo IQ and reading tests, and are interviewed by the headmaster and other staff. They also sing a prepared piece to Mr Cleobury. The names of the successful candidates are then announced, after which the boys and their parents have a weekend in which to decide whether to accept the offer. If they do accept, choristers and probationers receive a scholarship worth more than two-thirds of the full boarding and tuition fees, as well as free tuition in a second instrument, and a chorister's uniform. They do not have to pay for their travel and accommodation on concert tours, and receive small fees for their concert, broadcasting and recording work.

The boys do not forfeit their scholarships when their voices break and it does not mean the end of their musical careers: most win musical awards to their next schools, and many go on to be distinguished tenors and basses.

Ethereal voices by candlelight, the choir at afternoon rehearsal. The choir has recorded its traditional Christmas broadcast and is to make a record for Decca. Right: from music to science, the chorister David McCormick samples the breadth of a King's College School education. Choristers combine singing for one of the world's most famous choirs with a normal day's work in the classroom and on the games field. First practice is at 8am and the day lasts until the end of evensong. Below: boys braced against the cold in their 'Etons' uniforms waiting for afternoon practice.

(Photograph omitted)