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Winchester Cathedral choristers from choir school The Pilgrims' School

A choir school is a school attached to a Christian cathedral, major church or college chapel and educates the choristers who sing at services. Nearly all of them (Westminster Abbey Choir School is the exception) also educate children who are not choristers. In fact, the choristers are usually a minority of pupils but the presence of a professional choir and the close relationship with ancient religious foundations means that these schools are unique and provide an unusual educational experience for all children. The head of St George’s School Windsor Castle, told us that ‘the discipline and attitude of the choristers sets the tone for the whole school’. It’s a sentiment that is reflected at choir schools across the United Kingdom, not just with regards to musicality but in the energetic and thoughtful approach to learning.

There are around 50 choir schools in the UK and the vast majority are private schools (Bristol Cathedral Choir School, The London Oratory, Runnymede St Edward's Catholic Primary/St Edward’s College in Liverpool, The King’s School in Peterborough and The Minster School in Nottingham are the exceptions). As most choristers are aged between 8 and 13, they tend to be prep schools or schools which incorporate primary and secondary departments. 

For the most part, and for most pupils, a choir school provides all the subjects, activities, sport and care expected of a normal school. Non-choristers (with the exception of those at Chetham’s School of Music) don’t need a musical bone in their body but music is central to life in a choir school and the culture is enough to tempt most to test their vocal chords or try their hand at an instrument. Our review of The Pilgrims’ School notes, in addition to the two professional choirs, there's ‘a plethora of other choirs and orchestras,’ with eighty-seven per cent of pupils learning at least one instrument.

Choristers’ days are usually longer because of rehearsals and services (some choirs sing up to eight services a week); boarding is often a prerequisite. Additionally, schools that are home to choirs with big commitments around Christmas or Easter stay open right up to Easter Day and Christmas Day to allow for the choir’s role in the religious festivals. Choristers at Christ Church Cathedral School told us that Christmas was ‘loads of fun and games,’ and that football socks are hung up on Christmas Eve to be filled by the matrons.  

Being a chorister is hard work. In addition to their ecclesiastical duties, choristers are often expected to learn two musical instruments and play an active role in the musical life of the school. They leave choir school accomplished musicians with many going on to win choral and music scholarships at senior school and university. Not surprisingly, former choristers are well represented in the world of professional music.  

Do choristers get paid?

Choristers' reward for their day-to-day work and singing to a professional standard is a reduction in school fees; a choral scholarship. They may also receive additional payments for work outside their routine church services such as concerts, weddings and tours. This money can grow to form a nice little nest egg for a retiring chorister (aged 13) but is unlikely to stretch to more than a video games console or a spending spree on Oxford Street.

Choral scholarships and bursaries 

Choral scholarships at a choir school are usually worth 20% to 50% of the school fees. Scholarships or bursaries worth this kind of money at UK prep schools are a rarity so these are among the most valuable scholarships available. It may also be possible for a child to be awarded further bursaries from the school or from external sources. The Choir Schools’ Association administers the government’s ‘Choir Schools Scholarship Scheme’ and also provides its own means-tested bursaries. The purpose of these is to allow for children whose families are unable to afford the remaining costs to still take up a choristership.  

For the handful of state-funded choir schools, in the absence of any school fees (and therefore the need, the costs of instrument lessons and voice coaching might be covered. Some also pay the choristers a small but well-appreciated termly cash bonus.

How to become a chorister

All wannabe choristers will take part in a voice trial - the assessment of their musical and singing potential. It works in alongside any other admissions requirements the school may have. Usually aged between 7 and 9, applicants are expected to demonstrate an enjoyment of singing, a musical ear and the capacity to develop into an accomplished chorister. Those deemed to show ability, musicality and attitude at the audition will be invited to become probationers. This phase can last between 6 months and 2 years and is designed to allow young choristers a chance to progress, mature and become familiar with the repertoire. 

Why do choir schools exist?

Although nearly all of them now also educate children who aren’t choristers, the choristers are usually the original reason for the school’s founding. This is due to the close relationship between choral music and Christian worship in the United Kingdom, commonly described as the ‘English Choral Tradition,’ going back a thousand years. In medieval times, services were conducted in simple chants. Boys whose voices were yet to break would take the high notes, monks the low ones. These days, the adult singers are professionals and the child singers (boys and girls) are well-trained musicians taking in a complicated repertoire of church music spanning five centuries or more.  

Choirboy, chorister or treble?

In the English Choral Tradition, both 'choirboy' and 'chorister' tend to refer to a boy who sings in a choir. The word 'chorister' carries the implication of both a church setting and a high standard of singing but, as for centuries choristers were always boys, the words were used interchangeably. However, with increasing numbers of girls now featuring in choirs, 'choirboy' is used less and 'chorister', used as a catchall term, is more commonly heard. 'Girl chorister' or 'boy chorister' sometimes providing further clarification; choirgirl is also occasionally used. Additionally, choristers are sometimes referred to as 'trebles'. This is most common in a musical context as they sing the treble (or soprano) line.

Famous former choristers

Many household names have spent part of their formative years as choristers in a cathedral choir school. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, sung services at Peterborough Cathedral as a pupil at The King’s School; Alexander Armstrong, broadcaster and comedian, at Durham Cathedral as a pupil at Durham Chorister School; Simon Russell Beale, actor, St Paul’s Cathedral; Alastair Cook former England cricket captain, St Paul’s Cathedral; Jon Snow, broadcaster and journalist, Winchester Cathedral as a pupil at The Pilgrims’ School; Roger Taylor, drummer for the band Queen, at Truro Cathedral as a pupil at Truro School; Howard Goodall, composer and broadcaster, at New College School, Oxford.

Photo credit: The Pilgrims' School

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