Think cathedral choristers, and you might just find yourself imagining a world of wealth and privilege inaccessible to most of us.
Charles Harrison, organist and master of the choristers at Chichester Cathedral, has made it his mission to correct the misperception.
His point is that Chichester Cathedral Choir is open to boys of all backgrounds. They just need to be the right age and show signs of musical potential.
Class and privilege absolutely don’t come into it, Charles insists as he contemplates recruitment in the year ahead.
The truth is that nationally it is becoming harder to fill our cathedral choirs. For Charles, the first step is to dispel the myths.
“There are a lot of people that have musically-gifted children that don’t understand what a choristership is all about, what it involves. People perhaps don’t see it as something for ‘us’, that it is about privilege, about a certain background. But none of that is true at all.”
As he says, the boys – pupils at the Prebendal School – receive a 50 per cent scholarship from the cathedral: “And we have access to funds that can top up with additional bursaries for those unable to afford the remainder. It can go up to 100 per cent.”
As Charles says, we are talking about ordinary boys – ordinary boys who happen to be doing an extraordinary job.
“They are benefitting from the English cathedral tradition which I passionately believe provides the best musical education in the world. But we are definitely talking about normal boys. They do their sports. They have all sorts of interests. We have got some very good young actors among them, and they have a normal school day.
“They come here (the Cathedral) twice a day to do a little bit extra, but the fact that they have to fit it all in with the normal curriculum makes them very organised, makes them very efficient workers. And it is skills like these that have a tremendously-positive spin-off into the rest of their lives, whatever they go on to do.
“I think what is particularly special about a chorister’s life is the fact they spend a great deal of time with adults. And they are working with adults on equal terms as professionals. I can’t think of any other arena where children can benefit from that sort of experience. They are part of a professional team and are treated as professionals – and they revel in that.
“Obviously, the setting is very traditional, but the way we work with the children is really relaxed and really friendly. It is very enabling. It is very much in our interests that the children have a great time. Part of our mission is to make sure they are enjoying themselves and making the most of all the opportunities because they will only do their best when they are having fun and are relaxed and happy. I would say the atmosphere surrounding the children is very much that of a family.”
And that’s an important point. Charles acknowledges that the boarding requirement is potentially an obstacle as far as many parents are concerned.
“But they do have to be boarders. We find that boarding encourages the close-knit community that we need to make the choir the success it is, and logistically it helps them a great deal to cope with the workload. They are singing twice a day, sometimes more than that. But the boarding requirement is only for four nights… and if someone finds that an obstacle, I would say ‘Come and talk to the parents of other choristers.’ A lot of them may have had the same reservations, but they find that it all works out absolutely fine. The atmosphere here is very, very supportive and effectively they find themselves having a second family here.”
Recruitment is certainly an issue nationally: “I attended a conference the other day, and it was one of the areas we covered, but really I just think that it is our duty to reinforce the fact that this is a fantastic education and a fantastic experience, not just in terms of the musical skills they develop, but also in terms of team work and confidence and organisation and ambition… all skills that will be transferable to other areas of their lives, and we know that our choristers will do well academically.”
Charles said he would be delighted to speak to parents of prospective choristers at any time. They just need to contact him through the cathedral.
Equally there is an open day coming up, offering a direct insight into the life of a chorister.
Saturday, February 6: Chorister Open Afternoon (2pm); also Saturday, March 12: Chorister Auditions (1.30pm-4pm). Again, contact Charles through the cathedral.
Speak to the choristers, and they certainly exude the enjoyment Charles talks about.
Oscar, 12, from Westbourne, said: “I really enjoy it. There are so many things that make it good. I like the choir tours that we do, and I also like the Christmas services – and the Easter ones as well. It is definitely hard work, but you get a great reward. You get to sing in a really well-known cathedral, and you can sing in the Southern Cathedrals Festival.”
Oscar has been with the choir for six years: “I have changed in lots of ways, I think. My voice has improved, and I have got many more friendships than I would have had if I wasn’t a chorister.”
Head chorister Jonathan, from Rustington, is similarly enjoying the experience: “I would sit in the car with my grandparents and we would sing some songs, and my mum noticed and said I had a good voice. I had to come to a few pre-auditions here, but it was great. I was quite young, but everyone was being really friendly.
“It was quite hard going from being at home all the time to staying at school, but after a few weeks you get used to it, and I am loving it. I think my voice has really developed a lot. Since I started, I have become more confident.”
And it is a similar story again from Isaac, aged nine, from Alton, who has been with the choir for a year and a half. He is now looking forward to taking his musical education further: “I just want to get better at what I do. We have got a job to do, but we also enjoy doing it. It is great fun.”