Why choristers can no longer go solo

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Private choir schools are being told to act in unison with state primaries to stem the decline in singing and provide tomorrow's trebles. Biddy Passmore reports.

Cathedrals should join forces with councils to revive the dying practice of singing in primary schools.

That is the message Richard White, chairman of the Choir Schools' Association, will put to members at the association's annual conference at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester next week.

Mr White says reviving the art of primary singing is vital, not just to boost the dwindling supply of applicants to cathedral choirs but because so many are being deprived of contact with music.

Boys taking voice trials for cathedral choirs - still one of the great glories of British music - quite often have nothing to sing, he told The TES. "They don't know any hymns or carols. It's very sad."

Mr White will tell his members about the County Junior Choir formed earlier this year in Cornwall, which now attracts about 100 boys and girls from primary schools all over the county to come and sing in Truro Cathedral every Saturday.

The creation of the choir is part of Cornwall's campaign to boost singing in its 250 primaries. The joint brainchild of Mr White, head of Polwhele House, the cathedral choir school, and John Harries, head of the county's music services, the campaign involves visits by cathedral choristers to primary schools.

"We send small groups of choristers out to sing not at but with the primary children," Mr White said. "They work on pieces school singers have been practising . The improvement in results is often dramatic."

The scheme focuses on three schools per term in deprived areas, with each programme of visits culminating in a concert given jointly by schoolchildren and chorister from Truro Cathedral.

And it has produced a chorister for the cathedral too: a boy from Liskeard who enjoyed the singing so much he told his head he'd like to apply.

Mr White is especially keen to encourage boys "who may think it's cissy". (While Polwhele House caters for both sexes, all 18 cathedral choristers are boys.) He thinks the sight of some of his choristers - more rugby players than angels - could persuade boys that you can sing and play sport too. At present, about a quarter of the 100 children who come to the county junior choir are boys.

Now he hopes the Cornwall initiative - which recently attracted a pound;14,000 Lottery grant under the Singing Challenge programme - will spur other cathedrals and choir schools to do the same.

All but three of Britain's 44 choir schools are independent and most are linked to cathedrals. They educate some 14,000 boys and girls as well as the 1,000 choristers who attend on scholarships and get a a rigorous musical training as well as a full academic and sporting programme.

But there has been a gentle decline in the number (though not the quality) of applicants for choristerships in the past 15 years - mainly, he thinks, because of a decline in primary music.

On average, schools now get two or three applications per chorister place. While some - such as King's College School in Cambridge - say competition remains as keen as ever, others report only a handful of applicants.

The choir schools have a friend in a very high place. The Prime Minister has fond memories of his days at Durham Chorister School in the 1960s. Schools minister Estelle Morris will address the choir schools' conference next Wednesday and is expected to applaud their special role and their plans to build links with state schools.

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