Visiting with the conductor of the Westminster Cathedral Choir

by Audrey Seah

A certain  sound comes to mind when someone mentions the Westminster Cathedral choir. It is the kind of sound that saturates every corner of a church and washes over the listener. One cannot help but yield to its power and be moved by its beauty. It is the kind of sound and high level of music making that I often romanticize over, as I’m sure many of my colleagues have.

The day after the breathtaking concert the Westminster Cathedral choir gave at the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey Church, Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary had the privilege of hosting Martin Baker, Master of Music at the Cathedral for a lunchtime conversation. This was my chance to get a glimpse of the methods behind the magic.

Much of the conversation focused on the English Cathedral Choir tradition and Martin Baker’s experience at the helm of Westminster Cathedral choir.  He graciously shared many details of the music program at the Cathedral and choir school. This inevitably raised ideas in my mind for parish level choral programs.

Here are some aspects that struck me as quintessential to Westminster’s success, and that have possible implications for parishes:

  • Many boys are admitted without any prior musical training. If a boy has a good ear, an interest in music, and supportive parents, the boy could be entered as a probationary chorister. Commitment trumps mere talent.
  • Every chorister is required to learn an instrument in addition to singing. This means the boys are forced to learn musical notation, and not simply rely on matching pitches. In addition, 2 hours of song school every day, including a mere 20 minutes of rehearsal time before every 5:30pm mass, makes them excellent sight-singers.
  • 4-line notation is taught to the choristers, even before they can read 5-line notation. Baker notes that 4-line is in fact the simpler form of notation, hence, extremely easy for them to pick up. Latin is also taught in the regular school curriculum, so the meanings of Latin texts are not totally lost on the boys.
  • The choristers sing with paid lay-clerks, allowing them to experience high quality music at an early age.

Few churches in the country have the financial or logistical capacity to run a choir school as the English cathedrals do. But as a (biased) musician, I will argue that musical returns cannot be quantified. At the same time, I recognize the practical limitations. The points raised above are directly related to issues we often have in parish choirs – a lack of commitment, limited time, and inadequately trained musicians to teach or lead music. Are there ways we can improve the system?

If we want to express spirituality through song, because we believe that music is sacramentally significant, we must invest in music education. We must find ways to surmount the challenges.

What came to mind for me over the past couple of days is El Sistema method of music education, where students attend regular school but receive daily music education. It is a method of bringing music education and worship together in the modern world.

What do you think parishes can learn from the English Cathedral choir tradition?

Audrey Seah is a master’s student of liturgy and music at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville.

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16 comments

  1. I’d like to know what examples currently exist. Furthermore, this should be done through CCD/RE programs and in our parish schools.

    1. I just found out that the Cathedral at St Paul started a choir school, led by Rob Ridgell, as an after-school program this year. Support has been good, and they now already have 71 choristers. Rehearsals are once a week, which is nothing compared to what the English boy choristers get, but it is definitely a good start.

  2. Ms. Seah, From what I’ve been picking up, there’s a growing concern in the Church of England that with the exception of a handful of cathedral boy’s choirs, (Westminster, Winchester, King’s College, Cambridge,Canterbury) the future of choir schools for regular liturgical celebrations is very much in doubt. The future of the choral school is being severely tested by a lack of funds, a growing lack of interest by members of the CofE who appear more attracted to shorter, modern liturgies, but might be moved to attend choral services at Christmas and special occasions only. There is the growing popularity of the 45 minute Sunday eucharist as a replacement for Sunday and feast day Matins and Evensong as the principle services of the day. Added to that, during the summer months when a lot of visitors from the U.S. are in Britain, the choirs are often out of the country on tour, or the boys are on vacation.

    Maybe we need to ask the question, do these choirs have a future apart from special concerts at Christmas and Easter for a declining number of visitors and tourists? Unlike many Anglican churches which have had a tradition of the chanted office to precede or to accompany the eucharist (something which seems to be declining in the EPUSA as well as the CofE , Catholic churches had no tradition of singing psalms and canticles outside Mass, if then. We don’t even build our sanctuaries to accommodate a choir of men and boys. When was the last time you went into a Catholic church with choir stalls?

    For Catholics, the public office is still an occasional, special event for a few days in Lent and Advent, and for the Sacred Triduum , no more. As long as this view prevails, I don’t see how the English choir school tradition has a ghost of a chance of establishing roots in more than a handful of Catholic institutions.

    However, I would simply say, establish a small schola cantorum first, then gradually build on it for the Mass and the celebration of Lauds…

  3. You ask what parishes can learn. One answer is that boys will sing in an all boy choir. Letting girls in will drive the boys out. That is not fair on the girls and might not be accepted in all parishes.
    Once you have an all boy choir it must be nurtured by the parish. The music must be challenging.
    A separate adult choir could run alongside that of the boys but the boys’ must feel like the most important.

    1. That theory was disproved a long time ago.

      The experience of those Anglican cathedrals which have both boys’ and girls’ choirs (Rochester, Salisbury, etc, etc……….) is that

      (a) yes, the boys and girls have a slightly different sound;
      (b) both sounds are supremely musical;
      (c) although most of the time the boys and girls sing with the men separately,
      (d) when they combine, the result is amazingly beautiful, the girls providing a rounded quality to the tone of the boys, and one which most agree is more than worth it.

      Letting girls in does not drive the boys out. To name only one instance, the London Oratory Junior Choir has had both boys and girls singing together since its inception in the mid-1970s, and no boys have departed. That they always sing together and are trained together is accepted as a fact. The result is always excellent, given a good choir trainer.

      1. No, that theory was not disproved. What was proved was that the Oratory, and a few other places, are exceptions. Now, what factors make them exceptions? Why does it work there, when it doesn’t in so many other places, especially in the Catholic Church? It is worth enquiring.

      2. As in so much other liturgical praxis, if you want it to work enough, it will. Overcoming prejudice seems to be the answer; there is no secret technical factor in play here.

      3. As always, isn’t a “both-and” approach much more fruitful? I would much rather have my boys and girls split for crowd control reasons if nothing else? I would rather focus on the music, teach them about their voices, teach them how to love the liturgy of the Church than deal with the “girls are gross/boys are gross” stuff. That said, “mixed” is necessary with my groups due to the transportation and schedule needs of the families. Yes, I get equal numbers of boys and girls, but in general they learn choral music in somewhat different ways, if for no other reason than the analogies one might use with them are different. I’ve always been offended that some think this is some sort of “sexist” agenda: I totally support the cathedrals that have both choirs, and would do likewise if that were possible.

        However, some of us were trained by those who directed men and boys choirs, and we were taught the good and bad of that system. Like any system, it has its ups and downs.

        I think it’s less-than-good to subject an aesthetic choice (separating the boys and girls) to an agenda of “overcoming predjudice”. In addition, since the OP is about Westminster Cathedral, of course it is a whole other can-of-worms since the boys sing alto Continental-style. That is quite different than any of the Anglican places.

    2. I don’t think the boys need to “feel important”. Boy choirs should not be a breeding ground for “Divos”. Depending of the parish’s culture, I think there could be a place for separating boys and girls especially when they are in their pre-teens, simply because they mature differently. Martin Baker mentioned that through an outreach program the Cathedral choir does with public schools, he’s learnt that boys tend not to stick around when they reach the age when they perceive singing as being too “sissy.” (If only they stuck around a bit longer, they’d realize that girls actually are attracted to guys that sing well!). To avoid a perceived “sexist” agenda (and to get a different sound), boys and girls can sing together every now and then.

      1. Thanks Audrey
        The question was how could parishes learn from Westminster cathedral choir. It does seem to me unfortunate or unfair if there is no chance for girls to sing. If, as Paul Inwood suggests, it is possible to have boys and girls together all well and good. The problem comes if boys move on and the girls stay. You end with a choir of middle aged women and no boys.

  4. Many local parishes here have youth choirs that practice at a different time than the adult choir. Usually they do not sing each Sunday at Mass; some do once a month; more often they sing just for special events.

    The most popular special event is typically an Advent / Christmas / Epiphany concert / service. Usually held on Sunday afternoon, and are very well attended by family and friends of the young people.

    The problem is that a lot of time is put into the youth choir (and separately for the adult choir) for a one time event. Not much of a repertory is developed that could be used around the liturgical year or at other services, or in other parishes. Also the youth don’t get to sing with adult voices since they practice separately.

    However such special services bring out many people for an event that is much like the Liturgy of the Hours. I particularly like the Anglican Annual Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols as a model for a Bible oriented service that isn’t wedded to a particular time of day.

    Perhaps some of the people at SJU or elsewhere could develop a model Service of Readings, Psalms and Canticles Book that would include as options all the traditional Canticles (Zachary, Mary, Simeon, Three Children, Te Deum, Gloria etc.), Seasonal Hymns, and a Repertory of Psalmody, as well as suggested readings for the seasons.

    The content would be chosen so that much could easily be transported to the Mass (e.g. the Canticles after communion), the psalms at Entrance, Preparation and Communion, etc. and that much could be incorporated in the Liturgy of the Hours if the parish so chose, and hopefully much would be of use in other parishes in the future.

    The music chosen would develop the young people’s skills in the context of them singing such a service with some adult singers. If such a book were done well and adopted widely enough, it might become a common minimum standard book for music ministry even for adults.

    We need a common school model, a music primer for the many rather than an elite school for the few.

    1. “We need a common school model, a music primer for the many rather than an elite school for the few.”

      That model already exists. It’s called the Ward Method.

  5. I am just so glad to be from a Western Church in the United States that isn’t trying to be something our culture isn’t. I want to run a praise and worship school at our local parish and invite people to share in their gifts and talents. Often times I am finding that we are forcing Classical teaching and music in our liturgies and we really need to be asking, what is it that our culture wants. Kids are exposed to rap music, rock music and other contemporary music for a reason, is it our job as a church to stamp this out of their minds when we celebrate liturgy? These are questions we need to start asking. I agree there needs to be some traditional ways of teaching but we need to find out why these other churches are reaching so many of our youth and I can guarantee it has a lot to do with the music we are providing and the worship.

  6. You can look at Hillsong United and see why music like this is reaching so many youth. It’s because it lives and breathes the Holy Spirit through the notes, phrasing and melodic structures that exist in contemporary music. This is the kind of school I would like to start, one that embraces this kind of music for liturgy and let’s the youth feel like they have ownership in our celebrations.

  7. We began a children’s choir 1.5 years ago and rehearses two hours every Saturday. The children came to me mostly without any prior musical knowledge. They can now read music on their own and be the choir for Sunday mass. It is never too late to start. However, one has to know how to train young voices and what appropriate repertoire is. I asked for commitment at the first rehearsal and told them that if they are looking to be a star they may go elsewhere. I have not had any problem. High quality music, good vocal technique, and most importantly, catechesis through music we sing – the children are being challenged in music as well as in faith.

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