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.