Surpliced Boy Choirs in America

 By S. B. Whitney

Part II

Choir of St. Paul's, Milwaukee

We come now to the matter of voice culture.  It may seem a strange thing to say that a boy’s voice naturally is not musical; but it is true, nevertheless, except in rare instances.  A boy when first asked to sing, or make a musical sound, is very apt to do it, “straight out from the shoulder,” with the same tone that he would use in shouting to a companion in the street, certainly with the same location of tone, and that location the throat.  It is often the wiser course, in beginning with such a boy, to make him take a comparatively high note, as softly as he can sing it, then the one next below, gradually going down the scale.  Until boys have learned properly to locate their tones, they should never be allowed to sing an upward scale, for the very reason, that the idea cannot be got out of the mind of the youthful chorister that the high notes are a little beyond his reach, and consequently require more and more exertion, as the scale proceeds upward.  By beginning at the top, on the contrary, with a soft head tone, and working down, a very even scale is soon produced, with no perceptible break.  Of course, all singing at this stage must be done very softly, until the voice is located, so that the tone proceed from the mouth rather than from the throat.  Constant daily practice will so strengthen the voice, that, to use the boy’s expression, he will be able in time “to make as much noise as he did before,” - and certainly a very different kind of noise, resembling the tones of a flute rather than those of a street newsboy, shouting his papers.  Different syllables are used by choir masters in first locating the voice.  It has often been found that the syllable “who” will place the tone in the mouth, when other syllables like “la” and “ah” fail of accomplishing this result.  It is much better to cultivate the voice downward, thus giving a pure and bell-like tone to the whole scale, rather than upward; for otherwise, as the voice ascends, the temptation is, to carry the chest tones up as far as possible, and then a decided break will occur resulting from the changes to the head tone.  In singing downward, the head tone so modifies the chest tone in the lower part of the voice that, as before said, a perfectly even scale will result, with no perceptible break.  After the voice is properly located, and it has become a matter of habit to produce the tones of the scale correctly, it will be perfectly safe to try the upward scale; indeed, it is an advantage at this state to do so, using the syllables do, re, mi,  etc., exaggerating the lip motion, to assist in clear enunciation of the words; and to prevent that mouthing of words so common in many choir boys, whose lips never seem to move either in Chant or Te Deum; unless the congregation is informed beforehand what particular anthem or canticle is being performed, it will never be able to find out from anything which is heard.  It is one thing to be able to sing with the syllables, la, ah, or who, and quite another to be able to enunciate words with the same tone of voice.  The exaggerated lip motion that we have mentioned will be very likely to accomplish this good result.  The upward scale singing will have a tendency to give greater fulness to the lower part of the voice, without impairing its quality.  Whereas, the constant singing of the downward scale, without some qualifying exercise like this, will in the end be liable to produce a hollow and disagreeable tone on the low notes.  If a boy’s voice is thoroughly placed and even, and he is taught to produce his tone in his mouth, he will never, except in rare instances, be known to sing flat; whereas if he uses his throat unduly he will be constantly “pulling up,” from the lower to a higher pitch, often falling a little short of the proper intonation, and, consequently, will be very liable to sing flat.  Of course the condition of the atmosphere has also much to do with the flatting so often heard in choirs.  No body of singers can hope to keep the pitch for any length of time, in a cold church, or in a cold room; a damp, muggy atmosphere is also apt to be fatal to correct intonation.  But, under favorable conditions, choirs can be so trained as to be able to sing an anthem or canticle of considerable length unaccompanied without falling from the pitch.  It is a capital idea for choir masters to have many parts of the service, like the versicles, responses, and amens, sung unaccompanied; and oftentimes many verses of the psalter can be thus treated.  In this way a choir will gain an independence, and be made to feel that it can sing as well without the organ as with.  For the same reason, it is much better to have all rehearsals in the choir room with only piano accompaniment, occasionally going to the organ when some elaborate service is to be produced.  In most of the English cathedrals, the organ is never used in the service on Friday, in order to make a difference in the music of that day, being a fast day.  This is a capital practice for the choir, from a musical point of view as well, for a choir that is independent enough to sing a whole service without the organ on one day of the week, will be able to do so on any other day, and thus this same kind of independence can be brought about.

Two little Probationers

The many beautiful voices heard in English choirs has led many persons to think that their great excellence is due to the difference in climate, between England and America.  This is evidently a mistake, for as the matter of vocal culture in becoming better understood by the choir masters of this country, it is found that our American boys are as capable of producing a pure musical tone as the English lad.  In fact, it is a matter of remark among our organists when abroad, that they never hear soloists there who compare for a moment with such American soloists as Coker, Brandon, Forbush, Kavanaugh, or Bond.  These boys, of course, were exceptional boys in their time, and had exceptional training; but they were American boys, of whom we have been very proud.  In recurring for a moment to the comparison of our own with the English choirs, it must not be forgotten that travellers usually hear the very best of English choirs, both in cathedrals and in the larger parish churches.  But many of the choirs in the parish churches fall very much below the standard of attainment which the daily practice and daily service gives to these, and it would be a very easy matter to find choirs in England that fall very much below the average of our best choirs here.  Most of the choir masters in this country have a probationer’s class, into which is placed every new boy who applies to sing.  He is there taught to produce his tones properly, to read music, to chant, and to become familiar with the church service.  Then when a vacancy in the choir occurs, it is always understood that the boy best qualified will have the position.  In this way, the boys are placed upon their mettle, and it is an incentive for them to do their best.  It is always well to have boys of different ages in a choir, so that, as their voices change, they will gradually drop out one at a time.  Were the boys of a choir all of the same age, or nearly the same, when the time came for a change of voice to occur, the choir would suddenly collapse so far as the altos and sopranos are concerned.  Even with the present plan it is not always possible to avoid the difficulty arising from having several boys lose their voices at about the same time.  This is owing to the fact that some boys mature at a much earlier age than others; while one boy may lose his voice at the age of thirteen, another may be able to sing until past seventeen; in fact, there was a noted solo boy in Boston, who was in his eighteenth year before losing his soprano voice.

The so-called public school training which boys receive is often found to be more of a detriment than an advantage, so far as their usefulness in the choir is concerned.  A good share of the time devoted to music practice is taken up in teaching them to read music; and even with the best systems in use in our schools it requires between two and three years for the scholars to become proficient readers, so that very little time is left before the change of voice occurs, in which they can be useful in the choir.  But the boy chorister learns little of nothing in the way of vocal culture at school.  The music teacher in many cases is only able to visit the school once or twice a month.  The school teacher supervises the daily practice, so far as she may be able to do so; but she is often one not musical by nature or training, and although she may endeavor to do her duty faithfully, the result is still anything but satisfactory.  If a boy has a naturally prominent voice, he is urged on to lead the others, - which he often does to destruction, so far as musical tone is concerned.  It is next to impossible for a boy to obtain in this way any adequate vocal training,  The choir boys are often cautioned by their choir masters to sing very softly at the school practice; or, better, not to sing at all.  It has become quite the custom in some of the larger churches, especially in the West, to have large choirs of fifty, seventy-five, and even a hundred voices; but this has never been found necessary in the churches abroad, through their church buildings are very much larger than ours, and the conventional cathedral choir will hardly ever number more than thirty or forty voices.  The choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, numbers fifty-four voices, thirty-six boys and eighteen men.  If this choir is adequate for a church that can easily seat six or eight thousand people, certainly, we have no call for choirs in this country numbering over thirty voices.  The excuse for large numbers is that a boy’s voice by cultivation becomes softer, and therefore the more cultivated it becomes the greater will be the number of choristers required; certainly a mistaken idea, for, as we have mentioned, in all preliminary vocal practice the young chorister is cautioned to sing softly, yet when the voice is thoroughly established and located, constant daily practice will soon make it as full and strong as it ever was before; besides, now it is a musical voice, and a musical tone will travel farther than a mere noise.  The most noted and effective choirs, either in England or on the Continent, are, comparatively speaking, small choirs.  The Choir Festivals, which have been held so numerously in this country in the past few years, have been of no little service in introducing music of the highest order and merit, and they have also been the means of introducing the boy choir where it was almost unheard of before.  The annual Choir Festival, which has been held in the diocese of Vermont, for instance, in the past fourteen years, has not only raised the standard of music throughout the state, but has also been instrumental in the establishment of several boy choirs.  This is quite remarkable, when one considers the fact that there are no large towns in that state, and it has been thought that it would be next to impossible to establish and maintain a boy choir in a city of less than fifty thousand inhabitants.  But, although there is not a city in Vermont with this number of inhabitants, very good choirs may now be found there in towns of less than ten thousand inhabitants.  The Choir Festivals are of great use to the choirs in the smaller towns in many ways.  The best of music is selected by the committees in charge; it is then distributed among the different choirs, and the work of practice begins.  Later on, the precentor holds separate rehearsals with the different choirs, and then come the two or three general rehearsals before the festival.  Thus the choirs have good music placed in their hands, and are taught how properly to render it, so that they can afterwards successfully produce it, in the various churches.

Little Probationer

It is the custom in this country, in churches where boy choirs are employed, to begin the service with a processional hymn, which the choir sings as it marches from the choir room to its place in the chancel.  This custom of “singing themselves into their seats” as it is sometimes called, is quite unknown in England, the choirs in most of the churches there merely marching in while the opening voluntary is being played.  They often have in some of the higher churches there, however, a function which they call the solemn procession, in which the choir and clergy, starting from the chancel, move down the centre aisle, and around the various other aisles of the church.  The litany is thus sung in some churches in this country.  It may not be generally known that litanies were intended to be sung in this way, the clergy and choir marching around various parts of the great cathedral, in order to get within nearer reach of each worshipper.  Litanies have been sung in a similar manner about the streets of a city, especially in time of pestilence, the Church thus coming to the people to carry the consolations of religion, when it was well-nigh impossible for the people to come to the Church.  It is a beautiful thing to see, as well as to hear, a well-trained choir singing the processional hymn as it goes marching up through the midst of the congregation, followed by the clergy and headed by the cross, illustrating as it does the march of Christianity through the world, and coming more into touch with the great body of worshippers.  It is a great incentive to congregational singing, for which reason the choir should always march up the centre aisle when it is possible, rather than enter by a side door.

Probationer striking a sentimental pose

It may be a matter of surprise to many to learn, that we have on undoubted authority, that boy choirs are not a modern innovation.  In the accounts of St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, S.C. [South Carolina] [3] , there has been found a bill for “washing the surplices of the clergy and children.”  This was in the year 1798.  In 1807, the organist of the same church was requested to have at least twelve boys in the choir, that being the same number then employed in the English Cathedral.  At Trinity Church, New York, in 1733, before an organ was placed in the church, a Mr. Man is mentioned as the person who “officiated in setting and singing the psalms,” that is the metrical version by Tate and Brady, which was ordered to supersede the older version by Sternhold and Hopkins, as early as 1704.  In 1741, an organ having been erected in the church, it was “ordered that the churchwardens pay to Mr. Eldridge, the sums of five pounds, for his care and pains in having the children taught to sing psalms, etc.”  The choristers were the children of the Episcopal Charity School, accompanied by the organ, led and drilled by an individual called the “chorister.”  Sometimes, on great occasions, and anthem was sung, but very rarely, the performers being gentlemen amateurs, who volunteered their services for this purpose.  We are told that on the 15th of January, 1761, an anthem was performed on the death of his late “Sacred Majesty” (King George the II.), the chorus being composed of the boys of the Charity School.  These boys were not vested, but wore the old Charity School regulation suit of blue coats and knee breeches with brass buttons, a dress which still lingers in many of the old towns of England.  At the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Barclay, rector of Trinity Church, in August, 1764, the children of the Charity School marched at the head of the procession singing a hymn.  This is supposed to be the first instance on record of a processional hymn being sung in public in this country.  In the year 1818, the clerks of Trinity Church, St. Paul’s, and St. John’s Chapels, Trinity Parish, New York, were ordered by the vestry to assist in instructing the congregations in Psalmody, under the direction of the then rector, afterwards Bishop Hobart.  This seems not to have been a satisfactory arrangement, and endeavors were made to establish choirs in the different churches; but there was so much trouble in their formation, that the vestry of the parish decided to have some boys properly instructed in singing, and in June, 1874, a committee reported that a school for choristers had been in operation nearly six months, and that the boys “have the best of daily teaching and practice in music.”  The committee added, that “It will require a year and probably longer to get a set of boys fully prepared, after which there will be a regular succession of boys, and it is believed they may then be a substitute for female singers.”

[3] Bracketed words and places are inserted for clearer understanding.

Part I | Part III

Copyright 2002
This page was last modified on 18 November 2005