picfest travelogue: Canterbury Cathedral, UK – Winter 2016

After two visits to EuroArts International Children’s Choir Festival in Canterbury, Genevieve and I decided to take a deeper journey into the cathedral’s music program. We were invited by David Flood, the cathedral director of music, to make ourselves at home in the ancient city while I spent a seven week sabbatical observing and singing with the lay clerks and trebles of the Canterbury Cathedral choir.

 

Of particular interest for my study was the pedagogical, performance and repertoire issues of the treble choir cathedral tradition in which the choristers sing daily services and live at the cathedral. To that end, our lodging during the sabbatical was a flat just 100 meters from the Kings School gate, the northwest entrance to the walled cathedral grounds – also called the Precincts. Each morning, I walked a six-minute route to the Dean’s Steps cathedral entrance for the 7:45 boychoir rehearsal. If I was early, I met Dr. Flood at the Choir House where he greeted the choristers each morning to lead them the 50 meters into the cathedral. Truth be told, I preferred arriving a couple minutes late so that I heard the trebles vocalizing as I neared the Dean’s Steps entrance. From there, I walked through the dimly lit cathedral to the tunnel-like staircase of 31 worn stone treads up to the 600-year-old choir room, nearing the soaring voices with each step.

The daily routine for these young singers started much earlier with breakfast, instrument practice time, and preparation for school. The 7:45 rehearsal usually focused on the music for the Evensong service later in the day and a preview of other repertoire for the following days and upcoming Sunday Eucharist. At 8:50, they returned to the Choir House to grab their bookbags and hop on the cathedral choir bus for the short trip to St. Edmunds School, 2.5 miles away.

 

After school, the boys return to the Precincts and are back in the choir room to rehearse forty more minutes at 4:45. The lay clerks join the final 10 minutes of repertoire prep before the choir heads down for procession into the Evensong service. The lay clerks are twelve professional alto, tenor and bass singers who constitute the rest of this traditional men and boys cathedral choir. The weekend schedule begins later in the morning with a bit longer rehearsal time and Monday evening the full choir rehearses together after Evensong.

Under any circumstances, this would be a very demanding schedule for these young trebles. The fact is, they perform at least 20 minutes of music each day, the majority of which changes every service. This requires development of sight singing skill to such a high level that they do not spend time outside of rehearsal practicing the repertoire, unless there are solos for which individuals may receive additional coaching.

 

I have to admit: singing with the lay clerks was rather intimidating for that very reason. Unlike the pace of rehearsals employed by most community and school youth choirs in which music is mastered over a longer period of preparation and usually performed from memory, the sheer quantity of the cathedral choir repertoire requires a highly efficient process and lightning speed virtuosity. Although I managed to acquire some proficiency in the skill set necessary for this formidable system, I was astonished and inspired by the capability of these 10-14 year old boys to achieve such a high level of musicianship on a daily basis. During those seven weeks in Canterbury, the breadth of repertoire, whether familiar to me or newly encountered, was comparable to a graduate level choral literature course. Simply amazing.

The conclusions we carried back home with us were that while the cathedral model is more akin to Olympic Development Team rigor than to the average school or community youth choir program, the fact remains that young singers are capable of the highest level of artistry and technical skill. Perhaps one of the biggest limitations to their capacity is our ability to teach and inspire.