Tell me about boarding choir schools

(46 Posts)
quip Sun 09-Jun-13 21:20:53

I have a ds in y2 who never stops singing. He is quite musical and loves playing violin and recorder. He has absolute pitch which became apparent in the last few months: you play him a note on recorder or piano and he can say what it is without looking. He can't sing an A on demand though without any reference. He sings in tune though.

I'm thinking what a fantastic musical education he would get by joining a cathedral choir and how it would give him opportunities we never could provide otherwise. I know that voice trials tend to be y3 so we'd need to decide in the next few months what to do. I know in my heart that if ds was offered the opportunity to sing in a choir like that he'd jump at it. However, I see the trade-off: amazing musical education vs normal family life. Prep school vs village school and excellent local secondaries. I'd be letting someone else have my boy for 9 or 10 months of the year for 10 years.

So please could you tell me about it. Ds would need to board so I'd rather we looked at all boarding. WA and Christ Church looked most attractive from their websites so any info gratefully received.

Dimittis Sun 09-Jun-13 22:52:13

It sounds like a perfect opportunity for your son - if he'd jump at the chance in a way that tells you everything you need to know! Being a chorister is a very unusual lifestyle, but from my own family's experience there's just nothing better for a really keen boy who wants to sing.

If you like the feel from those websites, as with all schools I think there's no substitute to visiting. Hear the choir if you can, meet the staff, meet the pupils and see if you can imagine your son there. With Westminster Abbey, you'd get all the excitement of being involved in national events and being in the centre of London. Don't forget their unique set-up, where there are no non-choristers at the school. With Christ Church you'd be in a lovely city, and get to be part of a cathedral as well as a collegiate world. Again it's a smallish school, so it depends if that's to your son's liking.

Having a musically talented DS is wonderful - you must be very, very proud. Visit schools, check whether your son feels he could be a part of those places, think about whatever secondary school you'd want him to end up at... and enjoy!

(Name-changed to avoid identifying myself)

bico Sun 09-Jun-13 23:57:11

We chose the school closest to home and a school that has more than just choristers. We were keen to ensure ds had the most normal school and home life possible.

We looked at CC but although they loved ds and would have offered him a place I didn't like the fact that they sung on Sat and Sun. I also didnt like the fact that they had no real outside space to play. The staff and matron were lovely but i thought the dorns were in need of a refurb. We are 45 mins drive and I thought we'd spend our entire time at weekends driving. We made an appointment for ds to have a voice trial at WA but didn't proceed with that.

I like the fact ds is at a normal school and is home on Friday night to Sunday morning. They also lead them in to their commitments gently. When they are probationers they don't have to board.

It is a huge commitment. You need to be absolutely certain that your ds wants to do this (rather than you thinking it is a good idea for ds to do). At ds's school it involves 22.5 hours singing a week (more some weeks), 2 instruments, music theory plus a normal school week.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 00:01:40

I'd add that they wouldn't have your son for 10 years. Most start in year 4 and finish in year 8, so it would be 5 years max.

claraschu Mon 10-Jun-13 00:22:34

It sounds like he might be really suited to the life, but here a few things to consider: if he loves playing the violin, he won't have time to devote himself to it; some choir schools really see parents as trouble and try to exclude/intimidate them; some choir schools are so focused on THE CHOIR that they can lose sight of the boys as individuals and expect them to conform completely (re food, individual tastes etc); if the boys aren't fairly easy going and somewhat thick skinned, the pressure can be overwhelming; they spend a HUGE amount of time in religious services, so if they are very put off by this, it can cause unhappiness.

Once the boys are in the choir, it is such a powerful world that there is a danger that they can't imagine life outside of it, and often can't recognise their own unhappiness or discomfort.

A lot of these comments come from my (not extensive) personal experience of 2 schools, and might not apply to the schools you mention. Maybe this will give you some ideas of questions to ask when you are looking at schools. I found that I was so impressed and overwhelmed by the choirs that I was not thinking enough about whether my son would actually enjoy all of the life (not just the music).

I don't mean to be wholly negative, as I think boys' choirs can be absolutely wonderful; I just want to add a word of caution.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 08:20:57

I have seen the expectation to c

beachyhead Mon 10-Jun-13 08:43:57

Depends where you live I think...I would be aiming for a chorister school which also had lots of other non choral activities...

ICanTotallyDance Mon 10-Jun-13 11:51:04

here is a documentary about a chorister school and here is another one, and a short one here. Obviously not as good as talking to a chorister or their family, but a good chance to do some research from the comfort of your own home. I have only watched the first part of the second one so can't comment on quality of them, sorry!

Have a look around the local chorister schools, here are some good questions/things to find out:

-what happens when his voice breaks?
-what if his voice breaks very early (e.g. Year 5)
-what activities outside of choral work are there?
-are their non-choristers at the school?
-are children expected to tour? Internationally? From what age?
-Are children expected to sing on Sundays?
-How many children in the whole school?
-What are the dorms like?
-Is the boarding full/weekly/flexi or are there day boys?
-If it is not all full boarding, how many children are in the school at any given night? What about Saturday nights? How many boys were at the school last Saturday night? What age were they? (Get a number, not a vague answer!)
-How does the school cater to dietary requirements?
-What happens if a child gets sick?
-What happens if a child strains their throat?
-How many matrons are there?
-What is the daily routine?
-What are the leaver's destinations?
-How long does it take the boys to settle (generally)?
-How many children are there in Year 3/ Year 4? (or whichever year you are looking at entry into)
-How is bullying handled?

And, obviously, co-ed versus single sex.

Sorry, no choristers in the family atm so no first hand knowledge with this but this is the general advice picked up from friends. Good luck!

BeckAndCall Mon 10-Jun-13 11:58:46

OP, does your DS not sing in any choirs already? Perhaps he is a bit young but there are some great competitive and church choirs out there, plus county level choirs which might be a starting point for seeing if he would really enjoy it?

If you were to give a general clue as to eg your county, posters on here would be able to offer some thoughts.
For me, it seems a bit full on to go straight to a choir school without any choir experience so far? ( a school choir doesn't really count as good experience, generally - he'd be with serious music people at choir school so serious choir experience or exposure, at least, would be a clue).

And what does his Voice teacher say about whether it would be right for him?

happygardening Mon 10-Jun-13 14:12:48

OP have you looked at Winchester Collage they have Quiristers (choir boys) they are educated at the prep Pilgrims and leave to a variety of schools. I don't know anything about its musical standard but do I understand as they only sing in the school chapel ie during term time they have more free time at Xmas Easter etc than other school choirs. There is a video about it I don't know how to link it in but look on the Winchester College website under about us/chapel/chapel choir video.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 14:54:05

Not sure where my post went. Another thing to check is whether they sing at Easter and Christmas. Also whether they have to be available out of term time at short notice, eg if the Queen or senior royal or senior someone else dies (for ds it is only the Queen and the DoE).

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 14:58:52

Ds auditioned for and joined our local church choir at 6. That gave him good practice of doing weekly services plus choir practice twice a week. Not as formal as where he is now but a good introduction.

quip Mon 10-Jun-13 16:23:58

Beck - none of the choir schools require previous choral experience and I know some prefer to start from scratch rather than with a voice already moulded. The schools I've looked at info on specify a good ear for music and general musicality in addition to being able to sing in tune but it doesn't need to be polished. We go to a church with a choir but our choir master doesn't take boys under 8 as he says boys' voices are still developing at 7. Ds is generally musical and sings at school and whenever else possible so this aspect doesn't worry me so much.

Happy - I will have a look at Winchester, thank you. We are in cirencester area so that's not too far

Claraschu - I think you've hit the nail on the head with what you describe as the risks. I'm sure ds would like it but I don't want to lose him to something for 5 years and risk other aspects of his childhood being sidelined. He's not remotely sporty and all his extracurricular clubs involve music atm but I worry about the academic side and general chilling out and poking mud with sticks.

Bico - do you mind me asking why you didn't proceed with WA? The size and focus of the school appealed to me as it seemed that they didn't have to squeeze choir into the timetable of a normal school. I am familiar with CC as I was at university there and I agree with you on green space but we'll have a look.

happygardening Mon 10-Jun-13 17:02:22

Magdalen College Prep (Oxford) also have a choir its very academic and pushy school and thinking about it maybe no boarders.

skaen Mon 10-Jun-13 17:15:42

The other oxford choirs (magdalen college and new college) are both day boys only but they also only sing in university term time.

Have a look at choir schools nearby as well, bath and Gloucester both have choirs and there may be other places within easy reach. It is cery demanding and the choir plus boarding can be tricky so it is worth looking at places fairly nearby where you can get to a service fairly easily if your DS is finding things difficult

BeckAndCall Mon 10-Jun-13 17:36:33

I know you've obviously looked into it thoroughly, quip, it just seems its a pretty big leap to go to choir school without even knowing if he really likes singing in a real choir! The timetable is so full on at these schools that you have to really love not only music but the structure, the one to one voice lessons, the vocal exercises and the serious approach to minute details.......

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 18:33:02

I found ds's church choir experience useful to see if he really wanted to be a chorister. It's hard to describe to them what is really involved and this gave him a rough idea.

Singing as a chorister is nothing like singing in a school choir. It is serious and formal. Go to Evensong at a cathedral and you will see a big difference from a parish church even if (as ours was) the choir duties are taken very seriously. Plus the scale is larger. Ds's chapel is small by comparision to WA but still still seats 1,000.

We turned down the voice trial with WA because ds had an offer and a prospective offer (he'd done the academic test for one but not for the other). By the reaction he got at his voice trial at CC I had no doubt he'd also get an offer from WA and I didn't want the added complication of trying to decide between three.

I also worried about the transition to senior school from such a small school and the lack of on site sports facilities.

With both CC and WA I didn't like the fact that they sung on both Sat and Sun which means bits of days off at the weekend rather than a proper part of the weekend. I wanted ds to have a wonderful musical education in as normal environment as possible.

Chichester is not too far from you. Prebendal school might be worth a look.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 20:30:00

I wouldn't want to be doing a 2 hr each way trip to a prep school. I'd have thought you'd be better off looking more locally.

choirmum Mon 10-Jun-13 20:40:16

I currently have a cathedral chorister daughter and my son was a cathedral chorister until last July. It is a massive commitment for the whole family and not to be taken lightly, but none of us regret it for a minute! I would say that you won't find a cathedral choir school where the children aren't 'on duty' at the weekend and that their lives will be dominated by cathedral duties - they do after all get a subsidised education to do a very specific job. That's not to say that they aren't involved in school life, but cathedral duties always take priority. And choir school is really not a normal environment, however you look at it.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 20:51:25

Ds's choir doesn't sing on Saturdays or Weds.

choirmum Mon 10-Jun-13 20:58:56

I know at DD's school they always have part of the weekend off as there are 2 treble lines who sing seperately with the men, so they'll be on duty either saturday and sunday evensong or sunday morning services. But they still all have a saturday morning rehearsal. It is a normal school though - choristers are about 1/5th of the population. They have a thursday off chorister duties though. Do you ever regret the decision bico?

mrsvandertramp Mon 10-Jun-13 21:11:53

I used to be a house parent at a choir school. I think it's a brilliant opportunity for the boys, but there are lots of sacrifices to make too, from the parents as well as the boys. You may have to get used to not having family Christmas and Easter (depending on which school you choose / where your son gets accepted) lots of decisions regarding your son are out of your hands as, assuming he is full boarding, most decisions are made by the school / cathedral / abbey. It is really hard work and very intense, so any potential chorister has to really love / live for music otherwise they find it hard.
However, the experiences he could end up having, especially if at one of the major choirs will be really memorable and he could end up singing for and meeting some very famous people and travelling to some lovely places. The musical standard at most choir schools is amazing, so even if the children are not in the choir, the other children at the school tend to be very musical as well and reach very high standards on their instruments. Most of the choristers where I worked also got music scholarships to their next schools as well. If I had a musical son I would love him to try to get into a choir school, I think the benefits will stay with these boys for ever.

choirmum Mon 10-Jun-13 21:16:30

I couldn't agree more mrsvandertramp and fortunately, the same opportunity is opening up to girls in some choir schools. Ours is one of the very few where girls are on full parity with boys in terms of fee remission, teaching, cathedral commitment etc and it's meant we've been able to give our DD the same benefits as our DS. And I think you houseparents do a fantastic job, often in very difficult circumstances!

Marmitelover55 Mon 10-Jun-13 21:46:29

Bristol has a the Cathedral Choir School which is now a state academy. (and the only state funded choir school). Some of the probationary choristers gain automatic places in the secondary school I believe. I don't know if this would be too far for you to go though, but just thought it would have a lot of other things to offer too, not just the choir

www.bristol-cathedral.co.uk/index.php?id=31

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