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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.

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 22:31:28

choirmum ds is only at the end of his first year and hasn't done a Christmas or Easter stay on yet - that will start from this Christmas. I think it is easier for us as ds is an only so his singing doesn't impact on other siblings. I think it is particularly hard if you do have other children as they just have to fit in with the lifestyle whether they like it or not.

Ds loves it but it does have a big impact on his life and more than he envisaged. The hardest thing I find, and still get wrong, is the relationship between the school/choir/boarding. If I want to ask a question or find out some information I have to consider do I ask ds's form teacher, head of middle school, boarding master, director of music, director of chapel music or matron. At Christmas we contributed to presents for those who look after the choristers at school - 45 different people.

Ds is at a normal co-ed school and has settled well into his class and school life. I've found it harder as I work full time and I drop off ds before the main school day on the days he isn't boarding. I have found it easier to get to know other chorister parents rather than parents from ds's year.

As well as absolutely loving singing your ds needs to love structure and order as the choristers really do have every minute of their day planned. Also, although I have been shot down in flames on MN before now for saying this, if your ds's first love is playing music rather than singing then I wouldn't recommend that they become a chorister. Fitting in music practice on two instruments plus music theory on top of school work and choir is really really hard. Most of the year 8 choristers have got to grade 7 in their main instrument and got music scholarships as a result but the amount of work involved in doing that is immense.

Dimittis Mon 10-Jun-13 22:39:52

It's definitely a serious time commitment at the major choirs, who will sing at weekends and have perhaps one dumb day in the week, but imo it's only in this way that you get the very best out of the experience. In cathedrals where there may be lighter commitments or more than one line of trebles it's more of a challenge to reach the standard of a choir that sings together virtually every day. I think it's quite common for choristers to be children who - in their previous lives - 'won't stop singing', so they tend to thrive on this kind of setting anyway. For that reason I'd recommend looking at the 'busier' choirs for the musical training side of things. Check how often - and where - they get to do tours and concerts too, as these are very special experiences for choristers and provide a brilliant add-on to the whole experience.

I definitely recognise the atmosphere Mrsvandertramp talks about. For boys in particular there can be such camaraderie from time spent in stalls/time in the dorms, that they end up missing the social aspects of choristership even when they're at home! There are features of cathedral-standard choir training that will stay with them for ever, and of course if they end up choosing music as a career then they will be meeting people from those networks for the rest of their lives. Some choristers choose go back to sing on the back rows of their choir as adults, so if you think your son might want to be a lay clerk or choral scholar one day that's also worth considering. (Might be hard to tell this early, though!)

bico Mon 10-Jun-13 22:52:37

Ds's typical day:

6.30 get up
7.00 instrument practice
7.30 breakfast
8.00 choir practice
9.15 school
4.10 go to Chapel to get changed
4.20 rehearsal
5.15 Evensong
6.00 dinner
6.30 prep
7.00 activity
7.30 shower, ready for bed, reading, spellings
8.30 lights out

In reality they tend to do an activity until about 7.50 and then get ready for bed. It is a very long day for an 8 year old.

AtiaoftheJulii Mon 10-Jun-13 23:21:45

Friend's son is at Exeter cathedral school and happy there. He doesn't board, but enjoys it when he does for special occasions, and thinks it's a massive treat to stay there for Christmas!


claraschu Tue 11-Jun-13 06:41:17

Just to reiterate what Bico said about playing an instrument. When we were considering choir school for our son, we talked to a family friend, who is a former choir master of one of the famous schools mentioned in this thread. The first thing he said was: "If he is serious about the violin, don't do it."

MummyMastodon Tue 11-Jun-13 07:07:13

I've had family members involved in this.

It's up to you, but there seems to be something fundamentally unhealthy about pinning their lives to a talent that crumbles at puberty, IYSWIM?

If they love the choir, they will dread puberty, and that's... not OK.

I suppose the school will have procedures to manage the transition. But I think I'd rather they concentrate on a talent that they can develop all their lives.

VinegarDrinker Tue 11-Jun-13 07:09:09

My brothers and sister were all choristers at Southwark, which AFAIK is the only non-boarding option in terms of London Cathedrals. They all loved it and have continued variously with their music, although none 'just' performing professionally (two were Oxbridge choral scholars, one has gone the academic music route). The opportunities, for travel etc, as well as the musical education, were fantastic. One of our good friends was at Chapel Royal with a full scholarship at City of London. However these are obviously only options if you are in/near London.

My Mum is a musician and was adamant that none of us went to boarding choir schools as she felt we'd miss out on too much else, so we went to local primaries followed by a state grammar with excellent music facilities which enabled us to develop our instrumental skills as well as continuing to sing at a high level through to sixth form.

(The only reason I didn't do the choristers route was that Southwark didn't have a girls' choir at that time).

VinegarDrinker Tue 11-Jun-13 07:10:15

Sorry, meant to say the only option that doesn't involve going to the attached school, not sure about boarding

bico Tue 11-Jun-13 08:19:33

Temple in London is the same.

I don't see the problem about doing something that will stop at puberty. Mostly that coincides with leaving the school at the end of year 8 (ds's choir only has one yr 8 left and his voice is starting to break). Most finished during the course of year 8, some in yr 7. Even if their voice breaks early they will still have had an amazing experience. However it really has to be your son's wish to do it, not yours. I've seen things go horribly wrong when parental ambition took priority.

claraschu Tue 11-Jun-13 15:54:36

Men sing too MummyMastodon-- though of course they may not have incredible voices any more. By the time their voices break, the boys are almost always ready for a new step in life (of course I am sure there are exceptions, especially if they mature very young.)

Anyway, a choir school is not just voice training; it is a fairly broad musical education as well as an incredible life experience and a training in self-discipline (good and bad side to all of this).

happygardening Tue 11-Jun-13 17:55:32

OP if you live in Cirencester is there not a choir at the Abbey?

Xenia Tue 11-Jun-13 18:48:19

He might really enjoy it. It depends on the child. None of mine have wanted to board - three of them have won music scholarships (but have always attended day private schools) and all 5 have done a tremendous amount of music, all sing. I have absolute pitch like your son - I did research it - some very music people never develop it and I think it is just a genetic thing (my mother had it too and my brother has it). I think it makes sight singing easier as you can pitch the note absolutely (as long as it's still in tune and / or not transposed) not necessarily relatively. It is a fascinating topic.

I am not much of a fan of boarding schools so I won't write about that side of it but singing at this age can be lots of fun and do encourage him whatever he ends up doing. Singing exams are fun to do too and dead easy compared to some instruments (if you're musical) so worth doing on top of your instruments as well.

It might be worth him learning the piano rather than recorder as that is pretty useful to know if he is very musical.

Record him. In the last 18 months the voices of my pretty angelic twins have gone and they are now taller than I am. I will never have another boy treble again.

bico Tue 11-Jun-13 23:29:45

Have a look at Dean Close school. They provide choristers for Tewkesbury Abbey and it looks as if they can be a day boy or board.

Mummyk1ns Wed 10-Jul-13 14:21:47

Well as a parent of a Chorister i can categorically state i would NEVER recommend. Even although my son loves music and sang in pitch from an early age, he has been a chorister for 3 years now - one year before he joins a top tier school assuming he gets through the entrance test :-) .... if you child is academic DO NOT CONSIDER!!! the boys do so much singing and extra concerts, they never get exeats, Christmas term is horrendous as they have so many other pressures and then when it comes to the serious part, getting them into schools, many of these boys have slipped academically as they only get 1 hour prep per night in the senior school, meanwhile other parents are doing way more on top.
if he is truly musically gifted send him to RCM or the junior departments of the london schools!
often it is the parents who need the scholarships who go for this which is absolutely fine to get a great education but be warned they are EXHAUSTED!!! and generally end up resenting it by year 7/8 :-)

quip Wed 10-Jul-13 22:29:40

Thank you for all the good advice on this thread. I've decided to leave it for a year and look at the two schools within daily commute distance with a view to ds considering being a day pupil. Both take boys after y4 so there's no harm waiting a bit. The key issues for me are that ds has always needed lots of sleep and he gets very tired even after a normal school day. By the end of term he's usually running out of steam. He's also very academic so it may be better to look at the musical opportunities that some of the selective secondaries offer, to give him a more rounded experience. Thanks for the advice.

toughnut Mon 15-Jul-13 08:21:23

My ds is a boarding cathedral chorister.

It is OK if ds likes singing and you are prepared to let the cathedral use his voice without any consideration for the effect that a chorister's life may have on his social, psychological and academic well-being, and the following:

It is OK if ds is well-above average academically and can work fast and completely independently - they get no support with homework and have a very limited time for it. My ds is now failing catastrophically and has completely lost his self-confidence. The school cannot realistically provide the help he needs - no time.

It is OK if you live very nearby. They get 'let out' for only short periods of time (measured in hours and very haphazard) - so living within walking distance of the cathedral is best, which might sound surprising, but true. We do not live nearby and much family time = mooching around in coffee shops near the cathedral. I am not sure if these desperate attempts to maintain a bond with a child and a communication channel are the kind of experience that represent 'happy family memories'.

It is OK if you don't mind losing your son to complete strangers at the age of 8. Once in the system 99% continue boarding until they leave school aged 18. House parents have over 50 boys to care for and no matter how wonderful they are, do they know your ds better than you? Can they really see everything that goes on? My ds was bullied for over a year and nobody noticed.

It is OK if the boarding house culture is similar to that of the family culture. Do they share your tastes? How neurotic as a mother are you? Eg. My ds was an avid reader, but time for reading at school is only 15 minutes a day at most. Boarding does not seem to be conducive to reading - no place or time for it. Eg. my ds hates watching sport. There is one TV and team sports are popular. Eg. I always limited computer gaming. Now there are no limits on this, apart from the time available for it. Eg. Radio 1. They listen to it every morning. At home, Radio 4/3. My ds now often enthuses about the latest (often crappy) hit he has heard. Eg. food. I always chose food carefully for my ds - plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables - and did what I could to develop healthy eating habits. At school, they have cheap snacks regularly - biscuits - and keep sweets in their room.

It is OK if you are poor, but only if your son is either academically brilliant and/or passionate about music (can play an orchestral instrument well) - scholarships and bursary should follow in secondary school.

It is OK if your son is used to school food and won't suffer from eating it 24/7. My ds used to be very physically fit and healthy. Now, neither. Has had a racking cough for over a year and cannot even perform as well athletically as he could 2 years ago even though he is taller! Just watching him running around now - feebly - is sad.

It is OK if you have many children and if your child is extrovert. First, you will miss the absence of one child less if you have others at home. Also, the siblings left at home will grieve less over the loss of one if there are others. Secondly, a child from a large family is used to fighting for survival 24/7. If your ds is an only child, he may not have the social skills to cope easily in an intensely competitive boarding house environment and he may find the transition acutely stressful. As a result, his health and ability to work may suffer quite shockingly. And your child will get no relief - there is no home-time or escape - and you cannot help them. They must learn to cope alone. The odd rushed phone call is painfully inadequate.

It is OK if the other children are from a similar social background - most from come from well-educated middle-class families and are well-acquainted with boarding schools. The parents do not consider sending children away aged 8 a parenting failure. They consider it a privilege and an opportunity - for what one might wonder!

It is OK if your son does not need a lot of down time. During the week, my ds has a couple of hours off on Wednesdays and a few on Sundays (because usually 2 services -sometimes in the morning only, sometimes in the morning and afternoon.) Saturdays are busy - school, sport and services. Holidays are short. About 5 days after Xmas. About 2 weeks at Easter. And a shorter summer holiday also. This is because the boys sing during each holiday and have to work during 2 holidays - preparing for exams. Also, instrumental music practice is necessary every holiday if you require a music scholarship for secondary school.

To sum up, ideally, to be a happy chorister, your son is academically excellent, a great singer, very musical, extrovert, lives within walking distance of the cathedral and has a brother or sister at home with whom he has learnt to compete with. You do not need to be rich.

happygardening Mon 15-Jul-13 16:52:56

"It is OK if the boarding house culture is similar to that of the family culture. Do they share your tastes? How neurotic as a mother are you? Eg. My ds was an avid reader, but time for reading at school is only 15 minutes a day at most. Boarding does not seem to be conducive to reading - no place or time for it. Eg. my ds hates watching sport. There is one TV and team sports are popular. Eg. I always limited computer gaming. Now there are no limits on this, apart from the time available for it. Eg. Radio 1. They listen to it every morning. At home, Radio 4/3. My ds now often enthuses about the latest (often crappy) hit he has heard. Eg. food. I always chose food carefully for my ds - plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables - and did what I could to develop healthy eating habits. At school, they have cheap snacks regularly - biscuits - and keep sweets in their room."
tough boarding is never going to be suitable for those who need to micro manage their children's lives (this is not a criticism just the way some of us are) those who feels a need to do this are going to drive themselves crazy and their DC''s house parents up the wall and probably their DC's. On the other hand it is perfect for crap slack parents I always relieved someone more competent than me is doing the job. I do consider it to be a fantastic life changing "opportunity" but I personally have never considered it to be a "privilege."

bico Mon 15-Jul-13 23:19:34

toughnut if I had the concerns that you appear to have about your ds's welfare I would be removing him from school immediately. Nothing is worth the upset that you say your ds is suffering. I still don't understand why you haven't removed him. There are always other options.

Pythonesque Tue 16-Jul-13 01:27:45

My 10 yr old daughter's just finished her first year at Salisbury (I wonder if a poster up the thread has children there), and I was chatting on the last day with the mother of a 9 yr old who lives further away than we do (for us it's roughly a 3 hr round trip; we didn't consider travelling further). They both settled into boarding easily and have enjoyed the year; but equally are very clear that they are happy to board because there is a purpose to boarding, and will probably prefer to be in day schools for senior school (plenty of time for them to change their minds, but not sure that we'll be able to afford it anyway!).

The OP's son sounds similar to my two in some respects, and I would certainly encourage looking at schools and discussing what they offer to help decide. I think I first looked at Salisbury when my daughter was finishing year 2 - on my own and without telling her about it, because at that stage I still thought boarding was not a good plan and wanted to avoid her discovering that girls' choirs existed ...

The routine is suiting my daughter rather well; her brother is about to become a college choir probationer as a day-boy and that gives us "best of both worlds" as we'll only need to be in one place at Christmas and Easter ... We didn't seriously consider Christchurch for him because of the boarding, given that we had other options. Academically my daughter is getting stretched more than she was elsewhere. My son will definitely be able to run with his considerable abilities; we will need to tread carefully to help him balance his great variety of interests though!

Good luck finding the right opportunities for your son!

Pythonesque Tue 16-Jul-13 01:33:41

I just remembered what else I wanted to say. I think the tremendous advantage of being at a prep choirschool, for the right child, is that they can have the musical training from singing in the choir, without closing off their options for education at senior school - so you aren't committing them to a career in music in any way. (my parents made a definite decision not to send my younger sister to a music school because they wanted her to choose music over other possible options, not assume that she had to do music or could only do music; in the end she didn't make her final decision to pursue a music career until her first year at university)

watchdog4 Sat 20-Jul-13 20:02:02

I disagree with Mummyklns that one should NEVER try to be a chorister. A good friend of mine has a son who is now a chorister at Exeter. It was nice to bump into both of them today at Waitrose. He has grown, very matured and I am proud that I used to babysit for him and his sister when they were little. He told me that he just came back from Austria and he had a great time with his choir - he is well-spoken and confident. I wouldn't be surprised if he will become a PM of this country one day!

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