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Can Choir Outreach Sustain the Song?

Cathedral choristers begin singing in schools to stir new interest in an English church tradition.

Cathedral choristers in a diocese in southwest England are visiting primary schools to help children discover the lost joys of singing.

Headmaster Richard White of Polwhele House, the "feeder" school for boys for the Truro cathedral choir, has become alarmed that choral singing, once common in English primary schools, is "fast becoming something of a rarity."

White believes that choral singing is being driven out by pressures to concentrate on exam subjects and by the lack of funds for specialist teachers, leaving thousands of children deprived in what he described as a vital human area.

As chairman of the Choir Schools Association, White realized that he could do something to reverse the trend. He told ENI: "I thought we should be doing more to offer the inspiration of singing to others, and I thought I'd better start at home."

The result is an outreach program in Truro diocese in which small groups of boy choristers from the cathedral visit primary schools to sing with the pupils, who are then invited to make a reciprocal visit to sing in the cathedral.

Interested children are also invited to take part in the Cornwall county junior choir, which has just been formed.

White told ENI: "It is a simple plan, and as such it has a good chance of working." He hopes that it may become the pattern for a nation-wide choral outreach program. At least two other Anglican dioceses - Canterbury and Norwich - already have their own outreach schemes in place.

The Truro plan was being actively considered by seven other Anglican dioceses, as well as the Roman Catholic diocese of Liverpool and Queen Elizabeth II's royal chapel at Windsor, White said.

"Obviously, we hope that promising boy singers may be encouraged to become cathedral choristers, but primarily this is a regular and lasting opportunity for all children who enjoy singing to develop their interest and talents."

White is worried that the sound of silence in more and more of England's state primary schools will damage what he sees as "our unique choral heritage." The situation was better in private, fee-paying primary schools, he said, but these accounted for only relatively few children.

The outreach program is organized through the local government of Cornwall, which is England's most westerly county. It is a scenic but generally poor county, suffering from the drastic decline of the former staple industries, mining and fishing.

John Harries, head of Cornwall music services, said: "This scheme is a natural extension of our primary school project which has put music coordinators into the most deprived parts of the county. Already it has started to heighten children's awareness of what they can achieve."

Pupils sang a wide range of music, from African and Indian to traditional folk and religious, he explained.

Harries told ENI: "It has to be singing, because many families cannot afford musical instruments. A lot of people say that singing is out-of-date, and that you need sexy, electronic music. The popularity of our program proves otherwise."

The chief organist at Truro cathedral, Andrew Nethsingha, who has been closely involved with the outreach program, told ENI that the potential interest in choral singing was demonstrated when one third of the pupils at one school visited - 25 out of 75 children - turned up en bloc for the first meeting of the county junior choir.

The choir's inaugural meeting was held at the cathedral on January 27, when more than 90 boys and girls attended. Nethsingha described this as "impressive" with the outreach program still in its early stages.

He told ENI he did not plan to turn anyone away for not being able to sing in tune. Nor did he accept that this would lower the choir's performance standards.

"Too many people have been told: 'You can't sing,' and that's been a devastating experience for them," he said. "Given the right encouragement, everyone has the innate ability to sing."

Truro cathedral does not have a girls' choir. Nethsingha said the reason was finances, and if the money could be found, "we'd all like to see it happen."

By his estimate, at the first meeting of the junior choir, girls outnumbered boys by about two to one.

Still "It was great to see so many boys," Nethsingha said. "Singing is often seen [by children] as a girly thing to do. That is a misconception we can tackle by taking our [cathedral choir] boys into primary schools."

Related Elsewhere:

Choirs.org offers links to many British choirs, as well as choral news and workshop information.

Leicester Cathedral is one of the Anglican churches that has developed a strong program for both boys and girls choirs. Its site offers audio clips from Leicester's latest recording of popular church music.

Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford hosts one of England's most famous boy choirs. Contact the headmaster with inquiries about the choir school and its programs.

Christianity Today's Worship and Music areas offer several stories about changing styles and traditions within churches, including:

Whatever Happened to God? | One of evangelicalism's most respected theologians says most worship is clubby and convivial rather than adoring and expectant. (Feb. 1, 2001)

The New/Old CCM | Classical Christian music, especially the sacred works of Johann Sebastian Bach, finds a young, and large, audience. (Dec. 18, 2000)

Cease-Fire in the Worship Wars | A dispatch from the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (Feb. 8, 2000)

Would Jesus Worship Here? | Across the world, God moves in mysterious ways.(Feb. 7, 2000)

Lord's Prayer a musical hit in the United Kingdom | Cliff Richard's rejected recording reaches number one. (Dec. 6, 1999)

The Profits of Praise | The praise and worship music industry has changed the way the church sings.(July 12, 1999)

The Triumph of the Praise Songs | How guitars beat out the organ in the worship wars.(July 12, 1999)

We Are What We Sing | Our classic hymns reveal evangelicalism at its best. (July 12, 1999)

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