Notes On The Practice Of Various Choirmasters In Cathedrals &c

I SUMMARISE here information obtained, chiefly by observation and

conversation, from various trainers of boys' voices at cathedrals and

collegiate churches.


Some years ago I attended a practice of the boys, under the late Rev.

Thomas Helmore. It began with slow scales sung to a light pianoforte

accompaniment. These were followed by rapid runs, the key

rising until the highest note touched was C above the treble staff. The

vocable used was "ah." After this came time exercises, solfeggios, the

pointing out of notes by the boys on and between the fingers of their

left hands, which represented the staff. Mr. Helmore declared that new

boys while singing nearly always (1) frown, or (2) hold their heads on

one side. He was strict about avoiding these faults. In going over the

psalms for the day, the boys sang mostly one by one, verse after verse.

This was a searching test for the boy who sang, while all the others

were actively criticising. The boys practised secular music by way of

change. Four of them were monitors, four fags, and two probationers. The

tone was refined and pure, Mr. Helmore himself being a good singer.


Here, owing to the size of the building, a tremendous volume of shrill

tone has to be cultivated, which in the practice room is sometimes

overwhelming. The practice I heard began with slow scales sung to "ah"

(pianoforte accompaniment) ranging over two octaves, C to C2; each key

between C to C1 was taken, and the scale sung ascending and descending.

This was loud singing, but not shouting. Then came agility exercises in

the form of chords, rapid scales, &c., sung still to "ah." This daily

"tuning-up" lasted ten minutes. Then (incidentally affording rest to the

boys) came a short lesson on theory. Boys were called up in turn to

write notes, signs, &c., on the blackboard. Practice now began. The boys

sing a new piece to words at once, never sol-faing. They seldom try a

piece more than three times before it is heard at the cathedral. They

sit during rehearsal, standing at the Gloria Patri. The boys have a

daily practice of an hour-and-a-half.


The refined style of the boys trained by Dr. Bridge is well known. The

abbey is small enough to allow the graces of singing to be cultivated.

In the music room there are two rows of desks facing the same way, so

that Dr. Bridge, sitting at his cottage piano, can cast a side glance

full upon the boys. Two practices are held daily; one from nine till ten

a.m. is spent in getting up the service music. The afternoon practice,

at the close of evensong, is chiefly devoted to theory. A card hanging

up on the wall shows exactly how the time of the afternoon practice is

apportioned between the study of intervals, and scales, chanting,

responses, manuscript exercises, the singing of Concone's solfeggios,

and the practice of secular music. The excellent phrasing and pure tone

are partly due to the practice of secular music, which gives elasticity

and gentleness to the boys' voices. No formal system of voice-training

is in use. The boys enter at from 9 to 10-1/2, not older. A new boy is

placed in the middle of the row of choristers, so as to excite his

imitative faculty to the utmost. Twenty boys is the full number, but

only twelve of these are full choristers, the others being nominally on

probation, a plan which serves to keep up the discipline.


There are twelve boys here. They come, with a fair knowledge of music,

at about nine years of age, and receive from Dr. Steggall, or his

assistants, three lessons of about two hours each every week. On Sunday,

at the close of the morning service, there is a rehearsal with the men

of the music for the afternoon, and for the morning of the following

Sunday. The boys' practices are held in the choir-room, where Dr.

Steggall, seated at a venerable Broadwood grand, coaches his little men,

with care and neatness. On Saturdays, when half their lesson is done,

the boys walk across to the chapel, and go through the Sunday's music

with the organ. A pupil mounts to the instrument, while Dr. Steggall,

book in hand, paces the aisle, or retires towards the communion table,

constantly interrupting the singing to correct faults, or improve

delivery. Meanwhile, the organ is played quite softly, that the voices

may stand out clearly. Constant care is taken to prevent clipping of

words in the most familiar parts of the service.


Dr. E. J. Hopkins, himself an ex-choir-boy of the Chapel Royal, realises

here his ideal of "quality, not quantity." He lays stress on the fact

that he takes his boys at eight years of age. For a year or more,

however, they are probationers. They do not wear surplices, although

they sit close to the choir. They undergo daily drill in musical theory

and voice-training, but in church they have no responsibility, and do

little more than listen. When, however, the voice of one of the elder

boys breaks, a probationer takes his place, and is much better for the

training. The practices occupy an hour-and-a-half every afternoon. They

are held in the little choir vestry, near the organ, where there is a

cottage pianoforte, flanked by a couple of long music desks, at which

the boys stand as they sing. They are taught in groups, according to the

stage they have reached, and spend the lesson time in practising scales,

voice exercises, pieces of music, and studying notation. The voices are

practised up to A. On Saturdays there is a rehearsal in the church,

with the organ and the men of the choir.


The choir here, directed by the venerable organist, Mr. J. W. M. Young,

is noted for its chanting, which all choirmasters ought to hear. Mr.

Young has made a special study of the Psalms, and changes speed and

force frequently with the change of attitude in the psalmist. The

recitation is delivered at the pace of ordinary speech, with

elocutionary pauses as needed; it is sung neither faster nor slower than

the cadence. Hence the whole effect is reverent and impressive. Mr.

Young's published Psalter and Chants (Novello) should be studied, but

the great excellence of his work can only be appreciated by a visit to

Lincoln. All compilers of Psalters make rules, but Mr. Young carries

them out. Mr. Young, who was a choir-boy at Durham more than fifty years

ago, under Henshaw, tells me that it was no uncommon thing in his day

for the boys to have three practices--8.30 to 10, 11 to 12, and 6 to 8.

This in addition to the two daily services. The elder boys had to attend

all; the younger were excused the evening practice. As far as I know, we

have no such severe training now. Mr. Young likes to get his boys at

eight; for two years, although they wear surplices, they do not sing.

The sixteen boys receive free education, and board, pocket-money, and a

present of L10 when their voices break. The younger boys are called

"choristers," and wear surplices. The four senior boys are called

"Burgersh-chanters," and wear black cassocks of a peculiar shape. In the

town they are familiarly known as "black boys." The choristers attend a

day-school with other boys who speak the Lincolnshire dialect; in this

they suffer, for, as Mr. Young says, purity of vowels and beauty of tone

go together. One of his maxims is, "use the lips as little as possible

in singing; do all you can with the tongue. If you use the lips, then

use them rapidly." The boys practise an hour-and-a-half each day. Mr.

Young puts a high finish on all his work. Mozart's "Ave Verum" was

sung on the day of my visit with infinite refinement. At one point the

boys took a portamento--a grace which very few choirmasters would

attempt with boys.


The boys rehearse in a small but lofty room. There is a double row of

desks and seats down each side, facing each other. Dr. C. H. Lloyd sits

at a small pianoforte, placed across one end of the seats, thus

commanding all the boys with his eye. The "tuning-up" exercises lasted

ten minutes, and began with this exercise to "ah":--

This exercise, begun in C, was carried up gradually to B[b] above. It

was sung first with a dim. going down, and a cres. going up, and

then the opposite. Then came an ascending, followed by a descending

scale, similarly varied in key and expression. The next exercise was--

which was transposed gradually upwards, being sung to "ah." Next a

triplet exercise--

At the higher part the second trebles sang a third below. Then followed

the chromatic scale, up and down. Dr. Lloyd is not troubled much with

flattening; when it occurs the men are more likely to cause it than the

boys. They habitually sing the Litany, which lasts fifteen minutes,

unaccompanied, and if they flatten at all, it is not more than a

semitone. There is an unaccompanied service once a week. I noticed that

breathing-places were marked in the anthems, and notes likely to give

trouble were marked with a circle. Dr. Lloyd was by no means tied to the

pianoforte during rehearsal, and frequently left his seat, and paced up

and down, beating time while the singing went on. Theoretical questions

on the pieces in hand were addressed to individual boys. These boys are

the sons of professional men, and come from all parts of the country.

There are now three undergraduates at Christ Church, who have been

choir-boys. In the choir, on the day of my visit, was a boy of

seventeen, who had sung for nine years; his voice had not yet begun to

go. The curious custom is observed here of dividing the Psalms (between

Decani and Cantoris) at the colon, instead of at the verse. It requires

great readiness, and for those Psalms which are written in parallelisms,

it is most effective.


The boys here are divided into ten choristers and fourteen probationers.

The choristers are on the foundation, and receive a stipend; the

probationers get their schooling only. The choristers wear trencher caps

and gowns; the probationers flannel caps, bearing the arms of the

cathedral. The boys are nearly all from the city; there is no

boarding-school. The lower floor of the choir-school is used for the

ordinary instruction, which is conducted by Mr. Plant, an alto in the

cathedral choir, and the upper floor is used as a music-room. Here the

boys receive four or five lessons a week from Dr. Longhurst, and the

probationers have also a lesson by themselves. All the choristers learn

the violin; this has been the practice for many years. When, at

festivals, there is a band in the cathedral, the strings are made up

largely from old choristers, most of whom go into business in the city.

A system of rotation is adopted; thus, although there are twenty-four

boys, not more than fourteen sing at any one service, the rest are at

work at their ordinary lessons. A considerable drainage of boys takes

place to the King's School, the leading grammar school in Canterbury.

The choristers often leave to enter this school when their voices are in

their prime.

Dr. Longhurst takes the boys very young; as soon after seven as

possible. In choosing a boy, he requires both voice and ear to be good.

Sometimes a boy excels in the one direction and not in the other; he can

sing sweetly, but cannot imitate notes struck at random on the

pianoforte, or else he has a poor voice and a good ear. But both

endowments are necessary for a chorister. Dr. Longhurst, who was himself

a boy at Canterbury, had a compass at that time of two-and-a-half

octaves. As his voice changed he passed from first to second treble,

then sang alto for seven years, and at last settled to tenor. He does

not regard boy altos as desirable in cathedrals, but in parish churches,

where no adult male altos are to be had, they are, no doubt, in place.

Dr. Longhurst tells me that as a result of forty-eight years'

experience, he can tell by the look of a boy whether he will make a

chorister. There is something about the brows and eyes, and general

contour of the face which guides him. He is never mistaken. Some time

since a clergyman with whom Dr. Longhurst happened to be staying,

ridiculed the idea that the musical capability of boys can be judged by

their looks. He took Dr. Longhurst into the village school, and invited

him to pick out the boys of the choir as they sat among others at their

lessons. This Dr. Longhurst did quite correctly. He has no knowledge of

phrenology, and the faculty has come to him simply as the result of long


On the day of my visit I heard the boys practise in their lofty

music-room. Dr. Longhurst sat at the grand pianoforte, and the boys were

grouped in fours or fives round four music-stands, on which the large

folio voice parts, in type or MS., were placed. These desks stood on

either side of the piano, so that the boys looked towards Dr.

Longhurst. Not many voice exercises are used, nor is there any talk

about the registers. Pure tone is required, and the boys have not "to

reason why." Six or seven of the youngest boys took no part in the

practice of the service music. When the elder boys had done, the younger

came forward and sang some solfeggio exercises. As a help in keeping

time the boys clapped their hands sometimes at the first of the bar, and

beat the pulses of the music. In the single voice parts, with long

rests, this is a help. The boys do not sing any secular music. At one

time they did, but now, with the schooling, the ordinary practices, and

the violin lessons, there is no time. Flattening does not often occur.

As a rule, when they intone on G, the G remains to the end. The practice

of singing the service unaccompanied on Fridays all the year round, and

on Wednesdays in addition during Lent, must have a bracing effect on the

choir. I was myself present on a Wednesday in Lent, and could detect no

falling in pitch. The boys at Canterbury do not appear to receive much

formal voice-training, and I attribute the excellent quality of their

singing to two facts. First, Dr. Longhurst has evidently a knack of

discerning a promising voice; and second, having established a tradition

of good singing, the boys, entering at an early age, insensibly fall

into it.


I have gathered from Mr. A. R. Gaul, Mus.B., of Birmingham, some

particulars of the work of Dr. Buck, organist of Norwich Cathedral, who

was known forty or fifty years ago all over the country as a trainer of

boys' voices. Mr. Gaul was a boy at Norwich under Dr. Buck, and

underwent the Spartan training which produced such notable results. "No

chest voice above F or G" was his rule, and the flute-like voice, which

goes by so many names, and is yet so unmistakable when heard, was

developed in all the choristers. Dr. Buck had an endless number of

contrivances for teaching his boys right ways. Each of them carried

about him a pocket looking-glass, and at practice was taught to hold it

in his hand, and watch his mouth as he sang. One finger on top of the

other was the gauge for opening the mouth transversely, while nuts were

held in the cheeks to secure its proper longitudinal opening. To look at

the boys during this exercise, one might think they had the face-ache!

However, no joking over these matters was allowed; there was a penny

fine for forgetting the looking-glass once, and a twopenny fine for

forgetting it a second time. To prevent the use of too much breath in

singing, Dr. Buck would take a piece of tissue paper, the size of a

postage stamp, hang it by a fine thread in front of the mouth, and make

the boys sing to it without blowing it away. Tongue-drill consisted in

regular motions of the unruly member, until the boys were able to make

it lie flat down at the bottom of the mouth, and raise it to the upper

teeth as required. It was a daily plan to practise certain passages with

the lips entirely closed, this was done to prevent the objectionable

quality of voice resulting from any stoppage of the nasal organs. There

was no sol-faing; various words were used at scale-practice, chosen to

develop the vowels, while a code of troublesome words and endings of

words was drawn up, and repeated daily by the boys in the

speaking-voice, so as to secure clear enunciation. I have more than once

seen and heard it stated that Dr. Buck used to make his boys sing

through the nose, with closed mouth, in order to get the higher

register, but Mr. Gaul does not remember this. Dr. Haydn Keeton informs

me that they had boy-altos at Norwich in Dr. Buck's time, so that he

must have had more boys than usual to train.


A conversation with Mr. C. L. South, the organist and choirmaster, shows

him to be a careful and able worker. The boys, who are boarded in the

choir school, come from various parts. They are received at from 8 to 11

years; not over 11 unless the boy is very good and forward in music. The

boys are chosen for their voices, but given two boys of equal voices,

the one who knows most music would be selected. The music practice is an

hour a day for five days of the week, under Mr. South himself. "I

recognise," he says, "two registers in boys' voices, chest and head, and

with careful practice you can get the voices so even that you can hardly

tell where one ends and the other begins. The great thing, I believe, is

to make the boys sing softly, and to get their register even

throughout." Mr. South adds that the imitative power of boys is so

strong that the younger ones fall into the habits of the elder ones, and

thus make formal teaching about the registers less necessary. For vocal

practice he uses Stainer's and Concone's Exercises, also solos like

"Jesus, Saviour, I am Thine," and "Let the Saviour's outstretched arm"

(both from Bach's Passion), as well as Handel's "Rejoice greatly,"

besides florid choruses from the Messiah. These are more interesting

than formal studies, and they bring out the same points of breathing,

phrasing, pronunciation, and expression. He sometimes introduces a song

of this kind into the service as an anthem. On one occasion, when

thirteen boys had sung one of the Bach songs in unison, a member of the

congregation asked the name of the soloist. The voices were so perfectly

blended that they sounded like one. The full number of boys is eighteen,

of whom two at least sing solos. Mr. South does not use nor like boy

altos. The service music is selected on eclectic principles, and covers

the ground from Gibbons to Villiers Stanford. The boys sometimes give

concerts, performing such cantatas as Smart's King Rene's Daughter,

and Mendelssohn's "Two-part Songs."