The Art Of Managing Choir Boys

To some choirmasters the management of their boys is a perfectly easy

matter; to others it is a constant source of trouble. Everything depends

upon knack. Max O'Rell has some wise maxims on the subject which it may

be well to quote. "Face the boys," he says, "or you will be nowhere.

Always be lively. Never show your temper: to let the boys see that they

can ruffle you is to give them a victory. Allow no chatting. Never

over-praise clever boys; never snub dull ones. Never expect any thanks.

If a boy laughs at a mistake made by another boy, ask him for the answer

immediately, and he will be dumb. If you do not love boys, never become

a choir [school] master."

Discipline is preserved by giving the boys seats in the same relative

position at rehearsal and in church. There should be a double row of

desks in the practice room, provided with a shelf for books, just as in

the stalls. If the boys have to hold the books and music in their hands

they stoop, and the singing suffers. Each boy should have a copy of the

music, and it should bear his number, so that he is personally

responsible for its good keeping. Punctuality at rehearsal is important.

Let the choirmaster call for order at the exact time, and let the roll

be gone over at once. To be unpunctual, or not to register early

attendance, is to encourage laxity.

There is no doubt that the long services in many churches are trying to

the choir boys. In some churches the morning service lasts two hours and

a quarter. It is very hard even for an adult to keep his thoughts from

wandering, and his eyes from glancing over the congregation during all

this time. How much more hard is it, then, for a boy who is by nature a

fidget, and if healthy, brimming over with activity? Nevertheless boys

can be trained, if not to control their thoughts, at least to an outward

reverence and quietude in harmony with the service. Reproof, if it is

needed, is best administered in private. Boys should be paid, if only a

small sum; this gives the choirmaster a hold upon them, and enables him

to impose fines, if necessary. Payment can be increased for those who

take Tonic Sol-fa or other sight-singing certificates, which of course

increase their value as choristers. Let it be noted that the voices will

carry further if the boys hold up their heads. This caution is

especially needed when they are singing in the kneeling posture.

All that can be done to interest the boys in their work by encouraging

the social feeling, will be to the advantage of the choir. Their hearts

are easily won. An excursion, an evening party once a year are great

attractions. Mr. H. B. Roney, of Chicago, advocates a choir guild, and

in the choir-room he would have a library, games, puzzles, footballs,

bats and balls, Indian clubs, and dumb-bells. He would open and warm the

choir-room an hour before each service and rehearsal. To some extent he

would let the youngsters govern themselves, and says that the gravity

with which they will appoint a judge, a jury, sheriff, prisoner, and

witnesses to try a case of infraction of the choir rules, would bring a

smile to the face of a graven image. Prizes at Christmas are part of his

scheme; these should be awarded for such points as punctuality, progress

in music, reverential demeanour, and general excellence.

According to Mr. Sergison, organist of St. Peter's, Eaton Square,

London, the choirmaster will have power if he make himself beloved. He

should enter into the boys' way of looking at things, and remember that

they have deep feelings. The boys should be arranged in classes, each

higher class having higher pay, with sundry little privileges. Mr.

Sergison says that by putting the boys upon their honour, and treating

them well, he has always maintained strict discipline, and has never

yet had to resort to corporal punishment. The Rev. E. Husband, of

Folkestone, who is an enthusiastic choir-trainer, is strongly of opinion

that for vocal purposes working-class boys are better than the sons of

gentlemen. He finds that boys of a lower class have richer and fuller

voices than those above them in the social scale. I was myself present,

not long since, at a concert at Eton College, and although I was greatly

struck with the purity of the tone, its volume was thin and somewhat

shallow. One reason why working-class boys excel, probably, is that

plain food and outdoor life keep the body in the best condition, so that

the children of the poor, so long as they are well-nourished, are

healthier than the children of the rich. But the working-class boys have

also this advantage, that they begin life at four years of age in an

Infant School, where they sing every day, and receive systematic Tonic

Sol-fa teaching which is continued when they pass into the boys'

department. Boys who are trained under governesses and at private

preparatory schools often learn no singing at all. It is to be hoped

that the diffusion of musical knowledge will make these

class-comparisons, from a musical point of view, unnecessary. The

choir-boys of Christ Church, Oxford, are all the sons of professional

men, but then the choice is a wide one, as they come from all parts of

the country.

The precentor of a cathedral writes to me on an important branch of our

subject. I sincerely hope that his picture is not one that is generally


"My own experience would suggest that in connection with the training of

cathedral choristers the attention of cathedral organists might be very

advantageously drawn to the very great importance of efficiency in the

art of teaching--of imparting knowledge. The instruction given may be as

good as could well be desired, but the manner of imparting it just as

bad--such as would be condemned in any well-conducted Public Elementary

School. Uncontrolled temper, the cane, boxing of the ears, are matters

which go far to prove a teacher very seriously incompetent as a teacher.

A cathedral organist is specially exposed to the temptation to

hastiness and harshness, owing to the power he possesses. A parent

values the position of a chorister for his son, and the organist is

tempted soon to take advantage of the parent's unwillingness to withdraw

his son. In a parish choir, either voluntary or paid at a very low rate,

the exhibition of bad temper or discourtesy in manner is quickly

followed, in all probability, by the loss of the offended chorister.

Offensive manners on the part of the trainer quickly endanger the

existence of the choir. Not so in cathedrals, and the cathedral organist

knows this. 'I cannot think why that boy does not sing in tune; I have

boxed his ears;' said a cathedral organist once to me quite seriously.

This proves, I think, how blind even a highly-trained musician may be to

the need for any art in the mode of imparting instruction. I fear there

is a vulgar notion (only half defined, most probably) that irascibility

in the musical trainer is a mark of genius. I write from experience,

having been upwards of a quarter of a century in cathedrals, and a

considerable portion of that time precentor."

In conclusion, the custom of throwing a halo of sentiment round

choir-boys, and petting them, is much to be deprecated. It has become

the custom to write tales and songs about them, in which they are made

out to be little angels in disguise. All this is very foolish and

harmful. Choir-boys, as a rule, are no better and no worse than other

boys. They respond well to wise treatment, but need to be governed by

common sense, and to be taught their places. I am myself somewhat to

blame for illustrating this book with two pictures of choir boys. It is

really inconsistent.