There has been a lot of interest in the admission of girls to the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge recently. I was sent an article in the New York Times from a number of parishioners wondering if this was the way we would be going. I smiled to myself because, first, it is old news – the announcement being covered in the British press some months ago and, secondly, because we are fully committed encouraging boys to sing in a world where that is becoming more and more unusual. Only Westminster Abbey and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue have Choir Schools where the choristers make up the whole student body, and that unique environment allows the boys to thrive in a remarkable way. Our Head of School, Christopher Seely, has spoken movingly of the gift of a Choir School education that is truly inclusive; that is, available to any boy regardless of ability to pay, and allowing them to have an extraordinarily rounded educational experience. There are some who might say that we are being elitist and that this opportunity should be afforded equally to boys and girls. I have to say that I do not see it like that! An all-boys’ school is no more exclusive than an all-girls’ school. I remember the Prince of Wales once being asked about the English Cathedral Tradition and if Choir Schools were exclusive places. His response has stayed with me; he said, “There is no place for exclusivity – but there is nothing wrong with excellence.” Our Choir School strives for excellence and you can hear it in the voices of the boys under the direction of Dr. Filsell and you can see it in the lives of these boys as they engage with every aspect of school life all bound up in community living – if you will, becoming a family that belongs together, albeit for a short while.
Does this mean that we are not interested in fostering the same aspirations for girls? Absolutely not! One of our strategic plans is to use our talent and our skills to encourage singing more widely in and around our church. This week, 29 girls will take over the Choir School and inhabit the choir stalls of our church to make music and live in community. The girl choristers’ course has been running since 2005. In September, the Noble singers will resume their weekly practices and children who live more locally will have the opportunity to engage in the RSCM Voice for Life scheme under the direction of Rebecca Kellerman Filsell. These outreach opportunities are important because they allow us to share our love of music with others. Similarly, we encourage choirs from other churches to visit us and to sing the liturgy. Pre-pandemic, we regularly had short music festivals under the direction of Dr. Barry Rose, and I know that Dr. Filsell would love to see a trebles’ festival here at Saint Thomas. We also have other plans for collaboration with other choirs in the coming years, but I will not steal Dr. Filsell’s thunder and you will have to wait for some wonderful services and concerts to come! If we were only interested in our boys’ tradition, then we might look pretty exclusive, but we are striving for excellence, unapologetically celebrating our unique Choir School experience, but reaching out in various ways to share what we hold as precious and life transforming.
When I worked in an English Cathedral, the Choir School had an 850-year history! For most of that time, the school educated boys. Like many cathedrals in England, it became financially unsustainable to run the Choir school for just the choristers and it changed into a day school with boarding houses, when other cathedrals (including Canterbury) closed their schools and educated the choristers elsewhere. Girls were admitted and, as the school grew in number, plans were made to form a girls’ choir. The success story of Exeter and Salisbury is that the girls and the boys are trained separately, and sing mainly separately with the Gentlemen of the choir, coming together only for great feast days and some concerts. That might seem odd, but it has stood the test of time because of the different ways that girls and boys sing. As Dr. Filsell has regularly explained to us, boys not only have a unique sound when they sing, but that timbre reaches its maturity for a brief while and then suddenly changes as the boys enter puberty. There is a fragility built into a boys’ choir. For girls, though, as they become teenagers, they are only just beginning to know how to sing, and when boys can no longer sing the treble line, the girls go from strength to strength. I guess what I am saying is that all of this is not at all about equality of opportunity or even saying that boys’ voices are better than girls! They are simply different, and the tradition of boys singing in our choir stalls is one that you will see less and less throughout the world, even in England.
So, come and enjoy three choral evensongs this week and Sunday mass and evensong sung beautifully and to the glory of God. At the end of the week, the girls will go their separate ways and take with them a passion for striving for excellence in music-making. Our boys will return after Labor Day ready to become a resident community once again. A former Headmaster of Exeter Cathedral School was once asked by a TV presenter if you could only come to his school if you were good at music. He smiled and said, “You don’t have to be good at music to come to this school, but we only turn musicians out.”