Boys Will Be Boys

Thursday, July 10,2014

Well, the day is officially winding down here in Oxford. Thinking back on all that we did today I can’t help but think that there was a theme– a method to the madness. Nearly all of our adventures today dealt in some capacity with boy choirs. As Americans, we are not typically familiar with or immersed in the culture of boy choirs but here in the UK it is a deeply entrenched tradition that has in many ways formed the foundation of choral singing in this country.

After another full English breakfast (I finally found some peanut butter for my toast!), all the members of the choir as well as the conducting fellows set out for Magdalen College (pronounced Maw-dlin). There, we spent some time getting to know the boy choir of that college, under the direction of Daniel Hyde. Yesterday, Daniel led us in our Evensong service, and today he led us through a typical rehearsal day for his boys. He first started with an extensive warm-up around the piano in the anti-chapel, which in itself is a beautiful space filled with statues, sarcophagi, and stained glass. The warm-up covered resonance, vowel shape, breath support, etc.—all things we focus on in Westminster Williamson Voices.

What really struck me about the warm-up, though, was that right from the get-go, Daniel treated the boys like professionals. He wasn’t afraid to joke around with them, but he also wasn’t afraid to hold them accountable for their own singing. A couple of times during the warm-up, some of the boys had misshapen vowels and he stopped the group to point out the error and coach the individual boy in order to get it right. This commitment to individual education and, more importantly, responsibility was incredibly refreshing and inspiring. I think we sometimes assume that we have to treat children as innocent minds that need preservation and gradual nourishment. It became clear today though that these boys had no issue keeping up with Daniel’s teaching style and quick wit. He treated them as any professor would treat college students, and what is truly remarkable is that they rose to the occasion.

From there we all processed into the chapel, which was an awe-inspiring room with sculptures and relics that were unfathomably old. To be in such a sacred and historical place was in itself inspiring. To seal the deal on the morning’s dose of Oxford magic, the boys sang several pieces for us, many of which they were sight-reading. I’m not kidding when I say that those boys were more confident about their sight-reading than most of us adults in the room. All of us in the choir sat chuckling to ourselves as we remembered the horror of the sight-reading portion of our last choir hearing. To see the confidence and musicianship that these boys possess reminded me that anything is possible when you give kids the skills and the self-esteem to achieve success. The boys covered parts of the Mozart Requiem as well as the Fauré Requiem. The latter was unknown to most of them (not that we would have guessed it), and two of our conducting fellows, Scott and Amelia, conducted the Sanctus and the Pie Jesu movements, respectively. Both conductors worked incredibly well with the boys and showed grace and appreciation when working with the boys. (Bravo, Scott and Amelia!)

Next came lunch in the “buttery” of Magdalen College (no I didn’t make that up), which looks quite a lot like the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films; I was half expecting (and hoping) to hear Maggie Smith call my name and tell me I would be a Gryffindor. While that didn’t happen, we filled our bellies and had some time to explore the beautiful deer park and gardens on the campus.

From there we walked up the street a bit to New College, where we met with Edward Higginbottom, again, to now sing the music of the Chapel Royal that we discussed yesterday. Professor Higginbottom was kind enough to allow us to work with his choir at New College, which consists of bout 20 men and boys. We all sang through three anthems from the era of Charles II and compared interpretations. It was very interesting to see the cultural exchange and to see how thoroughly culture does inform music-making. All of the anthems featured soloists from Williamson Voices, who performed with great skill and dignity. It was definitely a proud moment for the choir to see these wonderful performers share their gifts with our peers at New College.

We then headed back to St. Stephen’s House for a brief tea time and then onto conducting master classes. Today, we swapped groups of conductors, and it was really illuminating to see even more styles and techniques from the conducting fellows. It truly is amazing how much you can learn from simply observing. And to be honest, it has been such a great pleasure already to work with these talented conductors and to be able to help them achieve the musical and personal goals that they strive for.

Tonight we will have another Compline service and then a bit of free time before another busy day. My experiences today have once again proven to me that magic, whether Rowling-esque or musical, does exist and that inspiration can be found everywhere.


About choralmusicinstitute

Presented by Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Oxford University's St. Stephen's House, the one-week institute provides instruction to all levels of conductors.
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