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Meet the choristers of York Minster

PUBLISHED: 16:09 30 November 2014 | UPDATED: 20:23 24 April 2016

Robert Sharpe, director of music at York Minster, put the choristers through their paces

Robert Sharpe, director of music at York Minster, put the choristers through their paces

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Singing the praises of the hard-working mini Minster choristers

A packed candlelit service at York MinsterA packed candlelit service at York Minster

No one works as hard as the young choristers at York Minster over the festive season, not even Santa. While he’s putting his feet up on Christmas Day eating mince pies and watching Downton Abbey, they’ll be putting on not one but three stirring choral performances.

And it’s not just on the big day itself that the choir members have to sing their socks off. Rehearsals for concerts and services to mark and celebrate Advent and Christmas start in November for the boy and girl choristers, who also have to maintain their daily routine of rehearsals and services (there are eight regular services a week).

‘Their festive schedule begins on Sunday November 23rd, when Bach’s cantata Sleepers Wake is sung as part of Evensong with a small orchestra,’ explained Robert Sharpe, director of music at York Minster. ‘The following Sunday, the Minster is lit by candlelight for the Advent Procession Service at 5.15pm – one of the most atmospheric in the year – marking the start of the waiting season of Advent.

‘On December 5th and 6th, the choir joins with a brass band and celebratory readers to sing the Christmas Carol Concerts – an opportunity for the audience to join in with well-known carols and to hear festive readings as well as carols sung by the choir.

Children are always welcome in the MinsterChildren are always welcome in the Minster

‘The following weekend, the Minster choir sings Handel’s ever-green Messiah with orchestral accompaniment in the magnificent Nave of the Minster. Then on December 22nd and 24th, the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place, where a solo chorister begins the first verse of Once in Royal David’s city from the west end of the Minster.

‘Finally, on Christmas Day there are three sung services at 10am, 11.45am and 4pm. Then the choristers get a rest.’

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? But these angelic little choristers are made of tough stuff. They might look cuter than a basket full of bunnies, but they train hard to ensure they’re at the very top of their game – like the Real Madrid of singing.

The choristers are all pupils at the Minster School, an independent, day preparatory for 180 children aged three-13, where they receive generous bursaries from the Minster towards the cost of their education. They enjoy a normal school day with lessons, sports, trips and drama, but the choir is also required to rehearse before and after school and sing in the beautiful service of Choral Evensong, which is sung to large congregations every day at 5.15pm (4pm on Sundays) and where a large repertoire of music from Tudor times right up to the present day is sung.

Yorks incredible gothic Minster provides the perfect backdropYorks incredible gothic Minster provides the perfect backdrop

It’s undoubtedly hard work, but the children seem to thrive on the challenges they’re given. And, of course, they do have the enormous privilege of spending their days learning and growing in a school that stands in the shadow of York’s iconic gothic Minster and has a history that dates back to 627AD, when it was founded by Paulinus, the first Archbishop of York, for the education of boy choristers.

The school doesn’t insist that every pupil is musical but, in a place which lives and breathes music, most children feel inspired to participate, with more than 90 per cent receiving individual tuition.

‘While music is undoubtedly in the warp and weft of everything we do here, there’s something of an urban myth that you have to be musical to be a pupil,’ said Alex Donaldson, headmaster of the Minster School for the past decade. ‘We have numerous ensembles and concerts, but not all our children perform to a high level. Yes, some will leave with Grade 8 in one, two or three instruments, but we also have many recreational players.’

Forty Minster School students are choristers at the neighbouring cathedral, split into separate sets of boys and girls who take turns to perform. The school holds auditions in January, when youngsters are invited to sing in groups, visit the Minster and (gulp!) perform individually.

‘It’s daunting but we try to make it as painless as possible,’ said Alex. ‘We look for children who are bright and sparky, with raw musicality. They don’t need any previous training – in fact, we prefer it if they don’t – but they do need to be quick on the uptake and have a good ear. They also need a certain elasticity in their voice so we can help them explore their full range.’

He believes whole-heartedly that music can change lives after experiencing its transformative qualities at first-hand. Having attended what he describes as ‘a bog-standard school in Scotland’, he was a boy of few pretensions. But his outlook – and prospects – changed almost overnight when an organist from a local cathedral happened to hear him sing in a cub gang show. This led to a place in the cathedral choir and a life-changing decision.

‘I was all set to study law at St Andrew’s,’ said Alex, ‘but the choirmaster suggested I try for a choral scholarship to Cambridge instead. It was not something I would ever have come to on my own.’

He went on to study history as a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, trained as a teacher at King’s College, London, and studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. He was a professional singer for many years, working with the BBC singers The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars and a range of other Early Music groups.

His eventual decision to move back to education was prompted by one of his three children: ‘I performed all around the world and was always touring but my youngest daughter Emily was the clincher in my decision to leave that part of my life behind. I realised with great clarity that I might be performing at Sydney Opera House but I was missing her first steps.’

Alex joined the Minster School and became a songman in York Minster choir in 1988, so he knows only too well the pressure and exhilaration the young choristers are facing this Christmas.

‘Our choristers can expect to sing in four or five very special carol concerts at the Minster during their school career,’ he said. ‘It’s hard work but they love it they’re the stars of the show.

‘Children are wonderfully odd because they’re completely unfazed by this sort of thing. They can perform in front of thousands and feel nothing but joy. Nerves only grow in us as we grow up.’

The Minster School is holding its annual choir auditions for boys and girls currently in Year 2 or 3 on January 16th. For details, contact Jan Jones on 01904 557230 or email school@yorkminster.org.

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