The choristers of Winchester Cathedral

The Choristers ice skating

The Choristers ice skating - Credit: Archant

As preparations for the festivities reach fever pitch, one group of youngsters needs to stay on song long after school’s out - meet Winchester Cathedral’s choristers

The choir

The choir - Credit: Archant

These days, there aren’t many ten-year-olds who would readily swap an evening spent in front of an Xbox for one in a choir stall. But when your life revolves around singing at one of the largest cathedrals in the country, the show must go on, whatever the distractions of the modern world.

Today, Winchester Cathedral has twenty-two choristers. All boys, they are aged between eight and thirteen years, and receive choral scholarships enabling them to become full-time boarders at the nearby Pilgrims’ School. Reputedly there’s been a chorister school associated with the Cathedral since Saxon times when the so-called Alta Schola was established. The Pilgrims’ School may only date back to the 1930s nevertheless this sense of a singing heritage clearly remains.

“We’re caretakers of a tradition that goes back over 1000 years,” Andrew Lumsden, the Cathedral choir’s director of music confirms. “One of the first pieces of music ever to be written down was the Winchester Troper, which was when someone started to record the monks’ improvised songs.” Once a chorister himself, at New College Oxford, Andrew knows, only too well, what it takes for these young voices to reach the professional standards expected. Their role is to sing the treble parts, alongside the dozen, permanent, adult lay clerks who perform the alto, tenor and bass. “It’s important that while we set the bar very high for them, we must always remember that they’re still children,” says Andrew. “Sometimes we have to make silly jokes to encourage them, but it’s wonderful to see them grow into the role.

“People look at choristers and think they are all wizard musicians and say, ‘my son can’t possibly do that’ but some come to us very raw.” And, although many are from the Winchester area, their backgrounds differ, with the Church not necessarily having previously been a strong part of their young lives.

Singing auditions during the autumn term give Andrew a chance to hear if any promising seven-year-olds have what it takes to begin their journey the following September. As he observes: “What we’re looking for is a good musical ear, the makings of a nice voice with the right brightness, and that spark of character because it’s a busy day as a chorister.” No kidding; there’s up to 16 hours of rehearsals and six services a week, to squeeze-in during term time.

Most mornings find them practising together by 8am. Vocal chords warmed-up, it’s off to join their classmates - there’s over 200 hundred pupils at The Pilgrims’, for regular lessons. A typical diet of English, maths, sciences, arts and humanities, is regularly interspersed by more rehearsals at lunchtime; with the school day finishing, unless it’s a sports afternoon or a Saturday, at 5pm. Then, if the boys are singing Evensong, it’s over to the Cathedral, before returning to school half an hour later, for tea and prep.

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What’s incredible is to witness the seemingly motley band of youngsters, in assorted sport’s kit, assemble for a rehearsal behind music stands almost as tall as they are. Full of chatter and hi-jinks minutes earlier, as the soaring notes fill the lofty roof space, the transformation into accomplished singers is absolute. A hand shoots-up to check an entrance, another to rehearse pronunciation. There’s certainly no doubting their enthusiasm and their focus. It’s something the youngest members of the choir soon pick-up on.

“I’m enjoying being here,” says eight-year-old Angus Williams with a huge grin. Like all probationers in his first year with the choir, Alex attends separate rehearsals and begins by singing with the older choristers once a week. It’s a gentle introduction, that’s designed to make his new world feel less overwhelming.

Henri Cramsie, who’s 12 is head chorister and wears the distinctive red ribbon over his surplice. Recalling his first impressions of the Cathedral, Henri says: “Everything was massive; it seemed to tower above you.” But he immediately adds: “You do make a lot of friends here though.” Chosen for being well-organised and one of the most respected final year boys, Henri appears to relish his duties. These include getting the other choristers ready for rehearsals and, inside the Cathedral, ensuring the clergy has their music before a service and being page-turner for the organist.

These days, the choristers attend two Sunday services while the Cathedral’s girl’s choir which was founded in 1998 and comprises of 12 to 17 year-olds from local schools, sings at the third. Gavin Roynon, chairman of Winchester‘s Old Choristers Association, remembers different times: “We used to sing all three services - Matins, the Choral Eucharist and one of the Evensongs. It was quite demanding but we’d still find time for a Sunday afternoon walk.”

What hasn’t changed is the speed at which the choristers must learn a wide repertoire of music, from monastic chants to commissioned works by modern British composers. Their success is down to teamwork and discipline. Whether it’s performing compositions or reading aloud in front of a large congregation, making a recording for national radio or even travelling on tour to Europe and beyond,>> you get the sense that little fazes them. “They’re boys, and most of the time, they just like to make a big noise!” laughs Andrew.

Come mid-December school’s out for the ‘commoners’, those not in the Cathedral choir, and for the ‘Qs’ or quiristers - members of the Winchester College choir who also board at The Pilgrims’. The ‘Cs’, meanwhile, remain behind going through their paces. But although the multitude of forthcoming concerts and services may dominate their waking hours at Christmas, for the choristers this so-called ‘choir-time’ is a highlight.

According to one third year, Alex Hobbs: “It’s really fun and you get to sing some really cool pieces. I like (Britten’s) Rejoice in the Lamb.” The Ceremony of Carols is a relatively recent addition to the festive programme and has become popular with choristers and audiences alike.

However it’s not all work. “We are all aware that they’re away from home, at a very family orientated time of year,” says Andrew. During any down-time therefore don’t be surprised to see the boys letting off steam on the outdoor ice rink, or, enjoying some impromptu carol singing at The Wykeham Arms. Not to mention, tucking into turkey dinners galore, including, one on Christmas Day when families are invited too.

So, what’s in store during 2014? Holy Week and Easter involves another hectic timetable of rehearsals and performances, the Southern Cathedral’s Festival is hosted at Winchester next year, and, additionally, there will be World War 1 commemorations.

That every service and everything the choir does is treated as, equally, important is not in doubt. Take a stroll through the Cathedral Close and there’s a good chance you’ll catch the harmonies, drifting out from an upper floor window of The Pilgrims’ historic Priory Stables Building. Better still listen to the choristers perform in the Cathedral. These boys can really sing.