Chorister Training
replacing the fluidity in the R.S.C.M. programme with aims, objectives,
specific objectives and observable learning outcomes -
the current norm on today’s educational front


The provision and maintenance of a choral ‘machine’*, albeit of many highly individualized parts which, by its generation of sonic energy, will effectively assist the worshipper in his or her spiritual labours during the services of The Church.  By manipulating the devotional atmosphere in such a manner, the maximization of a God-centred emotional and spiritual offering by the congregation should be attainable.

General Objectives

• Expansion of individual and group potential.
• Establishment of group cohesion.
• Establishment of confidence at both individual and group level.
• Constant improvement in general excellence.

The bed-rock of future growth in these areas is a training structure analogous to the recommendations of The Royal School of Church Music.  Where there exists, however, areas of hyper-fluidity in the R.S.C.M. programme, these should be replaced by specific objectives with observable learning outcomes - the current norm on today’s educational front.

Such a structure, then, provides milestones of achievement which are evident to each chorister, ensuring maximum motivation both by the abbreviated time-scale in the initial stages and by provision of more exacting electives in the later stages of a chorister’s career - a career which must be meaningful to the individual and which meets the requirements of the parish church.

Susan Leach - Head Chorister at St. Mary's
who continued to do a B.Mus at Lancaster University.

Specific Objectives

These should be tailored to the requirements of the Objective Tests for admission to the various grades of singer and are concerned with:-

Development of the singing voice - breathing, tone quality, range & pronunciation.

Reading staff notation - staff, ledger lines, the great stave, clefs, sharps/flats & key signatures, notes & rests, grouping of notes, bar, bar line, double bar line, time signatures, slurs, phrase marks, phrases, sentences, tie, use of sol-fa, two part singing, treble, alto, tenor, bass.

Building repertoire - versicles & responses, chanting of psalms & canticles, hymns, settings of the Eucharist, settings of the canticles for Mattins & Evensong, seasonal carols & anthems.

Rudiments of music - major, melodic & harmonic minor scales, chromatic scale, triads & chords (major & minor), diatonic, arpeggio, roulade, anacrusis, legato, staccato, marcato, repeat signs, DC, al fine.

...ORNAMENTS: mordent inverted mordent, turn.
......DEGREES OF SCALE: knowledge of keyboard,  tonic, supertonic, mediant, sub dominant,
sub mediant, leading note, octave, cadences.

.........PACE: largo, (molto) adagio, andante, allegretto, allegro, vivace, presto, prestissimo,
                       piu mosso,
tempo primo, accellerando, rallentando, a tempo.

............VOLUME: pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, diminuendo, crescendo, sforzando.

Elements of form -  binary and ternary form, sequence, imitation, canon, choral fugue, rhythmic extension & contraction, recitative, aria, chorus (the oratorio - Handel), Choral Symphony finale - Beethoven), opera (pilgrims' chorus - Wagner), bitonality, polytonality, atonality.

Competence in the singing of psalms, hymns & canticles of Mattins and Evensong.

Competence in the singing of anthems & settings of the Eucharist.

Knowledge of church services  - Eucharist, Mattins, Evensong, Marriage Service & Funeral Service.

The history of church music - time-line of main composers of settings of canticles, Eucharist, anthems and development of music through - plainchant, monody, similar & contrary motion, polyphony, the motet (Palestrina, Tallis & Byrd), harmony (chorale, cantata - Bach - visit to organ console & chamber), the mass (Mozart), the anthem (Mendelssohn), requiem (Brahms & Faure), English Church composers - Elgar, Stanford, Harwood, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, Leighton.

Knowledge of vestments - cassock, surplice, cope, chasuble, alb, amis, stole, cotta, cincture, maniple.

Knowledge of altar objects - paten, chalice, pall, chalie veil, burse, purificator, ciborium, corporal, lavabo bowl and towel, thurible, incense boat, wine, hosts.

The minutiae of church architecture - baptistry, nave, transept, chancel, sanctury, retro-choir, altar rail, altar, tabernacle, lectern, pulpit, font, rood screen, choir stalls, clergy stalls, rose window, gothic arch, romanesque arch, pillars, fan tracery, boss..

I have found that an intensive week's study and examination during school holidays every year is a very worthwhile exercise which is enjoyable for the choristers, is a bonding exercise and motivates each to a higher degree of interest and function.

I mentioned more exacting electives for older and more experienced choristers.  Possibilities are serving at the altar at Eucharists which are non-choral and librarian work for the choir.  There are usually a number of choristers who are talented musicians - pianists, string, woodwind or brass players and who would like to bring their talents into the church.  What comes to mind is the chorister who is a competent oboe player and can be entrusted with the obligato part in "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" or the trumpet specialist who can cope with the solo part in "The trumpet shall sound", "Let the bright seraphim", or "Sound an alarm".   Should a choir be able to boast a complete string quartet, this could be used during minor Evensongs and in recitals when an organ concerto or string quartet is being performed.  To such a group may be added a visiting  clarinetist, flautist or pianist to deliver a quintet.

A far more important elective is the chorister who wishes to become an organ scholar.  Here is a rewarding position which can, via free organ lessons, evolve into an assistant organist's post, playing for full services and choral recitals while the Director of Music conducts.  This also ensures a supply of future church organists of an experienced calibre into a diocese.

In my own youth all practices were held after school.  Being a modest Scottish city, Dundee Cathedral had but one Choral Evenson midweek, not a daily service, but whatsoever extra special or Festival Evensongs as were required on Saints' days.  Our regime was as follows:-

Monday choir practice (trebles)
Tuesday choir practice (trebles)
Wednesday Choral Evensong
Thursday choir practice (trebles)
Thursday choir practice (full choir)
Saturday choir practice (trebles)
Sunday choir practice (trebles)
Sunday Choral Eucharist
Sunday Choral Evensong
  4.30 to 5.30 p.m
  4.30 to 5.30 p.m.
  7.30 to 8.30 p.m.
  6.30 to 7.00 p.m
  7.00 to 8.30 p.m.
10.00 to 11.00 a.m.
10.00 to 11.00 a.m.
11.00 to 12.30 p.m.
  6.30 to   7.30 p.m.

Yes, we had Fridays all to our little selves but, from the age of 11, I had the additional task of playing the Cathedral organ for the combined Sunday Schools from, 2.30 to 3.30 p.m.


St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Broughty Ferry, Dundee

Simon my assistant organist on the right gave his first performance at the age of 16,
accompanying an entire choral recital which was shared by Hindu singers and
musicians - a first for Scotland.  He did not choose a musical career, however,
but is now a consultant ophthalmic surgeon.   C'est la vie!

Marian on the left is now an anaesthetist.


Mel (seated) with some treble choristers
and probationers at Perth Cathedral 1981

* In the case of the church musician, this ‘machine’ becomes the organ.  The aim, however, is the same - the output of sonic energy which will be the trigger for the emotional siphoning of the worshippers.  A sound source which can actually vibrate the air is essential that such sonation impinges upon the ear of the individual.  For this reason the spread of sound in the air from a pipe organ is more effective than the condensed output from the speakers of an electronic instrument.

In the course of choir training I have had, of necessity, to eradicate various tonal faults and imperfect breathing techniques but what is far more difficult is the correction of flawed pronunciation.  In the forefront of my memory is the ‘pretty’ pronunciation of Church Latin which may be ecclesiastical but is, nevertheless, NOT Latin.

Here we are faced, for example, with the the bad pronunciation in “Ave verum” - the second word being delivered as “ve” with the ‘e’ (as in ‘met’) and the “r” given a soft English obscure sound.  All very 'twee' BUT the Latin ‘e’ is a long 'ay' sound and the ‘r’ is rolled.  Other subtle differences are an absolute pest as where the ‘voiceless plosive alveolar’ consonant ‘t’ is different in Latin -  the tongue being placed behind the top teeth and not on the ridge at the front of the hard palate.  Any Italian speaker will corroborate this and, of course, Church Latin adopts Italian disciplines.

One incident I must recount here as it completely ‘threw’ the choir.  Having been involved professionally for a good number of years in Scottish Parish and Congregational churches where the Magnificat is never sung, on arrival at the first choir practice at a new Anglican post, the canticles for Evensong came to be rehearsed.   Here my long term memory of my days as a cathedral chorister in the 1940s ‘kicked in’ swiftly when the name Abraham was sung.  We had always pronounced it with an open ‘a’ – “Ah – vra – ham”, whereas choirs to this day adopt the American transmogrification of vowels and pronounced it “Ay – bra – ham” .  I stopped in my tracks and halted the vocal flow.

(Hebrew font may be downloaded here.)

I immediately asked the gathering of choristers, children, adults and the vicar to boot, why they pronounced the Patriarch’s name as if they had been reared in the Bronx and explained my misgivings.  The vicar gave the excuse that it had always been sung that way.  I replied "Oh no, not in my chorister experience in the 1940s and early 50s!"  That is when I resorted to some visual aids and used the choir vestry blackboard, immediately writing the name in Hebrew, spelt aleph a beyt b resh r he h and mem m (all right to left m h r b a), pointing out that aleph has the broad open 'ah' sound as in 'far' and is vocalise with a glottal stop as in the English "a - a".

To add further salt to their wounds I gave them another snippet of information - the 'b' should be pronounced as a 'v', as the letter 'beyt' (shaped like an upstanding rectangle with the left side missing) is so pronounced unless it has a point (a dagesh) in its centre when it is pronounced as a 'b' BUT Abraham's 'beyt' has NO dagesh!  Therefore the name must be vocalised as "Ah - vra - ham".  Quod erat demonstrandum!  (I did not, however, make them try to say the Hebrew 'v' with both lips touching. not as the English 'v' with lower lip touching the upper teeth.)  
Here is a beyt with no dagesh:
ב and here, a beyt with a dagesh: בּ
Even if
Abraham was treated with English rules (e.g. where 'at' has a short 'a' but 'ate' has a long 'a' because the consonant following the 'a' is itself followed by the soft vowel 'e'), the first 'A' of the patriarch's name is followed by a DOUBLE consonant, these followed by the HARD vowel 'a' - TWO reasons why the 'A' is pronounced 'ah'!

For those who are unaware of these rules (but certainly not proficiently correct Italian speakers) there are two SOFT vowels 'a' & 'e', the remaining three, 'a', 'o' & 'u' being HARD.

Nevertheless being inverse snobs who revelled in their ignorance, the general consensus was that the Ay-braham should remain - encouraging me to refer to him thereafter as Abe (as in Lincoln).   When American pronunciation permeates even the cloisters of Anglicanism, methinks something is grossly amiss as our language is being mutated and under attack!

copyright © Mel Young 1995
all rights reserved

Backing Track: "A Hymn of the Nativity" by Kenneth Leighton

I discovered 'A Hymn of the Nativity' some 52 years ago
and was captivated by Leighton's treatment of the text then
and now, despite half a century having passed, I am still
enthralled by the freshness of the work.  Doubtlessly
some other choirmaster will repeat this observation
when yet another half century has manifested.