This week’s blog is from our Assistant Director of Music and Chorister Tutor, Mr Fitzpatrick.
It never fails to surprise and enlighten me how resilient and dedicated our pupils here at ECS can be. In my role as Chorister Tutor, I have seen many great feats and triumphs of pupil perseverance in the form of amazing musical performances and achievements, and I feel truly honoured to be a part the inspirational and exciting musical setting that ECS and Exeter Cathedral provide. It was my privilege on Wednesday morning to lead our whole school assembly in the Cathedral Quire, and present medals to our senior choristers in recognition of the years of time and effort they have given to our world-class Cathedral Choir. This was a true highlight of the calendar year for me, and a big undertaking for our senior choristers. It was wonderful to see so many parents and carers attending the assembly to support this wonderful occasion but, just in case you missed it, you will find a transcript of it following:
“When I arrived here at Exeter Cathedral School as Chorister Tutor in September 2016, our current senior choristers had just started in Year 5. I remember meeting each of them – most very new to the choir. In fact, Joseph, Alice and Natalie had only started singing with the choir, and were still probationers, at the very start of their chorister journeys. Daniel wasn’t even in the choir at that point, and Thomas and Jack had only been made full choristers the previous year. I had just come from a school teaching pupils who were teenagers, mostly 15-18 year olds, so when I met the then Year 5 choristers, my overriding thought was, “Gosh, they are all very little, and they have got a long way to go.”
They have now moved up the ranks of the choir, and have become the senior choristers, but what does it mean to be a senior chorister in Exeter cathedral choir?
Firstly, it means they have become outstanding musicians, but it is important to remember that this hasn’t happened by accident. Being a cathedral chorister is really hard work. Rehearsals most mornings before school, services after school, services at the weekend, concerts, trips to other churches and venues, the list goes on. Whilst everybody else is off for Christmas and Easter Holidays, the choristers are here in the cathedral, singing. Non choristers, I want you to imagine for a moment the level of dedication it takes to sing three church services on Christmas Day whilst everybody else is opening presents. What might that be like? Our senior choristers have put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into developing their musical skills as choral singers. They have gotten to the point at which they sing solos in front of what is sometimes a packed cathedral. That is extraordinary. Because we are surrounded by excellent choral music here at ECS all the time, it is sometimes easy to take this for granted. However, I would like everybody to think about this for a moment. Imagine I told you that tonight you would be standing up and singing a solo in front of an Exeter Cathedral sized audience. How would you feel? Teachers, imagine I said that you would be doing it? How would you feel? Could you do it? Maybe some could, but I would suspect that for the vast majority of people here, an experience like that sounds more like something out of your worst nightmare. I also suspect that even our senior choristers get nervous before a solo, but our senior choristers overcome these nerves, and do it anyway. And not only do they do it, but they are musically outstanding when they do. All the hard work and effort that has gone in over the last few years have led to a point where our senior choristers face those fears, stand up, and give excellent performances, and this is because they have become excellent musicians. I think it would be an interesting experiment to take some of the repertoire that our choristers sing every day, and some of the concert repertoire, like Messiah and the Bach Passions, and ask ABRSM to tell us what grade the music is. Some of the music that our senior choristers lead is not only up to a grade 8 standard, but beyond that, and up to the diploma levels that most people don’t reach until they get to university. To be a senior chorister is to be a musical athlete. Senior choristers, you are musical athletes, leading the singing of music at the very highest levels.
For a senior chorister though, reaching the highest levels of musicianship is only one small aspect of the job. Being a senior chorister means you lead the other choristers, helping them to develop as musicians and giving support those in the years below. Being a senior chorister means using the leadership skills and teamwork skills that have developed to help others. Our senior choristers are an example of how to behave, an example of the highest levels of professionalism, and ambassadors for the school and cathedral, but they actually serve a much more important purpose than that.
The choristers are part of a tradition that has existed for many centuries. Music has echoed in this place for centuries. The organ case says, “John Loosemore made this organ in 1665”. This was more than 350 years ago. That organ has been sitting there for more than 350 years— as Gabe Payne very astutely pointed out to me the other day, it was built the year before the great fire of London! And where there is an organ, there is a choir. Senior choristers, in the very stalls that you sit in every evening, 350 years ago when the organ was built, there were senior choristers sitting where you do now. Choristers are part of something much bigger than themselves. Choral music in this sacred place is the heartbeat of this cathedral. In fact, it I the very soul of this Cathedral and the community, and it has been for centuries. As John Rutter, the famous choral composer has said:
Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls. When you sing, you express your soul in song. And when you get together as a group of singers, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. All of these people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony. This is an emblem for what we need in this world, when so much of the world is at odds with itself, that this expresses, in symbolic terms, what it’s like when human beings are in harmony.”
Our choristers, led by our senior choristers, change people’s lives. Sometimes when people are feeling sad, or upset, or lonely, they come to the cathedral, hear the choir singing Evensong, and it makes them feel better. It enriches people’s lives in a profound way.
Senior choristers, as John Rutter says, Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It is very important. You have developed the skills that you need to lead this centuries-old tradition. It is a big responsibility to take on to your shoulders. It is a big responsibility to always be professional and to always set an excellent example to the Jr Choristers. It is a big responsibility to be a senior chorister, but each and every one of you deserve to be the leaders of this choir, and the leaders of the continuation of our choral tradition.
You have come a long way since I met you all when I arrived in 2016, you have developed so fantastically as musicians, and the cathedral and school are very proud of everything that you have achieved, and you should be proud of yourselves to.
To show who the senior choristers are, and to celebrate their status as proven professional musicians, the senior choristers wear medals around their necks when they sing evensong, just like an athlete. It represents their achievements, and their responsibilities as part of the choir.”
The Jr Choristers and Probationers sang an Evensong on Thursday evening without the help of the seniors, and it is already clearly very evident that our senior choristers have been doing a great job at helping to train them up. It was a wonderful service of beautiful singing, and a moment to be proud of for the younger members of our choir.
Thursday night was a night off for the senior choristers; a night to relax and put their feet up (for once!). I think, therefore, it says a lot that every single one of our senior choristers came to Evensong anyway as members of the congregation on Thursday, not only support their junior counterparts, but also, I suspect, to keep a watchful eye on their professionalism in the stalls!
Next time you come to the Cathedral for Evensong, Morning Eucharist, or Concert, keep an eye out for our medal-wearing seniors, and just spend a moment appreciating what an achievement it is for them to have become senior choristers in Exeter Cathedral Choir.
Assistant Director of Music and Chorister Tutor