The Choirmaster's Manual/Chapter 1




Selection of Boys, and Tests. In starting a choir a great deal of trouble in the future will be saved by a judicious selection of boys in the first place; as a preliminary test, make them sing the scale of E major on "la" or "ah" (this vowel sends the tone well forward and the scale of E takes in all the "registers"). If a boy should try to "force" his tone on the upper E, a scale a note or two higher should be tried to test his natural head-voice.

Never take a stout, heavy boy with a "break." A thin, light boy may, by diligent practice downwards, overcome this defect.

Order. It is essential that only boys of good moral character should find a place in the choir. Once admit a troublesome or unruly boy, and the whole choir will suffer from inattention in practice and irreverence in church; parochial politics or social expediency should never be allowed to have weight in the claims of a boy or man in the choir.

Discipline. The first essential of a good choirmaster is discipline; no amount of learning can compensate for the lack of it. A certain amount of self-confidence is necessary to impress those being taught that the choirmaster knows what he wants and is going to get it; at the same time, all appearance of conceit should be suppressed, and corrections should be made without any "showing off" at the expense of a chorister, avoiding all remarks likely to hurt feelings. "Suggestions" from adult members of a choir should be ignored, if offered in public; privately, there is no harm in discussing a point with a member, for he shows his interest by bringing the matter up. There are many cases on record of an "obliging," "easy-to-get-on-with" choirmaster, who takes hints publicly offered by those he is supposed to teach, and loses his position by his own indefiniteness and failure to lead.

Age. In taking boys into a choir, considering all the preliminary training it is necessary for them to have before they are really useful, nine years old is not too young to start; five or six years' work can then be obtained before the voice "breaks."

Probationers. Whether the choir is large or small, it is advisable to have some boys even younger than nine as probationers. It is necessary that the vacancies, as they occur in the choir, should be filled up by those who have already had some training.

When regular choristers have become efficient, it is a good plan to let each become a sort of "godfather" to a probationer; each boy will readily take an interest in teaching what he knows to his probationer, and will take a certain amount of competitive pride and responsibility in trying to place his protégé in the choir before the others. A probationer should always stand next to his "godfather" in the practice-room, and full scope to a child's imitative powers can then be indulged in.

Apart from filling legitimate places in the choir by probationers, it is often a very good disciplinary measure to degrade a troublesome "regular," and put a probationer in his place. for a time. This is generally very effective punishment.

Agreements. In many cases in larger towns there is some trouble in keeping a boy in the choir after he has become particularly useful as a leader, or solo voice. This is often caused by the unprincipled advances, in the way of more generous fees, made by some other church, often by some layman interested in music, who fails to see how unfair it is to a choirmaster after he has expended great pains, trouble and time to secure good results, to rob him of the just fruits of his labor.

This evil is more common than is supposed, the author having suffered on more than one occasion. It seems almost incomprehensible that a so-called Christian man, knowing that a certain church has paid the tuition-fees of a rough boy for a year or more, and probably given him a small monthly payment into the bargain, can deliberately tempt the boy to turn his back on his benefactor, and rob the church he is singing for of the reward of their investment. In a measure, this evil may be obviated by having an agreement signed by the parents of a likely boy, and the rector and choirmaster, to the effect that as long as he is useful and remains in the town, he shall sing in their choir only.

Payment. In small towns it is seldom necessary to pay the boys. The parents will probably be glad their boys have an opportunity to study singing without cost; but in larger towns, where there may be opposition, it often becomes a necessity to offer a payment based on the number of practices and services required of a boy.

A sliding scale is very advantageous, owing to the fact that it gives a certain amount of ambition to a boy to excel, and put forth every endeavor to become a soloist.

Deferred Pay. A certain portion of a boy's pay should be retained, and perhaps a yearly interest might be added. Then, should a boy leave without a reasonable excuse, or otherwise violate, his agreement before his voice breaks, he forfeits the whole sum, otherwise it should be given him on leaving, with possibly a good-conduct bonus. Any little help towards efficiency, such as medals or certificates, is to be encouraged, and a monthly examination in the course covered is also a great help in showing a choirmaster how much theory is really understood.

Music. Music should be carefully catalogued and numbered, and a record kept as to date from which it was used. A librarian can usually be pressed into service, and a choirmaster can help a great deal in systematizing under various headings, such as "Canticles" or "Anthems," or special seasons, etc.

Hints for the Practice-room. Use a square piano. A reed-organ is to be avoided, as boys unconsciously imitate the nasal tone. A piano gives prompt attack.

Always place poor singers next to good ones.

Teach all boys to sing solos in the practice-room; it gives confidence.

Make boys count time during symphony, and take breath one beat before singing.

Never allow the eyes to be taken off copy till finished; the mouth or face should never be covered with copy.

Devote quarter-hour to scales and exercises.

Practise softly.

Conduct often without accompaniment; this makes boys self-reliant.

Don't bother boys with technical words.

In long passages, apportion different places for breath. Don't let ail breathe at once, e.g., in Handel's choruses.

Mistakes must be carefully pointed out and explained. Repetition of an error confirms it.

If it is necessary to practise in church, or to finish off any work with the organ, be careful to impress the solemnity of the place on the boys. Should a choirmaster himself forget he is not in the practice-room, or be guilty of joking or any inconsistency, he cannot expect his boys to be reverent. It is not so much a high standard of conduct that is required during services, as a general feeling of solemnity in and respect for the house of God whenever entered, that is necessary to inculcate into boys.