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Choristers reveal how music heals

24 September 2021

New research shows how pride and awe exist in choirs, says Madeleine Davies

Portsmouth Cathedral

A chorister sings in Portsmouth Cathedral

A chorister sings in Portsmouth Cathedral

WHEN Ben Liberatore, an anthropologist studying for a Ph.D. at Columbia University, in New York, began interviewing young choristers in England, he expected themes of loss to emerge — his research has a particular focus on acts of commemoration. But, the Covid-19 pandemic serving as a backdrop, he was struck by their sensitivity towards the emotional needs of their listeners. “We’re like child paramedics,” one 12-year-old chorister observed.

“There was this refrain over and over again,” Mr Liberatore recalled this month. “‘People might not know us; we don’t know them; but it doesn’t matter, because when they come in, we are there to try to give them something they cannot get from elsewhere.’ Whether they had been in the choir for years or were junior probationers, they seemed to have a sense that they were doing some kind of grief work, or of consolation work, for people who largely they don’t know and might never know.”

Prevented by the pandemic from beginning his fieldwork in the UK, Mr Liberatore has so far interviewed 76 current and former choristers from 25 cathedrals, chapels, and Royal Peculiars, by Zoom. While the study had been planned before the beginning of Covid-19, the pandemic had coloured his interviews, emerging in “interesting and sometimes very poignant ways”, he said.

“Very often we don’t check in with them [child choristers] to see how it is they are turning things over in their minds. They are . . . remarkable commentators on the worlds in which they are living.”

He recently included some of these observations in an article for Cathedral Voice, the newsletter of the Friends of Cathedral Music.

An 11-year-old girl chorister told him: “If you’ve just lost someone, it’s nice to come into the cathedral, say a prayer, hear the music, and just know that they’re not completely gone. And it’s a really nice feeling, knowing that, in a way, you’re changing people’s lives when you’re singing in the choir. It’s nice to connect people like that.”

A 13-year-old described “how a simple sung memorial in her cathedral soothes the ache of grieving a loved one whose body rests on the far side of a closed border”.

Six children from one choir independently related the same story: “a forlorn visitor, having been encouraged by a member of the music department to stay for evensong, later returned to the cathedral to say that being immersed in that unfamiliar service had prevented him from taking his life that night.”

Most child choristers interviewed did not articulate a sense of burden, he said: rather, they expressed pride in their work. One young chorister described seeing a photo of an earlier group of choristers celebrated for keeping the cathedral’s music going during the Spanish-flu pandemic in 1918. “She said, ‘That is us now — we are keeping the flag flying now,’” he recalled.

The choristers’ own sense of loss during lockdown had also emerged during the research, Mr Liberatore said. Some older choristers were unable to complete their final weeks with their choirs. “Some of these children woke up thinking they were going to have a two-week holiday and then never came back to the choirs where they had grown up and had come into themselves.”

Some felt a sense of solidarity with those who missed their singing, he said. “They are often quite proud, particularly if chapels or cathedrals are webcasting or livestreaming. They are quite pleased to report on how many people and how many places all around the world are hearing them sing. They absolutely have a sense that this is something that has been missed and they can feel proud they are contributing something to improving this year that we have had.”

Most of the interviewees were not regular churchgoers before becoming choristers, and most “don’t articulate a great deal of religious conviction themselves”, Mr Liberatore said. “But almost all of them say that they feel tapped into something when they are singing: a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, a sense of being connected to the community that is there. I don’t believe I have spoken to any chorister child who has felt any hostility to the churches in which they are singing, even if they can articulate very firmly, as some of them do, ‘I am an atheist, I don’t believe in God.’ They are there to take care of the spiritual lives of people who are not atheist and who do believe in God, and for whom words of these pieces might mean something very different; and they take that stewardship quite seriously.”

Mr Liberatore plans to come to England soon to spend time embedded in a choral community to continue his research, which, he hopes, will be published eventually as a book.

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