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Sweet singing in the choir now an option for all

19 January 2024

Children’s choirs are being revitalised by enthusiastic new leaders. Pat Ashworth meets three of them

James Persico 

Children singing at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, Nottingham, where Lucy Haigh runs three choirs. Almost all the children are drawn from state schools

Children singing at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, Nottingham, where Lucy Haigh runs three choirs. Almost all the children are drawn from state schools

TALK of green shoots of recovery in any context is generally tempered with a degree of caution — not least when it comes to the recruitment and retention of child choristers.

But, owing in no small part to people of vision and energy, and movers and shakers such as the RSCM, things are happening that give hope for a future of choral music that is not limited to the cathedral schools alone, but embraces children from some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.

One of these is Handsworth. This area was once one of the richest in Birmingham, and the parish church, St Mary’s is still famous for its close connections with the city’s industrial heritage, most notably with the “Golden Boys”: Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and William Murdoch, key industrialists of the 18th century and prominent figures in the Enlightenment.

It is now a very deprived area. In its majority black and Asian community, a high proportion of children are on free school meals. The majority religion is Islam, but there was always a strong Christian presence here, the director of music at St Mary’s, Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee, says. “Right in the middle of this diverse community, there’s this wonderful church, a foundation that goes back 900 years. It’s really a sort of beacon of hope.”

St Mary’s has a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition, but its musical presence had dwindled over the decades to zero. Mr Duncan-Banerjee arrived in 2022 to take up the newly created post of Director of Music, with a much wider intent to break down barriers to classical music. A government survey in 2019 had found that just one child in ten from a Caribbean background took part in music as an extra-curricular activity.

“I went there with the intention of using music across the whole community,” he says. “The congregation were very supportive, and equally ambitious; so I went with the plan. There was no team, no choir, no music library, and no money; so I had to do everything from being a fund-raiser to a communicator. But — praise the Lord — 18 months later, we have a thriving chorister-scholarship programme akin to a cathedral-school model.”


Mr Duncan-Banerjee, a management consultant, who became an FRSA in 2018 for his contribution to music education and outreach, grew up in a working-class community and had piano lessons as a child. At the age of 11, he won a music scholarship to secondary school, which enabled him to learn more instruments and play in orchestras. “I’ve done amazing things because of the gift of music,” he says. “It has always been the thing that has kept me grounded.”

Schools were key to his plan for the church. St Mary’s C of E Primary Academy, under its head teacher, Jo Booker, was equally aspirational, and gave him enormous support. Children would audition — a simple singing of “Happy Birthday”, to see how they pitched — for the 12 places available on the programme, which would involve an extended, enhanced school day that finished at 4.40 p.m. instead of 3.30 p.m.

THE weekly eight-and-a-half hour programme incorporates music-theory lessons for every child, one-to-one or small-group singing lessons with a professional singing teacher, and church services on Sunday.

The programme costs about £30,000 a year. In his professional life, Mr Duncan-Banerjee works with chief executives and boards of charities, businesses, and public-sector organisations: “Raising finance is a big part of what I do,” he says.

He set up the fund-raising vehicle Handsworth St Mary’s Music. There is grant income from trusts and foundations such as Cadbury, “who fund us generously”; and, in conjunction with the highly supportive Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, income from a weekly programme of free recitals for the whole community, which attracts donations and draws profit from selling cultural refreshments. There are also the regular monthly donations from the Friends of St Mary’s Music.

Further, they run a programme for local schools, Birmingham Choral Education Partnership, which means that their music team goes into schools to run weekly choral workshops, learning music from the pupils’ own heritage as well as traditional Western classical composers. They also put on instrument workshops: paid work that helps to bring further capacity, resource, and capability to the overall department.

“Once you give children the opportunity of engaging with choral music, and show them the power of it, they simply love it. The notion that children from my community aren’t interested in, or don’t enjoy, choral music, is nonsense, absolute nonsense; and the parents just can’t do enough to help, too,” Mr Duncan-Banerjee says.

He is exultant that, having sung William Mathias’s “Sir Christèmas”, the choristers just can’t help bursting into “Nowell, nowell” at the slightest opportunity. “That’s when it gets really exciting.”

THE previous day, they had joined a 16-strong choir from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to sing at a big carol concert for the Mayor of the West Midlands; they have sung with several professional orchestras, made four BBC broadcasts, and enjoyed master classes with the King’s Singers. On indefinite loan from the conservatoire to St Mary’s is a nine-foot model D Steinway Grand.

“We’ve got wonderful support in the church and across the sector. We’ve been able to appoint our first choral scholars [students from the conservatoires] and lay clerks. God has really blessed us with people who I would never have found if it wasn’t for his direction,” he says. “The trick is to put God first.”

He still marvels at the encounter that led Tom Etheridge — a former senior organ scholar at King’s, Cambridge, who wanted to transform the lives of children in disadvantaged areas — to accept the position of organist and assistant musical director. “He’s now deputy head teacher of a school in an equally disadvantaged community in Birmingham, doing some inspirational work.

“I came across him utterly by chance, twisted his arm to get involved, and, thank God, we had some money in the bank to resource a role. We’d just had a donation of six grand, and another family who had given £4500. God put him right there.”

The programme is now extending into a second school, again with 12 chorister scholarships on offer.

“It’s a structured model with clear objectives, clear outcomes, and a very sequenced and clear methodology for training choristers, he concludes. “The best thing about using ABRSM [Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music] grades and other programmes is that we get slotted into the rhythm of consistently aiming high and tangibly progressing in a very short time.”

WHEN the Windrush scandal was reported in the media, several of those interviewed about their stories were members of the congregation at St John the Divine, Kennington. The parish still has strong links with Barbados, which has the oldest Anglican theological college in the Americas, Codrington College. St John’s serves an ever-changing population, with Nigerian, Ethiopian, Hispanic, and many other cultures contributing to the mix over the years.

“There are huge levels of poverty and deprivation alongside the incredibly rich,” says Ben Vonberg-Clark, precentor since 2013. “The church was built in the Oxford Movement to serve the less well off, and was always used as a school and as a kind of community hub.

“There’s an opportunity for the church here that doesn’t exist in other bits of London, though it’s changing massively now that private developers are moving in and families who can no longer afford to live here are getting moved out. Inner London boroughs are getting kind of hollowed out of children.”

Church of St John the Divine, KenningtonYoung choristers at St John the Divine, Kennington

A tenor, conductor, and voice coach around the world, Mr Vonberg-Clark has conducted many of the leading orchestras, including the London Mozart Players, and has sung with UK choirs that include the Sixteen, the BBC Singers, Polyphony, and La Nuova Musica. He set up the youth-choirs programme at St John the Divine in 2013, which now numbers 80 choristers — “all from different cultures, yet they’re singing this beautiful, beautiful music together”.

His background is perhaps surprising. “I just came from a parish church in Essex, taught by a volunteer ex-head teacher. I hadn’t gone through the whole cathedral thing; so I didn’t really know about the tradition or that kind of establishment. My parents met in the choir, which is nice,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue about this world until I was in Lincoln Cathedral, after I graduated from Durham.”

He reflects that, although he doesn’t go along with a kind of “old-school colonialist style that says we should teach children Handel”, he wants them to have access to as many different things as possible. “You have to be quite creative in the way that you teach,” he suggests. “There’s more complexity and depth to it than some of the things out there, and so there is a hierarchy, but Zadok the Priest is by far their favourite thing, because it is so dramatic.”

BEING a teacher in this situation is thrilling, he says: some children who started in Year 2 are now in the sixth form. But that doesn’t eliminate a need to recruit. “We’re trying to go out at every turn, to build relationships with the local primary schools. We do chaperoning, to make it as easy as possible for the parents to drop their kids off at school at 8.30 a.m. and pick them up at half-past five. Having a child myself, I know that’s much easier.”

St John the Divine has an adult choir, and three youth choirs: the Boys, the Girls, and Consort, a choir of pupils from local secondary schools, many of whom have come up through the ranks of the junior choirs. Mr Vonberg-Clark has found that the best way of getting the children to feel at home and not to be intimidated by the settings in which they will sing is to take them for an annual six-day residential summer school at St John’s College, Cambridge, with which the church has forged strong links, and which helps to fund organ scholarships.

Their life at home might be very different, he reflects, but it does not mean that it’s not a good life: “These children have incredibly loving, dedicated parents, who do everything for them, and they have a good primary-school education in the area. So, I’m not performing some kind of magic tricks with them. I want to get them into these places because it’s a key [to other things].”

Besides regular singing at church services, the choirs have sung in Britten’s War Requiem at the Cadogan Hall in London, and Bach’s St John Passion in their home church; they joined the choral group Tenebrae for a first performance of Owain Park’s Footsteps at Trinity College, Cambridge; and they have broadcast live on Radio 2.

Church of St John the Divine, KenningtonChoristers at St John the Divine, Kennington

Some of the best singers can be the naughtiest children, he acknowledges, but a spell of teaching at the Vienna Children’s Theatre, under a woman he describes as “eccentric and wonderful”, taught him to understand their physicality and their different ways of responding to different things, and to adapt that technique into music.

“I really want to to be kind of led by them, within reason, and to harness their energy,” he says. “You could come in here and think, this is chaos, but you can ride back easily from it. And it’s fun.”

GREEN shoots are also beginning to show at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, Nottingham, the city’s civic church. It has a flourishing music tradition under its organist and director of music, John Keys, but has long had no children’s choir, something yearned for — and then made possible by a £6000 grant towards funding a children’s choir director.

For Lucy Haigh, the blank sheet of paper which she was presented with in May 2022 was a challenge that she relished. A music graduate from Durham University, and a choir director for more than 30 years, she returned to the UK in 2010 from a four-year spell in Australia, to take up the post of Choir Director at Leeds Cathedral, where she also took singing into 12 of the city’s primary schools.

St Mary’s had envisaged one children’s choir, but, from the outset, Miss Haigh wanted three: a boys’, a girls’, and a training choir. From a zero base, she began by making contact with all the primary schools in the area. She came up against a brick wall with many, and acknowledges: “Schools are really overstretched, and many just don’t have time for music in their curriculum. But our local C of E school in Sneinton was really interested in getting involved in the programme, and that’s where I began.”

Her persistence has paid off. Now, she has 13 in the boys’ choir, ten in the girls’, and 28 in the training choir. They are almost all from state schools — a deliberate intention — and mostly from inner-city schools, which find the start time of 4 p.m. manageable for the weekly rehearsals. They come from several Christian denominations or none, with a very small minority from other faiths, and from many different backgrounds.

“I wanted the choirs to reflect the diversity of the city where they live; so I’m really pleased about that,” she says. “We do get quite a lot from the leafy suburbs, too, and it’s great to have them. The nice thing is that you’re not buying into a hierarchy that already exists.”

All three choirs were preparing to sing together at the church’s annual Christingle, a first experience for those who had recently joined. “They can be a bit intimidated when they see the size of the church, but they quickly realise that we’re friendly, and that this is a safe space,” Miss Haigh says.

“We’ve got a Christmas-tree festival here this year, and the children have their own tree, for which they’ve made decorations. That gives them a lovely sense of ownership.” She remembers being in choirs herself as a child as “a real shot in the arm. . . It gave me esteem and a sense of belonging.”

Extending the repertoire begins, she says, by engaging the children with perennial school favourites such as “Morning has broken”, which they love, and which their parents and grandparents are also familiar with. “And then I sneak in something like “Ave Verum”, and manage to get away with it. . .

”They’ve done a fair amount of Latin now, but it would have been a lot harder if we hadn’t done what first appears to be more palatable. I’m gradually getting to be a bit more ambitious.”

The weekly practices are manageable for most people, and, when it comes to singing services, whole families will come to support the child. “It’s really lovely to see, and our congregation really appreciate the boost it gives to their ranks,” she says, with pleasure. And she’s happy that the three days a week of her contract gives her time to go into the schools, a commitment on the part of St Mary’s which enables her to use all her experience.

One programme — “Sing Nottingham!” — involves weekly whole-class singing lessons for more than 200 children in three primary schools, and she also does one-off singing workshops in a couple of dozen more. The response has been positive: a senior leader at one inner-city school, said the children had made “fantastic progress.”

“They have developed a love of singing, and some children have progressed to the St Mary choirs, the school choirs, and other local choirs. The programme has really put singing at the forefront of our music curriculum.”

Miss Haigh has now extended aspects of her work to Leicester Cathedral, where she is assisting with the recruitment of young choristers. “It’s a long process, all this, and it’s really quite challenging. But it’s so worth while,” she concludes. “Whatever has happened in the week, they always manage to rise to the occasion on Sundays and pull it out of the bag.”

The Church Times Festival of Faith and Music, in partnership with the RSCM, takes place in York from 26 to 28 April. faithandmusic.hymnsam.co.uk

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