Members of the boys’ choir at the Ely Cathedral, in Cambridgeshire, England, last summer.
At first glance, the music room in Christ Church Cathedral on Market Street is not much different from any after-school gathering spot for 8 to 13-year-old boys. The room echoes with chatter and games and recollections of the school day, until canon musician Erich Balling calls the group to order. Previously boisterous boys are suddenly standing at attention, and in no time, they’re rehearsing the opening bars of Handel’s “Messiah” with angelic tones and harmonies that fill the whole room.
Just another Friday afternoon for Balling, who is preparing the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys for its upcoming 50th anniversary in January.
The choir, reminiscent of those found in English churches, is considered a relative rarity in this country, where it is thought there are only a handful of traditional boys’ choirs remaining. Begun in 1963 by Robert Quade, the choir and its music are now an integral part of Sunday worship (trading off with the girls’ choir for morning services) and Evensong, in addition to special performances throughout the year.
For the 50th anniversary, the choir will be hosting a special concert, featuring members from throughout the decades. The music will include traditional choral pieces, as well as a few songs penned in the 21st century. The concert will be Jan. 27 and will be free and open to the public.
Balling sees the choral music as a different form of worship and outreach, rather than a performance.
“Different churches have different identities,” he said. “Music is really at the heart of this place, both in terms of its liturgical function and in many ways, in terms of how we welcome children and youth to the cathedral.”
Members of the boys’ choir come from as many as a dozen Lexington schools, and are typically referred to Balling by music teachers who spot their propensity for pitch at an early age. If they pass the audition, they will practice with the choir three to four times a week. Some get their start in the “Cathedral Imps” choir, which hosts boys and girls, ages 4 through 7, and teaches them basic music reading and singing skills.
“They tend to be artistic for sure, but they are also involved in sports – I’ve got a couple football players here, baseball players … they’re just regular boys who have an interest in doing lots of things and doing them well. I think that’s neat. You don’t see that in 2012 America,” Balling said.
Members of the men’s choir are often graduates of the boys’ choir, and many also come from the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University music programs.
Doug Geddes, one of the original members of the boys’ choir (and currently a member of the men’s choir), values those hours spent in practice – so much so, he encouraged his son to join the choir also.
“In the beginning, he loved to go, but summer would come and he [wanted to play] out in the country,” Geddes said. “I said to him, ‘Look, trust me. You keep coming to practice, and keep on singing, your attitude about all this will change. You won’t know why it happens, but it does.’ Now, he’s as dedicated as I am.”
Geddes’ son, now 32, is still a member of the choir; Geddes is already hoping is grandson, now a year old, will become a third-generation member.
Despite several changes in leadership through the years, Geddes says the church’s dedication to the program has kept it strong – so strong, in fact, that when the Royal School of Church Music gave out this year’s awards to accomplished boy and girl choristers, 15 of the 30 recipients throughout the nation were from Christ Church Cathedral.
The men and boys’ choir has regularly toured the United Kingdom, filling in for resident choirs at notable cathedrals in England, including the famous Westminster Abbey.
Although such storied venues seem intimidating, Geddes says that beginning to sing at such a young age usually takes away some of the stage fright that might normally accompany the experience.
Current members of the choir agree.
“I think because I started so young, I didn’t know how to be nervous,” said choir member Woods Prewitt, age 12. This is his sixth year in the choir.
Prewitt says he plans to continue on to the men’s choir after his voice changes.
“I’m one of the older people in the choir, and I like helping the younger people,” he said. “And obviously the singing.”
The choir held its annual performance of G.F. Handel’s “Messiah” in early December at the 216-year-old church in collaboration with the Lexington Baroque Ensemble. The concert is always popular with the city’s music lovers and parishioners alike, according to Geddes.
“It’s a lot of fun”, said 9-year-old Alden Beers, a member of the boys’ choir. “My parents have gone to this church for a long time, and the reason they came to this church is because they liked the music so much.”
Visit www.ccclex.org for more information about the 50th anniversary celebration in January.