When I last watched the Heaven family home videos, a striking trend emerged. In every clip from the early 1990s, one of my siblings or I was being encouraged to sing. We babies were bounced on daddy’s knee, and he sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ over and over again until — looking goggle-eyed and faintly hypnotised — we joined in.
Little did we know it was the start of a cunning plan: my parents moulded us into mini-musicians, then sent us to be cathedral choristers, and finally to audition for music scholarships at our various secondary schools. It worked beautifully: ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ saved an absolute fortune in school fees.
OK, it’s unlikely that my parents planned that far ahead. But all of us Heaven children — my two older brothers, me and my younger sister — were educated on the cheap (well, cheaper). And the same opportunity is there for any boy, and increasingly any girl, who can hold a tune.
All over the country, cathedrals help to pay for their choristers, from the age of about eight, to be educated at some of the best prep schools around. At St Paul’s Cathedral School, for example, a chorister’s tuition fee is paid for by the Dean and Chapter, though parents pay for boarding. At Westminster Abbey, the Dean and Chapter pay a stonking 80 per cent of the total school fees (and promise bursaries for families who would struggle to afford the rest). The same applies at Westminster Cathedral up the road, where choristers’ parents will pay a couple of thousand of pounds less per term than non-chorister parents.
It’s just as good outside London. At Salisbury Cathedral School (which educated us four Heavens), choristers are awarded scholarships worth 40 per cent of boarding fees. The arrangements at Winchester and Truro, Gloucester and York are as generous or better.
Of course, cathedrals get their money’s worth. Young choristers work bloody hard: they’re up at the crack of dawn for rehearsals, as their peers lie in bed; they sing in the evenings and at weekends; they stay on at school for Christmas and Easter, and often in the summer holidays for choir festivals. Come to think of it, my family didn’t have a Christmas day at home between 1991 and 2003, thanks to the routines of four cathedral choristers.
But significantly, as all of these prep schools rightly boast, cathedral choristers tend to walk into generous scholarships at senior schools. Indeed, independent schools fight over ex-choristers like American colleges compete to get the best young football players, offering them absurdly generous scholarships and often bursaries on top (though rarely more than 50 per cent in total). If you can sing well and play an instrument, which is compulsory for the vast majority of choristers, you’re in.
I know of one girl chorister, a brilliant young soprano, who auditioned at a prestigious independent secondary school. She sang for about three minutes before the director of music cut her short. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I think I had better get the headmaster.’ Judging by the offer made to her parents later that day, he probably should have fetched the bursar, too.
If this sounds rather desperate, it’s sadly because it is. Most school choirs — even at some of the top public schools — are pretty dire. Former cathedral choristers will experience quite a jolt when they hear their senior school choir for the first time. They will notice a clear drop in standard.
It doesn’t help that, especially in all-boys schools, trebles will be in short supply and often untrained, and the other singers — the warbling altos, tenors and basses — will be struggling with breaking or newly broken voices.
But are there exceptions? Are there school choirs that uphold the standards of the English choral tradition? Well, surprise surprise, Eton is one. This is mainly thanks to about half the choir being former choristers (the school offers eight music scholarships and six exhibitions annually), but it’s also thanks to the peerless Ralph Allwood, who retires as Director of Music this year, having lead the choir for a quarter century. (Any teenager who is serious about singing should check out Allwood’s Eton Choral Courses.)
The risk of finding the very best schools for music — Wells Cathedral School, or the Purcell School, for example — is that music blocks everything else out, especially sport and sometimes even academic work. Fine for those aiming for a professional career in music, but a risky choice to make at 13.
Far better, I think, to go for all-round schools with decent music departments. As you apply, note the number of music scholarships available each year at schools like Harrow (up to 15), Rugby (several), Marlborough (roughly 7), Winchester (about 12), Downside (no more than 5), Sherborne (number varies), Westminster (6), St. Paul’s (number varies). But if your child is serious about singing, there is only question to ask: how many pupils were awarded Oxbridge choral scholarships last year?