It’s a spine-tingling moment when the sweet pitch-perfect notes of the choristers fill Gloucester Cathedral at Christmas. But what goes on behind the scenes? Jonathan Whiley joined in the excited chatter.
Their voices are so sweet that Mary Berry could probably make a cake from them. Their costumes are so traditional and immaculate they could well feature in a BBC adaptation of a Charles Dickens’ novel.
It’s little wonder then that choristers have something of an angelic reputation which rears its head at Christmas time when their sugar-coated voices are as traditional as mince pies and a petty squabble over who gets to carve the turkey.
Without them, we’d be lost. They’re the soundtrack to the season of goodwill and their high notes have provided the backdrop to decades of celebrations.
But while we all marvel at their pitch-perfect notes and mums and dads weep at seeing their children in the limelight, it’s worth pointing out that an awful lot of work and planning goes into the smooth running of a national institution.
King’s School in Gloucester is no exception with the choristers on a strict timetable. My slot in their tight schedule is sandwiched in between their break-time – to allow them to have a drink and a snack – and the start of their evening warm-up.
“Christmas and Easter is definitely our busiest time and the most tiring,” 13-year-old chorister Christopher Fairgrieve Pick tells me above the chatter of excitable boys snaffling sandwiches in the corner.
“We’ve been very busy because of the choir and Christmas and we’ve all been exhausted because we’ve had so much to do.
“Most of my spare time is spent at the cathedral. It’s pretty busy but we all pull through.”
It has been a particularly hectic year for the choir with Gloucester’s turn to host the Three Choirs Festival – Europe’s oldest musical festival which is also held in Hereford and Worcester.
“The Three Choirs was definitely my highlight of the year,” chirpy Crispin Burton, 11, says.
“That was amazing and it was so exciting. I’ve got some friends from Worcester and Hereford so it was a good chance to see them. It was very tiring but I really enjoyed it.”
Christopher, who lives in Bisley, near Stroud, has been singing since he was six.
“I got into the choir because I came to look round the school and there was a noticeboard and my mum really took an interest in it and so did I because I love singing.
“I’ve made friends with some people who I wouldn’t normally spend time with, someone in the year below and the year below that.
“Two of my closest friends in the choir are actually a lot younger than me and we’re really close.”
A typical week for the pair is something of a military operation and one that rolls off the tongue for young Crispin, who lives in Gloucester’s Pitt Street. But despite their hectic schedule – the boys have to rest their voice on occasion and their homework can be up to one and a half hours each evening – there have been some eye-opening opportunities, with trips to South Africa and Sweden.
During their 11-day trip to South Africa they paid a visit to Robben Island where the late Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison.
“At the time I didn’t really know what was so special about Mandela but after that I was really interested, ” Crispin says.
As a fellow chorister slides two custard cream biscuits across the table to the boys, Christopher picks up the conversation.
“South Africa was brilliant. We went to a leopard sanctuary, Table Mountain and then Robben Island.”
Next year there is a trip to Denver in the pipeline, but Christopher will be missing out.
Officially boys must leave the choir at the end of Year 9 although often their voices will have broken before that.
“If your voice breaks you have a term’s notice,” Christopher says, who turns 14 in January.
“It’s quite peaceful. It’s not like ‘oh my god his voice has broken, he’s out now’. It’s a slow process.
“After leaving the choir it doesn’t end there though, you can go into Youth Choir after a year of rest.”
So what does the future hold for these intelligent, polite youngsters?
“When you’re a little kid you always want to be rich and famous but you kind of realise it’s not all about that,” Christopher says as Crispin nods in agreement.
“You have to be realistic. I want to go into CGI (computer generated imagery) in filming but I’d keep a musical side to it.”
■ Gloucester Cathedral’s traditional carol services take place at 6pm on Monday and Christmas Eve and there is also a mass in the cathedral at 10.15pm on Christmas Eve with the Cathedral Youth Choir leading the singing.
■ Chorister Voice Trials for any potential choristers – aged six to nine – take place on January 23. Call Sharon Bird on 01452 337337.