The sound of christmas at Chester Cathedral
PUBLISHED: 16:55 07 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:21 20 February 2013
At this time of year there is nothing more uplifting than the sound of a choir singing carols. We discover what the festive season is like for the choristers of Chester Cathedral<br/>WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH<br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
On Christmas morning most children will be playing with a pile of toys and gadgets from Santa Claus before sitting down with their families for the traditional Christmas lunch. But spare a thought for the boys and girls of Chester Cathedral Choir who will be in the midst of a fairly gruelling schedule of rehearsals, carol concerts and services.
Their gifts and Christmas lunch will be on hold until later in the day until all the choristers, including some as young as seven, have completed the cathedrals services. The choristers will sing twice on Christmas Day and not until about 2pm will their duties be over and they will be free to go home. There will be extra pressure this year as the Christmas morning mass will appear live on BBC1 at 10am with a rare performance by the girls and boys choirs together.
Philip Rushworth, director of music and himself a former chorister at Chester Cathedral, said: Christmas is fantastic and to be going out live on Christmas morning is incredibly exciting. The atmosphere at this time of year is amazing with everyone singing their hearts out to the carols they love. You can have 1,500 people at the carol concerts and hearing them all is quite inspirational and it can be emotional.
But this time of year is also very pressurised for the choristers both in terms of how many hours they are singing and the sheer stamina it takes to sing to a high standard all the time.
It takes a lot out of them. To be a cathedral chorister you have to be committed. But the reward is the training they get and the skills they learn. They must be professional all the times but this stands them in good stead for later in life.
The commitments of the choir on December 25th are just a fraction of the hard work they put in over the festive season. Rehearsals alone, which the singers attend after school, are held every day of the week apart from Wednesday. Some of the choristers, including lead chorister Aaron Simon, who also plays the piano, travel from North Wales to attend rehearsals and evensong.
On December 19th the choir will sing at the Cathedral Choir Carol Concert and on December 23rd and Christmas Eve they will also sing Nine Lessons and Carols. The cathedral can sometimes be filled with a congregation of 1500 people eager to hear the beautiful tones of the choristers voices. All this is in addition to the regular commitments they must keep. But before you start to feel sorry that the children are denied regular fun on Christmas day, a few moments spent with them shows that they love every second of it.
Emily Burnett, a pupil at Abbey Gate College in Saighton, was only eight when she joined the girls choir. She is currently waiting to hear whether she has been accepted into Trinity College, Cambridge.
She said: I didnt want to do it at first but when I came here it was amazing. It has made me determined and it has helped with so many other things. The friends I have made here too have been brilliant. Ive loved my time here. I have to leave soon and I really dont want to.
The cathedral is a magical place and it has a wonderful atmosphere. It is something Im going to really miss. Christmas is particularly special because everyone is in a good mood and people love to come in here and sing carols. Im really excited about singing with the boys too because we dont do it very often.
For 13-year-old Sam Bowler, a pupil at Neston High School, it was inspiration from a family member that sparked his interest in becoming a chorister.He said: I joined about five years ago and I was inspired by my cousin who was a chorister at Lincoln Cathedral. He was a couple of years older than me and when I saw what he did I decided I wanted to join.
I really enjoy singing but its also good fun and I have made a lot of friends. Christmas is special. We all love singing here all the time but Christmas is particularly good.
Chester Cathedral currently has four choirs, the boys choir, the girls choir, the Lay clerks and the Nave choir. But there has been a choir at the cathedral for centuries. A choir school was first created by Henry VIII in 1541. The school closed in 1976 and since then choir boys have been recruited from schools around Cheshire. It wasnt until 1996 that a girls choir was founded, which although at first it was considered a controversial decision, it is one that has not been regretted.
The choir has also bred successful singers through the years and many Trinity College graduates. One girl chorister, Olivia Hunt, recently competed in the Young Chorister of the Year.
Although Christmas is one of the busiest times, this does not mean that the pressure is off the choir for the other eleven months. Some of their work includes touring and the choir has just returned from performing in Paris.
But Philip said it is the singing and training they do day in, day out that will stay with the choristers.
He said: The one thing I treasure above all else is the music and worship at the cathedral and for that we need the choir. Its very important to the life of the cathedral. Its the day-to-day services which we are all about; not the big concerts or CD recordings but that is all part of it.
I have many happy recollections of my days here and to have come back here is very special. The memories and experiences the choristers have here will be something they will treasure forever.
How can you become a chorister at Chester Cathedral?
Philip Rushworth is always happy to talk to parents of potential choristers. For more details contact him or the assistant director Ian Rushworth on 01244 500974. Alternatively, visit www.chestercathedralchoir.co.uk