Minster Boys' Choir hits right note againBy Alan Bunce
April 19, 2012
When Walter Ewart Masser passed away in 1976, it was the day the music died for Reading’s most famous church.
The choir at St Mary’s Minster Church had been guided by him for decades, but his death brought about its abrupt demise.
Two years ago it was reformed and now a recruitment drive is under way to boost numbers.
Current director of music Peter West is touring schools looking for the best singing voices among Reading’s boys from the age of seven until their voices break.
But joining this choir is not for everyone.
These are elite singers who must pass a selection process including auditioning and voice trials.
There is also a three-month probation period, but for those who make the grade there are performances to hundreds, a social calendar with days out, a chance to gain music theory qualifications, performances broadcast over local radio and pocket money.
While some are from public school, the Reading Minster Boys’ Choir is a wide-ranging mix.
Of the current 16, three are from single-parent families and nine schools are represented.
Mr West said: “It’s good because they mix. They meet children with a shared interest, that they probably wouldn’t have mixed with because they don’t normally mix in those circles.”
Reaching the boys who have the right voices and who are prepared for the commitment is not easy.
Mr West’s first approach to schools was to send out 15 letters. He got no replies.
Only by pursuing his enquiries by phone was he able to make visits and start to get boys applying for auditions.
But once he overcomes the initial hurdles, interest is often surprisingly high.
St Edward’s School in Tilehurst unearthed a groundswell of interest.
Mr West said: “I knew I would be talking to 80 kids so I took 25 letters, but almost every kid – about 75 – wanted a letter. We had to photocopy more.”
He ended up with 30 auditions.
The current membership of 16 boys is low for his liking and if the recruitment drive is successful, numbers may almost double.
He said: “Twenty-five to 30 would be great. At the moment if all 16 are here on a Sunday, it’s very easy.
“As soon as three or four are away it makes a difference.”
The choir is strictly boys only.
Mr West says boys can be put off in unisex choirs because those tend to be dominated by girls, and their singing voices are also very different.
Boys’ choirs are rare nowadays compared with their relative proliferation after the war.
The Reading Minster Boys’ Choir is one of around 100 throughout the country compared to something like 5,000 choirs 65 years ago.
What they are gaining, as well as expanding their abilities, said Mr West, is important life skills.
He said: “The whole thing is about working as part of a team which I don’t think we get enough of nowadays.
“In so many schools competition has gone. You get sports days where everybody has to be a winner.”
Mr West is also hoping to find photos of the previous choir which operated until 1976.
If anyone can help, they should call him on 07738 362 584 or email email@example.com.
Ethan seizes his chance
Young Ethan Cook urged his parents to let him find out more when the Minster Church Boys’ Choir visited Churchend Academy 14 months ago.
Ethan, now 10, from Warnford Road in Tilehurst, successfully auditioned and has been amazing his family ever since.
Mum Stephanie said: “When Ethan brought the letter home, he had never sung before but he was really keen.
“We are incredibly proud of him – he has gone from strength to strength. Academically he sits in the middle, in sport he sits in the middle, but this is Ethan’s pocket.
“He has found something he is really good at and it is only because he had this opportunity.
“It’s important that you don’t just sit in your comfort zone.”
But she warned that the commitment – Wednesday night rehearsals and Sunday services plus events and socials – is as much a responsibility for parents as the boys, but boys are taught to take on responsibility.
“Older ones help the younger ones and the job of having the right music and making sure clothing is correct falls to the boys themselves.”
Mrs Cook added: “You can buy music lessons, but you can’t get this from anything else.”