Spotlight on Newport Cathedral
Setting up a Cathedral Girls’ Choir from scratch
Emma Gibbins, Director of Music, Newport Cathedral
When did your girls sing their first service?
How did you go about canvassing support for this new venture?
A Girls’ Choir had been the Cathedral Clergy’s vision for some time and, in fact, establishing a Girls’ Choir was in the job specification when I applied, so there has been huge support from the whole community from the start.
Did you face any opposition?
Some of the ‘back row’ struggled initially with changing Newport’s tradition of a men-and-boys choir. But I think they now see how much the girls are getting out of it, and also, how much they are contributing and bringing to the Cathedral.
Has there been a significant financial outlay?
New robes and choir folders have been purchased. I was keen for the girls to establish their own identity as a group, and also for the boys to maintain their own identity. For this reason, it was decided that the girls should have white cassocks and red tabards, in matching colours to the boys’ red cassocks and white surplices.
What rehearsal/service structure did you envisage for them? When the first in-take of girls were recruited (October 2015), they rehearsed once a week for one hour, and we have gradually stepped up the commitment since then. From September 2018, the girls and boys have equal commitments each week (two choral services and one weekday rehearsal).
How old are your girls, and why did you choose that age range?
Currently, they are in Years 4 to 9. I decided to recruit across the same year groups as the boys, and I had already established a good relationship with several primary schools in Newport. Previously, when visiting and recruiting only boys, there had been comments from girls in these schools (“it’s not fair!”), so I knew there would be interest and enthusiasm.
Where did you find the girls?
I would speak at assemblies in local primary schools to explain about the Cathedral and the Choir, emphasising social trips, choir pay, and choir tours… and, of course, squash and biscuits at break time. It’s a great advantage if there’s a current member of the choir at the school who is confident to stand up in assembly and talk about how much they love the choir. I normally take some choir robes along too for a bit of dressing-up, sometimes even getting the head teacher to put a robe on!
I would then invite any children who are interested to stay behind after assembly to ‘do a bit of singing’, since the word ‘audition’ could be off-putting. Increasingly I find that the children don’t sing in school assemblies, so trying to find something they know can be tricky. Most of them have never seen a piece of sheet music before and many are astonished to discover that they have high notes in their voice that they hadn’t realised were there. I can’t even rely on them knowing “Away in a manger” any more and I normally default to “Twinkle, twinkle little star” or “Happy Birthday” and there are regular conversations along the lines of:
Child – can I sing ‘such-and-such’ by (for example) S Club 7?
Me – Um. I don’t think I know that one. How about “Happy Birthday”?
(there goes any Street Cred I might have had…)
I then write letters to the parents of ‘successful’ children, inviting them to come along to a six week trial ‘taster session’ at the Cathedral. This letter emphasises the free musical training, singing to a professional standard with adults, having fun in a disciplined environment, developing good team work, development of skills and attitudes which transfer positively to school work and other activities, development of self-discipline, confidence, and commitment. The contact time in the school auditions is so limited and singing in a classical style so alien to many of them, that I like to be able to give them a chance to find out more over a period of a few weeks. It also allows me to assess their suitability and see how they respond to learning in the choir environment.
Have you aimed for complete parity with the boy choristers?
Yes, absolutely: complete parity has always been the long term goal and this is what the clergy have always wanted.
Do the girls and boys sing together at all?
Yes, for special occasions, for example, the Christmas Carol Service, Christmas Day, Easter Day, end of the academic year.
Do you have any advice for anyone else setting up a girls’ choir? Starting a group up from scratch is hard work, but the rewards are enormous, so it’s definitely worth the effort.
What has been the most rewarding part of the process?
Introducing church music to a lot of children from a huge range of social backgrounds, many of whom might never have come across classical music or the Anglican Church, and many of whose parents simply wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for music lessons. I believe strongly that music is a hugely powerful part of the church’s outreach to young people.
The enthusiasm with which all the choristers, girls and boys, approach the music is wonderful. I love it when I say something like “Can you find ‘If ye love me’, please?” and there’s a chorus of “Yesssssss! I love this one” from round the room. Anyone who thinks that classical music doesn’t appeal to children just needs to attend a Cathedral Choir rehearsal!
What has been the most difficult part of the process? Building up the girls’ confidence. Even at this age, I’ve found that girls are much more worried than boys about making mistakes, and more conscious of what people will think if something’s not quite right. The younger boys have always been much more willing to just give it a go. I think familiarity with repertoire, thorough rehearsing and lots of encouragement have helped and it’s wonderful to watch them continue to grow in confidence. They are already looking forward to their first choir tour next summer.