This article originally appeared in The Boston Pilot newspaper.
By Michelle McGrath
The choristers of Saint Paul’s Choir School sing “Love Came down at Christmas.”
PHOTO: Julia Monaco, Julia Monaco Photography
School, Mass, and choir: What can these three achieve together? Collectively, they create the opportunity for a student community to thrive. When Music Director James Kennerley aspired to compose a new Christmas carol in 2021, he instinctively involved his students - the bright, inspirational choristers of Saint Paul’s Choir School.
“I sought a sense of emotional buy-in from the choristers for this composition by tasking them with selecting the text that I then set to music. Fortunately, the boys chose the beautiful poem, ‘Love came down at Christmas’ by English Poet Christina Rosetti,” shares Kennerley.
Up in the choir loft, Kennerley paralleled the same process with the students that happens in a recording studio. Inspiration that feeds the creative process and informs extraordinary performances is sourced in the heart. “This is a very personal part of the process, as composers will generally embrace lyrics that particularly speak to them,” he says.
The boys who made this poem selection have trained together for years. Many of them entered the Choir School with an interest in singing and no formal training. “Most of our students come to us without training, but by the time they graduate, they are among the highest levels of choral singers as trebles, a role only boys this age can perform,” says Patrick Moran, director of admissions.
For two years they sang side-by-side with their fellow junior choristers, learning music theory, Latin, and a hearty repertoire of choral masterworks, in addition to a classical liberal arts school curriculum. Most importantly, they were learning to hear, think, sight read, and sing in unison. With so much practice in each song, it is important that they love what they sing.
The world premiere of the new work, Love Came Down at Christmas, among the numerous other liturgical and choral masterworks performed this season, was resoundingly well-received. Singing alongside the Choir of Men of Saint Paul’s and the Back Bay Brass, the choristers drew standing ovations at each performance.
Though an experience of such exuberance and applause could invoke a sense of pride in most singers, the cheering was received with humility and grace by the choristers. Following the concert, they happily enjoyed cookies and cocoa, played football, and chatted with family and friends in the courtyard outside Saint Paul’s Choir School.
Listen to Love Came Down at Christmas now.
“It’s just what we do here,” one newly-invested chorister said. This experience is not uncommon, because the boys of Saint Paul’s are accustomed to singing Mass each weekday and on Sunday during each school week.
This level of commitment is embraced by every student at Saint Paul’s Choir School. The boys thrive in their community of high expectations and achievement. Students in grades three through eight engage in classes teaching English Literature that feature the classical texts, a math curriculum that introduces them to high school geometry, along with French, Latin, music theory, religion, rhetoric, science, and social studies.
Fully investing in the community is essential in every class. In social studies, boys work together to perform staged archeological digs and create board games that simulate learning concepts. In science, they routinely perform labs such as dissecting owl pellets and testing the reactions of earthworms to light and dark. In math, students apply the principles of geometry to brainteasers and engineering challenges. Practicing their rhetoric skills, they even craft stand-up comedy routines, while the next day they might practice volte face and switch from one standpoint to another on a dime.
The boy choristers of Saint Paul’s Choir School sing as trebles (sometimes called boy sopranos). They joined the school with great interest in singing, but no training. Now they are professional performers who have toured Germany and Austria. PHOTO: Julia Monaco, Julia Monaco Photography
“Learning to cooperate and share resources, to brainstorm together, to accept constructive criticism and give meaningful feedback, those are essential skills,” says Moran, who also teaches history. “The choir really levels the playing field for the boys. By the time they are in the eighth grade, working together so often has a prolific effect on their ability to demonstrate these cooperative skills in the classroom. This coincidentally develops them as individuals, too. They learn to advocate for themselves, maturely articulate their thoughts, and work independently.”
Amidst their education, the Mass anchors the students’ days. In addition to Sunday Mass, the boys sing the noon Mass Tuesday through Friday. The solidarity of celebrating Mass with their teachers and the parish congregation is an important part of school life. For each boy, this ritual of quiet contemplation is enriched by being side-by-side with their peers.
To learn more about Saint Paul’s Choir School, visit an open house on January 30th (in person) or February 3 (virtual). Register online at saintpaulschoirschool.us.
Michelle McGrath is the Founding President of McGrath PR Media Relations, providing visibility to the arts and culture sector, nonprofits and small businesses. mcgrathpr.com