Archive for February 25th, 2014

Treble Line – minutes of Sept 2012 meeting

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Treble Line

For Boys in Church Choirs

Notes of the Meeting held at The Charterhouse (‘Sutton’s Hospital), Saturday  16 September, 2012 (14.00 to 16.40)

Present: Rev. Jonathan Boston (Chairman),  Berkeley Hill (Secretary), Peter West, Michael  Nicolas, Lawrence Notley

Apolgies: received from Alan Thurlow (President) and several other choir directorss

Jonathan Boston  thanked representatives of choir for attending.  Since the last meeting:

  • Dr Alan Thurlow had accepted the position of President of Treble Line.
  • The Treble Line website has become active.  Among other things this has

o        Places for choirs to add photographs and news

o        A link to the full text of the Report of the 2011 Survey

o        A list of Treble Line choirs with contact email details.

  • A Newsletter has been issued.

Lessons learned from the 2011 Survey

Berkeley Hill prefaced his outline of the findings of the 2011 Survey of Treble Line choirs with a description of his own choir (St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, Kent) and the way that he has already benefitted from lessons learned in compiling the results from the 31 choir directors who had replied by the deadline.  Since then two further replies had been received – from St Mary’s, Warwick and St Mary Redcliff (Bristol).  However, these later results were largely in line with those already in hand (though the Warwick church was unusual in being largely devoid of problems of recruitment).

The PowerPoint presentation that accompanied his talk is attached to this note.  In conclusion it appeared that:

  • Treble Line choirs were in a generally robust and sustainable state, with what appeared to be an optimistic future.  However, these are clearly the survivors, and it might be instructive to know the characteristics of choirs that had folded.
  • They typically pursued an active and systematic recruitment process
  • Membership was challenging to trebles, both in terms of the music and the personal development (graded training was useful in this respect).
  • Various ‘good practices’ were maintained to retain choristers, including making each one feel ‘special’ and appreciated.

Berkeley Hill felt that there was much to be learned from the experiences of what works contained in the annex to his Report.

Experiences in choir re-establishment at Reading Minster

Peter West described his experiences of re-establishing a boys choir at Reading Minster.  From its initiation in 2009 there had been several waves of encouraging recruitment and training, followed by periods of shrinkage.  There had been a general problem of getting singers and their parents to understand that singing on Sundays at services was a central part of a choirboy’s life.

Recently there had been a firmer establishment of the principle that attendance a Sunday services was obligatory.  This had reduced the number of choristers to a committed core, but recent recruits now have a more appropriate set of role models.

A girls choir might be established in the future, but Peter felt that this should only take place once the treble sections is fully established with a secure membership of about 20.

Discussion  followed on issues including the attitude of schools in letting visits to recruit take place, the perceptions of parents about regularity in singing on Sundays, and the virtues of having tole models within the choir of older trebles who had gained experience and set examples.

Round table on choirs and local schools

Following a break for tea, a Round Table was held on the relationship between the choirs and schools in which recruitment takes place.  Each person present described their experiences.  These included the danger of relying too much on individual schools, problems where the school music department was uncooperative (putting their own interests exclusively first) and difficulty of getting a response from some schools.

Membership of ABCD or a greater contact was advocated as a way to promote Treble Line (Secretary has become a member)

Having an occasional stocktake with individual singers was found to be a good way to underline membership and achievements (MN, Ipswich has done this on occasion, with good results)

Notes of meeting of 15 Feb 2014

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Treble Line

For Boys in Church Choirs

From the Secretary: Berkeley Hill [1]

NOTES OF THE MEETING of  ‘Treble Line’ (President Dr Alan Thurlow) at the Charterhouse (Sutton’s Hospital), Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN on Saturday 15 February, 2014, starting at 2pm.

PRESENT: Terence Atkins (Barnet Parish Church), Rev. Jonathan Boston (Litcham Parish Church) (Chairman), John Caterall (Broughton Parish Church), Fr John Connell (Chingford Parish Church), Berkeley Hill (St Leonard’s, Hythe), Graham Matthews (The Charterhouse), Laurence Notley (Dunstable Priory), Alan Thurlow (President) and Mrs Tina Thurlow,

APOLOGIES had been received from Sean O’Connell (Corpus Christi, Bournemouth – where boy trebles were now a distant memory), Bernard Knowles (St Mary the Virgin, Pontefract), Peter Tryon (St Mary, Bury St Edmunds), Robert Fielding (Romsey Abbey), Martin Holford (Holy Trinity, Guildford)

INTRODUCTION AND WELCOME  The Chairman of Treble Line (Rev Jonathan Boston) welcomed everyone, and especially our President (Dr Alan Thurlow) and his wife Tina. Our guest speaker (Canon David Pritchard, of Ely Cathedral) had very recently sent a message that he was unable to attend, and Alan had kindly agreed to lead the discussion on managing relationships between clergy and choir in his stead.  To ease this task, the agenda was being rearranged.

RETAINING EX-TREBLES IN THE BACK ROW.  This round table discussion was led by Berkeley Hill. The subject was identified as being useful in the Treble Line meeting of 2012  as such singers are important to the future supply of men. The 2011 survey of Treble Line choirs had showed that most choirs with a boys-only top line had some ex-trebles still at school singing in the ‘back row’; of the 29 choirs that gave an answer, 23 had some.  The absolute numbers were likely to be 2-3 ex-trebles among choirs with under 16 trebles and 4-5 in choirs with more trebles. Among the largest choirs (with over 20 trebles), one had 9 and another 12 .  However, choirs varied in their ability to retain them, and this commonly changed over time.

John Caterall (Broughton) in his large choir (36 trebles) currently had three or four ex-trebles (still at school) singing lower parts.  On transition each was given a voice assessment and steered towards alto or bass (tenors being a rather more specialised voice). Sight-reading was also assessed.  It was rare for someone who wished to stay on not to be found a place.  Ex-trebles were often given a mentor from among the more experienced singers, who often enjoyed this role.  While no formal training system was in place, there were opportunities for those taking GCSE music to use their choir experience as their practical component.  Often ex-trebles now at college/university came back during holidays to swell the ranks, and were made to feel welcome.

Terence Atkins (Barnet – with 18 trebles and 2 ex-trebles singing lower parts) shared this general experience. He noted that retaining ex-trebles was easiest when a boy who was a particularly strong character decided to stay on. Ex-trebles continued to be paid.

Laurence Notley (Dunstable Priory – with 12 boys) normally never has fewer than 2 ex-trebles in the back row.  He also concluded that central to retaining them was the issue of strong characters who stayed on, a view shared by others in the  meeting.

Berkeley Hill (Hythe – 12 boys, currently with 3 in the back row and with the prospect of another within a few weeks, giving three aged 14 all of whom had been friends at primary school). He noted that in the 42 years he had been at this church, staying on had gone through fashions, with periods when everyone did and other when no-one stayed (finding basketball, football etc. of pressing concern).  He found it difficult to give sufficient time to the ex-trebles to check their progress, perhaps a factor that led to those who were struggling with inadequate sight-reading ability to lose interest and drift away. The stronger ones usually stayed until they moved away or to college/university.

Jonathan Boston (Litcham – 7 boys) currently had no ex-treble singers but had experience of young organists coming from this background.

Alan Thurlow told of an approach used at St John’s College of getting senior trebles to sing alto and tenor parts in chants during rehearsals (with the choirmaster singing bass) to give experience of tackling lower parts, yet using the time well for Psalm rehearsal.

Berkeley Hill had identified a number of alternative approaches and actions that might be significant to retaining ex-trebles in the back row, and these were discussed by those present in turn:

a.      Let them go when voices break / Retain them if at all possible. No-one purposely ejected trebles when their voices broke, and there was a feeling that they should be encouraged to transfer if they showed interest and ability.  The occasion could be used to hold individual discussions which were likely to point to the appropriate direction for each boy, and in some cases this might lead to their leaving.

b.      Provide a training scheme that is similar to that for trebles / let them sink or swim. No example of a scheme specifically for ex-trebles was cited.  Some choirs used mentoring by the older men singers.  The Dean’s and Bishop’s awards of the RSCM could provide a system of personal advancement beyond the choir-based ribbon system.  An example was cited of a chamber choir for ex-trebles (and girl choristers) to provide additional experience.

c.      Move them to alto first, then probably to a lower part (are altos then only seen as a transitional stage?) / move them down according to perceived end-voice. The consensus was that a case-by-case approach should be taken, some going to alto and some to bass, though transfer to tenor was perhaps less favoured.  Forcing a young voice should be discouraged, in whichever part.

d.      Insist on regular attendance / be more understanding.  While it had to be recognised that there may be heightened competition for time, it was universally felt that ex-trebles should display the same standards of professionalism in informing (in advance) when not being able to attend.

e.      Continue to pay them / treat them like volunteer adults.  There was a divergence of practice here.  Most choirs seemed to still pay nominal amounts, but some did not (it seemed that the example also did not pay trebles).

f.        Give them responsibility within the choir for parts of treble training / leave them as free agents. Generally ex-trebles were not expected to carry out training of younger boys, though an example was cited where they performed administrative tasks willingly and very well.

g.      Provide special social events / exclude them from treble events / integrate them. The general view was that ex-trebles should be excluded from choir activities that focused on the current trebles, if only to allow the current senior trebles to act as leaders.  However, their participation in choir trips meant that they still felt involved.  The example of a youth chamber choir, mentioned above, provided an activity that the late teenagers could regard as truly theirs.

h.      Other issues not covered above. Whether or not the ex-treble was retained, it was good practice for the choir director to write formally thanking them for their service and thereby providing them with a record of their achievements (a form of reference) that would be useful to them in other situations and in career development.

Finally, consideration was given to what could be recommended to choirs struggling to retain ex-trebles. The single main point was that boys should NOT be made to feel discarded once their treble days were over.

MANAGING THE CHOIR / CLERGY RELATIONSHIP.  Our 2011 survey found an overwhelming appreciation by churches of their choirs with boy trebles within the life of their worshiping community, and the relationship between choir and clergy must be part of this picture.  Some choir directors manage a serene and fruitful relationship with their clergy, while one also hears of rifts leading to the run-down or collapse of boys sections.  What are the conditions necessary for good relations between the choir, clergy and church?

Alan Thurlow provided some preliminary thoughts and guided discussion, which ranged widely.  Among the points touched on were the following:

  • Change is part of life. Organists /choir directors have a reputation for resisting change, but some change is inevitable as the circumstances in which church musicians operate are not static – the legal, social, cultural, educational and liturgical environments are dynamic.  Decisions have to be made on what to fight hard to conserve and what to let go, and how to adapt where necessary.
  • Be open to new things. Change opens up new possibilities and opportunities. Examples were given in cathedral practice of special services that are now tailored to suit people attending, which can bring surprising and good results.
  • Do you have a contract as Director of Music?  A particularly testing time may be when a new incumbent arrives. A written contract may be useful in clarifying the division of responsibilities. (Most present had such a contract, though it may not be very up-to-date).
  •  Do you get on well with your incumbent?  Good communications seem to hold the key to a successful relationship. Regular meeting, perhaps through a Worship Committee, should take place to exchange information and resolve issues before they become sources of dissatisfaction. (Those present had all experienced several changes of vicar, and relationships were felt to be good.  Perhaps the present membership was self-selecting in this respect – those with poor relationships might not bother to attend).
  • How good are you at managing relationships WITHIN the choir?  The relationship with clergy is probably a reflection of what goes on in the choir in general.  Careful management of relationships within the choir will probably also lead to satisfactory relationships with clergy.

The discussion of this last point broadened to the pastoral role played by the clergy towards the choir and choir families. Some examples emerged where very little or no pastoral care was being expressed, which the meeting regarded as unsatisfactory.  However, with reduced numbers of clergy, it seems that the choir director and the other members in responsible positions are increasingly being called on to perform pastoral ministry to choir families.  Alan Thurlow commented that this should be seen as an extension of the ministry that choirs have always exercised. While in some churches the choir (and bell ringers) may be regarded as a distinct and separate community – in a sense, not part of the ordinary church membership – this was unfortunate.  The choir can, and should, perform a role of ‘bringing people in’. To do this, its profile in the local community may have to be raised; often choirs have much to give to their local community, but sometimes undersell themselves.

REVIEW ‘WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF TREBLE LINE?’ AND ELECTION OF OFFICERS.  Those present concluded that Treble Line was serving a useful function by providing a means of networking between Directors who run choirs with boys top lines.  Their tasks are only likely to become more difficult, and it is useful to be able to pick up ideas about what works and does not in sustaining these choirs.  It was also AGREED that (a) while Treble Line was likely to be largely a web-based organisation, an annual meeting at this time of year would be useful, (b) members would appreciate contact details of other Treble Line choirs, probably the website addresses.

There being no other candidates for the positions of Chairman and Secretary, the meeting agreed that Jonathan Boston and Berkeley Hill should carry on for a further year, which they were willing to do.

The intention was to develop a further Newsletter that will contain the outcome of discussions on the two topics covered in the 15 February meeting. The website will be updated accordingly.

NEXT MEETING.  The Secretary will circulate a date in November.  Provisionally this will be 14 February 2015.


[1] Prof. Berkeley Hill. 1 Brockhill Road, Hythe, Kent  CT21 4AB  01303 265312  email