Using children in liturgical services has been common practice since before the emergence of Christianity as an organised religion. Up to the modern day, children – boys especially – have been used to cover the high treble parts of carols, anthems, and suchlike: the image of the choirboy singing his heart out before a throng of congregated worshippers has been an image associated with Christmas and Advent since the inception of the modern service (“modern” – a tradition that is over 500 years old), and as an ex-chorister myself, Nine Lessons and Carols is still an important part of Christmas for me: I enjoy the sound of a chorister soloist at the start of Once in Royal David’s City more than most of the other festivities. But nowadays, mixed-gender adult choirs are just as successful as those that feature child singers, which raises the question: are choristers still necessary?
Sort of. Becoming a chorister can be genuinely beneficial for some children. Most choristers embark on their choral careers at the age of nine (although this can differ), and will be taught a variety of useful skills, such as how to listen to music “properly” (this is an extremely elitist term, but it’s that my choirmaster used), how to sing Samson’s Canticles in G backwards, standing on one’s head and dancing the Macarena, and how to participate in a team that is striving towards a mutual goal. A community spirit exists between ex-choristers (think: “wow, we all survived this fairly weird experience for five years”), especially between ex-choristers of the same kirk – I am still more or less in touch with most of the people that were in the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral at the same time as me. Choristers tend to leave a choir with pretty much zero stage fright, being confident in their own performing abilities, allowing them a head start in careers where a bloated sense of self is valued, for example professional musician, politician or TV presenter.
However, the long hours, constant string of performances and highly competitive schooling that often accompanies choristerdom can also, shockingly, have a negative effect on children’s health. Young choristers are at a higher risk of serious mental health conditions such as NEAD (Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and childhood depression. These can have an impact on a child as they progress into adulthood, sometimes resulting in clinical depression or, tragically, death by suicide. Ex-choristers are also more likely to feel isolated from their peers, especially after moving school/to university: the intensive nature of a chorister’s life means that they end up missing out on four or five years of popular culture: missing out on shared experiences with their peers, making it difficult for choristers to relate to other children and make friends – for example, when I left St Mary’s Cathedral, I had no idea what a meme was and I thought that Kanye West was a question. This isolation can often lead to further psychological trauma later in life, which can cause significant problems for a child.
Musically, as well, the difference between the voice of a treble (a child singer, referred to as “child soprano” in the US) and a soprano (an adult female singer with a high voice) is basically zero to the untrained ear. In fact, if anything, an adult’s voice is often nicer to listen to: trebles often sing sharp and produce a more piercing tone, whereas adults often have better intonation and make a much warmer sound. Listening to the difference between a woman singing Once In Royal David’s City against a treble singing the same solo, the difference is marginal: the only noticeable consistent difference is that with the woman the top notes often feel more comfortable and more settled, leading to an overall better performance.
That is, of course, not to say that children shouldn’t sing: taking singing lessons is very good for a child’s intonation and sense of musical ear, as with all musical tuition. Singing in groups is vital for primary and nursery-school age children’s sense of development, and is an extremely useful teaching tool. However, institutionalising that singing and using children in church services for most of the week, 30 weeks a year, can lead to undue stress on these children and lead to mental health problems later in life, which brings us back to the question of whether the church should continue to use them. The answer? Probably not.