By Katherine Gerster
The St. Nicolas Choir at St. Paul's with choir assistant Akane Ota
This past fall, my seven-year-old son began choir school at St. Paul’s Church in Burlingame. I confess that this was my idea, not his. The church posted a big banner asking, Does your child love to sing? And the truthful answer for my child was, well, not really? But as a parent, I wanted so much for him to try choir singing, which has enriched my life immeasurably since childhood. Choir is just good for you, I thought, and I won’t push it hard, but I will push a little.
Part of my bias came from knowing the school’s music director, Dr. Susan Matthews, personally. I spent a year singing in her adult choir, and I’m awed by her musicality, her intellect, and her directorial style, which is equal parts empathetic and demanding. On occasion, the adult and children’s choirs performed together, and I noticed the patient way Matthews engaged young kids in challenging music. I remember thinking: I didn’t do music like this as a kid. Also: This is the person I want my kids to learn music from.
Matthews founded the choir school in 2007, two years after beginning as St. Paul’s Music director. It was quite an undertaking, requiring both a vision for the school and some ambitious fundraising. The choir now includes training in vocal technique, musical history, and (Episcopal) liturgy. Its educational component follows the rigorous RSCM system (the Royal School of Church Music, based in England, is nearly a century old and has trained thousands of young musicians worldwide; Matthews is on the board of the organization’s American branch).
When my son first started in the choir, it didn’t go quite as planned in the beginning.
Week one: That was boring.
Week two: I don’t want to go next week.
Week three: Can I quit?
I second-guessed myself. Am I becoming one of those parents, foisting my own interest on my uninterested child? Feeling I needed to be careful, my answer was yes, he could quit if he wanted, but he had to continue until the first performance.
Though this benchmark was arbitrary, it gave my son just enough time for something to click. That first performance really meant something to him, and when he returned for the Christmas rehearsals, he was thrilled to sing with a chamber orchestra for the choir’s special holiday concert. After their first rehearsal, he breathlessly told me about each instrument he’d seen. (“There was a double bass! I’m not even kidding! The guy had to stand on a stool to reach it!”)
Dr. Susan Matthews directing the combined adult choir, children's choir, and chamber orchestra
I don’t know if choir will stick for Jonny – I hope it will – but I feel inspired by the first generation to sing with Matthews starting in 2007; they are now in their twenties, and for some of them, the choir sparked a lifelong interest in music. Joey Blundell (USC, ‘20) is a software engineer by day but sings with the Cathedral Choir in Seattle. Michael Caraher (St. Olaf’s, ‘20) now works in public relations, and has returned to the St. Paul’s choir as the tenor section lead (Caraher is also Matthews’ protege as an organist–she was his first teacher, and he ultimately studied organ at both Interlochen and St. Olaf’s). Matthews speaks of each of her students with great fondness.
The choir school welcomes people of all faiths, and Matthews emphasizes its openness to everyone. “The approach at St Paul's–being part of the Episcopal tradition–it’s a very welcoming and open place.” The choir’s repertoire focuses on Anglican and sacred music, but Matthews points out the relevance of religious music to anyone with an interest in music: “The history of music is really anchored in sacred music. So to have a broad understanding of Western classical music, you really need to know the sacred music.”
Children can join starting as young as age five. How do you know if your child is ready? Every child is different, and Matthews uses a brief, friendly audition to gauge readiness. “The main reason for those auditions for those young children is not that they need to have any music or choral experience,” Matthews explains. “But do they have the attention span? And is it really something they like to do or is it just something their mother thinks it'd be a good idea?” (I laugh a little bit here: I am that mother, but my son had just enough interest of his own to carry him.)
The choir school accepts new members in January (now!) and September. The school is supported in part by tuition (about $400 per semester; the exact amount depends on the age group), but need-based scholarships are available. For more information, visit the St. Paul’s Choir webpage. (Or ask me!)
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