At what age should my son apply to Westminster Abbey?
The ideal time to apply is when he is in Year 3 with a view to starting in Year 4 after his eighth birthday. We sometimes have vacancies at a later stage and we have occasionally accepted boys into Year 5 or even for an exceptional candidate, into Year 6, so it is always worth giving us a ring.
When are the auditions?
These take place throughout the year. We find that it is much more effective to bring in a few boys at a time, rather than holding mass auditions just a couple of times a year. They take place on a normal school day so that we can see boys within the context of a class. It also allows the candidates themselves to get a more realistic feel of life at the school.
How do I know if my son is the right standard for the Abbey Choir?
The best way is to come for an informal hearing. James O’Donnell, Organist, and Master of the Choristers will listen to your son sing and he will make an initial assessment, following which he will write to you with his impressions. There will then be an opportunity to discuss the best way forward.
Where do boys typically come from?
The simple answer is: all over the country. We have a significant number who live in or around London, but equally, we have boys from much further afield, and sometimes from abroad. It is helpful, especially in the early stages, if there is a relative or family friend not too far away so that boys in the first year are able to go out at weekends before they start to sing full-time in the Abbey Choir, though we can always accommodate them at school if needs be.
Do most boys come from independent schools?
No, the majority come to us from primary schools, where often it is a music teacher who has spotted a likely candidate.
What if we are not Church of England? Do you take boys from other religions or even of no religion?
Obviously, it is important that boys are able to take a full part in the Christian services of the Abbey, but we make no stipulation as to a particular denomination, nor are all boys necessarily baptised when they arrive. It is important, too, for parents to feel that they can support their sons in singing services.
My son hasn’t done any of this sort of singing before. Does that matter?
No. In fact, the majority of boys come with very little prior experience in singing church music. What they do have is a love of singing and an interest in taking part.
How do I find out if Westminster Abbey Choir School is right for my son?
Why not come and visit us? The Headmaster, Peter Roberts, will be pleased to meet you, to discuss the way in which the school works and to show you around. We can often put you in touch with existing parents who will give you another insider’s perspective of the school.
What would happen if, after he has started, we all think that we’ve made a terrible mistake?
We take great care over the admissions process and we do everything we can to avoid this situation. Normally, even if it takes a little time to settle in, boys do very quickly find their feet and they thrive. If we were to think that a boy was genuinely unhappy or that he was really struggling to keep up it is important that we should openly discuss our concerns. We are much aware that boys come to choristership in very different ways, and some take longer than others to find their feet. That’s fine and we always seek to take the long view, supporting and gently encouraging.
We have no experience of independent education. Can he move back into a state school when he leaves?
The simple answer is that he can indeed move back into the state sector, but it would be into Year 9 at the age of 13 since choristership here is a commitment until 13. Where places are available at that stage, former Abbey choristers have done extremely well in the maintained sector and they have found the transition remarkably easy. Many, however, decide that, although it may not have been something they had anticipated, the opportunity to continue in an independent school with a scholarship and/or bursary is too valuable a chance to miss.
How should I start the process?
The best way to start is to telephone Miss Jennifer Benjamin, Headmaster’s PA and Admissions Officer. She will be able to send you further details and arrange a mutually convenient time when you can either come to visit or bring your son for an informal hearing. She will also be able to reserve you privileged seating at a choral service in the Abbey when you and your son can see firsthand what it might be like to sing in the Abbey Choir. You might also be interested in your son attending one of our regular Chorister Experience days. Miss Benjamin will be able to give you all the details.
Miss Jennifer Benjamin
T. 020 7654 4918
What sort of music should my child prepare?
He should come with a song or a hymn to sing – one that he enjoys and feels confident with. There is no need for it to be anything complicated. It can just be something he has sung at school, perhaps. If he has started to play an instrument he should bring it to his main audition day. Once again, there is no need to bring something complicated or over-advanced. We are looking for potential and musical instincts and we would much rather hear a piece played musically than to hear something that is artificially impressive.
How long will the audition last?
The informal hearing will only last about 10 – 15 minutes. It allows an initial impression to be formed, but more importantly, it means that when boys return for the more formal audition, they will already have seen Mr. O’Donnell and will feel confident with him. The formal audition usually lasts for the whole school day (09:30 to 15:30) as it involves academic work as well as music. We like it to be a relaxed day with plenty of opportunities for breaks and playtime too.
What are you looking for in a chorister?
Fundamentally we are looking for a boy with a clear, pleasant treble voice and a good ear. He needs to have access to his ‘head voice’ but there is no need for him to have had any specific training or vocal coaching; indeed his singing should be natural. He needs to be quick on the uptake and he needs to be a good team member. Most of all, he needs, on some level at least, really to want to sing. He may not know yet what that would involve but he needs to have an instinct to take up the challenge.
What if we cannot suddenly afford the fees?
There is a bursary trust fund to cover just this eventuality. The grant is means tested and the trustees will always seek to assist with unexpected emergencies of this sort.