There were so many choirboys in the 1960s, says Ian Roberts of St John’s Church, Ranmoor, that there were regular football matches between teams of Sheffield choristers.
These days, they’d be hard pushed to form a Yorkshire league, with only three boys choirs in the whole of the Sheffield Diocese.
“We’re the only parish church in Sheffield with a boy’s choir,” said Ian. “It’s one of the largest choirs in the north with 18 members, and it is quite hard work to recruit.”
St John’s has kept up a strong musical tradition since its consecration in 1879, and is one of the few Yorkshire churches to employ a professional musical director to manage the girls, boys and adult choirs, and to operate a programme of international tours and visits to local schools to inspire primary children to sing. The church has over 60 choristers on its books, from adults down to children aged seven.
In November, the church trialled a free ‘Singing Club’ for four-to-seven year olds, which attracted over a dozen young singers, and their parents.
“Starting in the choir is hard work with a lot of commitment involved, although we hope it’s still fun. The Singing Club is more casual, and aims to give the youngest children a taster in having fun making music,” said Ian. “We wanted to help them find their voice, and start to teach them a little bit about the language of music at a basic fun level.”
The club has been hampered by snow in recent weeks, but last Saturday morning saw the first session of the New Year. Ian and pianist Rufus Brodersen were joined by volunteer choral enthusiast Tom Dakin.
“The church has a marvellous reputation for singing,” said Tom Dakin. “Choral music can be magnificent and I think young people are interested in that. If a fellow finds his voice, he’ll say: ‘Well, I might as well use it.’”
The Singing Club is open to boys and girls with no prior experience of singing, and parents are encouraged to join in if they wish. The church has both boys and girls choirs, both of which take part in services and in regular tours around the UK and Europe. Teaching music to people as young as four can be “challenging” admits Ian Roberts.
“You can’t depend on the child being experienced at reading words, for example, so we use simple games of engaging and instilling principles of music.” And lots of patience.
Some four year olds find laying on the carpet more interesting than how to spot a semibreve, for example. But marching around the room, finger actions and songs involving penguins appear to hit the mark.
Although the St John’s choirs take children from the ages of about seven or eight, younger children aren’t ready for the rigours of twice weekly choir practice after school and Sunday services.
“Being in the choir is a fantastic musical education second to none,” said Ian Roberts. “And we now know that music generally helps with concentration, and it’s a physical activity that’s good for your health.”
Parent Emma Richards noted that her own son, five year old James, came to the Singing Club not just because he loves to sing.
“He had a problem enunciating words, so it helped his confidence to sing together in a group, and it’s been valuable in helping his speech too.”
James said: “I like singing with other people, because it’s louder.”
Singing is gaining popularity partly due to the influence of television, and partly due to the increased interest in making your own music rather than just buying and listening, Ian believes.
“There are lots of other activities for young people now, but I think singing and being in a choir is an amazing experience for young people,” he said. “That feeling you get as a young chorister to soar above all the other voices is an amazing experience, there’s nothing quite like it.”
When the choirs go on tour, the young singers voluntarily recite their programme at the back of the coach: “Led by a couple of seven year olds,” Ian remembers.
“And last year they ended up singing Edward Bairstow’s ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ in a Parisian restaurant,” he says. “The French diners were vaguely amused and bewildered, but the children loved it.”
The free St John’s Singing Club is at Ranmoor Parish Rooms on Saturdays from 10am to 11.15am. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07730 226874 to take part.