It is 9:15am on a weekday morning in midtown Manhattan, and 12 of St. Thomas Choir School's 36 students are already neatly arranged around a rehearsal room piano. They are working through a particularly tricky musical passage they will sing Sunday at the Easter worship service at Saint Thomas Church, a French Gothic marvel nearby. Saint Thomas Church has the only church-affiliated boarding school in North America especially for choir boys.
On Easter, the boys, who range in age from 8-14, will wear ancient black and scarlet robes topped with ruffled collars. Today, each wears a spotless (well, almost spotless) white shirt with the Saint Thomas Choir School coat of arms on the breast pocket.
Each boy holds a well-worn choral manuscript in his hands and, as he sings, glances up every few beats at Gerre Hancock, the gentle choirmaster who has guided St. Thomas choirboys through compositions every year since 1972.
"We're getting lots of anthems, special motets, plus hymn arrangements that are sort of fancified Easter hymns for the great services of Easter day," Mr. Hancock explains. "But before Easter Day comes, we have six days, beautiful days, of different events commemorated from the Bible. The story of Jesus and his passion and there are specific pieces we do for those services too."
Boys who are admitted to St. Thomas Choir School must first perform well on a written test for academic skills, and then pass a highly competitive audition conducted by Gerre Hancock and headmaster Gordon Roland-Adams, who once ran London's Westminster Abby Choir School.
Mr. Roland-Adams finds it difficult to define exactly what qualities convince him that a child is 'St. Thomas material.' "You know it when you see it. And you don't often see it. It's something about the look in the eye. Something about the self-confidence," he says. "Let me tell you this - We're not just looking for nightingales. Sometimes, boys with beautiful voices and no musical intelligence can be terrible because they can't sing the right notes. So we're looking for potential. We were looking for a good musical ear. The nightingale part will come later through Dr. Hancock's training."
Young people come here for many reasons. Some are born to musical families. Others want the academic opportunities a private school such as St. Thomas can offer. Some boys are spiritually inclined. Others, like Daniel Birch, simply love to sing. "I was always really really close with God and stuff. Not that the music really makes me that close, but it's just kind of beautiful and it sounds so good," he says.
Not that these boys don't know how to play. There is a strong athletic program at the school, and many trip's to the city's cultural attractions. A rehearsal piano, for example, is covered with little busts of composers, cartoon-like choirs made of painted stones rock concerts and plush animals like "Nunc" named for a special Easter song. Everyone's current favorite is a feline named "Magnifi-CAT!"
"She can only screech like a cat. And she always wants to try out for a solo but she never gets it," says one student. "MEOW!" replies the rest of the choir before they burst into laughter and return to rehearsing.
To this reporter, every one of these boys appears happy, healthy, talented and nice! "They get a lot of things by osmosis," says headmaster Gordon Roland-Adams. "We have a prayer before every single meal we have here. They have a weekly theology lesson. They have to go to the altar every Sunday morning at least to receive the blessing and most of them receive the Sacrament. So there's implied in the life really. And of course all the words they sing are always sacred words. And that has to have an impact."
For some of these boys, this will be the last Easter Service they sing with the St. Thomas Choir, because their voices will deepen with puberty. But this year, these "nightingales" will continue to rehearse - and make beautiful music for Easter Sunday.
Photographs courtesy of St. Thomas Choir School.