When I was 12, the headmaster’s daughter set me on fire. We were filming Songs of Praise in Lincoln Cathedral, and the candle she was carrying nudged the tip of the hood on my cassock. We both emerged unscathed through this, what was just another day in the life of a cathedral chorister in the early 2000s.
I was a chorister at Lincoln Cathedral for six years where, for the last 750, there has been a boys’ choir, and for the last 23, a girls’ choir. During my time, I had a bit-part in The Da Vinci Code, learnt the Lord’s Prayer in Czech, lit an Advent candle in front of 200 people on my eighth birthday, and became programmed to only be able to sing the descant of any given Christmas carol.
Being a chorister gave me the best training in how to be an adult that any child of seven could have asked for
I’d like to say that it was bliss, but it wasn’t always. Lincoln Cathedral is one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, but it is also extremely cold and windy. We had cloaks to
wear midwinter, but the choral master generally determined that these, like wearing mufti to school, were a distraction, and they were mostly unused.
The candle incident of 2005 came to mind this week as the opera singer Lesley Garrett called for King’s College Choir in Cambridge, which is boys-only, to admit girls. Of course girls should be choristers – why not? But for me, it’s not that all-male choirs are part of the great gender privilege war, designed to “perpetuate a dominant male gender stereotype”, as Garrett puts it. No, it’s about the equality of an extraordinary opportunity.
Being a chorister gave me the best training in how to be an adult that any child of seven could have asked for. I had to be in a place, at a time – or else. It was a commitment as much as any job, with few perks – apart from the wonder of actually doing it. As being a left-handed only child from a military family is part of my identity, so is having been a (girl) chorister. I partly grew up in that building.
When I joined in 2001, I remember Salisbury Cathedral as being the other place with a dedicated girls’ choir. Indeed, Lincoln was only the second cathedral, in 1995, to take girls after Salisbury. The concept was so new that there were still old girls from the original cohort in the sixth form. There are now girls singing, one way or another, in 37 cathedrals of the 44 in England.
The answer isn’t for choirs to take girls as part of their line-ups, but, where they are lacking, to start a girls’ unit to alternate with the boys. Think what an opportunity that would be.
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