Letters From Mr. Sheranian
A Letter for the Great Feasts
Sunday June 8 will be the final Sunday in the choral term. This time of year is always bittersweet for me, as I am usually somewhat reluctant for the choir year to end; but this year I feel a bit more prepared for a break than in previous years, due to the challenges of the restoration project. Choirs, like most organizations and individuals, crave routines. The construction has disrupted many of the cherished routines of the choir. I'd like to explore just three ways in which the choir's routine has been affected, and how we have tried to cope with it. I'll conclude with a brief word about the choir camp planned for late July.
The Gym: The boys have not been able to play in the gymnasium since the autumn, because it is currently being used as a carpentry shop and general storage space for the contractors. At first, I didn't think this would be such a problem, but as the year has progressed, I have begun to realize how important the gym is in the life of the choir. A safe, indoor, dedicated basketball court for urban boys to use before and after rehearsals and services is an enormous asset. Not having use of it has been a bitter pill for the choir to swallow. When the gym is open, most boys arrive early to play basketball, which means that I can work with them in small groups on their music skills during that time. Since we lost use of the gym, the boys simply arrive right before (or after!) rehearsal begins, thus significantly shortening the amount of time I have to work with the boys on their music literacy and vocal technique. The other benefit of the gym is simply the fact that the boys expend a lot of physical energy while playing basketball, and are then ready to take on the mental demands of choir rehearsal, with at least some of their physical energy burned off. We are eager to see the return of this crucial tool in the life of a boy choir.
The Staircase: Since the Sunday after Easter, the choir has had to cope with another challenge: how to get from the choir room to the choir stalls in the chancel. Since we lost use of the central staircase, the only way to get from the choir room to the church is to go out the undercroft door, turn right on Lombard Street, turn right on Bushnell Street, walk the length of the church property, turn right on Ashmont Street, and turn at the main door of the church, and then walk down the center aisle of the church and directly into the choir stalls - which, ironically, are essentially directly above the choir room! It means that the choir is spending a lot more time walking in procession. And we are praying for dry weather!
The Organs: The lack of pipe organs has impacted us all, so this particular difficulty is not unique to the choir, but it has nevertheless had a huge impact on the music making here at Ashmont. It is also good for us to remember the many churches in this country and worldwide that are not as lavishly blessed as we are at All Saints. Most churches would be thrilled with one pipe organ, and we are blessed to have two of them, because of the demands of our musical and liturgical heritage. Nevertheless, worshiping for the entire choral term without a pipe organ to support the congregational singing and choral music has been a significant obstacle to overcome. There is nothing like the sound of a beautiful pipe organ giving support, lending color, and providing energy and drive to a choir. It's a winning combination that continues to inspire and excite. Now that the summer is upon us, and the completion of the restoration work is drawing closer, I know we all join together in giving thanks for the rich musical resources with which God has so richly endowed our parish.
To conclude, I'll share the news of the choir's movements this coming summer. A group of the choristers (along with Jeff Gonyeau, Trevor Sullivan, and yours truly) will be traveling to the Adirondacks to attend the 2nd Annual Ashmont Boy Choir Camp, on location at St. John's Church, Essex, NY. The generous people of that church have agreed to host our choir again. The boys are hosted by families at the church, in beautiful lakeside homes. All the meals are graciously provided for us, in the form of lunches at the church and dinners at various homes in the area. It is a great chance for the boys to grow together as a group, to develop and hone musical skills, and to have fun in the beauty of God's creation. Last year the boys enjoyed afternoon activities that included swimming, kayaking, hiking, and boating. This year's choir camp will start on Thursday, July 24, and will conclude after the Sunday mass on the 27th.
A Letter for Holy Week & Easter
On Sunday, March 23, we continued our collaboration with the choir of men and boys of St. Paul Church, Harvard Square, by offering a service of Evensong here at All Saints. In January we traveled to Harvard Square to join the St. Paul's Choir for a service of Vespers. The St. Paul's Choir School just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and we have enjoyed playing a small part in helping them to commemorate this milestone. I gather from some parishioners of long standing that the relationship between the two choirs goes back decades: that the St. Paul's boys would often come sing at All Saints for feast days and special occasions, but that for one reason or another, the collaborations ceased. John Robinson (the Director of Music at St. Paul's) and I are thrilled to have been able to revive the relationship, and look forward to our biannual joint ventures. Having only two liturgical boy choirs in the Boston area, both John and I feel very strongly that the two choirs do everything possible to support and encourage one another.
One of the things that sets our choir apart from most boy choirs (including the St. Paul's Choir) is that when a boy's voice changes, he is allowed, nay, encouraged to keep singing through his voice change. And once his voice has settled into a lower range, he is welcomed enthusiastically into the ranks of the altos, tenors, and basses. The vast majority of boy choirs don't have the personnel, the interest, or the dedication of time necessary to help boys through their voice change. This incredibly traumatic time for a boy, when everything in his physical world is changing at a rapid pace, then becomes even more emotionally jarring because a cherished component of that boy's life (his identity as a chorister) is then, in some cases, unceremoniously severed from him at a difficult time. We are very proud that our choir fosters the continued involvement of our teen boys, and their contribution to the choir cannot be overstated.
The teen boys help to keep the choir culture alive and thriving. It's the older boys who have all the stories and the memories of what choir was like "back in the day," and take pride in helping to pass along choir traditions. They help to buoy up the spirits of the younger boys and, in turn, the younger boys look up to and admire the older boys. They see that when their voices change, they will have a future in the choir, because there are living examples of just that. The older boys in the choir understand their respective roles as mentors to the younger boys, and can often help in ways that no adult could ever hope to. For instance, at a recent Thursday rehearsal, a young probationer was clearly having a difficult time during rehearsal. I observed, while running the rehearsal, one of the teen boys take the probationer aside, and quietly talk with him about what was bothering him until he felt better and was able to re-join the rehearsal with the other boys. Since the teen boys have "been there, and done that," their advice and encouragement retains a potency unique to their cohort.
We have also benefited musically from the teen boys. In the past three and a half years, the choir has grown from four basses and two tenors, to twelve basses and six tenors. The richness of sound in the lower voices helps to support the sound of the treble boys and lays a solid foundation upon which to build the sound of the choir.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the teen boys' involvement in the choir is the simple fact that the boys stay connected with a safe, positive, spiritually and intellectually stimulating environment, and are treated with respect. It is just at that time when a boy's voice changes that he needs the choir the most. I am very proud that this parish understands and appreciates the importance of keeping our teen boys in the choir. Keep them in your prayers, greet and thank them for their involvement in the church, and express your gratitude for their beautiful music.
Andrew P. Sheranian
This letter from Mr. Sheranian is decorated with photos from the 2012 Montréal Choir Course. More photos may be found here.
A Lenten Letter
In recent months, there has been some disturbing news from "across the pond." In December, we learned that the choir of Llandaff Cathedral in Wales was to lose its alto, tenor, and bass sections to budget cuts, leaving the treble boys to sing all the services without support from the lower voices. This was done to save money, as the cathedral is strapped for cash. More recently, there has been more news that the fate of some other English cathedral choirs hangs in the balance, as the powers that be make difficult financial decisions - often (and sadly) on the backs of the choirs that have attracted pilgrims and worshippers for, in some cases, over a thousand years.
In this country, we have noticed a sharp decline in the numbers of church-affiliated boy choirs. When our choir of men and boys was established 125 years ago, there were thousands of boy choirs singing for Sunday services at most Episcopal churches in this country. Over the course of the 20th century, most of them fell by the wayside. As recently as ten years ago, there were approximately thirty choirs of men and boys singing for weekly services at Episcopal churches in the US. Unfortunately, the number of active, thriving choirs of men and boys is now under twenty. The All Saints' Choir is the last remaining Anglican liturgical boy choir in Massachusetts.
I bring attention to this not to alarm or disturb, but to point out the fragility and increasing rarity of a boy choir, and to thank you for your help in nurturing, fostering, and supporting the work of the choir. Recently, we have had some success in recruiting new boys - four new trebles since October. And, I have been very heartened by the response of the congregation. On a recent Sunday, a prospective new treble attended church with his mother, and I was grateful to observe many members of the congregation make the family welcome, voluntarily describe the benefits of choir membership, and to express pride in the choir. It's this kind of support that keeps our choir healthy and thriving. The choir depends on the support of the entire congregation, and I know that is why the choir is thriving today, bucking national, even global trends.
So, thank you!
Since this is the Lenten issue of the Chronicle, I hope you will allow me to suggest a congregation-wide Lenten discipline: more robust and enthusiastic singing of the hymns! Since we are operating with somewhat of a handicap with our current "organ" (as the Estey reed organ in the ante-chancel is our only instrument for the time being), it is even more important that every parishioner open The Hymnal, and raise a joyful noise unto the Lord. Congregational singing is meant to be loud and raucous. I know we are lacking in accompanimental support from our organs, and having an organ to buoy up the singing is helpful, but nevertheless, I call upon each of you to help the choir lift up our voices in sacred song.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Christmas
One of the many privileges I have here at All Saints is the opportunity to work with talented young organists. Our rare music program gives young organists a chance to learn the skills of choral accompaniment, hymn playing, and organ repertoire on a week-to-week basis. The position of Organ Scholar at Ashmont is beneficial to three entities: it provides a rigorous musical education to those in the position; it opens a space in our common life for a young musician to assist our music program; but perhaps most importantly, this position helps to foster and develop the next generation of organists and choirmasters in the church. Former All Saints' Organ Scholars have gone on to be organists at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (NYC), and the municipal organist in Yokohama, Japan; not to mention yours truly here at All Saints! Christian Haigh, our current Organ Scholar, has been with us since August.
Born in Reading in the United Kingdom, Christian was first introduced to the organ during his time as a boy chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Christian continued his studies as a Music, HSBC and Choral Scholar at Tonbridge School.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, Christian spent a gap year, first for a term as Organ Scholar at Saint Thomas' Church Fifth Avenue, in New York City (with John Scott), and after that for a term as Organ Scholar of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia.
During his time in Australia, Christian performed alongside groups such as the Australian Boys' Choir and The Vocal Consort, and has made two recordings for the Organ Historical Trust of Australia. He performed several recitals in both Melbourne and Sydney, including venues such as St Paul's Cathedral (Melbourne), St Michael's Uniting Church (Melbourne), and St Andrew's (Sydney). His trip also included a performance of selections from Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna with Morgan State University Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Choir at 24 hours' notice.
Christian has played various recitals in England, including recitals at Winchester and Coventry Cathedral, St Mary's Church (Streatley), Minster Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Mary's Butts (Reading), and The Guild Church of St Lawrence Jewry (London). Christian also performed a recital including the Suite by Maurice Duruflé at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (New York) and gave a performance in South Africa while on a school exchange there. Last summer Christian performed at the Royal Albert Hall in Nottingham.
Besides playing the organ, Christian played clarinet in his school's symphony orchestra, sang in the chapel choir, and accompanied three musicals. Christian is currently an undergraduate at Harvard University and will be spending winter break performing in the Bach Institute for Emmanuel Music.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Advent
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, I'd like to report on the choir's activities in the past few months, and to look ahead at the coming year.
The beginning of the choral term coincided with the removal of the chancel organ and of the installation of a protective covering of the C.B. Fisk Organ, Opus 103. This has meant that we have been without a pipe organ since the beginning of September. As a temporary instrument, the church purchased and restored a two-manual and pedal reed organ, built by the Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, VT. The organ was most likely purchased for use in a small church approximately 100 years ago, and then subsequently found its way to a private home on the South Shore. From this residence, the reed organ was moved to an organ repair shop in Waltham to be restored, and then just in time for the beginning of the choir year, was moved into place on the epistle side of the ante-chancel, where it stands to lead both congregational singing and to provide choral accompaniment.
The reed organ also does an admirable job at playing organ repertoire; but, because of its limited size and tonal palette, the selections of organ repertoire have necessarily been somewhat limited. Also, since the last issue of The Chronicle, the chancel organ chamber has been emptied of its contents; Skinner Organ Company, Opus 708 has been moved from storage in the undercroft to the workshop in Waltham; and restoration work on this beautiful instrument is underway. Working as your musician without a pipe organ is a challenge, I must say. However, when I remember that in just over a year's time, we will have two world-class pipe organs of different styles to help lead worship, it puts everything in perspective.
In addition to the choir's weekly routine of rehearsals and masses, the choir took the "show on the road" a couple of times this autumn. On September 29, the choir traveled to S. Stephen's Church (a fellow Anglo-Catholic parish) on the campus of Brown University in Providence, RI, where the choir sang a service of Solemn Evensong, Procession and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. We were grateful for the warm welcome by the rector, Fr. John D. Alexander and curate, Fr. Blake Sawicky, and to our dear friend James Busby (organist and choirmaster) who extended gracious hospitality and accompanied the choir at Evensong.
As has become our custom, the choir also traveled to All Saints' Church in Worcester for Evensong on the Sunday after All Saints' Day. The two like-named churches have enjoyed this collaboration for the past three years, and the two choirs joined forces to sing music of Howells, Bainton, and Radcliffe. Graeme McCullough, the director of music at Worcester, was our host, guest conductor and accompanist. The Worcester Choir will join us again – here at Ashmont – for Candlemas.
To conclude, I would ask for your help with two things.
1: Open your hymnal and sing the hymns heartily! Now that the Fisk Organ is unplayable, I am seated at the reed organ during the singing of hymns. From that vantage point, I can look out at the congregation and see who is holding an open hymnal and who is not. As you can imagine, I want to see every person in the church with an open hymnal during the hymns. As I occasionally say to the boys, "Fake it 'til you make it!"
2: We are hoping to recruit a few more boys this year. With the help of some industrious parishioners, we have a few new probationers coming down the line (thank you!), but we are, as ever, constantly on the look-out for potential choirboys. Boys in Grades 3-6 are the ideal age. If you know of a local family with a boy in that category, please talk to his parents and then pass on their contact info to me. It is an enormous help. Thank you in advance.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Michaelmastide
I write to give you a report of the choir's choir camp experiences this past summer. On July 25, twelve choirboys (along with three choirmen and yours truly) traveled from Boston to Essex, NY. Essex is a charming, sleepy town on the banks of Lake Champlain in the Adirondack region. The quickest way to travel to Essex from Boston is to drive up through Vermont to Burlington, and then to take a ferry across Lake Champlain. Once we arrived in Essex, we were greeted by the rector and people of St. John's Church. There we spent three and a half beautiful days with perfect mid-summer weather. Morning rehearsals were followed by healthy lunches. During the afternoons, the boys went hiking, swimming, kayaking, and motor boating. Accommodation was provided by the generous parishioners at St. John's, most of whom live on picturesque, lakeside estates. Each evening, a different family provided dinner for the boys at their beautiful homes; and each evening after dinner, the boys sang Compline for our hosts at dusk. On our last evening in Essex, we sang Evensong for the townspeople; and on Sunday morning, the choir sang the Sunday mass at St. John1s, followed by a lavish brunch. The people in Essex were openly moved by the boys' presence among them, and expressed their ardent desire to repeat the choir camp next summer. We are very grateful to the Rev. Margaret Shaw, rector of St. John's, and all the fine people in the parish for their generosity, kindness, and extravagant hospitality. I am also personally very grateful to Jeffrey Gonyeau, Michael Raleigh, and Trevor Sullivan for taking the time to chaperon the trip and to help with many of the details of the choir camp.
After mass on July 28, we drove from Essex, NY to Princeton, NJ (through hateful traffic and torrential downpours), where 15 boys and men from our choir attended the Montreal Boys' Choir Course. This is the course that had taken place in Canada for so many years, but was moved to the States because of the fact that nearly all the participants in the course are Americans. This year, the course was held on location at the Lawrenceville School, just south of Princeton. Each year, the course chooses a theme, around which the music and the activities of the week are centered. This year the theme was the Holy Ghost, and we spent a week singing about and exploring the work of God the Holy Ghost. Our main musical challenge was the monumental motet, "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf" by Johann Sebastian Bach. This week of intensive musical training and singing is transformational for our boys, and is a great way for them to rub shoulders with boys from other choirs who are engaged in the same kind of musical ensemble that they are. The week in Princeton culminated in Sunday Mass and Evensong, which were sung in the air-conditioned comfort of Miller Chapel, on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. After 10 days of back-to-back choir camps, the boys (and I!) were ready to come back to Boston!
And now, looking ahead. On Sunday, September 29, the choir will travel to S. Stephen's Church in Providence to sing a service of Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at 5:00 pm. It is particularly fitting for our two parishes to come together in this way, as we share in the catholic expression of the faith. If you find yourself in Providence that day, please make a point to come support the choir.
As always, we are looking to recruit a few more boys (grade 3 through 6) for the choir. If you have a Facebook account, please go the Ashmont Boy Choir page. There you can see pictures and video from the choir camps this summer. Click like and share our recruitment flyer with all your Boston contacts. Please help us spread the word about this unique opportunity for local boys.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for the Great Feasts
I write to let you know the choir's summer plans. First, some background is in order. Several years ago I was asked to play an organ recital in Essex, NY, a sleepy little town on Lake Champlain, south (and across the lake) of Burlington, VT. The Community Church in Essex hosts a summer organ recital series. During my first visit there in 2011, the rector of the neighboring Episcopal Church invited me to dinner at the rectory, along with the music director of the church and a few members of the choir. They asked about my work here at All Saints, and we began to formulate the idea of starting a summer music camp for our choirboys, hosted by the clergy and people of St. John's Church in Essex. Being a small retirement and vacation community, summer is the time of year when that particular parish is operating at its peak, so the idea of hosting our boys for a choir camp at that time was a welcome one. The final plans are slowly coming into form at the current time. Jeff Gonyeau, Mike Raleigh (our Davison Fellow from the Harvard Glee Club), Trevor Sullivan, and I will travel up to Essex with about twelve of our choirboys on Thursday, July 25. There we will follow a daily routine of rehearsals, musicianship classes, fun activities, outings, picnics, etc. The boys will be hosted by members of St. John's Church, in home stays. Our time in Essex will conclude with an Evensong for the town on Saturday night, followed by Sunday morning mass, at which our choirboys will join with the small choir of St. John's Church.
On Sunday, July 28, after mass, we will depart from Essex, NY, bound for Princeton, NJ, where our choirboys will attend the week-long Montreal Boys' Choir Course in Princeton. As you may remember, Ashmont boys have attended the Montreal Course for the past two years, reviving a long standing tradition of Ashmont choirboys attending summer training courses run by the Royal School of Church Music in America. This year, the Montreal Course has been moved to Princeton, streamlining the travel process and making it possible for more American choirboys to participate in the course. Our boys will join nearly 70 other choirboys and teens from other men and boys choirs in this country for a week of music making, musicianship building, camaraderie, nutritious food, and fun. Some of our boys are already looking forward to working with Mr. Simon Lole (who directed the Montreal Course in 2011), sometime choirmaster at Salisbury Cathedral in England, who will be the Musical Director of the Course this year. Every year, the course chooses a theme, around which all the musical and social aspects of the course revolve. Last year the theme was "The Mass." This year, the theme is "The Holy Spirit." The majority of our rehearsal time will be spent working on Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental motet "Der Geist hilft unsere Schwachheit auf" as well as a few masterpieces of the English Cathedral repertoire.
In other news, we have recently formed a Choir Recruitment Committee, to address the most pressing concern of the music department. Our goal is to recruit five new choirboys before the end of the choir year on June 9. If you know of boy, grade 2-6, please reach out to me (617-436-3520, or firstname.lastname@example.org) with his and his parent's contact information so I can follow up and invite him to join the choir. Our Choir of Men and Boys is perhaps the most distinctive element of our common life, and yet, unless we join together and recruit now, its viability will be put in jeopardy. The choir needs your help. Please speak to your friends, relatives and neighbors about this unique opportunity for their sons. Thank you in advance.
Andrew P. Sheranian