They sounded like angels as their clear high voices echoed throughout the empty church. Alas, not angels, but the boys of the Cathedral of All Saints Choir of Men and Boys in rehearsal. They were working on Handel’s “Messiah,” which they performed in early December.
“Focus on the ‘lu’ in Hallelujah,” said Woodrow Bynum, their director. “You want the sound to float.”
The 13 boys, who all sing as sopranos and range in age from six to 14, stood in the transept area of the church attentively holding their scores. They tried again with better results. Bynum is a demanding director. A professional bass, he knows what a voice can do and works the boys to cover phrasing, diction, listening carefully to each other, pitch, and staying alert. But he is also encouraging, supportive and engages them with humor. He often sings their lines to demonstrate what he wants.
“He’s inspiring,” said Jacob Rogers, 10, who attends A. W. Becker Elementary School in Selkirk.
His brother Logan, 14, a freshman at La Salle Institute in Troy, agreed.
Both have been in the choir for four years and joined after their music teachers suggested they might like it. Armed only with knowing how to read music, they were a little wary at first.
“But we attended a group for novices that summer and the other boys created a nice environment for us,” Jacob said. “Now, it’s fun and our mom likes all the opportunities we get.”
Some of the opportunities can mean starring roles in operas. That’s been Oliver Nathanielsz’s good fortune. He’s been in the choir since he was seven and now at 14 and a freshman at Albany Academy for Boys, he’s been appearing in operas (Opera Saratoga, Dallas Opera, Seagle Colony) and theater (Capital Repertory) since he was 10.
“Singing in the choir has been a great musical education,” Nathanielsz said. “We do music from the Baroque to something written barely a year and a half ago. It’s the coolest thing.”
He’d already been taking piano and some voice lessons when a teacher suggested he check out the choir. At first, his biggest challenge was standing for rehearsals and all the performances.
“I couldn’t stand for more than four minutes at a time,” he said, something Jacob and Logan teased about that they had never passed out.
As he became used to the schedule, which includes five hours of weekly rehearsal and the several performances, it all became less onerous.
“I developed a passion that became not a hardship but something I love deeply,” Nathanielsz said. “And the choir has taught me time management.”
His mother, Heidi, said the discipline has also helped him to mature.
“The choral training is superb,” she said, “but he’s also learned to function in an adult world.”
Because joining the choir is a commitment. It is after all, a paid gig and attrition is rare, Bynum said. When a boy’s voice changes and if there’s an opening in the Men’s choir, he can join as an alto. The choir, founded in 1872, is the oldest in this country that continues to perform.
“We’ll hear anyone who wants to be in the choir,” Bynum said. “Ideally, he should be at least ten years old. But it all depends on the boy. We listen for music aptitude and if they’re a good book reader because language can be a barrier if they’re too young. We want them to contribute right away and not blend into the background but to feel empowered to project their personality.”
There is no actual audition. (Call the church if interested.)
“We might ask them to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ There’s an octave leap in there,” Bynum said teasingly. “And read from a book or psalm.’
He works with the parents so the boy understands the work schedule, which can be unusually intense for a youngster, and that rehearsals are at night at the church, so car transport is essential.
“All are taken on an individual basis to get a good fit,” Bynum said.
Right now there are 13 boys who come from all over the Capital District. Two new boys from Niskayuna will be joining in January. (The Men and Boys currently numbers 30.) He can take up to 24 boys but his dictum is “quality over quantity.” In the summer before the season begins in September, Bynum will take the novices for an intensive weekend and later in August another weekend with all the boys to get prepared, play games and get to feel part of the team.
Bynum is a great believer in athletics.
“I recommend it. Musicians make really good athletes,” he said. “Singing is very athletic. Breathing is akin to swimming. And research has found that singers’ heartbeats line up in a choir. It’s a shared rhythm – a kind of telepathy.”
Once the season begins, Bynum finds the boys become extremely engaged especially at rehearsals.
“I began in 2007 as director,” he said, “and although you start from scratch each year, it’s amazing what can be achieved. “No one ever has told them how difficult the task is that they’re attempting to do. I set a bar impossibly high and they’ll make every effort to achieve it.”
Community support is huge.
“People believe in the choir. The expectation of excellence has been here long before I came,” Bynum said. “I feel I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Cathedral of All Saints Choir of Men and Boys
WHEN: Dec. 23: 3 p.m. Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; Dec. 24: 11 p.m. Midnight Mass; Jan. 6: 3 p.m. Choral Evensong; Feb. 10: 3 p.m. Choral Evensong
WHERE: Cathedral of All Saints, 62 South Swan Street, Albany
MORE INFO: 518-423-6779; www.cathedralofallsaints.org