Choir schools are special types of private schools that provide boys and girls with a rigorous musical and academic education. The students, who are generally in 4th through 8th grade, get a top-rate education, and they participate in professional-level choirs. Their education allows them to attend academically challenging high schools and to experience the joys of music. In addition, many graduates of choir schools go on to successful college and professional careers, in the music field and in other fields.
St. Thomas Choir School in New York City is the only residential church-affiliated boarding school for choristers. It was founded in 1919. It is for boys in grades 3 through 8 and is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The students are part of the world-renowned St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. The other residential choir school in the United States is the American Boy Choir School, founded in 1937 as the Columbus Boychoir and moved to its current 15-acre campus in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1950. The school accepts boys from around the country and the world for grades 4 through 8. There are fifty boys in the school, who have a regular academic schedule in addition to rigorous musical training. The school performs around the country, including at the New Jersey Opera, and it has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sixty-percent of its students receive financial aid, and its students go on to top high schools, such as Phillips Exeter, Phillips Andover, Lawrenceville, and others. About one-third of its students are people of color.
The Newark Boys Chorus School had a different origin. A fully accredited private school, it was founded in 1966 when the New Jersey Symphony and Garden State Ballet were looking for the voice of angels for the Dance of the Snowflakes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The response to the boys was incredibly positive, and their performances continued. The boys, who came from public and parochial schools, did not always have time for serious schoolwork, given their practice schedule, so trustees of the New Jersey Symphony helped found a new school in 1969, which later was named the Newark Boys’ Choir School.
The school currently educates about 80 boys in grades four through eight. Given the high quality of their education, 98% of the students go on to attend college. The academic program includes four periods a week dedicated to reading and a Friday period dedicated to writing. In addition, all eighth grade students have laptops.
The fourth and fifth grade students sing in the Apprentice Chorus in Newark-area schools, and the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade Concert Chorus performs in top venues all around the world and is known as Newark’s Musical Ambassadors. Recent students have toured Europe and have sung with Sting. Their repertoire includes traditional music and untraditional music such as songs by Michael Jackson, spirituals, and jazz.
The student body comes from Newark, and 68% of its students are on financial aid. Anwar Robinson, class of 1994, was a finalist on American Idol. Chorus gives these students a sense of mastery and confidence that they might not otherwise have.
Choir schools have a long and storied history in Europe, where the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches often had choir schools associated with famous churches such as St. Paul’s Cathedral. While the choir school tradition has declined a bit in recent years, there is no doubt that the choir schools in the United States provide a high-quality musical and academic experience that equips students with the ability to attend very strong high schools and colleges, that provides them with a sense of confidence and citizenship, and that allows them to be connected with professional musicians at a very young age.