New College choral scholar
My main concern when considering my application was whether the large number of weekly services were too big a commitment on top of an Oxford degree. However, since taking up my choral scholarship at New College, I instantly realised that my concerns were unfounded. Whereas the hustle and bustle and intensity of university life may be seen as a grind at times, singing almost daily services in beautiful surroundings is the perfect antidote. The services become a focus from which you plan your day; as a consequence, choral scholars end up working more efficiently, fitting in as much (if not more) academic and extra-curricular activities as other undergraduates. More often than not, the high standards instilled by the choir are transferred into the academic work of a choral scholar. At New College, the life of an academical clerk (choral scholar) is not too dissimilar from that of any other undergraduate at the college, apart from the two-hour window (5-7pm) for rehearsal and evensong. Two of the benefits of a scholarship are the excellent singing tuition we receive, and masterclasses given by the likes of Paul Farrington and James Gilchrist. (Paul Farrington is arguably London's leading vocal technician and coach, and James Gilchrist is one of the UK's best tenors, with a reputation extending well beyond this country.)
Out of term, invariably there is either a recording and/or a tour. Without the heavy holiday demands of a cathedral choir, New College choir is free to take on a range of exciting projects, whether it be performing Handel's Messiah in Amsterdam, or Haydn's Creation live on Estonian national radio! In my three years, I have toured eight times (twice with the Academy of Ancient Music) and recorded seven CDs, including Messiah and The Creation.
A choral scholarship is certainly a challenge, but rewarding. It is definitely an effective asset to university life and a perfect springboard into the musical profession.
Queen's College choral scholar
For aspiring female choral scholars, Oxford offers a great deal of choice. I auditioned for the Queen’s choir because of its excellent reputation and its fine music director, Dr Owen Rees, a noted conductor and early music specialist who has led the choir from strength to strength since his appointment.
My experience with the choir over the last three years has been extremely rewarding. Queen’s offers a healthy balance in terms of its time commitment, maintaining high musical standards while allowing choral scholars to devote ample time to their academic work through a routine of regular, but not daily, services, and an extremely broad repertoire. Each week, singers commit around seven hours in the form of three evensongs and four rehearsals, three of which are immediately before services and one of which is dedicated to concert repertoire. The choir’s activities also include concerts, special services, recordings, broadcasts, and an annual international tour.
The choir is arguably at its best in each term’s 7th week concert, when it joins ensembles such as the London Handel Orchestra to perform (in our beautiful neo-classical chapel) works demanding a high level of musicality and professionalism, drawing sell-out audiences and glowing reviews.
One of the choir’s greatest strengths lies in its singers’ diversity of experience. Choral scholars are selected on the basis of musical talent, commitment, and artistic potential, reflecting the ethos of the University’s academic selection process; and, while many first years emerge from the English choral tradition or comparable overseas backgrounds, some come up to Queen’s with little or no experience. The choir’s atmosphere is one that encourages rapid integration, however, and new choral scholars have always been successful at fitting into the musical routine and quickly growing in competence and skill, which in turn makes singing here more enjoyable, as the majority of rehearsal time is spent on interpretation, not note-learning. For the more experienced singer, there is ample scope for artistic development and performance exposure, and generous funds are provided to every choral scholar for singing lessons.
As an international student, I have felt at home in this choir because of its friendliness, good humour, and openness, an atmosphere that fosters close friendships within a tightly knit group of fine musicians. Among other excellent Oxford choirs, I believe that Queen’s offers a particularly unpretentious and rigorous musical environment in which any singer has the potential to flourish, and the skillset one gains as a choral scholar provides an excellent foundation for any career, musical or otherwise.
Queen's College choral scholar
My experience as a choral scholar at Queen’s has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable of my time at Oxford both musically and socially. As one of the finest mixed-voice university choirs in the UK, Queen’s provides a stimulating musical environment in which aspiring singers can flourish. Aside from the three evensong services per week, which form the main bulk of a Choral Scholar’s duties, I have had the opportunity to sing in world-famous venues such as Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Sheldonian Theatre, and to participate in the choir’s latest CD recording and in a recording session at Abbey Road studios for the soundtrack of a blockbuster film. I have also enjoyed performing in national festivals and touring internationally with the choir, most recently to Germany and the Low Countries. The most rewarding experience to date, though, was undoubtedly performing Bach’s Mass in B minor with the London Handel Orchestra to a packed chapel and to have been chosen as a soloist on this occasion. It was also gratifying to read the favourable review of this concert in the press, which gave credit for our hard work.
The extensive variety of chapel choirs which Oxford has to offer is a wonderful, yet also daunting, aspect of applying for a choral scholarship, but I also know that the choice may seem bewildering. It is important to ask yourself whether you would most enjoy singing several services per week in one of the prestigious all-male choral foundations or if you would prefer to join a mixed-voice choir, which would entail a smaller time commitment. Similarly, you will need to consider whether to apply for a choral scholarship in a professionally directed choir or in one conducted by a student organ scholar. I chose Queen’s due to its excellent reputation and because I wanted to sing in a choir which was directed by a leading musician and musicologist since I felt that this would help me to engage more effectively with the music. I have particularly enjoyed becoming familiar with a relatively little-known repertoire, that of Golden-Age Spain and Portugal, which reflects the interests of our director, as well as singing a rich variety of works from the standard choral repertory. Queen’s seemed to me to offer the optimum balance between high musical standards, achieved through a commitment of approximately seven hours per week, and allowing me to pursue other interests whilst still being able to devote ample time to academic work. Generous provisions for singing lessons and free meals after each service were welcome additions. In order to help you make your decision you might wish to consider attending the annual choral award open day, which includes the opportunity to meet current choral scholars and to take part in choral Evensong in one of the college chapels. Alternatively, you could sample a few services at a range of chapels in your own time, since members of the public are always welcome. Wherever you decide to apply, I’m sure that you will find the opportunity to participate in this important tradition of college life, with like-minded musicians and in beautiful surroundings, as rewarding as I have.