Choir at a College Feast

Most members of the choir are undergraduates at Caius who read a wide range of Subjects across the Arts and Sciences.

There are normally 24 singers balanced roughly as follows:

  • 8-9 Sopranos
  • 4-5 Altos (female and male)
  • 4-5 Tenors
  • 5-6 Basses

Occasionally individual singers change voice parts as their voices continue to develop with age. Some choir members have been singing from an early age, perhaps as a boy or girl chorister in a Cathedral, but others have taken up singing only recently.

Each singer’s background and experience is taken into account at the audition stage, as is explained under Choral Awards. There is no particular type of voice that is looked for in a Caius choral scholar; for example, both pure-toned and more mature-sounding voices are welcome.

You can read below interviews with two choral scholars who give their different perspectives on being in the choir at Caius.

Caroline (Soprano) – medical student from Wycombe High School

You’ve been a member of the choir since arriving at Caius in 2014 – did you have a lot of singing experience when you auditioned?

No! I started getting into music when I was about ten – I began playing the clarinet at the end of primary school and carried on till 18. But I only really started singing when I was in year nine when I joined the school choir. I thought ‘this is fun – I’d like to get better at it’, but I didn’t start singing lessons till year 12. Then a year later I auditioned for Caius choir and here I am!

I didn’t start singing solo things until year 12 or 13. I just enjoyed it and thought it was probably a good thing: it helps your confidence and I was always quite shy at school.

At the end of my year 12, the school’s director of music said I should consider applying for a choral scholarship. I didn’t even know about them for girls: all you really hear about from Cambridge is King’s and John’s, which are all-male choirs, whereas Caius is mixed. I was thinking of applying to Caius anyway so it fitted.

What’s the process for applying for a choir place or a choral scholarship?

I had to fill in an online form asking about my experience of music and particularly singing and choral singing. It said it didn’t matter if you hadn’t had lots of experience of singing in Latin: even though that’s the expectation when you get here, it’s not a necessary prerequisite.

I then had two auditions here. The first one was in front of a panel of a few music directors in the Faculty of Music. First you practise with the organ scholar, then you go in and sing one of the pieces you’ve prepared. Then they give you some sight-reading and you do some aural tests. I found it quite hard - I’m not very good at ear tests and my sight reading didn’t go very well: I left saying “sorry”!

The second audition was in Caius in Dr Webber’s room. I sang several of my Grade 8 pieces and did more sight-reading of madrigals and a bit of a Magnificat. I thought, well, I’ve had a go, and at least I’m going to come here if I get my grades. But then I heard the next morning I’d been accepted.

Was that all your contact with the College till you began your studies here?

No – we were invited straight away to the “Handover Feast” – a unique Caius event where the old choir and all the new members come together, and you have to do a Chapel service, grace and madrigals.

I was quite nervous about coming up and wasn’t sure about it at all - I was worried it would be like a Year 7 vibe at secondary school, with all the new first years. But in fact all the years get on so well – particularly because in the choir you’re with a mix of people from different year groups. Your best friends in the choir are not necessarily in the same year as you.

Now you’re a choir member, what’s the weekly routine?

The choir sings at three Chapel services a week: Evensong on Tuesday and Sunday, and Eucharist on Thursday. There are 45-minute rehearsals before each service, and 55-minute rehearsals on Monday and Wednesday.

The services last around 45 minutes and you wear a cassock and surplice over your clothes and black shoes. I hadn’t worn a cassock and surplice before coming here, but a lot of the boys have because they’ve done a year in a cathedral. I’d sung in the school choir and the choir at our local music centre.

How easy has it been to adapt to the demands of being a choir member?

There’s a lot of sight-reading, and it’s a really fast pace of music learning, which I had kind of expected. We don’t do the same things in multiple services in a row. For 24 services, it’s a lot.

The biggest adaptation for me after a school choir was the sight-reading. Also, here you’re expected to have a lot of confidence to sing out, whereas I think I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t want to sing very loudly if I might make a mistake. But everyone sings out and if you make a mistake you just put your hand up which shows you know it was wrong and will look at it. It’s only 24 people and the expectation is that you do your part for the sound.

It is hard at first: in the first term all the first years lost their voices. Being expected to sing every day was quite different from what most of us had done, but you learn to sing properly so that you don’t lose your voice.

How would you sum up your choir experience?

It’s great. People said “you’re crazy to try and do medicine and choir – they’re such big time commitments”. But I wouldn’t have wanted to give up choir and I don’t think I’d have done much better academically - you just get more efficient at doing your work.

I really, really enjoy it – you get so much out of it, it’s such fun and so friendly and sociable. You do need to be interested because you need to give up the time, but if you love singing it’s such a rewarding thing to do.

Nick (Baritone) – from Magdalen College School in Oxford

You want to make singing your career. Did you start very young?

I was a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford – I followed my two brothers there.

I’m very much an institutionalised singer – I absolutely fell in love with it. Also my asthma was quite bad when I was younger and it helped my breathing.

I was a chorister from 7 to 13 and, just as with being a choral scholar from 18 to 21, it was such an important part of my musical education. After being a chorister I got really excited by the organ and became quite serious about it. But eventually I switched to singing, had a fantastic teacher and became completely obsessed. I considered applying to be an organ scholar, but really singing is what I always look forward to.

How has your time as a Caius music student and choral scholar advanced your music?

I’ve done some very disciplined practice over my time here. I’ve had all my singing lessons paid for and I’ve even been able to have lessons in London because my tutor here gave me travel expenses to learn with Patricia Rozario at the Royal College of Music. She’s really inspired me to become a singer.

What drives your passion for singing?

It’s such a human thing to do. This communication, it’s a very muscular and physical activity if you want to sing in a big space like an opera house or a concert hall. To sing over an orchestra it requires incredible physicality.

Then there’s musicality – I love music so that’s obviously one of the big attractions. I love performing, but maybe being a youngest brother I just want to get people’s attention and entertain them! It’s so wonderful – you take the audience’s energy and then you give it back, and that’s such an exciting thing. It’s emotionally exhausting but at the same time affirming. Singing is in a way the purest form of music.

Quite a number of choir members have gone on to become professional singers. How has your time in the choir helped you prepare for a singing career?

The routine of choir is a vocal training in itself. My teacher always says that the discipline of singing every day is the most important thing when learning to sing.

I’ve also received a superb musical education at Caius, which is a very musical college normally with five music students in each year. I applied here because of Geoffrey [Webber], who is the most wonderful tutor and the most efficient choir director I’ve ever come across (and not averse to going clubbing!).

What musical opportunities does the choir offer aside from the regular chapel services?

We’ve had incredible opportunities to record and to tour. There’s a very clear rhythm to the year: some repertoire we really work on for a CD project, which happens before a tour or after if things are too chaotic.

Last summer we recorded music from the Caius Choirbook [an early sixteenth-century choirbook containing music by Tudor composers] in a church in Ludlow, Shropshire. Recordings tend to take about four days – we begin with the big loud stuff because it’s the most difficult to balance and end by recording the solos.

We also tour and that can take us much further afield: just recently we’ve been to Brazil, Hong Kong, Ireland and Sardinia.

Last year we gave a radio broadcast from Caius Chapel. Our chapel doesn’t have much reverberation, which I think is a great strength because you can’t be lazy – you can’t rely on the acoustic to carry the sound on.