LIVING TO SING AT THE AMERICAN BOYCHOIR SCHOOL


Jennifer Gennari Shepherd


Skateboards, a basketball, and bicycles clutter the entrance of the dorm, and, down the hall, computers line the walls of another room. This is no typical boarding school scene, however; pianos are tucked at the top of the staircase between the computers and in the ballroom. The dormitory is in one of Princeton's hidden gems, the American Boychoir School, the only nonsectarian choral boarding school in the country.

For the approximately 80 boys who attend the school, the day begins at 7:30 a.m. with a half hour of singing and an hour of music theory. From 9 a.m. to noon they attend classes. After a break for lunch there is one more class before physical education. Then it's time for the afternoon rehearsal until 6:30 p.m. Every day is this busy, although it is often interrupted by concerts, tours, and visiting choirs, directors or future students. There is little time for skateboarding, but the boys love the pace. "It will be kind of boring when I go to a regular school next year," says Matthew Leisy, 14, who graduated this spring.

Why attend a school like this? For the 10- to 14-year-old boys who spend the 5th through 8th grade at the school, the answer lies in the music and touring. "It's fun to travel," says 11-year-old Adam Longoria of Jersey City, who completed his first tour to New England last year. "I didn't expect it to be that busy," says 10-year-old Timothy Harris of Sergeantsville,but that didn't matter too much. "I like it all," Timothy answers when asked what he likes best.

The school has two touring choirs of 28 members each and one training or resident choir, made up of the youngest students like Adam and Timothy. James Litton, regarded as one of America's best known choral conductors, is music director at the school. Litton enjoys working with children because they are quick learners and open to suggestions. "The potential for marked improvement is great," he says. He noted that the boys at the school all have "at least some basic natural ability," and with the chance to rehearse five days a week, they progress more rapidly to become a fully professional group. Working with such talented singers is "a rare privilege that not many musicians have," Litton adds.

Performing and touring with the choir were the highlights for Matthew Leisy. Last spring, his choir traveled to Latvia, Germany and France where they sang everywhere from big halls to country villages. They performed in the Second Riga Dom International Festival of Boys' Choirs in Riga, Latvia, at the Versailles Chapel in France with the Chapel Choir, and were entertained by Pamela Harriman, the Ambassador to France. "It's something I'll always remember," Matthew says.

Opportunities like that make it easier for parents to decide to admit their sons. The school also has generous financial aid packages, which about two-thirds of the boys receive. Families usually discover the school when the choir is touring through the U.S., according to Dee Silver, director of public relations and marketing. The qualities the school looks for are a good ear, a love of music and a desire to perform. "We also expect them to have training," says Silver, who served as admissions director for the school for nine years. Last year's 82 boys came from 23 states, the Virgin Islands, and four Canadian provinces.

For Bruce Leisy and his wife visit to the school from their Wichita, Kansas home eased their concerns. "Matthew absolutely loved the school, and we were highly impressed," says Leisy, a former head of a middle school in Surrey, England. "What sold us on the school was that very few go on to be professional musicians," he adds. A recent alumni survey indicates that only about 10 percent pursue careers in music.

Still reluctant to send their son to a boarding school, the Leisys took the unusual step of moving to Princeton so their son could be one of the handful of day students. Leisy's graphic arts company remains in Wichita, although he has opened a local sales office for his pre-press business. "It's been a terrific experience," says Leisy. Their son entered as one of the older students, and one of his first concerts was at Carnegie Hall. "He was a little nonchalant," Matthew's father recalls. "We tried to tell him that most people try to end their career at Carnegie, not begin there."

Carnegie Hall is only one of many impressive locations and collaborations. The American Boychoir has sung with Metropolitan Opera singer Jessye Norman, worked with Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Kurt Masur of the New York Philharmonic. They make frequent television appearances, and in the past have appeared in a PBS Special, "Carnegie Hall Christmas" with Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade and Wynton Marsalis, and on the NBC's Today Show with Katie Couric. They also have sung on numerous commercials for companies like Stetson, BMW, AT&T and Kodak, which produced the award-winning True Colors commercial that aired during the 1988 Olympics.

The school also hosts conferences and festivals. This June, the annual Princeton Invitational Choir Festival featured choirs from Beijing, Prague, Puerto Rico and Michigan, Georgia, Maine, Virginia, and Nebraska. Each fall, the school hosts a National Choir Conference for music teachers to study and learn more about directing. The Presser Music Center at the school has sheet music, recordings, music magazines and many other resources for teachers.

The American Boychoir's latest big break was to be signed as exclusive artists with Angel/EMI Records. The producers of the best-selling album Chant recorded by Benedictine Monks wanted to feature the boychoir in the same manner. Hymn, which was expected to be released in the summer, showcases the choir singing a range of traditional and contemporary hymns. Guest artists on the CD are Steven Curtis Chapman and Twila Paris.

The choir is not new to recordings; many of their concerts are available on CD. In addition, a documentary titled "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" by Robert Frye will be released soon nationally. The film features the Boychoir singing composer Charles Davidson's work of the same name, a piece which was inspired by poetry written by the children who lived in a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia.

The boys are trained to sing in many different languages, a skill that is not so hard for them to accomplish. According to Litton, they pick it up quickly. "It's much easier for children," he says. Occasionally, a few boys are given solos during their performances although soloists are not given any special attention. "The purpose of the school is to produce a choir," says Litton. "And many of the boys are better choral than solo singers."

Star treatment is unlikely at the American Boychoir School, where producing boys of good character with old-fashioned manners is a stated goal. "A strong effort is made to teach them self-discipline, values," says Silver. "When the boys go home for a weekend and the bed is made, the parents can't believe it." The boys are polite and cordial, important skills for children who meet many foreign and American dignitaries. When they are on the road, which happens five times a year and once abroad, two proctors travel with the boys to ensure schooling continues. The boys also are responsible for packing, ironing their vestments, and helping load and unload the risers. The choir is known for never arriving late for or missing a concert.

The school has come a long way since it was founded as a community choir in 1937 in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus Boychoir, as they were known until 1980, chose to admit only boys in the fashion of the Vienna Boys Choir because of the long tradition of music which is written only for boys' voices. The choir became a success, working frequently with orchestras in New York and Philadelphia. They decided to move east in 1950, and Princeton was a natural choice because of its location between the two cities and the presence of Westminster Choir College. Although there are no formal ties between the two institutions, all three of the choral directors at the Boychoir School are graduates of Westminster.

The Boychoir School moved near Rosedale Road into the former estate of Gerard B. Lambert, the son of the founder of a pharmaceutical company. The main house, Albemarle, was built in the 1920s. Living in a beautiful mansion has its ups and downs: hand-carved linenfold adorns the dining room walls, and the ballroom has wide hardwood floorboards and large windows that open up to an idyllic yard. (Many wedding receptions are held at Albemarle.) Everything is quite cramped, however, with offices crammed in every nook. Up until 1993, most of the boys slept, studied and sang in the main house.

A gift enabled the school to undergo renovations and to build a much-needed dormitory for the boys. Air conditioning, new choir stalls and new lighting were added to the main rehearsal room. In the air-conditioned Ettl House, opened in the fall of 1993, the boys sleep on bunkbeds four to a room, and share common and study rooms. One of its favorite features is a row of pay phones; they no longer have to wait in line to use one pay phone to call home.

According to Adam Longoria, the touring and all the "chances to sing" make up for boarding away from home. "I really like singing," Adam says. When he first heard the American Boychoir as a fourth grader on a school field trip, he was impressed. "I didn't know a choir could sing that well and high," he says. Now he is one of the few who make those angelic sounds, bringing the Boychoir fame throughout the world.


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