Dallas — Coming off of a recent feature on NBC’s The Today Show, the New York-based Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is considered to be the leading ensemble of its kind in the country. With Dallas’ Church of the Incarnation set to be their first stop on an upcoming tour, TheaterJones chatted with the church’s Director of Music Daniel Hyde about the challenges of balancing widely varying colors and the success of the church’s renowned choir school.
TheaterJones: First, I’d like to congratulate you on your recent appearance on The Today Show. That’s really exciting.
Hyde: Oh, thank you.
This being your centennial tour, am I right to assume that the choir is turning 100 this year?
Well, actually it’s the choir school. There was a choir that existed at St. Thomas before we had our actual choir school, so I imagine the choir is older than that. So, the celebration is the 100 years since the founding of the choir school. It’s unique here in America because it is a boarding school that exists just for the kids who sing.
What’s unique about the choir is that it is made up entirely of men and boys, as opposed to having boys and girls singing the highest parts. And what we do, which I think is unique in America, is we sing five times a week in the church for services. It’s a pretty extensive program. We must sing over 400 titles a year, and it’s all pretty varied. It spans about 500 years’ worth of material. We are able to do it because we were very fortunate—the benefactors helped to set the school up 100 years ago. But also, the attitude of St. Thomas is very much that this is something the church wishes to preserve for another 100 years.
Is the school devoted specifically to choral singing for boys?
Yes. It’s boys in grades 3 through 8. They come in by musical audition and academic assessment, but we are proud of the fact that if we have a boy who shows all the musical signs and potential, then there’s no barrier to coming if they show musical skill. We train them to do what they do. We offer scholarships, so it’s a wonderfully diverse and broad range of kids that we have who come, not only from New York, but from all over the States.
Do you find that after matriculating through your school that a lot of these boys go on to continue studying music in some capacity?
Yeah. Not all of them, by any means, carry on singing. But whilst they’re singing here, they also learn instruments—piano, violin, etc. So when their voice changes, they’ve got all that musical skill at reading music and having a trained ear, and so on. So, they can apply that to other musical instruments.
Also in that article, you said a phrase that I thought was very clever—that you try to achieve a sound that is “never louder than lovely.” You also characterized it as a “continental” sound. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, the business about “never louder than lovely” is we’re training kids to use an instrument that they can’t see. We have to train kids to understand the basis of how the voice works, and therefore, how it feels when it’s working well. We never want them to over-sing. They might see a famous tenor at the MET Opera right around the corner from us who is massive and in his 50s. He’s going to be able to make a much more strident sound than a nine-year-old boy, but it’s the same technique that’s involved.
The continental sound is the way in which people tend to describe this very open, free, very resonant, bright, colorful sound that we go for with the kids. Usually, there is a break in a child’s voice midway between the chest range and head range. We train the kids to negotiate that—how to mix over that transition spot in the voice so that they have full range and equal power, and that’s very much a continental thing.
Do you feel that there are any particular approaches that are necessary when it comes to balancing young boys’ voices with the more mature voices.
Yeah, there’s always a question of balance, whatever the music is. We usually have 18 boys, and because there are three musical lines sung on the bottom, we have four or five voices on those lines. So, if there are five altos, five tenors, and five basses, we still have 18 boys at the top, so balance tends not to be an issue. But, again, it’s a case of teaching the kids to sing responsibly. We don’t teach them to sing louder or softer, but more in terms of what the color of what the music will be or the meaning of the text itself.
I understand that this combination of different colors yields itself to a very particular and aesthetically pleasing sound, but do you find that to be limiting or liberating when it comes to the repertoire that you design into your program?
I think it tends to be liberating because, again, our philosophy is to give them good technical grounding. Then, we can ask them things about a piece that inspire their imaginations. I think if you get their imaginations going, then you can change the sound of the choir depending on the music you’re doing. They have to have a multi-purpose technique.
How do you find the logistics of dealing with young musicians when going on tour?
We are lucky that we have manager to sort most of it out for us, which is a great relief to me. The responsibilities of making sure the schedule is balanced, allowing for rest time and travel, and making sure we have enough entertaining things along the way. I think next week, they’re going rock climbing.
What kind of program are you bringing here to Dallas?
We are bringing a program that starts with some Renaissance music, in both English and Latin texts. And then the second half of the program is more 19th and 20th century. It runs rather chronologically.
The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys will be at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas on Sunday, March 17. For more information on the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys or the St. Thomas Choir School, visit their website, here.