Twice a year, at our summer and winter camps, we have evening campfires where we discuss a theme for the week. At our recent Winter Camp, the theme was, “Responsibility, Loyalty and Courage”.
There was much discussion about each topic, with the boys sharing many meaningful and insightful comments. I must confess there were some tears shed . . . by me and some of the boys.
If we want boys to take more ownership of their life and their work, we need to show them that what they do matters- even at the of 9 – 13 years of age.
Every Thursday at 6:00 pm, our 32 Tour choir boys between the ages of 9 and 13 are waiting to go into choir rehearsal. Some are playing football with a balled-up pair of socks, others are competing as to who can flip their water bottle the best, while a suspiciously quiet group is looking over something on a cell phone!
At 6:30 pm, the boys enter the room and take their places in their seats. A hush falls, and as they stand, they begin to sing the Tallis canon . . . first on an ‘oo’ for vowel purity, then on words for consonant diction.
We might be used to seeing and hearing choristers singing songs at Christmas, but for many boys – singing is a weekly task. Songs sung almost all year long. These are the young choristers of our choir program and concurrently, our other two treble choirs are doing the same thing.
In over forty years of working with boy choristers, I have been struck by the juxtaposition of their normality as boys and their professionalism as musicians. In everyday life, boy choristers are as noisy, silly and disorganized as all boys. But in the choir they are able to concentrate on difficult tasks for long periods of time, persevere when things get difficult and pick themselves up and carry on when things go wrong; all skills we try – and sometimes fail – to instill in each boy.
Choristers are not necessarily extraordinary, but they do extraordinary things, and I believe the key to this behavior lies in the sense of responsibility they feel for their work.
So much of modern childhood is having things done for you. Not just on your behalf, but for your benefit. “It’s your own time you’re wasting” we admonish when waiting for noisy boys to quiet down. “Studying your music at home is good for you and ultimately all of us during your rehearsals”, we continue.
How can we complain that boys don’t take responsibility for anything, when the constant message is that nothing they do matters to anyone except themselves?
But, choristers understand that what they are doing does matter to others; people come to watch them sing and demonstrate their artistry. The pride that the boys take in this is evident, as are the positive effects on their feelings of self-worth.
So, how can we create this same effect for other boys? A place to start is with explaining consequences. Making boys feel valued has to include giving them responsibility for their actions, whether positive or negative. This can be as simple as letting boys know when what they do or say affects people beyond themselves.
Boys learn responsibility not just as a set of rules by rote, but as cause and effect. Of course there are plenty of responsibilities which are too complex for boys really to understand, but starting small can get them thinking in the right ways.
A sense of ownership fosters pride. To remove the ownership of a boy’s actions from them is to tell them that they are not trusted to do the right thing.
All boys, not just choristers, are capable of remarkable things. If we expect a lot from them, we might just be surprised by how much they can and do rise to the challenge.