By Matthew Townsend
Rachel Segger of Madison, Connecticut, knew of the opportunities offered by Saint Thomas Choir School but had not considered enrolling her sons. “Both my husband and I are trained church musicians, and we had always known about the choir school — but even so we never envisioned sending our own grade-schooler away to boarding school. Our view of the choir school was always something along the lines of ‘Wow, what a great thing for those kids.’”
During a visit to New York City when he was in fifth grade, Augie Segger had the chance to visit the choir school and immediately loved it.
“The idea of living a life that revolved around singing in church was a prospect that excited him more than we would have imagined. Within a few days he asked if he could audition,” Segger said. After researching the school, the Seggers enrolled their son. Augie is now completing the eighth grade, and his brother Elyot, 9, enrolled last year.
At the choir school, a mission of Saint Thomas Church on 5th Avenue, boys like Augie and Elyot have received a focused musical education since its founding in 1919 by T. Tertius Noble. Boys rehearse every morning save Monday and sing in six church services every week, in addition to their studies, sports, and community life. About 35 boys live on site, as with choral schools in the United Kingdom.
The Rev. Charles F. Wallace, the school’s headmaster, describes a “conversion” that families like the Seggers experience after touring the school. “I think parents want their children to be happy and safe and flourishing in an environment which challenges them and helps them to grow,” Wallace said. “That’s something parents see from a very early time in the boy’s life here.”
He said that boys like Augie take to the school very quickly — though they also must adjust to life without their parents. “For the boys, it’s easier than it might be for their parents. The boys adjust relatively quickly. We expect that they’ll be homesick and I’m pretty upfront about that.”
Both Augie and his parents had to adjust to that separation. “During my first year at the choir school, I was homesick regularly and found it hard to live away from home. I missed my family and I also missed singing in my home parish,” Augie said.
His mother also struggled at first. “It actually seems silly now, but my main reservation about sending Augie to boarding school at first was that it felt like I would become less a part of his life. Because of their busy schedules, the boys are only able to call home on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and not being able to talk to my child every day took some getting used to,” Segger said.
At the choir school — which is in its 10th year of running a summer choral program for girls — teachers, housemothers, and staff live on site, and they help with these transitions. “There are a lot of grownups in their life here and they like it,” the headmaster said. Parents tend to visit on Sundays, attending church services, having lunch with the boys, and spending time together in the evening.
While the school recruits for boys with strong musical promise, Wallace stresses that the curriculum is about more than music.
Academics can be demanding, he said, though a class size of five to six students allows for extra support. Even so, the musical requirements would seem daunting to many adults. “It’s an enormous amount of repertoire that they encompass, ranging from music from the 14th century right up to the present day,” said John Scott, music director at Saint Thomas Church. “It’s constantly changing and varied. In a typical season from September to June, they may sing something like 400 pieces of sacred music.”
With three Evensong services and three Sunday services each week, the boys frequently learn a piece of music on Tuesday morning and sing it Tuesday afternoon, Scott said.
This workload requires an independent spirit. “You are living away from home at the age of 10,” Wallace said. “You are expected to do some pretty extraordinary work without the daily presence of mom and dad being there with you. You have to learn to be independent.”
While the boys become more independent, they also form an uncommon community with one another.
For Wallace, a crucial component of this community is the structured environment that helps instill discipline in the boys. “We place great value on manners here,” he said. “While we want the boys to feel relaxed and very much at home in this environment, there’s a protocol on how you’re expected to behave.”
Aside from manners, the boys cannot escape the finer details of conflict resolution at the school. Because the school is small, boys find it impossible to leave disputes unresolved.
“If there are issues to be resolved, there’s no avoiding that individual. If you were in a school of 1,200 pupils, you could get away with that,” Wallace said. “Here, you’re sitting at the same table.”
Conflicts often clear up with little intervention from staff.
“I’m always amazed by the ways the boys can sort it out — they’re like brothers here,” Wallace said. “The boys look out for one another. They counsel one another and console each other.”
St. Thomas Church supports the school financially, especially with funds for boys of fewer financial resources. Without subsidies, parents would need to pay more than $14,000 per year.
“Every child here, regardless of need, is receiving a subsidized education,” Wallace said, adding that the parish pays about 85 percent of fees. Most families pay about $3,000 per year, but no one is asked to pay the full amount.
For many boys, the path that begins at Saint Thomas Choir School leads to high-quality high schools and universities. “We do our best to ensure that because a boy has performed well here academically, musically and socially, that he is in a very good place to move on to very competitive schools,” Wallace added.
According to Wallace, discipline is one of the cornerstones that helps the boys move into a bright future: the demands of the school and the high standards set for the boys’ behavior means they’re cut from a different cloth. “They become extraordinarily articulate, polished young men,” he said. “So as they go off to their high school interviews, they have poise and presence, they have stamina, they know what hard work looks like, and they know the rewards that come from hard work and discipline.”
Augie agrees. “Now, being an eighth grader, I love boarding life to such an extent that I want to continue it in high school. Looking back on the past four years, I realize how lucky I’ve been to receive such a great musical and academic education.”
Rachel Segger said Augie will attend St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, next fall. “Augie entered the choir school as a quiet boy who loved the church and loved to sing, but never saw himself as a soloist or leader in any way. Four years later, he will be graduating as head chorister and as a confident 14-year-old with professional experiences under his belt that many musicians don’t gain until much later in their adult careers.”
In Wallace’s 12 years at the school, he has seen more boys coming in who have not been baptized. Yet he’s also seeing increasing curiosity in the boys as they encounter tradition.
“I do think that there’s a shift taking place ever so gently, and we’re seeing that even in a place as small as this,” he said. “I do think there’s something going on.”
Some boys have even talked about seeking ordained ministry. The school emphasizes that its students learn how to become functional, rooted members of their future communities. “The world needs that — the world needs people who become dedicated and loyal. Those are important values the boys can take to other places,” Wallace said.
“There is great interest, and I hold out a great deal of hope for the future. That kind of work takes place in communities like this — just by getting on and being faithful to your mission and having a sense of your purpose. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing extraordinary. Just faithful service.”
Matthew Townsend is communications missioner for the Diocese of Rochester.
Image: Students at St. Thomas sing up to 400 pieces of sacred music in a year. • Ira Lippke photo