The George Bragg Library

Why Not a Community Boy Choir?
By George Bragg
April, 1953, Etude Magazine


We began the Denton Civic Boy Choir in March, 1946 as an opportunity for the musically interested boys (ages 8-15) in the city of Denton, Texas. The idea of a boy choir, though new to the people in town, caught on like wild fire with both the parents and the boys; the parents being grateful for an educational and recreational project aside from the boys’ routine public school work, and the boys happy in a work which challenged them at every turn.

Life for these novices in the Denton Civic Boy Choir became a challenge to their personal abilities and advancements, for they suddenly found themselves in a strange world of stranger criteria, surrounded by a confusion of sound which seemed at first to the child mind overwhelming.

Presto! Legato! Pianissimo! Forte! Sounds of mah, koo, loo, and bay; the beat of 1-2-3-4 resounding over the constancy of sounds and the sounds increasing before dying away to such a degree that it seemed silence was part of something. Before the novice stood the director who spoke a language with his hands and made ever varied expressions of face, which one moment discouraged and the next complimented the singer in magnified degree.

These 37 boys two weeks before had lived in a world of the usual. Suddenly they found themselves part of musical history-in-the-making, building toward a goal yet unseen by their eyes, and striving for that understanding not yet grasped by their inquiring minds.

Half a dozen Saturday Kiddie Matinees had been missed because of rehearsals, and still the cloud of mystery veiled the idea of the importance of a boy choir and music, for yet no visible progress could be seen. Then, in a nearby town, another boy choir was to appear, and all the Denton boys went as a group to listen to their first concert. Suddenly, the idea was seen, the strange world became familiar, its language understood; four-four equaled rhythm, and silence was golden.

From that moment, progress was the agreed order by lessons accomplished. Learning music by rote and note became pleasure. Their exercises developed skills, ranges increased, quality produced quality and, finally, control was so conditioned that no longer was the staccato stabbed, but it became as resilient as a bouncing ball.

Skill in the performance of music was the ultimate desire in developing the Denton Civic Boy Choir. To nurture the necessities of exactness and confidence of performance on the part of the boys, the privilege of singing for their parents was extended to them. Having been taught to think ahead in singing so that the singer would always be prepared, this principle was now put into practice, and proved to be a real test. In this brief encounter of "supreme trial" (for it is a maxim that the chorister will always respond to the directions of the doting kindred in the audience rather than to the directions of his choirmaster on the stage), the weaknesses were magnified, but the confidences were healthily strengthened, not only for the boys, but for the parents alike.

These little boys of sometimes boyish destruction became, in their time, creative. They steadily assured themselves of their place in a creative world, knowing constantly that the best they could do with great music was the least which could be acceptable. Music by the great composers who had lived past their time was recreated by boys who, unitedly, would live past their time.

A sincere respect for the present day artists and their work was realized from the boys’ deep respect for their own work. Time became a valuable commodity, expendable to either work or play, but never to both at once. As slowly as when light is realized on an overcast day, discrimination between good and bad music was made; and, as suddenly as when dawn is discovered on a crystalline day, the boys seemed to realize that quality made the difference.

Within a year and a half, the group began to travel to neighboring towns to entertain. Since that time they have enjoyed the rare experiences which come only to the troupers of the entertainment world. Sun Valley, Salt Lake City, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Houston, New Orleans and Mobile are lasting remembrances. Washington, Philadelphia, New York City and Cincinnati were each a world of accomplishment.

Within a four year period, the choir had traveled twenty thousand miles through twenty-five states and Mexico. It had become associated with the International Artists Corporation of New York. It had appeared over major radio networks, including a coast-to-coast broadcast over the National Broadcasting Company and the DuMont Television Network. It televised with Loraine Day and Johnny Johnston at the Polo Grounds in New York City where the boys were the guests of the New York Giants. By special invitation the group sang for the Salt Lake City Tabernacle Choir and received as a gift from its director an arrangement made especially for the boy choir of the famous Latter-Day Saints’ hymn, Come, Come Ye Saints.

They have been entertained on the rustic ranches of the West, and on the extravagant estates of the East. They have attended teas, buffet suppers, receptions and banquets and know the thrill of the applause of an audience of 20,000 people and the intimacy of private concerts.

In the minds of the some one hundred fifty boys who have enjoyed the privileges of the Denton Civic Boy Choir the past seven years, there will continuously be a storehouse of rich experiences from which they may draw to enliven their daily living.

In their travels they have come to know many of the great personages of the concert and entertainment world among whom are Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw, J. Spencer Cornwall, Don Gillis, Salvatore Baccaloni, Frances Yeend and Frances Magnes. The boys look upon the privilege of knowing personally such outstanding persons as one of the blessings derived from their choir work.

The results of such positive work are in keeping with the design of the group by the ones who guide its existence – that of developing fullness in youth. We see in the medium of boy choir a means of developing character, a means by which a boy comes to know himself, thereby preparing his life for nobler things to come; an enriching process in overtones which will give resonance to his living, for through the boy choir organization many seemingly unrelated subjects unitedly flow.

By means of the boy choir, its travels and its studies, history comes alive, geography transcends its pages, physical education has new meaning, language has a freshness, and even the subject of everyday conversation is important. Neatness, a quality most foreign to the usual nine or ten year old boy, finds a paramount place in his daily routine of living, a neatness which carries over into his school life, his home life, as well as his public life.

We have seen, time and again, boys who consistently made "C’s" and "D’s" change within a two-year period to the thrill of a "straight A" report card. We believe that when you give people high standards by which to live, you always get results. The only time we question what the results will be is when the standards are too low.

Interested persons have asked us through the years just what we did to get certain results in order to put a non-professional group of boys on a professional basis. We investigated and found that, actually, it is quite elementary in its basic understanding. We have learned in working with the varying group in years past that we must always see clearly these aspects of the choir’s being.

First, we must prepare the choir boys physically. We teach them correct posture, proper breathing, and introduce the exercises to be used form time to time in the course of their development.

Secondly, there is the intellectual preparation which must be accomplished; theory of music, history of music, as well as the preparation for singing music in a foreign language. Our boys commonly sing in at least three languages: Latin, German and English. At present, they are also prepared to sing in Old English. This is something now quickly accomplished with 8 or 9 year old boys, but patience and clear thinking will always prove the child capable.

Lastly, after the first two phases of work have been accomplished, the remaining aspect which brings the choir into its fullest may be completed. This is the spiritual element which is actually in existence before the rest, and is at work when the choir first begins. This spiritual side of boy choir work is accomplished through the boys’ oneness of purpose, their association with one another, through their understanding of their director and choir mates, and through there enthusiasm for the choir’s work. All totaled, these qualities bring about a unity which gives a wonderful happiness to an already enjoyable work.

We also have found it most important to surround ourselves with persons who think clearly and positively. We feel the choir has been particularly blessed in having a choir mother who has worked continuously with us since the beginning of our days, Mrs. O.L. Haughton, affectionately known to all members of the boy choir as "Mama" Haughton. When on tour she is not only wardrobe mistress whose job it is backstage to manage the vesting of the boys, but she is also, as her name implies, a mother to them all. In the most glowing terms she is a person endowed with patience, understanding, love of the work, and the knowledge of boy choir which comes only from actual experience.

From the beginning days of the Denton Civic Boy Choir when the works of Dyke and Barnby were masterworks for the untrained participants, the Choir’s repertoire has steadily enlarged by constant search for material in this undeveloped field of musical accomplishment. Compositions considered standard are form the pens of di Lasso, Lotti, Martini, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Kodaly. Among the major works are: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater; Bax’s Fantasy on Polish Carols; and Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

In looking through a voluminous amount of compositions in search of adequate and worthwhile material, it became obvious that nothing was being contributed to the boy choir field from the modern composers of America. We felt a compulsion to do something immediately so that in years to come the zenith of our civilization would be 1represented in musical form through the medium of boy choir, as were the heights of the Baroque and Renaissance.

At this point, we realized what needed to be done and took steps in that direction; namely, a series of major works representative of various schools of composition. Commissioning seemed the best way in which to get the job accomplished.

We next considered the relationship of the boy choir in the field of music, and the likely composer to undertake the initial step in this proposed series of commissions.

The medium of boy choir has in it many of the qualities of a chamber group. Not only does it produce sounds more suitable to such a group than to the concert hall, but its voicings are very similar to those of a chamber group. We then began to look for the most likely composer for this initial work. We knew, of course, that we were looking for a master of chamber music.

Ernst von Dohnányi, the noted pianist and composer, and composer-in-residence at Florida State University, was selected since his concerted chamber works have long been highly valued by the world’s greatest artists, and since his compositions have always had a freshness and youthful enthusiasm about them. He is a composer of melody with a touch of modern inventiveness. These outstanding qualities in his work led us to choose him for this first step in enlarging the modern repertoire of boy choir music.

Mr. Dohnányi, when contacted, most graciously accepted the commission and is at present at work on the composition which is to be premièred this year.1

Like all persons who keep their heads in the skies, we sometimes have difficulty in planting our feet firmly on the ground. Those times when we have accomplished this two-way stretch, we can see what the destiny of our mission is to be: a boy choir school to be founded here in the Southwest which will be the first substantial breach of the vastness between the boy choir schools of the East Coast, and the boy choir schools of the West Coast. We have begun to take the initial steps in this larger project, and although it will take considerable time and energy to complete the thought, we know that it will be realized as all such positive and far-reaching work must be.

1 Ernst von Dohnányi composed a setting of Stabat mater for double boy choir and chamber orchestra, which was premièred January 16th 1955 in Wichita Falls, Texas, under the direction of Ernö Daniel.

Copyright © 1953 by George Bragg


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