The adult voices of New College Choir are provided by the ‘clerks’, a group of fourteen singers, four countertenors (or altos), four tenors and six basses. Of these, eight are undergraduates, admitted to the College on the basis of their ability and potential in both singing and academic study. ‘Academical clerk’ is the traditional name given to an undergraduate elected to sing in the chapel choir. ‘Layclerk’ is the term used to denote the professional singers alongside whom they work. There are six layclerks, most of them recently graduated.
Membership of New College Choir offers a musical education of a quite unique nature. In Chapel the young singer is exposed to a wealth of repertory and the demands of choral discipline. Beyond this, foreign tours, concerts, prestigious recordings and regular invitations to perform with leading conductors such as Christopher Hogwood, René Jacobs, Mark Elder, Robert King and Paul Goodwin, broaden the experience into an exceptional apprenticeship in the world of professional music-making. Each clerk receives weekly individual singing lessons from an established and gifted teacher, and is encouraged to take his personal vocal development seriously. Lessons extend to a study of the solo repertory (oratorio, Lieder, English song, etc.). Occasional masterclasses supplement the individual lessons. New College plays host to a lively series of chamber concerts, where young singers may make their first forays into the world of solo performance. In addition, New Chamber Opera (based in New College and run by Michael Burden, Fellow in Music) offers opportunities for singers to participate in operatic ventures such as Britten’s Church Parables and Purcell’s King Arthur. The opportunities for vocal and musical development associated with New College place it in the forefront of educational programmes for young singers.
The clerks’ commitment to chapel services takes the form of six evening services a week during the University term. These run for eight weeks. There is no Sunday morning duty. Major tours and recordings normally take place outside University term, and occupy several weeks during the year.
Becoming an academical clerk involves making a dual application to Oxford University (a choral and a UCAS form). The details of how to apply are given on the University’s Choral and Organ Scholarships website and in the University’s Undergraduate Prospectus.
The deadline for receiving choral applications is normally 1st September, twelve months before the desired year of entry (it is also possible to apply for deferred entry).
The Undergraduate Prospectus also contains information about the University’s Choral and Organ Open Day, ordinarily held late in April. Students thinking of making an application are encouraged to attend the Open Day, which offers a number of workshop opportunities. Prospective candidates may wish to contact the Director of Music to discuss their application, and to arrange preliminary interviews/auditions. Candidates may like to note that a choral award can be combined with any degree subject except medicine. The newly designed Music course at Oxford permits many of the interests and skills of singers to figure in their assessments, including solo performance, an option in choral skills and another in choral studies (repertory and performance issues). The College has a tradition of attracting candidates who succeed at the highest level in their academic studies. At the same time it recognises that their application is an exacting test of both musical and academic skills, and for this reason the College sets aside a number of places specifically for its academical clerks.
Academical clerks receive a modest bursary of £200 per annum for their work in the chapel. More significantly, the College meets the cost of weekly singing lessons. In addition, academical clerks receive professional fees for their work in the ‘commercial’ sector of the Choir’s activities, its concerts, tours and recordings. This is a significant annual sum.
Where are they now?
Previous academical clerks of New College represent a whole range of professional activity (including the IT business, law and commerce), but naturally enough many of them are involved in the singing profession, where their training and experience at New College has placed them in an excellent position to pursue their musical careers. Well known tenors on the professional circuit are Toby Spence, Rufus Müller and Dan Norman. Among the countertenors are Richard Roberts and David Hurley (King’s Singers), not forgetting James Bowman. Of the excellent singers who have entered other professions, none has given up practising their art, often within the domain of semi-professional work.
More information about Oxford choral awards in general may be had from the Music Faculty.