Become a Chorister: The UK’s Best Choir Schools

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com looks at some of the best UK-based day and boarding schools for chorister programmes offered to boys and girls from six years old.
Become a Chorister: The UK’s Best Choir Schools
By Carli Allan
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Does your son or daughter love to sing? You may be considering them for a choristership, offered at several day and boarding schools in the UK. 

Talented boys and girls, typically aged six to 12 years, can access exceptional musical training alongside a private education within choir schools, day schools and boarding schools across the United Kingdom - a country that has a strong tradition of choral music.

The following UK schools can offer young students vocal and choral training to the highest standard, as well as the opportunity to develop their singing as part of a chapel, cathedral or major church choir. They are highly esteemed and there’s tough competition to get a place – schools will typically have no more than 30 places for boys and girls – but it can lead to some incredible opportunities to perform with world-class choirs and earn a music scholarship to senior school and/or university. Students who attend King’s College School in Cambridge for example, get the chance to sing with the world-famous Choir of King’s College Cambridge. 

There are choir schools such as King’s Ely and Exeter Cathedral School, which offer some of the very best musical training for boys and girls aged six years and up. The majority are Church of England schools but Roman Catholic, Scottish and Welsh church based schools are also represented (Westminster Cathedral School, for example, is Catholic).

All offer the opportunity to train and perform in some of the UK's most glorious churches and cathedrals. Choristers at Truro School sing in the Truro Cathedral Choir (boy choristers aged eight to 13 and girls aged 13 to 18); 16 girls and 16 boys aged eight to 13 years make up the two choirs singing for Salisbury Cathedral School; and students at The Pilgrims School sing in the Winchester Cathedral Choir.

The Choir Schools’ Association represents 44 choir schools in the UK attached to cathedrals, churches, and college chapels, educating more than 1,200 choristers. These choir schools have a long tradition of training choristers. Westminster Abbey Choir School is one of the most prestigious and elite. It offers a complete academic and musical education to just 30 boys aged eight to 13 who all sing in the Westminster Abbey Choir (some of whom sang at the recent funeral of the Queen).

There are also several UK independent schools, not joined to a cathedral or church, with truly outstanding music departments and a strong focus on choral music and training, for both prep and senior students. The Benenden Chapel Choir, comprising 36 pupils from Benenden School, has an outstanding reputation for choral singing (and acclaim for its CD releases).

At the day school Birkenhead School, students in Year 5 through to Sixth Form sing together in a chapel choir that sings Evensong at local cathedrals attends summer ‘cathedral weeks’. And this year, Bilton Grange, part of the Rugby School group, launched its own independent chorister programme, with opportunities for 40 girls and boys to join in Years 3 to 8; unlike cathedral chorister programmes, Bilton Grange’s will not involve weekends.

The life of a chorister

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The opportunity to train as a chorister can be an extraordinary experience – and a privilege. It will also be very busy and demanding, too. Alongside academic studies, choristers study instrumental studies, music theory, aural training and vocal coaching; many study one or even two instruments. They will most likely attend daily morning rehearsals, as well as regular concerts, live broadcasts on the radio and television, and tours to represent their cathedral and the UK. It can put demands on family life too, as dates such as Christmas Day and Easter can be even busier.

Read more: The Best Music & Dance Schools in the UK

To help balance such a busy timetable – and to save time on travelling to and from school every day for early morning practice and late evensong – there are many benefits of boarding for a chorister. There are UK schools with dedicated chorister boarding programmes. Wells Cathedral School choristers receive 50% off their boarding fees; at St Paul’s Cathedral School there are 34 choristers boarding at the school at any one time in a separate house; and the choristers of Canterbury Cathedral are educated at St Edmund’s Junior School and board in the school’s dedicated Choir House.

Worried about the fees? Well, there is financial assistance available through the UK Government’s Choir Music and Dance Scheme, which provides financial support for musically talented children, and many independent schools offer means-tested bursaries as well. There are also choral scholarships that can earn you a spot in a choir, such as the Choir of St. Mary’s Collegiate Church for Warwick School students, and up to 100% off tuition fees at schools including St Paul’s Cathedral.

Many schools run taster days for choristers, including annual Be a Chorister For a Day events where students can join choristers for informal rehearsals. Students can then attend voice trials alongside taking an entrance exam as part of the admissions process. 

If you are considering a chorister programme for your child, we have rounded up some of the leading choir schools in the UK, as well as independent boarding schools with some of the most talented school choirs.

King’s Ely

A thriving independent school offering a breadth of opportunities that can bring out the best in students with a range of interests and abilities, from languages to drama, rowing to choral singing. It also offers overseas students a gateway to a British education through its strong international programme for 11 years and above, as well as a flexible boarding policy.

Located in a pretty cathedral city in Cambridgeshire, King’s Ely has a long history, it’s one of the oldest schools in England in fact. Founded over 1,000 years ago to educate boy choristers in Ely, the school is now a co-ed day and boarding school that has retained its close links with neighbouring Ely Cathedral (choristers still attend the school to this day).

Many students play and sing here, in one or more of the many choirs, ensembles and orchestras. The school is renowned for being a choir school; there are two cathedral choirs (junior boys and senior girls), and a prestigious choral scholarship programme in the Sixth Form. But, while the school was set up as a choir school, it has become a hub for music of all genres. There are ensembles that tour across Europe, individual instrumental and singing lessons, and many chances to perform in and outside of school.

Click here for our full review of King’s Ely.

Exeter Cathedral School

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Exeter Cathedral School has been teaching choristers for over 900 years and, while the school remains one of the UK's leading music specialist schools, it is also committed to an all-round education. 

The school says that it has "music and music-making at its heart: it is in the walls and in the blood". And with its facilities (chorister rehearsals in Exeter Cathedral, performances in the Cathedral Nave and lessons in the on-campus Kalendar Hall), chorister programme, and choice of music-making sessions during and after school this can certainly be felt by students of all ages and abilities. 

The choristers programme enrols 38 boys and girls (usually from Years 3-8), who start their day an hour earlier for rehearsals and attend dedicated Choir Terms over Christmas and Easter. It's wonderful to hear that the centuries-old tradition of waking up the Dean and the Director of Music on Christmas Morning by singing early-morning carols underneath their windows carries on!

Founded in 1179 as a boys’ choir school, ECS has evolved to become a progressive, co-ed school for both choristers and non-choristers. Whether your child is a talented chorister or an aspiring musician, there is a broad musical education offered here. With a timetable of more 200 music lessons and a wide choice of orchestras and bands (from Flutopia to Jazz Band), this music school offers much more than weekly recitals.

Click here for our full review of Exeter Cathedral School.

Wells Cathedral School

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One of four specialist music schools in the UK, Wells Cathedral School is a co-ed day and boarding school offering some of the very best training in music across a wide range of disciplines and instruments. Wells stands apart from some other music schools by having a large student community of non-specialist musicians; specialist musicians can receive a well-rounded education from academia to sports, drama and the creative arts, while non-musicians can benefit from the excellent music tuition on offer here.

One of the oldest schools in Europe, Wells was founded as a school for choristers. The school has a reputation for musical excellence and around 30% of Senior students here are enrolled into its specialist music programme; this covers a variety of disciplines from brass to popular music, choristers to woodwind. Leavers are offered places at leading music conservatoires and colleges including the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music. 

The school has some excellent facilities – students also have the opportunity to rehearse and perform in the glorious Wells Cathedral – and Alex Laing joins the school this year as the new Director of Music (he is currently Artistic Director (Music) at King’s High School and Warwick Prep).

Click here for our full review of Wells Cathedral School.
 
Durham School

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Students in the chorister programme sing in Durham Cathedral 

Durham School is a co-ed day and boarding senior school for 11-18 year olds based in the historical northern City of Durham. While the school has a strong academic record in both GCSEs and A Levels, its strengths also lie in its sporting achievements, choral programme (Durham students can audition to become a chorister for the prestigious Durham Cathedral Choir) and extra-curricular opportunities.

Durham is part of the Durham Cathedral Schools Foundation, which offers independent, co-educational day and boarding for students from the age of three to 18 years. It is part of a Foundation that has one of the largest cathedral choirs in the country, with students performing regularly in the historic and iconic Durham Cathedral. Students also perform in regular concerts, an annual large-scale musical, as well as several school drama productions. 

Click here for our full review of Durham School.

King’s College School, Wimbledon

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Located in the trendy and leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, King’s College School has become one of the capital’s top selective schools – and that is a tough crowd to get into. A day school for boys aged 7 to 18 and girls aged 16 - 18 years, King’s offers a choice of UK or international qualifications at sixth form, and it excels at doing so. However, while King’s tops the league tables, it manages to deliver outstanding examination results in both A Levels and the IB Diploma Programme without the atmosphere of an academic hothouse.

Music has always been a passion at the school, but it has recently been taken to a new level with the completion of a new music school. This has brought state of the art facilities to the school, including rehearsal and teaching rooms, a fully-equipped recording studio and a 200-seater concert hall which houses a two-manual chamber organ and a model D Steinway grand piano.

Junior students are encouraged to learn an instrument with reduced tuition fees for orchestral lessons, and the school has set up many ensembles including chamber groups, string quartets and quintets to offer students the widest choice of music education. There is also a strong tradition of choral music at King’s, and the school’s chamber choir performs at major venues such as Westminster Abbey and even Windsor Castle.

Click here for our full review of King’s College School, Wimbledon.

Dean Close Prep

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Dean Close is part of the Dean Close Foundation, a family of schools that includes a pre-prep and prep school, senior school and sixth form – all located within Cheltenham. Dean Close is the choir school for the choristers of Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, so young choristers have the chance to get some outstanding musical training, alongside a well-rounded education.

Click here for our full review of Dean Close Prep.

Haileybury

Haileybury School is an independent school near Hertford in the Home Counties. It is a co-educational school with over 850 boarding and day students who can choose between A Levels and the IB once they reach the Sixth Form. 
This school is steeped in history and the neo-classical buildings and grounds are extremely picturesque. It is particularly proud of its military heritage, and it has a long association with the British Armed Forces. It is a Christian school (but welcomes people of all faiths and none) with daily Chapel services, three voluntary Communion services per week and several Sunday services, open to parents.
 
The recently extended music school boasts recording facilities, a technology suite, individual and larger performance spaces and music is excellent and taken seriously here. Some students are lucky enough to attend junior departments at the Royal College, the Royal Academy and Guildhall as well as some being members of national ensembles such as the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choirs. Haileybury believes that music should be a “whole-school endeavour”, starting with singing “with gusto” every morning in Chapel.

Click here for our full review of Haileybury.

King Edward’s Witley

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King Edward’s Witley offers an excellent all-round education in a countryside campus with beautiful grounds and some fabulous facilities. It is inclusive rather than a hot house, truly believes happiness is key to achievement, and offers students some outstanding opportunities in sport and the arts.

There’s a super music centre (the Countess of Muster Music School), complete with recital room, a staged courtyard, classrooms, teaching and practice rooms, a band room and very well-equipped instrument store. A Mac Suite and recording facilities support the strong following for music technology here, and there’s a library full of music, recordings and books; head over to the chapel, and you’ll find three manual Willis’s organs too. Over 20 choirs, orchestras and specialist instrumental ensembles from chamber music to rock bands perform regularly in the school’s halls and auditoriums; the excellent chapel choir regularly sings in the City of London too. 

Click here for our full review of King Edward’s Witley.

Mount Kelly

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Mount Kelly UK is a leading independent private school in the West Country with a 145-year-old history. It is best known for academic focus, the elite swim academy, and a strong outdoor education programme. Located on the edge of Dartmoor National Park between Exeter and Plymouth, Mount Kelly is a day and boarding school for girls and boys aged between 3 and 18 years.
 
There are many opportunities to explore all aspects of the arts and sport at Mount Kelly – it has the facilities, the specialist teachers, and the time within a seven-day boarding programme to do this. Where the school really excels, though, is in both swimming and singing. The College Chamber Choir stands out as the flagship ensemble of the school; the choir, which competes internationally every year, won the Barnardo’s School Choir of the Year in 2020

Click here for our full review of Mount Kelly.

North London Collegiate School (NLCS)

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Founded in 1850, this all-girls day school for students aged four through to 18 years is consistently ranked in the top five UK schools for both GCSE and IB results (and it’s top of the pile for A Levels too). Unashamedly ambitious for its students, NLCS prides itself on its academic ability. It’s also a school that is growing a community of confident and resilient girls who will throw themselves into the wide range of extra-curricular activities on offer.

Chamber music is particularly strong here, and the school was one of the founding members of the South East Schools’ Chamber Music Festival; other musical successes include singing in the National Youth Choirs and winning the National Chamber Music competition.

Click here for our full review of North London Collegiate School (NLCS).

Reigate Grammar School

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Reigate Grammar School is a co-ed senior school with a flexible curriculum and an ethos that supports and nurtures girls and boys with a wide range of talents. Located in leafy Surrey, this large day school enrols 950 students from Year 7 through to Sixth Form. It's a happy, welcoming school where children are challenged while having the choice to explore subjects that feel relevant to them; learning is further enriched with a broad education that extends far beyond the formal curriculum.

Plenty of choice for the most musical of students. There are also weekly music lessons in RGS Saturday Music College, and the chance to join the prestigious RGS Godfrey Searle Choir with choristers from RGS and Reigate St Mary’s Preparatory and Choir School.

Click here for our full review of Reigate Grammar School.

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