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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Dr. Zechariah Buck’s (1798-1879) Methods of Teaching Choristers at Norwich Cathedral

The time table of daily duty was,

  • 9 to 9.45, scale practice;

  • 10 to 11, morning service;

  • 11 to 12.30 or 1, music practice;

  • 2 to 3.45, music;

  • 4 to 5, evening service;

  • 5 to 6.30 or 7, ordinary studies with the schoolmaster.

Mr. A. R. Gaul says that during thirteen years as boy and articled pupil, his whole holidays did not amount to thirty-one days. With all this work Dr. Buck was exceedingly careful in sparing the voices of his boys. Each boy never practised for more than ten minutes, after which he had a rest.

He objected to the schoolmaster flogging his boys, not from any consideration for their feelings, but because screaming would injure their voices. His articled pupils conducted the individual training of the boys, Dr. Buck coming in at the close of the lesson. No forcing was allowed.

Dr. Buck was organist of the Cathedral, but he scarcely ever played at the service, preferring to stand at a spot where only the boys could see him, and telegraph his signals to them. The raising of the left hand meant “bad tone;” of both hands, “very bad tone.”

As to voice production, he used various devices to make the boys open their mouths - beans, marbles, nuts; but at last settled on a little boxwood mouthpiece, which was inserted between the teeth. The head register was taught by singing with the mouth shut, and opening it when the sound had been obtained. “Show six teeth” was a constant saying of Dr. Buck, and this meant six both at the top and bottom. Tongue drill consisted in placing the tip so that it touched the top of the front upper teeth, and then laying it flat in the mouth. Each boy held a penny mirror in his hand while doing this, and Dr. Buck, to emphasise matters, would insert a pencil or his own fingers in the mouth. The practice of shakes, florid runs, and cadenzas was necessary in the early part of Dr. Buck’s career: but the fashion in music soon altered, and such complex vocal agility is not now needed in choir-boys. As to breathing, the boys were told to inhale through both mouth and nose, and keep the shoulders still.

There were no “solo boys” at Norwich, because all were expected to be able to take a solo. To amuse Sir Julius Benedict, Dr. Buck placed three boys behind a screen and made them sing a florid solo. Benedict held that it was one voice. In practising a solo Dr. Buck would often have six boys engaged, making them take up passages in turn, so that they sang, rested, and listened.

Dr. Buck trained alto boys as well as treble. He himself had a rich alto voice. The boy who was to sing the solo at the afternoon Sunday service was generally shut up in an inner room in Dr. Buck’s house and fed from his table, so that his voice should be clear. Boys who were hoarse had cloves and gum arabic given to them, and a delicate boy was supplied with a “pocket pistol” containing port wine, which he swallowed just before his solo. The best boys would sing up to C freely in such a solo as “The marvellous work.” There was a short practice in Dr. Buck’s house before each Sunday service, and the solo boy was taken by himself.

These practices were chiefly unaccompanied. Dr. Buck would strike the chord, and leave the boys to go on. Clear enunciation of consonants was always a point. To encourage it an exercise to d[o] m[i] s[ol] m[i] was sung to the sounds ack, ock, ook, eek, first slowly, then quicker. In the long note on “wait,” in “O rest in the Lord,” Dr. Buck had a cresc. And dim., so that the sound ended quite softly; but he listened for the “t,” and complained if he did not hear it. Rehearsals with the men were frequent. A lay clerk says that in 1867 they averaged nineteen a month.

The boys were rewarded for good work. Half-a-crown for a well-executed shake [trill], and a threepenny piece for a well-sung solo are spoken of. No scarves or comforters were allowed to be worn.

In 1819, when he was first appointed, Dr. Buck made a tour of the cathedrals, at his own expense, to gather experience. Ever after he was a student. When an Italian teacher of note visited England, he would go up to town and take lessons. As an articled pupil came near the end of his time Dr. Buck would take him to London for two or three weeks, and let him hear a lot of good music, paying for all expenses.

To enlist the imagination of the boy, so as to get him to impersonate the situation described by the words, was always Dr. Buck’s aim. To illustrate a penitential psalm he would describe the captivity of the Jews till the boys dropped tears. To get a boy to realise the words “Without Thee all is dark,” Dr. Buck shut him in a cupboard. Every phrase was made a study, not only for its vocal shaping, but for the dramatic motive which prompted it. The result of this minute work was, as may be imagined, solo singing of a very high order, which sent the name and fame of Dr. Buck all over the country.



John Spencer Curwen, The Boy’s Voice : A Book of Practical Information on the Training of Boys’ Voices for Church Choirs, &C. (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1891).

The image below is taken from the same book and depicts two boy choristers. Photographed by Mr. George Hadley, Lincoln.


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