The trebles are coming.
They navigate the stairs to the basement choir room, prepared to swap summer’s ease for a song and the discipline of a music program choirmaster Andrew Lewis calls “the most rigorous in Chicagoland.”
Known as “trebles,” these boys and girls, aged 8 to early teens, lend their distinctive soprano voices to the adult alto, tenor and bass sections that comprise the choir at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 939 Hinman Ave.
In the 1,000-year-old tradition of the Anglican church, the trebles – girls and boys at St. Luke’s but still exclusively boys in many all-male English choirs – are responsible for the pure, bright sound many Americans associate with choral broadcasts from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England.
Many of the trebles arrive early for this first rehearsal after summer break.
After warm hellos, they tend to the business of gathering their sheet music and perusing the assignment brochures they call their “cards.”
Then, accompanied by the thwack-thwack of some peers’ pre-practice ping-pong game, Hannah Foote, Isadora Harper, Violet Kuner and Sarah Shapiro pull up chairs in the adjoining recreation room to talk about their combined 25 years in the St. Luke’s choir.
“I like a lot of the music and a lot of people I know,” says Violet. She and Sarah, both 12, have been singing at the church since they were first eligible to join the beginner group called training choir at 5. Choirmaster Lewis says any child with an interest is welcome. As a prelude to their joining, he listens to each child sing and talks with the parents. Weekly practices – even for the 5-year-olds – include instruction in the names of notes and Italian music terminology.
“People don’t give children enough credit for what they can learn,” he says. “They are so talented they soak up all the training.” By the time they are 13, he says, “they can become sophisticated musicians.”
“In a time when arts education is not valued,” he says, he holds to the belief that “children are capable of profoundly expressive things.”
Right from the start, the training choir is schooled in what Mr. Lewis terms “proper vocal technique.” He says he cringes at “belting,” the oft-taught chest singing typical of musical theater. St. Luke’s choristers sing with the “head voice,” one he describes as “far more healthy but not as loud.”
The Lewis sons, 6, 8 and 10, all sing at St. Luke’s, one of them having started there before his father was hired. Mr. Lewis joined church organist and interim choirmaster Dr. Christine Kraemer as co-choirmaster. He took a pay cut to lead a St. Luke’s program he says has “a strong tradition of high expectations and respect” within the bounds of “what is developmentally appropriate.”
To foster a climate of respect, children in the choir address adults – as adults do each other – with appropriate titles such as Mr., Ms. or Dr. Given this “formality and distance,” Mr. Lewis says, “children see respect around them.”
On reaching third grade or the age of 8, the children can move up from the training choir to the trebles. Boys sing treble till their voices change; girls can stay through high school. Trebles rehearse Thursday evenings, for half an hour on their own and then for an hour with the adult choir.
There they interact with adults like Mark Kraemer, sometimes forming intergenerational bonds that last for decades. The husband of the organist/choirmaster, Mr. Kraemer plays bass in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but has also sung in church choirs since his youth. At St. Luke’s, he says, “One of the things that is fun is singing with the kids.” He appreciates “the special kind of sound the children bring, a special kind of angelic sound.”
The trebles’ rise in status comes with increased responsibility. A youth selected to be head chorister outranks the adults, who look to the chorister during worship services for cues on when to bow or begin certain rituals.
In addition, older trebles are taught to mentor the younger. The duties of an older treble range from modeling good behavior and helping smaller children maintain their focus during the church service to helping them find the right scores at the right liturgical moment.
The “cards” are tangible records of individual trebles’ progress through the Royal School of Church Music curriculum. Mr. Lewis and Dr. Kraemer are at rehearsal early to assist and to initial each completed step toward reading music and understanding music theory and church history and liturgy.
After years in the choir, Sarah Shapiro says she can see she and her fellow singers “have made a lot of progress.” The reward, she says, is to “get to do more advanced music” – what Mr. Lewis calls “only the best [music] of the Anglican tradition,” from the Tudor polyphony of Tallis and Byrd up to the present day.
The sound of the choir is enhanced by St. Luke’s Skinner organ, which will mark its 90th birthday at a celebration at 4 p.m. on Oct. 21. Built for “just under $50,000,” it is now “irreplaceable,” says Dr. Kraemer. The 3,000-pipe instrument underwent restoration in the 1990s at a cost of $500,000. St. Luke’s is widely known “in Europe and across the U.S.,” she says, for both the organ and the remarkable acoustics.
Choristers rehearse for the soaring sanctuary space in the small basement choir room. There, on a warm September evening, practice begins with spontaneous applause as the choirmaster introduces new trebles and choir members. In the “accepting, welcoming, non-judgmental” atmosphere of St. Luke’s, says Mr. Lewis, “you can come and be who you are.”
There Sarah, who attends Wilmette Junior High School and wants to be a singer when she grows up, can forge friendships with Hannah and Violet from Nichols Middle School and with Isadora, from the Chicago Waldorf School. “It’s like I have two different lives, one here and one at school,” says Sarah. “I like this best.”
The structure of the choir program facilitates the music, which in turn is dedicated to a higher goal. “A lot of people sing in choirs to be part of a group,” Mr. Lewis says. “The ‘magic’ is elevated at St. Luke’s because our purpose is worship.”
The choirmaster raises his arms, the organist strikes the keyboard and over the smooth but rhythmic notes of the adult choir, the sweet treble voices of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” pour like honey.