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Choir School Student Singers Love Long Hours, Hard Work

VIENNA — Nurturing the joy of music and sharing it with others has been the mission for 60 years of St. Michael Choir School. The school was founded in 1937 by Msgr. John Edward Ronan to provide a choir for the liturgical services of St. Michael Cathedral in Toronto, Canada. The first choir totaled 18 boys; today, 374 students participate. St. Michael Choir School is one of six choir schools, and the only one in North America, to hold a Charter of Affiliation to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, with the authority to grant degrees in sacred music. Its achievements are the result of determination and discipline. St. Michael Choir School’s success begins in the selection process. In January every year, the school sends scouts to all schools in the Toronto metropolitan area. The scouts schedule prospects from third grade or higher to take part in one of four auditions, held over a period of four weekends. At least 30 boys take part in each of these auditions, where they must show a good voice and musical ear. Prospects are also academically tested and they must have above-average academic potential, so that time spent on musical instruction does not interfere with academic accomplishments. Classes are given in English and French. Weeks go by before the admission board sends an enrollment invitation to all those selected. The remaining prospects are placed on a waiting list to fill vacancies as needed. Despite the exigencies of the process, many families and in particular the boys, are willing to go through the process and even wait on the list as long as necessary to get an invitation. Such was the case of Robert Pomakov, who, since learning about St. Michael Choir School, dreamed of having a chance to attend the school someday. While in fourth grade he was invited to an audition, but he didn’t receive the invitation to enroll until the following year. Now, a little over a year before his graduation, he affirms that the school lives up to his expectations. "I enjoy every minute of it; my teachers, friends and the music," Pomakov said. Pomakov has developed into one of the best tenors in school history. He is making plans to pursue a music career at Juliard in New York. "I enjoy music so much that I want to make it my full time job," he said. Admission is just the first step in St. Michael Choir School’s very demanding music program. In addition to the daily one-hour singing practices, sometimes lasting almost two hours, all students receive piano lessons and music theory. As an elective course many students choose to study other instruments — classic guitar, violin and organ. Since the school is registered as a Canadian charitable organization, the Metropolitan Separate School Board of Toronto covers the academic costs of each student, but the special music program is privately funded. Ontario laws suggest that Catholic schools preferably enroll Catholic students only, but religion does not constitute a bar for children desiring to attend any school. St. Michael Choir School currently has a few students from other denominations enrolled. Students in third and fourth grades form the school’s Preparatory Choir. The next level, the Junior Choir, is formed by students in fifth and sixth grades. Seventh through ninth grade students form the Senior Choir. Certain 10th-graders with unchanged voices also remain within this group, which is considered by many the premium choir of the school. The boys whose voices turn too deep for the Senior Choir, generally boys in 10th and 11th grades, become part of the Tenor and Bass Choir. The school is located in three modest buildings in downtown Toronto, next to the St. Michael Cathedral with students recruited from all over town. Every morning, commuting constitutes the first challenge of the day for each student trying to beat the 8:30 a.m. bell. "I commute 45 minutes every day to get to school and some of my friends travel up to two hours by subway to make it to school," said Senior Choir member Adrian Lomaga. "But attending such a small school is like having a best friend in each section of town." After six years in the school, 10th-grader Lomaga praises the advantages of attending a small-school setting. "We all get along well. We have many things in common, for instance, we all love to play the piano," Lomaga said. The time to get used to the small-school atmosphere and the very structured program varies. Anthony Alexander Bezjak wasn’t the happiest boy in town when his parents suggested he attend the audition. The grade 12 class president, Bezjak thought that longer school days and heavy scheduling were going to be too much for him. "Boy, I am glad my parents pretty much forced me," Bezjak said. "Now I really don’t mind the longer school days. After nine years in the school I feel that my efforts are paying off since now I am certified to give piano lessons." It took over one school year for Max Mu?oz, member of the Senior Choir, to get used to the small school. Coming from Chile, Mu?oz feared rejection from his peers. "It was one of the biggest changes and challenges of my life," Mu?oz said. "Now it is totally different. Being part of a small school allows teachers to dedicate more individual attention to each student. Teachers and my friends have made me feel part of a big family." Every weekend for 10 months a year, four choirs of approximately 80 boys each provide the liturgical music for the cathedral services. Once students graduate from the school, they provide musical leadership in their parishes. Several popular Canadian singers graduated from St. Michael Choir School. Some choir members return year after year. Such is the case for Msgr. T. Barrot Armstrong, who first entered the school in 1942, then, after graduating, entered the seminary and in 1950 became a diocesan priest. He now has rejoined the school as director of the Junior Choir. Some members are just part of the school tradition and one of them is Kathleen Mann, director of the Junior Choir, who has been a teacher at the school since its early days. Each year since 1939, St. Michael Choir School has presented a Christmas concert, which has become an integral part of the Christmas celebration in Toronto. The Christmas concert is preceded by a week-long tour in early December. The choirs tour twice a year, giving the students a venue to achieve excellence in settings other than St. Michael Cathedral. Shortly after Easter, the choir tours for two weeks. Past tours included concerts in Belgium, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as many cities in the United States and Canada. Through these tours, choir members gain greater contact with their audiences by staying in people’s homes, as they did here in Vienna recently. Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016