They’ve been singing for 500 years, and they’re not tired yet. The Vienna Boys Choir has been doing musical business since 1498, since Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I relocated his court from Innsbruck to its current home base in Vienna.
It takes plenty of stamina to hang in there for five centuries, so fresh faces are introduced into the choir on a regular basis. Boys from 9 to 14 make up the 100 choristers who tour the world as four separate choirs performing over 300 dates a year for the private, nonprofit organization.
It’s a self-contained operation that schools the children as well as being a performing outlet. The choir has its own grammar school which works around the hefty touring and performance schedule that has each boy performing about 80 dates a year.
Training and educating young boys is a challenging task in itself, but given the proliferation of distractions nowadays, it would seem even harder to hold the attention of a group of young boys.
“The boys actually want to be in the choir. They want to make music, so I think practicing music is quite good fun to do,” band historian Tina Breckwoldt said last week by phone from Vienna. “Obviously, we make sure that the boys really want this for themselves, they want to sing together, so they pass an audition and then they spend a trial period with us and most of them come up through our own primary school, so they know exactly what to expect. Our own primary school has 15 hours of music a week, and lots of play outdoors, so I think they don’t have much time for other distractions.”
Because some of those distractions include sports, some parents are not aware that the choir is an option for their sons. So in spite of their 500-year-old reputation, the choir still has to go recruiting.
“In Austria, we actively recruit because there are so many things like soccer clubs or tennis clubs, chess societies, so you have to raise awareness,” Breckwoldt says. “Singing is good training for the brain in the sense that it strengthens a boy’s capacity to concentrate and to focus, and is very good for that left half of the brain in general.”
But it’s not all a grind. The choir’s website says that it helps if aspiring candidates like to play football, as soccer is referred to in many parts of the world. The choir grounds are amenable to the sport, and the kids are encouraged to use them.
“We have two large football pitches right outside the school, and it lets the boys run outside every five minutes they have free, and they play, Breckwoldt says. “That’s why it helps, because football, or soccer, I should say is very important to them. We’ve even got a choir league.”
Academic and choral prep are not the only subjects taught at the facility. Choir members are encouraged to play an instrument as well. “We like them to play instruments, but not necessarily before they come,” Breckwoldt says. “All of them pick one, some of them play more than one instrument because it’s a different way of expressing your musicality, a different voice.”
Breckwoldt says it’s important for choir boys to have something to use to accompany themselves. Piano is a favorite choice, as is violin. “If you play the violin, you really have to produce the note yourself. It’s a good way of training your ear additionally.”
Not surprisingly, percussion is also a favorite pick for young boys as a second instrument. But their additional musical baggage is not allowed to get in the way of their education. “If they have a lot on, school-wise, we don’t expect them to put in hours and hours of practice, but we like them to have an outlet.”
Instrument training also takes place in-house. “They pick an instrument and we make sure they get a teacher who comes to the school,” Breckwoldt says. They currently have a roster that includes piano, violin, trumpet, oboe and clarinet teachers, as well as a percussion instructor. “And if somebody wants to play something like bagpipes or the harp, we’ll find a teacher and make sure the teacher comes so that the boy doesn’t spend time to-ing and fro-ing.”
As well as a choice of instrumentation, choir boys have some say in what goes into the material they perform. It’s a huge range of material, from Gregorian chants to what Breckwoldt labels “experimental music” along with opera, classical and pop. The kids tastes sometimes influence the pop choices, ranging from Beatles covers (“All You Need Is Love” and “Michelle”) to a reggae take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
A song choir members heard while touring Mexico in the ’90s, “Esa Noche,” done by innovative Mexican indie rockers Cafe Tacuba in ’94 still makes the set lists, as does Louis Prima’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from the 2016 Disney movie “The Jungle Book.” Abba tunes have found their way into the setlists as have songs from musicals including “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” from 1964’s “The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd.”
Being musical ambassadors isn’t all about talent. There is some etiquette training involved as well. The boys have chaperons who travel with them and tutor them on manners and customs before and during a tour, helping with things the boys might find strange or new.
“When we travel to Japan, there’s somebody who gives them a good introduction into the language and into the rituals, customs,” Breckwoldt says. “It’s a very polite society, and it’s very important there that you kind of know some of the rules.”
The knowledge instilled in the choirboys is a basic tenet of how we all should be able to get along in society. “We offer house invitations that require the boys to be polite, and we definitely tell them we’re all guests, basically, on this planet, and as a guest, you should behave accordingly,” Breckwoldt says. ”Watch the way you fit in. Then react after you have observed and decided, ‘OK, this is how one does things in this place.’”