UK choral course a dream come true

Lise Hewak and Janice Douglas at Holy Sepulchre.
 on May 30, 2024

My friend Lise and I sang together in our high school madrigal choir in London, Ont., but neither of us had been to London, England for almost 40 years. So when we saw a Facebook post about the Rodolfus Foundation adult choral workshop in the UK, it was too good to pass up.

I have sung in the choir at St. Olave, Swansea for about 30 years, with some time off here and there. But it’s a mainstay of my faith and my church participation. Lise rekindled her choral skills with the Guelph Community Choir two years ago. For both of us, singing in a choir taps into some of that youthful nostalgia of our high school days. It can also be wonderfully restorative. “I come home from work and know I have choir rehearsal that night,” says Lise. “Sometimes I might be too tired and don’t feel like going. But I do, and I’m always glad I did.”

My Thursday nights, like most church choristers, are sacrosanct. I look forward to rehearsal all week. What will our director of music have in store for our merry band of 10 singers? Whatever woes and worries are on my heart seem to evaporate in those 90 minutes.

These feelings hovered in the back of our minds as we rode the #40 double decker bus over the Thames and under the Holburn Viaduct into a humming business area not far from the iconic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We arrived at Holy Sepulchre, the National Musicians’ Church, our rehearsal space for the next two days. First established as a centre of worship in 1137, it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by the architect of all British architects, Sir Christopher Wren. It is home to the Musicians’ Chapel, where musicians known and unknown are remembered every year.

Rows of chairs filled the nave. Sun streamed in, and though there was paint peeling on Sir Christopher’s vaulted ceiling, evidence of the church’s outreach and ministry abounded in colourful flyers and bulletin board displays.

We were among the 40-or-so men and women who had registered for the four-day adult choral course. The Rodolfus Foundation is dedicated to preserving and promoting the English cathedral choral tradition. “Ah, the Canadians!” exclaimed the organizer, Simon, as we checked in to receive our tote bag and brimming music folder.

Ah yes, the music. A few weeks prior, we had received a 76-page PDF of the scores, as well as links to audio recordings. The program was ambitious:

  • Saturday Choral Evensong at Southwark Cathedral: the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C by Charles Villiers Stanford; Preces and Responses written in 1972 by Philip Radcliffe, a former Eton College teacher; and Bairstow’s “Blessed City, Heavenly Salem.” Plus Psalm 66, sung to Anglican chant.
  • Sunday morning Eucharist at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich: “Locus Iste by Anton Bruckner as the introit, Geistliches Lied” by Johannes Brahms as the anthem, and the Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Gloria from Franz Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G major, D 167. Plus Psalm 4 and three congregational hymns.

It was Thursday afternoon, just two days before our first service. I was relieved that our choir at St. Olave’s had recently sung the Bruckner and the Brahms. That would give me a slight leg up on having to learn the rest of the repertoire.

We filed into the open area choir chancel and took our seats around a grand piano, altos on the right, sopranos on the left, tenors in the centre and basses behind the altos. Tenors were our smallest group at just four, but the basses were a formidable eight and we altos numbered about a dozen. Sopranos were in abundance, rounding out the group.

We began with warm-ups from Dan Ludford-Thomas. There is seldom time for long and focused breathing exercises at my Thursday evening rehearsals, so I relished the chance to learn more about “filling up the tank.” Soon we were inhaling air into our lungs, chests and throats and then magically exhaling to 8, 12 and 16 counts.

At last, time to sing. Our choir director was Dr. Ralph Allwood, a tall, slim man with a healthy shock of white hair who lives and breathes choral music. Formerly the director of music at Eton College for 26 years, Dr. Allwood was named to the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and in 2017 was awarded the Thomas Cranmer Award for Worship by the Archbishop of Canterbury “for services to choral music in the Church of England and especially for fostering musical education amongst disadvantaged children.” Dr. Allwood does this through the Rodolfus programs for children and youth, an extension of the Rodolfus Choir that was established in 1984. The adult course is only in its second year.

Despite his impressive resume, Dr. Allwood quickly put us at ease. Over the next three hours, we managed to read through all the music at least once. We quickly learned though that if a break is over at 3 p.m., be ready to sing at 3 p.m. lest the rehearsal go on without you.

Day two was a full day and included a master class with none other than John Rutter, the legendary British composer and conductor. Mr. Rutter and Dr. Allwood go way back and enjoyed ribbing each other and agreeing to disagree on occasional conducting choices. Many choristers, including yours truly, gathered around for photos and autographs. Taylor Swift has nothing on John Rutter in this crowd. Later we nattered about his former position as patron of the Toronto Mendelsohn Youth Choir.

Some pieces came easily, some required more attention. Dr. Allwood remained kind and patient throughout, pulling unlimited tricks out of his toolkit to get us to sing the correct notes. In a fortissimo section of the Bairstow, we were in danger of singing too loudly on the second syllable of “sculpture.” Dr. Allwood’s trick? To drop to the floor as we were singing “CHUR”. The first time he did it was dramatic – wait, where’d he go?! – but it drove the point home. Phrasing is important!

For our long day of singing, we were rewarded with a glass (or two) of prosecco and time to chat and mingle. Most people were surprised to learn that Lise and I had come all the way to London just for this course.

Day three began at our new location, Southwark Cathedral, where we would sing Choral Evensong at 4 p.m. The building was founded in 1106 on the southern bank of the Thames. London Bridge is adjacent and Tower Bridge in view. Over its storied history, worship communities grew and merged and parted under several different names, until in 1905 it became Southwark Cathedral. Though it has spectacular soaring ceilings held up by massive fluted pillars, it manages to be an intimate space, perhaps made even cozier by the presence of Hodge, the resident cat. An enchanting walled garden, complete with a friendly fox, separates it from the bustling Borough Market.

Our day began with a session of Feldenkrais led by Anita Morrison. Feldenkrais was new to me as an amateur singer, but professional musicians, actors and dancers may be more familiar with the method. It combines simple, mindful movements to help performers avoid injury. We concentrated on sitting squarely on our “sit” bones and breathing deeply. I find mindfulness exercises to be personally challenging, but by the end of the 40-minute session, a pain in my right shoulder had disappeared. Go figure.

After a pilgrimage to find the world’s best cheese toastie in the Borough Market, we were ready for our dress rehearsal. We had been instructed to wear “all black, smart attire.” I’m not sure how smart I felt! We took our seats in the chancel choir stalls lined with little lamps. Twenty-two saints and martyrs stared down at us from the massive screen behind the high altar, which dates to 1520. The organist sat in a closed room with a window open on the stalls and a video monitor allowing him to see Dr. Allwood at all times.

Lise’s community choir numbers almost 100 people, but I have never sung with so many people or in such a brilliant acoustic space. The experience was overwhelming. I did my best to savour it.

By 3:50 there were only a few empty seats in the cathedral. Hodge was lolling comfortably by a door next to the transept.

The precentor, sounding for all the world like Julie Andrews atop a Swiss alp, began “O Lord open though our lips,” and we were off. Psalm 66 came alive in the space. We sing Anglican chant at St. Olave’s during our Morning Prayer services, but most people had to learn from scratch. Stanford’s Mag and Nunc finish with an exuberant Gloria Patri that rang into the ceiling. The Bairstow showed off the skill of our organist, Ben Markovic, and required our sopranos to reach some skyscraping As. They were up to the task.

By 5 p.m. the service was finished, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. People even told us the choir sang well. Lise and I beamed!

The next morning, we journeyed to Greenwich. The chapel at the Old Royal Naval College seats a few hundred, much more capacious than the word “chapel” might suggest. Behind the altar soars a massive painting of St. Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, a poignant image for a naval academy. The chapel is built of marble and stone and is full of light. It was open and airy with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, which made for grand acoustics.

Bruckner’s “Locus iste” was an apt piece for an introit, celebrating the incredibly beautiful place in which we were singing.

This place was made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
it is without reproach.

After the service we were warmly welcomed to the coffee hour in the parish hall below, an area called the Undercroft. And before we knew it, we were saying our goodbyes. A total of 22 hours of instruction plus 40 new fellow choristers plus a boatload of new repertoire… I’m ready for next year!

To learn about the Rodolfus Foundation, visit


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