Boys’ choir – burden, bliss, opportunity?

FAU researchers present a study on the experiences of former choristers

Boys’ choirs are one of the crown jewels of musical culture. But more recently accusations have come to light that such glittering success has been achieved through pedagogically questionable methods; with abuse and mistreatment often cited. Prof. Dr. Max Liedtke, professor emeritus at the Department for General Educational Science I at Friedrich-Alexᆳander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), and Dr. Horant Schulz, rector a.D. at Adelsdorf Elementary School, are addressing these accusations, which are by no means new, taking the example of the Windsbach Boys’ Choir. They conducted comprehensive research into the experiences and views of all the former choristers who could still be reached. The study’s main objective was to discover what, on balance, the former choristers believe being a member of the choir has contributed to their lives.

The Windsbach Boys’ Choir, founded in 1946, is an institution connected to Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria. For decades it has been one of the best boys’ choirs in German-speaking Europe. The core issue analysed by Max Liedtke’s and Horant Schulz’s study is how this success was achieved and what long-term educational merit is associated with intensive choir activities. Their work is based on several quantitative and qualitative studies conducted between 1990 and 2010 and on surveys among approx. 400 former Windsbach choral singers who left school between 1947 and 2010. The surveys were not limited only to the choir, but also covered the boarding school where most of the choir members were lodged, and the schools where they were taught.

The researchers’ summary: problematic forms of education were manifest. Until the 1970s there were instances of corporal punishment, as was common in European Christian tradition. By current standards such measures would be considered mistreatment. Criticism of these practices is both justified and necessary. The vast majority of former choristers report huge benefits for their time in the choir which would have been very difficult to achieve otherwise. In this way, through their choral experience, music became “a key to life”, as one of the interviewees put it. Although the study focuses on the Windsbach Choir, the authors believe its core results can be applied to other boys’ choirs.

The results in detail

The mistreatment and abuse debate
Using their data as a foundation, the researchers then analysed whether accusations of mistreatment are justified. “We paid very close attention to possible negative aspects and assigned a great deal, indeed over-representative, importance to the negative aspects and problems raised by the former choir members in order not to run the risk of overlooking any criticism, critical remark or data,” explains Professor Liedtke. The researchers arrived at the following findings:

in so far as the mistreatment debate includes corporal punishment, it is beyond doubt that Windsbach was not exempt. “Right into the 1970s it was still contentious whether corporal punishment, provided it did not lead to bodily harm, was a legal educational tool. Throughout Christian tradition, corporal punishment was not just permitted but encouraged as an educational method,” explains Max Liedtke. For this reason alone it must be presumed that in Windsbach too, serious psychological and physical injury was caused. This means that criticism was both justified and necessary. “This criticism is plain in may places in our research. However, the period in question was not a time of systematically violent education and repression. The vast majority of contemporary accounts speak to the contrary. Many have positive memories of the choir and boarding school from this time,” says the educational researcher.

The situation in Windsbach changed following changes in the law, and in light of evolving pedagogical attitudes in the 1970s. There are no indications that corporal punishment was practised or tolerated by the boarding school or choir administration after this period. However, this does not rule out the possibility that individual educators may have occasionally used violence against pupils, even in later years. There have been accusations of frightening educational behaviour, for example an occasionally strident or harsh rehearsal style. Equally, according to the researchers, all of the survey results improved markedly after 1978. There have been no further complaints against the rehearsal style in recent years.

According to the researchers, cases of paedophilia, as have come to light in other boarding schools after years of being tolerated and hushed up, did not occur in Windsbach. A case from 1954 and another from 2011 were immediately reported by the boarding school’s administration who pursued legal action as soon as the claims came to light.

The choristers’ educational experiences
According to Liedtke and Schulz positive opinions and a large number of very balanced comments outweigh the negatives. In the study of school leavers between 1947 and 1996, 87.4% of choir members have a positive view of their educational experiences at Windsbach, 5.9% negative, and 6.7% left the question unanswered. In the case of choir members who left school between 1997 and 2010, 87.8% stated they have never seriously regretted being a member of the Windsbach Boys’ Choir, 8.7% answered yes to the question and 4.3% gave no answer.

Both researchers consider the wealth of successful experiences gained as one of the most significant benefits of taking part in the (boys’) choir. “During their time, the choristers were in hundreds of concerts which, in general, were enthusiastically received by audiences. Former choir singers from all generations confirm that the concerts afforded them wonderful, fulfilling experiences and success that made them feel proud,” says Liedtke. Another clear plus the Windsbach pupils gained from their time in the choir was musical: they were instilled with top quality singing skills, learning a wealth of melodies, texts and, thus, acquiring a life-long cultural asset to enrich their lives.

The rudimentary secondary effects of intensive choral work were substantial: forms of behaviour necessary for top-flight performance in any area of life, including endurance, teamwork skills and the ability to work under pressure. The high aspirational level the choir members experienced is ultimately transposed onto other areas of life, in particular the artistic and professional arenas. Furthermore, there was an additional social benefit from being a member of the choir. Working together in the choir over a period of many years formed longer-lasting and more intense friendships than usually experienced in “normal schools”.

Finally, the choir members also saw the extent to which they could influence their audience: stimulating emotion, joy and comfort. They were also aware that, through their work in the choir, they were making a contribution to society as a whole at the highest artistic level.

The Authors

Max Liedtke, Professor for General Pedagogy and the Emeritus chair at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, among other areas he has studied Musicology and, since the 1980s, has initiated, supervised and written his own work on the Windsbach Boys’ Choir.

Horant Schulz, Erlangen, Rector a.D., was a soprano with the Regensburg Domspatzen who came through the Windsbach Boys’ Choir.

The researchers’ findings have been published as a book:
Max Liedtke / Horant Schulz: Knabenchor – Last, Glück, Lebenschance? Eine Untersuchung am Beispiel des Windsbacher Knabenchors [Boys’ choir – burden, bliss, opportunity? A study based on the Windsbach Boys’ Choir], Wißner-Verlag, Augsburg 2012.

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uni | media service | research No. 6/2012 on 28.2.2012

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