Christmas Means Music For Boys Choir

For the boy choristers of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Christmas is not about angling for video games or iPods, but parsing each note in Handel's Messiah, performing before thousands of people — and wondering when their voices will change.

Choir Director Michael McCarthy leads members of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers. i

Director Michael McCarthy leads members of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers in rehearsal at the National Cathedral. During the Christmas season, the boys, ages 8 to 13, can spend more than 15 hours a week performing and practicing. Ryan Gibbons/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Gibbons/NPR
Choir Director Michael McCarthy leads members of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers.

Director Michael McCarthy leads members of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers in rehearsal at the National Cathedral. During the Christmas season, the boys, ages 8 to 13, can spend more than 15 hours a week performing and practicing.

Ryan Gibbons/NPR
Twelve-year-old Nick Bairatchnyi first tried out for a solo in the fourth grade. i

Nick Bairatchnyi, 12, has been a member of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers for four years. Nick, now a seventh-grader, first tried out for a solo in the fourth grade. Ryan Gibbons/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Gibbons/NPR
Twelve-year-old Nick Bairatchnyi first tried out for a solo in the fourth grade.

Nick Bairatchnyi, 12, has been a member of the National Cathedral Boy Choristers for four years. Nick, now a seventh-grader, first tried out for a solo in the fourth grade.

Ryan Gibbons/NPR

During Christmas season, the 18 boys — ages 8 to 13 — who comprise the National Cathedral Boy Choristers clock upward of 15 to 20 hours of practice and performances a week.

At 12 years old, soloist Nick Bairatchnyi is one of the old hands. A lanky seventh-grader with long brown hair and no discernable part, he wears a tie — but his shirt is untucked — and running shoes with his laces untied. Nick says he began singing to his mother's iPod years ago, but was a bit surprised when he was selected to join the choir when he was 8.

"When I started singing, I couldn't sing at all," he says. "So I just hoped Mr. McCarthy would teach me how to sing."

Mr. McCarthy is Michael McCarthy, the choir director at the National Cathedral. He says polishing young voices is a science. Spotting young talent is a hunch.

"When you select a boy in the first place, you don't actually work out how much they know about music, or indeed what they sound like at that embryonic stage," says McCarthy in a clipped British accent. "It's what the look is in the eye. It's how they say hello to you. And Nick is a sort of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed type of a boy, and what comes from that often is the ability to be a fairly fearless soloist."

Nick admits he has always had a yen for the spotlight.

"During my first year, we were singing a piece in Latin, and Mr. McCarthy was trying out kids for the solo, and I raised my hand. But I was in the fourth grade, and that's unheard of, and I didn't get the solo. But that's when I realized I really, really loved singing."

As for the long hours the boys spend practicing and performing around the holidays, McCarthy admits it's hard work.

"It's a little like training for an Olympic sport, frankly," McCarthy says.

"It's pretty hard to get used to at the beginning," says Nick. "Because you're used to just lazing around after school, and then on the weekends being able to do whatever you want."

And yet Nick, who plays football and runs track, happily centers his life around music, and he says the music has transformed his view of Christmas.

"When you're little, you always think Christmas is about presents. But then as you grow up, you really figure out what it means to celebrate Christmas — especially when you're singing in the choir," he says. "It's really about ... I don't want to say 'giving,' because that will sound really corny. But I mean, it is about giving and about being thankful for what you have, and pretty much thanking God for saving humanity."

Of course, there are drawbacks to the sublime — jokes from their friends about their high voices. And the dreaded purple dresses.

"We wear purple robes down to our feet and black shoes and a ruff that's just like a big poofy white thing that goes around your neck," Nick says, wincing slightly. "So the first couple of times you wear it, it's quite embarrassing."

But the dresses are forgotten when Nick stands under the soaring stone ceilings and stained glass of the National Cathedral.

"During a concert, at first you feel pretty nervous," says Nick, who performed before President Obama and the first lady earlier this year. But he says he uses simple willpower to overcome his nervousness. "It's actually a pretty gratifying feeling singing in front of people, because it's like these people came here, and they're listening to me sing, and I think that's a pretty big achievement from walking around my house singing when I was little."

Offstage, Nick's iPod runs to more baby boomer taste: The Beatles, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin. But asked which singer he'd like to be like, he replies instantly: "Probably Pavarotti."

He doesn't want to be a rock star?

"I've realized as I've gotten older and wiser that it just hurts my voice a lot, singing that kind of music. And eventually, like what just happened to the lead singer of Metallica, his voice just broke, and he was only 40," he says.

Nick wonders when his voice will break in a different way. The day is coming when he won't hit the high notes.

"I'm going to be pretty disappointed when my voice changes, because I've grown so used to it," he says. "But then I'm also going to be happy, because then I'll know what voice I'll have for the rest of my life."

It's a voice he hopes will make his career.

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