(Soundbite of choir)

Mr. NICHOLAS BAIRATCHNYI (Choir Member): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

INSKEEP: That voice belongs to Nicholas Bairatchnyi, a 12-year-old in the boys choir at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It's one of the most elite children's choirs. And for them, Christmas means nonstop singing.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has this profile.

(Soundbite of choir)

(Soundbite of choir)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Eighteen boys, ages eight to 13, are warming up their voices. They've only an hour between classes at St. Albans School to master pages of music for this night's performance. Among the boys, Nick Bairatchnyi, a lanky seventh grader who joined four years ago.

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: When I first started singing, I couldn't sing at all. I just hoped that Mr. McCarthy would teach me how to sing.

(Soundbite of choir)

Mr. MICHAEL MCCARTHY (Choir Director): Good. Can we find ourselves on page one. We have to work very, very rapidly. Okay?

HAGERTY: 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.

Mr. MCCARTHY: It's what the look is in the eye. It's how they say hello to you.

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: We're 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 a solo. But I mean, I - that - that's when I realized that I really, really loved singing.

Mr. MCCARTHY: 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.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: During Christmas season, the boys clock upwards of 15 to 20 hours of practice and performances a week.

Mr. MCCARTHY: It's a bit like training for an Olympic sport, frankly.

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

HAGERTY: When you're little, you always think Christmas is just 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.

(Soundbite of choir)

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: 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 it's about being thankful for what you have, and pretty much thanking God for saving humanity.

(Soundbite of choir)

NATIONAL CATHEDRAL BOYS CHOIR: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

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

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: We wear purple robes down to our feet with black shoes and a ruff that's just like a big poofy white thing that goes around your neck. So it's actually, the first couple of times you wear it, it's quite embarrassing.

(Soundbite of choir)

NATIONAL CATHEDRAL BOYS CHOIR: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: But all that is forgotten when Nick stands up under the soaring gray ceilings and stained glass of the National Cathedral.

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: At first you feel pretty nervous, and then with me right before I start singing, I get over it, because I realize that I can't sing if I'm nervous.

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: Off stage, Nick's iPod runs to more, well, Baby Boomer taste - the Beatles, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin. But asked which singer he'd like to be like�

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: Probably Pavarotti.

HAGERTY: So you're not going rock band route. You're going classical route.

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

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

Mr. BAIRATCHNYI: I'm going to be pretty disappointed when my voice changes, just because I've just grown so used to it. 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.

HAGERTY: A voice, he hopes, will make his career. Opera lovers take note.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of choir)

INSKEEP: You're hearing the National Cathedral Boys Choir on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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