Raising their voices

PUBLISHED: 16:00 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Andrew Jones has a problem - but he's not complaining. Carolyn Smith reports.

Andrew Jones has a problem - but he's not complaining. Carolyn Smith reports.

The Director of Music at Shakespeare's Church, Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon, is running out of space in the stalls for his rapidly expanding choir.

"It's a bit of a logistical difficulty, but one I'm glad to have!" says Andrew. "We're really doing well with recruitment at the moment, but I would never turn away anyone who has a genuine interest and commitment to being part of the choir.

"People change jobs, move away - and of course young people grow up and go on to college, university or jobs away from Stratford too, so I am very keen to welcome new members. We can always find some extra chairs! "

Holy Trinity is the church where Shakespeare was baptised on April 26th 1564, and he was also buried in the chancel on April 25th 1616. Thousands of visitors flock to his grave every year, many taking the opportunity to attend a church service. The choir therefore serves a much more diverse congregation than that of most church choirs.

Holy Trinity's choir is mixed, meaning that adults and children (known as trebles) sing together but rehearsals are held both separately and jointly.

There is also a lively social calendar with events for all choir members and their families. Recent activities have included a visit to Drayton Manor Park, a country walk and pub lunch and a family quiz. "A choir is like any other team," says Andrew. "In order to be successful, there has to be a great team spirit, and the members have to bond. The social side of a choir is vitally important - as well as being a lot of fun, and a good way to meet other musicians!"

Since Andrew took up his current role in February 2006, he has introduced an extra element to the life of the choir - touring. In December 2006, they undertook their first performance outside Warwickshire for more than 30 years when they sang at Exeter Cathedral between Christmas and New Year. The experience was so successful that it was repeated by popular request in 2007, when the venue was Lincoln, where the choir also sang at services in the Cathedral. This summer, they are venturing further afield with a week's tour to Italy, a highlight of which will be performing at a Sunday Mass in Florence's Duomo, the city's spectacular ancient cathedral.

So what led Andrew Jones, born and bred in Kent, to Warwickshire and Shakespeare's church? In fact, he was living in Vienna when he applied for the post of Director of Music at Holy Trinity. "I had been there, working as a musician, for about two years. I'd just decided that I would like to return to England, and was beginning to look at what jobs were on offer, when this one came up rather more quickly than I expected!"

Did he know anything about Stratford at the time? "No, not at all! I thought I'd never been here, but my parents told me later that they once brought me on a day trip as a young child. I certainly didn't remember it. I wanted to work somewhere big enough to have things going on, but small enough to get to know people, and to be known. I had lived in a flat in London for five years, and never met my next-door neighbours - which is normal for London. Vienna is a beautiful city, with a fantastic cultural life - but I always felt like a bit of an outsider, even though I could speak the language. I wanted this move to be different. "

The appointment process was gruelling, consisting of two interviews, a performance and improvisation on the church organ and a trial rehearsal with some of the choir members. "When Martin Gorick, the vicar, contacted me to offer me the job I was delighted but it felt a bit surreal, as everything had happened so quickly after I made the decision to leave Vienna."

Andrew actually moved to Stratford on January 21, 2006 - his 29th birthday. More than two years on, has the job lived up to expectations? "People were very kind and welcoming - the churchwardens even left a basket of food in my new house. I'm really glad I came here, but it has been a challenging two years! When I arrived, membership of the choir was lower than it is now, and I have needed to work hard to bring in the level of commitment from choir members that I feel is necessary to enable the choir to give of its best on every occasion.

"The music is planned weeks in advance for the voices available on each occasion, so if the line-up changes, it causes real problems. Also you have to have the same people at the rehearsal as you are going to have singing! I've earned a reputation for being very demanding, I know - but it has worked. I'm really proud of the standard the choir has now reached, and I have every confidence that they will go from strength to strength."

And life in Stratford? "I had thought I'd get more involved with other music in the church and town, but there hasn't been time so far, although recently I've enjoyed performing with the church theatrical group the Trinity Players and working with Nova, the children's theatre group, on the musical 'Annie'. I've certainly achieved my wish to get to know people - nowadays someone says "hello" every time I set foot outside my front door!"

Andrew's appointment is part time - his contract is for 10 hours a week - but you'd never know it! As well as directing the choir for two services most Sundays, and rehearsing the choir for three hours on Friday evenings, he plays for other services as required. He also gives extra tuition to all junior members and any senior choir member who would like it, including coaching the trebles for Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) examinations. Then there are numerous committee meetings, planning for tours and events, the monthly choir newsletter, providing musical support for church theatrical productions, playing the organ and leading the choir for weddings and funerals.

On top of all this, Andrew works full-time from home as a senior project manager for a software localisation company. Given his insistence on regular attendance, Andrew feels he must lead by example, and has on more than one occasion driven straight to choir practice from the airport after a long-haul flight undertaken for the 'day job'.

In his spare time Andrew enjoys cooking, fine wine, tennis and country walks. He also takes a keen interest in national politics.

Alison Cox, 17, is this year's junior choir Head Chorister. It is her job to act as Andrew's second in command as far as the other young choristers are concerned, making sure they stand, sit and kneel at the same time, process correctly, behave well in church and have the right music. She also assesses how well they do, handing out merit points for their choir team (there are two, Cantoris and Decani, or Can and Dec for short) if they perform particularly well.

Although she is the oldest treble, Alison joined the choir relatively late at the age of 15 (trebles can join from eight years old, and remain junior choristers until they are 18). When Andrew started as Director of Music, he approached the cast of Nova Theatre's production of 'The Wizard of Oz' to see if they would like to join the choir. Alison, fresh from a triumphant portrayal of the Cowardly Lion, decided to give it a go.

"I thought I'd see what it was like," says Alison. "It's good fun, everyone is very friendly and the rehearsals are a laugh, as well as being hard work"

For Tim Raistrick, who joined Holy Trinity as a treble in 1971 at the age of seven and has been a member for 36 years, the choir has been - and still is - an important part of his life. "It is such a privilege to sing great music in a wonderful building that is known and loved all over the world. A church choir is one of the few organisations where children and adults can work together as a team on equal terms," he says

Andrew would be delighted to hear from adults or parents of children who are interested in joining Holy Trinity Church Choir. Contact details: tel: 01789 551541, mobile: 07720061423, email: andrew@andrewjones.org.uk

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