St Mary's Church, the ecclesiastical heart of CambridgeLouis Ashworth

Cambridge is famous for its choirs. They have performed for royalty, frequently tour all corners of the earth, and fill centuries-old chapels and courts with ethereal voices.

On the face of it, being a choir member in Cambridge is an opportunity to sing with the best and be taught by the best, and to take part in an illustrious tradition. But break through the stained glass, and a less angelic picture appears.

We spoke to students and recent graduates from some of the most elite college choirs, who painted a picture of a thankless culture marred by stress, intense pressure and sexism, where singers can be reduced to tears.

One former choir member described a choir culture of “bullying tactics reminiscent of 19th century boys’ boarding schools,” where social expectations are out of tune with the University as a whole.

Concerningly, many current and former choir members turned down our requests to interview them, citing how uncomfortable their experiences had been for them and saying they would be scared to speak even if their anonymity was guaranteed.

While all insisted they were eager to spend time singing, some emphasised that choir felt more like a full-time job than an extracurricular activity. Missing rehearsals is often unthinkable – even in cases of illness or academic pressure, many are compelled to suffer through.

At most choirs, if someone has to miss a service they not only have to inform the director of music but also have to find someone to replace them – normally a former choir member or singer from another college choir. One student alleged that a conductor had phoned up a friend who had reported themselves ill with the intention of knocking on their door to see if they were telling the truth.

Several singers said that illness rarely triggered sympathy. One claimed that after she reported having a concussion, a choir administrator demanded to see her private medical records, a request which was refused by the college nurse. The student was then compelled to attend choir regardless, and was subsequently berated after leaving during the rehearsal to be sick. Unsurprisingly, she has now left the choir.

But these stories are not isolated anecdotes. Some choirmasters are notorious for using ritual humiliation as a teaching technique, publicly shaming individual students for being late to rehearsal, not being able to attend choir, or forgetting items of clothing for the performance. Varsity also received reports of conductors halting choirs midway through songs to berate individuals for little obvious reason.

“Disappointment is their favourite expression,” as one choir member put it.

The characterisation of choirmasters as musical geniuses means they are able to get away with a lot more than academics, some claimed, leaving singers feeling as of they are expected to prioritise choir above all else. Some attributed a disproportionate sense of self-importance to some choirmasters.

“If the same stories were told of supervisions, I doubt they would go unnoticed,” one remarked. “They are given free rein, whereas if they were a professor they would have been disciplined,” said another.

Some female singers also spoke of an undertone of sexism in Cambridge choirs, where the vast majority of choirmasters are men. Two top choirs are only open to men, and one female singer pointed to an “outrageous” gender disparity in terms of opportunities to sing.

Some choirmasters are reportedly known for having made inappropriate comments. One allegedly told a singer that her skirt was too short during a rehearsal, and many singers we spoke to said that women were often expected to “look pretty”.

The detachment of some choirmasters from the broader University academic and pastoral life does not help the situation. “They are usually middle-aged and old men who are invincible because choir matters are dealt with internally,” one choir member pointed out. Another mentioned that her choirmaster was explicitly exempt from dealing with pastoral issues, with students banned from contacting him directly outside of rehearsals. While he was apparently “mortified” when he discovered the real extent of the stresses and strains some of his singers were facing and was thanked for his sympathy, the structural divide remained.

There is rarely an incentive for choirmasters to listen to complaints; everyone knows that most students would not leave such rare opportunities behind by quitting. The experience of singing in Cambridge is highly prestigious – an opportunity some singers can only dream of. Even those with the most serious concerns still insisted that they were hugely grateful for the musical opportunities being at Cambridge had provided.

“The commitment and the rigour is totally acceptable,” said one former choir singer, “but the emotional manipulation and the unprofessional behaviour isn’t.”

The intensity of devoting so much time in choir – in rehearsals, services, and on tour – can take its toll. While many make their best friends singing alongside each other, the stringent competition means that colleagues often heap pressure on each other: “It’s hard to enjoy when you’re being patronised and undermined, being told by other singers that ‘the choirmaster is always like this’ or ‘you’ll get used to it’.”

Few feel like they can speak out in choir circles, an industry where professional and university singing is entwined and governed by social reputation, choirmasters’ personal preferences, and gossip. One recent graduate insisted that the culture is “endemic throughout the UK”.

Many feel forced to accept the traditions without objection, saying the culture and commitment are so dominating that reform seems impossible. Concerns were raised that newcomers frequently feel alienated by the social hierarchy and competitiveness which can emerge among choir cliques, especially deterring those from underprivileged backgrounds.

Singers feel compelled to internalise the culture, warts and all, or leave. Some said they departed for friendlier choirs and now feel far happier, realising that toxic culture is not necessary to produce high quality. Many choirs in Cambridge, singers insisted, were welcoming and run by choirmasters who were in touch with students’ needs and understood the stresses imposed on them, both by choir life and academic pressure.

But the culture at some choirs, where some students are wracked with guilt for failing to meet expectations and are often brought to tears, maintains social norms largely unchanged over centuries and alien to most of Cambridge life. The toxic culture, many agree, contributes to the medieval atmosphere of singing in a chapel just as much as the Latin verse and the worn bricks.

“It’s an honour – one I really appreciate,” one student said, “but there is another side to it.”

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