For 75 years the boys of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School have been making beautiful music. The school continues to be recognized as one of the world’s finest music schools and counts among its alumni a long list of famous musicians, including tenors Michael Burgess and John McDermott, as well as the Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn. Photo by Michael Swan

Choir school marks 75 years of making music

  • January 20, 2013

TORONTO - Each year, across the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Grade 2 boys take part in a yearly ritual, as adjudicators from St. Michael's Choir School visit their classrooms and listen carefully to the small, unformed voices that may one day make up the ranks of one of the finest music schools in the world.

Names such as Michael Schade, John McDermott, Michael Burgess, Matt Dusk and Stewart Goodyear — now household names — at one point lifted their voices in earnest, clear renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or "Oh Canada," left their erstwhile school chums behind and embarked on what would be the formative years of their musical legacies.

The school, perhaps, has had the greatest legacy of them all: now celebrating 75 years of musical and academic education to the young men of Toronto, it continues to turn out musicians who not only grace the ranks of international stardom, but who continue the most fundamental work of the institution itself — contributing to the tradition of Roman Catholic music in parishes throughout the archdiocese of Toronto.

"It's kind of like someone who runs marathons, and runs them really well; they don't start running two years ago and win first place at the Olympics," laughs jazz star Matt Dusk.

"It comes from a long lineage of practising and one of the best things that ever happened to me as a kid, is that I was… thrown into St. Michael's Choir School."

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

Msgr. John Edward Ronan founded St. Michael's Choir School in 1937. Threequarters of a century later, the downtown Toronto school continues to rank as one of the world's finest musical schools.

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto

St. Mike's was founded in 1937 by Msgr. John Edward Ronan. Born to a highly musical family in Adjala Township in rural Ontario, Ronan pursued a musical education that included studies at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.

Despite the many hurdles that surrounded the formation of the school, including the Great Depression, a small Catholic population in Toronto and lacking a tradition of choral music in the English-speaking Church in Canada, Ronan persevered. The choir school, originally christened Cathedral Schola Cantorum, was opened in October 1937 at 67 Bond St., beside St. Michael's Cathedral, near where it remains to this day. Ronan's many wonderful compositions are still performed in churches across the country, with alumni gathering each year on the Wednesday of Holy Week to sing his Tenebrae.

The study of Gregorian chant, which was one of the staples of musical training at the school and was an older mode that was not as prevalent in Church music at the time, would later form the foundation for many musical compositions that make up our modern canon.

"I remember learning Gregorian chant in class and liking the sound of it very much," said Peter Togni, CBC radio host, prolific composer and St. Mike's alumni. "Little did I know that in later years chant would be a deep influence in my music."

The choir school education included not only choral and instrumental music training (which included piano, organ and guitar) and the educational criteria of the Toronto Catholic board, but students also sang Mass at the cathedral and performed concert tours regularly.

"Being away from your family and living out of a suitcase at 10 or 11 years old, that's all setting up for the future," said Dusk, who also recounts memories of staying with host families from local parishes in tour cities.

Dusk speaks fondly of the first time he experienced a midnight sunset in the Yukon. The school was not only setting up their musical foundations, but was helping to create a rich mosaic of life memories as well.

"The best memories are of singing together with friends that I can still call friends as we continue to sing together," said Gordon Mansell, organist, composer, founder of the Organix music festival, RCCO member and a choir school alumni.

"The memories are naturally tied to our choir rehearsals, playing practical jokes and performing in concert at Massey Hall."

The camaraderie that exists between the members and alumni creates lasting bonds outside of the school environment, as well as providing a source of inspiration and some competition between students.

Jazz singer Matt Dusk likens choir school alumni to being part of a group like the Masons, so strong is the bond between its students.

Jazz singer Matt Dusk likens choir school alumni to being part of a group like the Masons, so strong is the bond between its students.

Photo by John Edgar

"The most amazing thing about the choir school is the brotherhood that it creates between the students. Being a part of SMCS is almost like being a part of the Masons or some secret group," laughs Dusk.

Indeed, memories of their time at the school would create enduring memories between students, alumni and staff.

"I very much liked Miss (Kathleen) Mann (one of the school's original teachers)," recalls Togni, who, though not at the school for a lengthy time, still recounts anecdotes from his attendance.

"She was very kind to me in a special way as it was a hard time for me after my father died," said Togni, whose father, Victor, had been the organist at the cathedral and taught organ at the school.

"In one of my first Masses as organist at the cathedral I was playing the pipe organ in the gallery and the senior choir was on the altar. The hymn I was accompanying was 'With Hearts Renewed' and in the second part of the hymn there is a wonderful pedal line that J. S. Bach so thoughtfully produced," said Mansell in another anecdote.

"Well, I was concentrating so hard on making that pedal line perfect, I actually slowed the tempo significantly and the choir faded into the background. To my embarrassment, the choir and the congregation finished the hymn long before I got through the passage. I imagined hearing Fr. (Barrett) Armstrong in an excited state with total annoyance berate me. Instead, he was gentle and patient and we agreed I would never make that mistake again. Every time I play that hymn, my tempo is steady and the pedal line is indeed flawless but I will always remember that excruciating moment."

One of the most important and enduring functions of the school was to provide an integral link between students and parish — placing graduates behind the organs and music ministries of Catholic churches throughout the archdiocese.

"I think the school has done a very fine job in preparing the students for Church music, as cantors, conductors and organists, with a strong emphasis on the tradition of the Church," said Togni. "It's very hard to find a place to learn that these days."

Additionally, this outreach created ties not just in the realm of liturgical music, but also between the students and the communities they were part of.

"It teaches teamwork, discipline, and before you know it, you're not only doing things for yourself but you're effecting other people," said Dusk.

"I remember as a kid going to seniors' homes and going to these small communities that never really had any musicians — it was an excellent opportunity to be a part of something."

Despite this excellent legacy, there is always the opportunity to improve on the formula and to encourage the excellence in music expressed at the choir school to persevere throughout the Catholic music ministry in Canada.

"There are a few parishes that continue to provide sacred (musical) liturgy, but a great many more don't. This is a good point to the skills that each choir school alumni brings to the archdiocese — skills that include discipline, musical excellence, liturgical sensitivity and respect," said Mansell.

"However, often too, those students at the choir school who study organ find that there are no opportunities for them to either gain a meaningful career from their studies or that the respect of their skills has all but disappeared. Well-meaning volunteers are the preferred currency at parish churches, even though they may not have the necessary theological or musical skills to lead a congregation in any meaningful way."

All told, Ronan's dream of a choir school of surpassing excellence has surely been fulfilled in the legions of young men that have graduated from its programs. Many have gone on to achieve international fame, and many to use their skills to lift their voices in prayer. However, perhaps the most enduring gift that St. Michael's Choir School has imparted is the allowance for its students to express themselves daily through music — as both students and alumni.

"I think it helps you to be creativity," said Dusk. "As a kid, it's an amazing way of expressing how you feel."

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