“What do you think the character of this piece should be?” asks Tom Strode, looking up from the piano in St. Paul Lutheran Church.

Answers come quickly from the young boys gathered round him.

“Bold!” “Triumphant! “Glorious!”

Strode, the founder and director of the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, approves. “Be triumphant when you sing this,” he exhorts.

Executive director Laura Dunbar listens intently to the children’s sweet, almost unearthly rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” its notes impossibly high.

“There’s nothing,” she says, “like the sound of a boy soprano.”

Now in its twenty-seventh year, Boychoir is one of a handful of choirs in the state to continue the ancient musical tradition of singing by boys with “unchanged voices” (members’ ages may range from nine to fourteen). Although the tradition began in the church, and some Boychoir members also sing in their church choirs, not everyone is what Dunbar calls “faith oriented.” She points out that the group brings together kids whose paths might never cross–“public, private, or homeschooled; boys of faith and boys of no faith.”

December is a big month for Boychoir. The group will perform with the Ann Arbor Symphony at Hill Auditorium on December 12 and in the medieval-inspired sanctuary at the First Presbyterian Church on December 13 (see Events). In blue suits and ties or vestments, depending on the setting, they’ll sing hymns plus some more lighthearted holiday favorites.

Luke Andoni-Savas, eleven, says the performances are good preparation for his future dreams. “I really want to be a musician–pop music,” he says. “In high school, I aim to record a song.” His friend Sebastian Berofsky, also eleven, says his family is musical. “I mostly love classical music. Bach is my favorite.”

But fitting in the twice-a-week choir practices is not easy for today’s overscheduled kids. “I have a soccer conflict on Monday,” says Peter Ghormley, thirteen, who attends St. Paul Lutheran School. “I have about five minutes to get ready.” Choir founder Strode allows the boys to come a little late to rehearsal if they’re time starved. But he says that it’s difficult growing the choir because many of the boys are active in theater and sports. He also has to contend with the perception that Boychoir is … uncool. “What’s really sad,” says Strode, is that disparaging comments often come from athletic coaches, who encourage the boys to drop out.

About forty boys currently participate in Boychoir. The “treble choir” is limited to the best singers whose voices haven’t changed, but the “performing choir” includes a few older boys, and also embraces a few beginning singers. Kids audition for Boychoir, but if they don’t make it Strode encourages them to enroll in the beginners group. With practice, he says, most improve and go on to Boychoir.

“Boys, and girls, are fully capable of learning about the details and nuances of performances that adults might not think they could do,” he says. “If they’re intelligent and have some musical sense, you can train them to be very fine musicians.”

Although Strode understands that boys can get wiggly and silly during rehearsals, he is clearly in charge. Says former choir member Keith Leonard, “He kept people in line, but you’re going to have to if you have a bunch of eight- to twelve-year-old boys.”

Strode regrets that the tradition of boys’ soprano music is not well known in America. “A lot of people–when they hear a ‘boy choir,’ they associate it with the kiddie choir of their church–cutesy. That’s not what this is at all. If you hear a boy choir singing and it’s very trained … it’s just stunningly beautiful. There’s nothing else like it on earth.”