SAN DIEGO — While other boys swim or surf this week, 11-year-old Bert Ninteman and a group of 7- to 12-year-old boys are cloistered away in a windowless music rehearsal room learning 17th- and 18th-Century motets and anthems.
It is the annual summer choir camp week at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, where a curious alchemy has begun as a squirming gaggle of would-be Huck Finns are again being transformed into the Cathedral Choristers, an angelic-sounding, well-mannered host of young gentlemen.
The result is a choir of pre-teen boys in the Anglican tradition of church music. The male soprano voices can sing pure, sweet descants that soar with a tone quality unmatched by women or girls, some choral directors say.
Cathedral choirmaster Edgar Billups, who has directed the choristers at St. Paul's for 13 years, says that the result of harnessing boys' "unique tone quality" with the strength of their voices is worth the effort required to mold them into a choir.
"(The choristers) are in the early Anglican tradition of men's and boys' choirs," said Billups, who also directs girls', men's and mixed adult choirs at the cathedral. Billups rarely finds a boy who can't learn to sing. "If you have the time and the boy has the interest, you can practically train anybody," he said.
A key to success is getting the boys involved in the process. Billups starts off a rehearsal with a series of vocal warm-up exercises that require physical exertion. At times the warm-up session looks like calisthenics, with the boys singing a series of continually rising scales while pressing their palms together in isometric contractions and running in place.
The other side of the music education process is conduct.
"I expect you to be here for everything," Billups told his young charges on Tuesday. For those times when attendance is impossible, he insisted, the boys or their parents must call in.
Billups devoted much of the Tuesday rehearsal to the boys' enunciation, stopping to correct slurred consonants.
When the boys sang, "For this was made a statute of Israel," he stopped them and held up a plaster bust. "Is this a statute?" he asked.
"No, it's a statue," a boy said.
"When you sing this line you need to make people understand it's a statute and not a statue," Billups said.
To join the choristers, Billups requires only that a boy be able to match a tone played on the piano. Choristers learn to sight-read the music over time, he said.
Billups took time to explain some of the basics, especially for the four new boys in the camp.
"How many of you know what a measure is?" he asked, then drew one on the blackboard. Understanding terms such as the measure, which is a "landmark" on a musical score, will facilitate rehearsals even when a boy doesn't read music.
After an hour of singing, Billups gave the boys a 15-minute break to play soccer. But even then he insisted on discipline and made time for further training. Walking from the cathedral to Balboa Park, the boys marched in pairs, practicing walking in procession.
For chorister Bert Ninteman, beginning his fifth year in choirs, this is old hat.
"My mom found out about the choir and sent me here when I was 7 years old," Bert said. "I was scared to death. A lot of the boys were 16 years old."
Now he has a strong, clear soprano voice. Last year he attended the St. Thomas Choir School, a boarding school in New York.
Asked what his favorite part of being a chorister was, Bert said, "Mostly I like singing at Christmas and St. George's Day (a special service in the spring at St. Paul's) because of the cheerfulness and nice pieces we sing."
This is 9-year-old Jeremy Dawe's first year. Asked why he came to camp, Jeremy said, "I knew how to sing and stuff, and I wanted to sing this kind of music. And I live near here." Watching the boys play soccer, Billups said it is getting tougher to fill the choir. When Queen Elizabeth II visited San Diego in 1984, the boys' choir numbered 30 members. This year Billups said he will be lucky to get 16 or 17, although he would like to have at least 20.
"The problem is getting parents who are willing to make a commitment," Billups said. With several of his boys living in North County, Billups has made some concessions such as cutting the number of rehearsals from two to one a week. The boys, who are not required to be members of the church, perform twice a month, singing one Sunday morning service and one 5 p.m. Sunday evensong.