Trinity's Choral Scholars
Trinity's choral scholars attend a rehearsal at Trinity Church on May 5, 2024. From the left, they are Moriah Berry, Alejandro de los Santos, Ashley Turcan, Reina Muniz, Jaime Alvarez, Elisa Sikula, and Helena Rosasco.

Growing a Musical Tradition

Trinity’s New Choral Scholars Program Prepares the Next Generation of Ensemble Singers 

Elisa Sikula was eight years old when her parents signed her up for the Trinity Youth Chorus. By the time she was 14, what started as a parental choice became a personal calling. Sikula went on to study vocal performance at The Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University. When she returned to New York City last fall to pursue a career in music, she was invited to the Choral Scholars program, which allowed her to sing with the professionals of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street

It was a bit intimidating to be singing with the choir she had looked up to for most of her life. But Sikula was hooked. 

“There’s this feeling you get. It’s rare, but sometimes when you’re singing with other people, you gel so beautifully together and you get this overwhelming sense of community,” she said. “You feel the resonance and the vibrations, and people are so in tune with each other. It’s just a transcendent experience.” 

This feeling of transcendence — the magic that happens when people are singing in harmony, together in community — is exactly what Trinity’s music team is building with the Choral Scholars program. The new initiative embeds early career singers with of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and St. Paul’s Chapel Choir. The program offers young musicians a chance to develop their skills in a supportive setting. 

Elisa Sikula
Elisa Sikula, a Trinity Choral Scholar, rehearses for a Sunday service with members of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street at Trinity Church on May 5, 2024.

The Choral Scholars program officially launched last fall with ten scholars between the ages of 23 and 29, all recent graduates with a deep interest in ensemble singing. Over the past two seasons, the scholars have rehearsed with Trinity’s choirs, performed during worship services and special events, and attended career workshops.  

The program is a unique apprenticeship for early career singers like Sikula, according to Melissa Attebury, director of music at Trinity Church.  

 “We’re raising the next generation and by doing so, we’re making sure that the musical traditions we’ve inherited as a community will live on,” said Attebury. “It’s thrilling to be able to offer these young musicians a chance to sing with a professional ensemble.” 

It’s rare that a church can serve as a singer’s musical home from childhood to adulthood, as Trinity was able to do for Sikula. Most choral scholars programs in the New York area are based in universities or run by standalone choral groups.  

But Trinity’s music education programs are inspired by programs in England, where church-based music education is much more common and well-developed, said Attebury. The Trinity Youth Chorus accepts children as young as five years old into its Peppercorn program. Later on, singers can audition to join groups for older children who demonstrate advanced vocal technique, theory, and sight-singing skills.  

The Choral Scholars program helps young musicians navigate the murky waters between graduation and landing a professional job. It fills an important gap, according to Attebury. 

Several years ago, she started noticing that American music schools were more focused on solo opera performance and doing less to train singers in the standard choral repertoire. This worried Attebury. She knew how important it was for early career singers to be well rounded, especially as they searched for their first jobs after graduation. More broadly, this trend presented a real threat to the tradition of choral singing in churches, a crucial part of communal worship in the Anglican tradition.  

“There will always be a need for soloists. But we lose something precious if we’re not making music together as an ensemble,” Attebury said. “We need to be sure the next generation of church musicians is familiar with the standard choral canon and learns the art of ensemble singing. And since it can be a challenge for people to access that type of training at a more advanced level after university studies, we wanted to step in to help.” 

Trinity Choral Scholars
Choral Scholars are embedded in The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and St. Paul’s Chapel Choir.

The program has been embraced by young singers arriving in New York. Fifteen musicians have joined since Trinity began accepting scholars into a pilot program in 2022. Some past scholars were referred by music directors at local universities, while others found the program directly on Trinity’s website. Auditions take place in the spring and scholars begin their program in the fall. The program is a paid apprenticeship that lasts through the academic year, with an opportunity for renewal at the end of the spring season. 

Moriah Berry is a soprano from Atlanta who moved to New York City to study at The Juilliard School. Before she arrived, a friend casually mentioned she should get connected to Trinity Church. In retrospect, Berry believes it was God who nudged her to follow through and seek out community at Trinity. The scholars program turned out to be much more than a job, Berry said. It was exactly what she needed at this stage in her career.  

“I’m not quite a professional, but I’m on a journey to getting there. I’m in this in between limbo and I’m thinking, how do I get to where I want to be?” Berry said. “At Trinity I was able to walk across the bridge at my own pace. I’m learning what it takes and working on my skills, while not being required to fulfill all the duties of a professional. It was so perfect, and I have to believe it was God who did it for me.” 

Lesly DeCastro, a tenor choral scholar, said he appreciated seeing what it takes to sing at a professional level. 

"Things move at a much quicker pace. That's part of the expectation of being a professional singer — coming to rehearsal ready with your part memorized and ready to make beautiful music," DeCastro said. 

Ensemble singing requires musicians to be supremely adaptable. Singers must adjust in real time to the conductor’s cues while paying attention to how their voices blend with the voices of other section members and the choir as a whole. Ensemble singers also need to be able to sing a piece of music at first sight.  

“As a soloist, most of the time, it’s very rare you walk into a place and they have you doing things you’re not prepared for,” said Elena Williamson, a soprano in The Choir of Trinity Wall Street. "If you’re in a choir, you might get there and they’ll be singing something brand new that you need to sight read on the spot.” 

Moriah Berry
Moriah Berry, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, is a choral scholar and a student at The Julliard School.

Williamson has arranged workshops to help the choral scholars sharpen their sight-singing skills and prepare for services and special events at Trinity. She’s also put together career workshops where professional members of Trinity’s choir share advice on how to prepare for auditions and search for jobs. 

Theodore Mankiewicz, who was part of the pilot program, went on to join Downtown Voices, a semiprofessional choir made up of volunteer singers and members of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street. More recently, he got a paying choir job at an Episcopal church in Westchester. He credits the network and opportunities he found at Trinity with helping him along that path. 

“It’s not just the skill level,” Mankiewicz said. “Everyone there is really giving, kind, and generous and that’s one of the things that makes the scholars program so great.”   

Attebury said this is exactly the kind of future she envisions for everyone who encounters Trinity’s music education programs. 

“Whether they came through the chorister program or the scholars program, I hope that they’ll continue putting energy into this tradition of choral singing,” Attebury said. “Worship through music, hymn singing, learning the choral tradition — these are such important parts of our history as Episcopalians, and we can't let that disappear.” 

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