On a brilliant spring morning, 13-year-old James Athey stands with his fellow choristers on the altar of Old St. Paul's Church. Above them arches a vaulted ceiling with golden "Alleluias" painted in the coffers. It is a place of 19th-century splendor, a place accustomed to formal praise.
James, premier soloist in the St. Paul's Choir of Men and Boys, is ready to deliver. Wearing a slight frown of concentration and the choir's medal of honor, he holds his music before him. His voice floats, rather than vaults, upwards, clear and crisp. The sound is innocent, dispassionate -- and very poignant.
It's the indefinable sound of growing up.
In a few years, James will be part of the men's choir. At the moment, though, he possesses a range that's close to three octaves with, as he puts it, "a couple of fuzzy spots." Sunday, he will perform Mozart's "Requiem" and Handel's "O Praise the Lord with One Consent" with the 50-member choir at the Gothic-styled church at Charles and Saratoga streets.
He and most of the choir's 25 boy sopranos, aged 10 to 15, are students at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville. In the age of MTV, they seem wonderfully anachronistic -- even the rebels who wear hiking boots under their choir robes.
But for these choir boys, singing classical anthems is part of life at school. At St. Paul's, boys have always sung in choirs. As members of an exclusive club -- one that has sung at the Kennedy Center and the Meyerhoff -- they earn the respect of their schoolmates as well as a monthly paycheck. The usual range is $16 to $35, although a top chorister, like James, can make up to $60.
There's also a lot of support back home: Many of these boys come from families where Christmas means Handel rather than Rudolf.
Rehearsals at school begin promptly after sports at 4:30 p.m. and last until 6 p.m. three days a week. Boys of various sizes and attention spans gather around the grand piano in the choir room, lacrosse sticks, notebooks and soda cans strewn willy nilly, as choir director David Riley leads them in song.
Most of the children cannot read music when they begin, usually in fourth grade. Mr. Riley's rigorous training formula includes a great deal of patience and a good sense of humor.
It's not exactly unexpected that James has sung soprano -- also called treble -- since fourth grade. His father, Preston Athey, a vice president/portfolio manager at T. Rowe Price and Associates, sings with Jones Falls Express, an all-male singing group. His mother, Nancy Athey, sang with the Handel Choir before Life With Three Children devoured her time.
Despite the choir's demanding schedule, James is managing to maintain a straight A-average, compete in sports (wrestling in winter, tennis in summer) and practice piano: He's quite adept at Scott Joplin rags.
"James has the foresight to know how to manage his time to be successful," says Mike Schuler, a former St. Paul's chorister, now principal of the middle school. "He makes it look easy -- and it's not."
So what does this boy soprano like best about singing?
James wrinkles up his nose. He's sitting in the living room of his family's home in the Greenspring Valley, using up valuable homework time for an interview.
"The paycheck!" he says, grinning. "Actually, I really don't know how to answer that. It's sort of a constant, you always have it, it's always there. It comes really naturally, I don't have to work really hard at it."
This picture-perfect kid also has perfect pitch -- a gift that allows him to learn music very quickly. James Athey was born with the ability to hear a note and tell you what it is. If you ask him to produce, say, an A-flat, he'll serve one as easily as if you'd just asked him to take a deep breath.
James can tell what note your doorbell chimes. He can recognize people by the range of their voices. Sometimes he and his father, who also has perfect pitch, play "Clink the Glass, Guess the Note" at dinner.
James' musicianship has helped him build an impressive resume in a few years. At 11, he sang a solo in a Wolf Trap production of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute." Since then, he has performed dozens of solos with the choir, which recently recorded an evensong broadcast for National Public Radio. He will solo in the Requiem on Sunday.
James says he does not get nervous before singing. (He got shaky knees only once: during the duet he performed in fifth grade.) He also doesn't worry about how adolescence is changing his voice.
Many people mistakenly believe that vocal change happens almost instantaneously, Mr. Riley says. In stead, vocal development begins when boys are around 10 and continues into their college years.
"What we think of as 'the boy choir sound' is made by boys whose voices have started to change but have not reached the point where they're not capable of singing upper notes," he says.
There's no guessing exactly when boys will lose their high notes and no guarantee what kind of voices will emerge when they finish growing, he says.