Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

  • SWO

On learning the organ as a chorister

Miriam Reveley, girl chorister at Ely Cathedral

What made you want to learn the organ?

At the start of my second year as a chorister at Ely Cathedral, I was given the opportunity to learn the organ with Sarah MacDonald, and since then I have been hooked. It’s much more of a challenge than choral singing, but that makes it exciting. I was fortunate enough to do my Year 10 work experience in Cambridge, working at St Catharine’s, St John’s, Selwyn and Pembroke colleges, and this inspired me hugely since I caught a glimpse of what it might be like to be an organ scholar in the future. Playing the organ is on a whole new level to singing in the cathedral choir - it is much more complex and expressive, since it can produce so many sounds and colours.

What obstacles did you have to overcome?

When I started my organ lessons, I had only been learning the piano for just over a year and consequently I had to work hard on my keyboard technique. Finding time to practise on top of my chorister duties and all my academic commitments has also been very challenging at times, especially during exam seasons, but I have learned to be much more disciplined and manage my time effectively.

What has been your favourite thing about learning?

My favourite thing about learning the organ is the fact that you can never be bored - there is always another hymn to learn, or another difficult bar of Bach to fix, or another technical exercise to nail.

Least favourite?

Sometimes it can be very difficult practising scales first thing in the morning knowing that rehearsals, school days, evensongs, homeworks and violin practice have to follow, and keeping up with my GCSEs while practising adequately is a tricky balance to work out. I sometimes feel pressured to work less hard, but I’m sure that it will all be worth it in the end.

What goals do you have for university and the future?

I would love to be Ely Cathedral’s first female sixth form organ scholar, and afterwards an organ scholar at Oxford or Cambridge, reading Music. In the future I want to surround myself with music, meet other organists, and keep learning about choral (and other) genres of music to a high level.

How will you go about achieving those goals?

I’ll keep practising and pushing myself as much as I can, and I will also study hard for my GCSEs (and eventually my A levels). I will also use the performance opportunities from the cathedral to help me overcome my nerves and build my confidence.

How has becoming a cathedral chorister changed you? I’ve learnt a lot about time management, focusing and organisation, and I’ve started to think a lot more about my ambitions after I leave school. Most importantly, becoming a chorister has broadened my horizons and helped me discover my passion for both choral and organ music. I am very grateful to Ely Cathedral and the King’s School for allowing me to turn pages for, and work under, the musicians here who have inspired me.

Miriam Reveley is currently in Year 11 as an Ely Cathedral Chorister and she aspires to be an organ scholar. After starting her musical education as a violinist aged six, she became head chorister at her parish church under the composer, Paul Edwards. Miriam was also a member of the Bedfordshire Youth Choir and sang with them in the Royal Albert Hall. In 2016, she joined Ely Cathedral Choir and began piano lessons, and started organ lessons with Sarah MacDonald the following year. As a chorister she has sung live on Radio 3, featured on YouTube and CD recordings, and has also had the opportunity to play for services on the Cathedral organ. In 2018, she did work experience at Cambridge University at St Catharine’s, St John’s, Selwyn and Pembroke Colleges, which consolidated her wish to pursue a career as an organist.

  • SWO

On being appointed the first woman lay clerk in a major UK Anglican Cathedral

Katie Schofield, contralto

Female altos in cathedral back rows are pretty common now; you were a pioneer; how do you feel about that?

I’m very proud to have made a small but important part of history in that tradition. I’m also very grateful to Andrew Reid (who was Director of Music at the time) for offering me the job, and the clergy for being so supportive of that decision. I was proud to sing in that beautiful building every day that I worked there, and I’m grateful that many more women will now be able to do the same.

What was the layclerks’ vestry like before and after services?

I was very lucky, in that most of the lay clerks I worked with were great colleagues and close friends. There was a strong sense of teamwork and really good humour in the group. When you’re a team of only six on weekdays, you really have to pull together to get good results, and I think the guys I worked with were really committed to doing that. Also, the vestry was tiny, and was usually fairly quickly abandoned for the pub after services!

How did the chapter respond to you?

I felt totally supported by the clergy. If there was any ideological disagreement about my being there, they never let me feel it. In particular, the former Dean (Charles Taylor) and Precentor (Bruce Ruddock) really made me feel part of the furniture during my time there. 

How did the congregation respond?

Other than the odd slightly confused question about whether or not I was a girl chorister and what I was doing singing with the “men” (!), they were mostly very supportive too. 

What about the choristers?

I felt like the choristers treated me exactly the same as any of the other lay clerks. It didn’t seem to occur to them that it was out of the ordinary at all. (After all, why should it?) Truthfully, I think the choristers were usually too concerned with getting the psalm pointing right (or occasionally making faces at each other across the stalls) to be thinking about the gender of who was singing in the back rows.

How was it vocally?

I loved it. Both Andrew Reid and Robert Quinney, who succeeded Andrew as Director of Music, were keen to let the lay clerks sing naturally and expressively. Singing in the Cathedral building is also a joy – it has a great acoustic. The only thing that was a bit off-putting about it at the time was that the organ was very sharp! Happily, it has now at last been re-pitched to A=440.

You are fortunate since you are actually an alto; what should sopranos do who want to sing liturgically for a living?

There’s a wealth of liturgical singing available in London. Sadly, there aren’t currently the same salaried opportunities for sopranos that exist for altos, tenors, and basses. There are many London churches with excellent professional choirs, most of which sing at least one Sunday service, and a lot of extra work can be picked up through these choirs. One cathedral that has a fully mixed adult choir and offers lay clerkships to sopranos is Christ Church in Dublin, which is where I spent a year between university and getting my job at Peterborough.

Why do you think female singers in cathedrals have been controversial, but organists and conductors are not?

Good question. In some ways I do think that female organists and conductors are controversial – they are still definitely proportionally underrepresented in the field. I think that being one female singer in an otherwise all-male back row can make you stand out somewhat! Happily this is continuing to change, as cathedrals take a more inclusive approach to hiring singers.

Do you have advice for other women singers in cathedral choirs?

Don’t be put off applying for a lay clerkship just because the advert doesn’t specify that female altos will be considered. You never know when an institution might be ready to take that step. For me, when Peterborough Cathedral offered me a job there, they changed the course of not only my life and career, but also of cathedral music history.

Katie is originally from Manchester, and currently lives in London, where she enjoys a busy and varied career as a freelance ensemble and solo singer. After a Choral Scholarship at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where she read for a degree in Law, Katie spent three fulfilling years in the choir of Peterborough Cathedral, where she was appointed as the country’s first female lay clerk in 2010.  Katie has performed with groups including Tenebrae, BBC Singers, Monteverdi Choir, Polyphony, Cardinall’s Musick, Tallis Scholars, and Dunedin Consort. She is a member of unconducted early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico, with whom she undertakes a regular programme of recording and worldwide touring. Upcoming projects include tours to the USA and East Asia with Stile Antico and a European tour of Verdi’s Requiem with Monteverdi Choir. 

  • SWO

Setting up a Cathedral Girls’ Choir from scratch

Emma Gibbins, Director of Music, Newport Cathedral

Emma Gibbins rehearsing the Girl Choristers

When did your girls sing their first service?

December 2015

How did you go about canvassing support for this new venture?

A Girls’ Choir had been the Cathedral Clergy’s vision for some time and, in fact, establishing a Girls’ Choir was in the job specification when I applied, so there has been huge support from the whole community from the start.

Did you face any opposition?

Some of the ‘back row’ struggled initially with changing Newport’s tradition of a men-and-boys choir. But I think they now see how much the girls are getting out of it, and also, how much they are contributing and bringing to the Cathedral.

Has there been a significant financial outlay?

New robes and choir folders have been purchased. I was keen for the girls to establish their own identity as a group, and also for the boys to maintain their own identity. For this reason, it was decided that the girls should have white cassocks and red tabards, in matching colours to the boys’ red cassocks and white surplices.

What rehearsal/service structure did you envisage for them? When the first in-take of girls were recruited (October 2015), they rehearsed once a week for one hour, and we have gradually stepped up the commitment since then. From September 2018, the girls and boys have equal commitments each week (two choral services and one weekday rehearsal).

How old are your girls, and why did you choose that age range?

Currently, they are in Years 4 to 9. I decided to recruit across the same year groups as the boys, and I had already established a good relationship with several primary schools in Newport. Previously, when visiting and recruiting only boys, there had been comments from girls in these schools (“it’s not fair!”), so I knew there would be interest and enthusiasm.

The girls and men of Newport Cathedral

Where did you find the girls?

I would speak at assemblies in local primary schools to explain about the Cathedral and the Choir, emphasising social trips, choir pay, and choir tours… and, of course, squash and biscuits at break time. It’s a great advantage if there’s a current member of the choir at the school who is confident to stand up in assembly and talk about how much they love the choir. I normally take some choir robes along too for a bit of dressing-up, sometimes even getting the head teacher to put a robe on!

I would then invite any children who are interested to stay behind after assembly to ‘do a bit of singing’, since the word ‘audition’ could be off-putting. Increasingly I find that the children don’t sing in school assemblies, so trying to find something they know can be tricky. Most of them have never seen a piece of sheet music before and many are astonished to discover that they have high notes in their voice that they hadn’t realised were there. I can’t even rely on them knowing “Away in a manger” any more and I normally default to “Twinkle, twinkle little star” or “Happy Birthday” and there are regular conversations along the lines of:

Child – can I sing ‘such-and-such’ by (for example) S Club 7?

Me – Um. I don’t think I know that one. How about “Happy Birthday”?

(there goes any Street Cred I might have had…)

I then write letters to the parents of ‘successful’ children, inviting them to come along to a six week trial ‘taster session’ at the Cathedral. This letter emphasises the free musical training, singing to a professional standard with adults, having fun in a disciplined environment, developing good team work, development of skills and attitudes which transfer positively to school work and other activities, development of self-discipline, confidence, and commitment. The contact time in the school auditions is so limited and singing in a classical style so alien to many of them, that I like to be able to give them a chance to find out more over a period of a few weeks. It also allows me to assess their suitability and see how they respond to learning in the choir environment.

Have you aimed for complete parity with the boy choristers?

Yes, absolutely: complete parity has always been the long term goal and this is what the clergy have always wanted.

Do the girls and boys sing together at all?

Yes, for special occasions, for example, the Christmas Carol Service, Christmas Day, Easter Day, end of the academic year.

Do you have any advice for anyone else setting up a girls’ choir? Starting a group up from scratch is hard work, but the rewards are enormous, so it’s definitely worth the effort.

What has been the most rewarding part of the process?

Introducing church music to a lot of children from a huge range of social backgrounds, many of whom might never have come across classical music or the Anglican Church, and many of whose parents simply wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for music lessons. I believe strongly that music is a hugely powerful part of the church’s outreach to young people.

The enthusiasm with which all the choristers, girls and boys, approach the music is wonderful. I love it when I say something like “Can you find ‘If ye love me’, please?” and there’s a chorus of “Yesssssss! I love this one” from round the room. Anyone who thinks that classical music doesn’t appeal to children just needs to attend a Cathedral Choir rehearsal!

What has been the most difficult part of the process? Building up the girls’ confidence. Even at this age, I’ve found that girls are much more worried than boys about making mistakes, and more conscious of what people will think if something’s not quite right. The younger boys have always been much more willing to just give it a go. I think familiarity with repertoire, thorough rehearsing and lots of encouragement have helped and it’s wonderful to watch them continue to grow in confidence. They are already looking forward to their first choir tour next summer.