SPOTLIGHT on… Tansy Castledine – conductor, educator and Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral
How did you begin your musical connection with the church and who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ?
I remember being about 11 when I went on a choir day trip with the local church choir that my mum was a member of at the time. I’d sat in many choir rehearsals and heard them preparing, and the visit was to sing Choral Evensong at Chichester Cathedral. Having marvelled at the beauty of that building and heard the choral music around me sung liturgically rather than in rehearsal, I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of something so special. I told my then piano teacher, who was in the choir too, that I’d like to join and soon enough, I was in the choir. I came to the piano and musical training quite late, having been around nine when I took my first piano lessons, but it soon became apparent that music was going to take over my other hobby of the time which was dancing (many times a week, which has unquestionably paid dividends as a musician since!). Not long after joining the choir, the church was short of an organist for a wedding. My piano teacher, who also played the organ, helped me to prepare the hymns and voluntaries on the organ and I absolutely loved it, making a difference to people’s day, leading a congregation, and being creative with sound through this marvellous piece of machinery. That led to taking formal organ lessons with the church organist who had just returned to London having been an Organ Scholar in Oxford. The encouragement from him and the other church musicians around me led to me applying for my first formal role at the age of 14 – an organ scholarship at another local church.
What was your training as an organist?
That audition at 14 was scary as I wasn’t really accomplished enough to tackle what was being asked of me, but I was fortunate. The Director of Music saw potential and took a huge leap of faith in me, which looking back was one of the turning points in the “what next” question. This was the beginning of my formal training as an Organist; I played at the church, taking lessons with the Director of Music and then at St Giles International Organ School. Between these opportunities I was hugely lucky to enjoy masterclasses, concerts, exam preparation, and accompanying friends and local choirs, all of which enabled me to meet a wide range of musicians in the profession and get a glimpse of what a life in music could feel like. At 15, I was already starting to explore leadership through my school’s CCF (Combined Cadet Force) and choral direction at church and school, taking sectionals and rehearsals with choristers and the full choirs. The strong choral tradition at church with two choral services every Sunday enabled me to gain a wealth of experience in accompaniment, sight-reading, score-reading, transposition and improvisation, as these skills were learned and used simultaneously, and all invaluable in being awarded the Organ Scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford. During my sixth form years prior to Oxford, I was fortunate to accompany a number of different visiting choirs at cathedrals around the UK, enjoying the instruments at Gloucester, Guildford, Manchester, Lincoln, Liverpool and St Paul’s to name a few – all hugely formative experiences which stayed with me. I do remember saying to my parents somewhere around the time of leaving for University that I wanted to work in a cathedral one day, such was the impression these experiences had had on me.
How important was the organ as a gateway to choral music? Has that changed over the years? How would young girls enter the world of church music nowadays?
For me it was crucial as it meant that I knew a great deal of choral music from the accompanists’ side before I then either sang or conducted it. Accompanying choral music enabled me to understand aspects such as harmony, dissonance and textures more quickly, for example, in a way that only singing a single line might not have achieved. That said, I also fondly recall playing the clarinet in the church music group and fantastic opportunities like RSCM choirs and RCO courses, which all helped me as pathways into church music. There are so many options for anyone now – add into these composition, junior conservatoires, recording and technology, and on-line courses and streamed concerts to name a few – pick any one and go for it!
Your work is hugely varied and you wear many hats. What do you enjoy most about that variety? What have been the highlights of your musical career to date?
I love the variety – whilst every day has some routine, the combination of the different facets of my cathedral role alongside having a freelance career too keeps me energised. I find that often whilst you’re doing one, the mind reflects and refreshes the other. Days are so varied. There can be chorister rehearsals, conducting services or concerts, teaching a conducting lesson, running a masterclass, advising a professional organisation or group, writing a paper, sitting on interview and audition panels, planning and exploring music repertoire, recording with a choir, or blue sky thinking about the next project or ambition. Looking back, I’ve had a diverse career route to becoming a cathedral musician and I value enormously all those experiences along the way. For me, stand-out moments change depending on circumstance, but conducting at the Albert Hall, recording for Songs of Praise, ITV, and Channel 4, touring the US, lecturing on choral conducting in Australia, and conducting the Bach St John Passion are my picks that spring to mind.
Do you think your career would have developed differently if you had been male, or has your gender made no difference?
I firmly believe that one should take the opportunities afforded you and see where they take you; combined with tenacity, energy, and sufficient passion and drive, I don’t believe my gender has made any difference to me. I grew up in the era where it would be easy to assume that would be the case – I was usually the only girl in any given church based musical group - but it’s about finding the way with the people that you surround yourself with, and making the most of how opportunities can empower you.
Can you tell us something about the music team and the choral foundation at Peterborough Cathedral? Do girl choristers have the same opportunities as boy choristers?
Peterborough is a large foundation where the girls, boys, women and men have had exactly the same opportunities for many years now, singing eight services a week. We have 52 cathedral choristers (almost 50:50 split) who are educated at a state academy day school and for the most part they operate as individual choirs of girls and boys with their own repertoires. They begin their early years’ training together, then carry out most of their duties as independent choirs, before occasionally joining together as senior choristers and Youth Choir, for concerts, projects and tours, and occasional services. This setup, based on the diamond model of education (a mix of single sex and co-educational teaching within the same organisation) and in combination with these performance opportunities, provides a good balance of time together and apart for the choristers. It also enables us to cater appropriately for the different learning styles that each group has at each stage of their development. All our senior choristers are given the chance to conduct the full choir and read a lesson in the Cathedral to help develop their wider skill set and broaden their experience of the church community. We also have a mixture of full and part time staff comprised of six Lay Clerks, two Choral Scholars, and each year either an Organ or Conducting scholar. We have an Organist, Head of Choral Development and Partnerships, Singing Teacher, Music Administrator and Chorister Chaperone. This team enables us to also run a Youth Choir which sings every other week, and to have several Junior Choirs for children between the ages of 3 and 11, which number a further 80 young people in our choir family. All told, our choral foundation is a diverse group growing in number, which is wonderful to see and the result of a team that works with shared goals and immense dedication and energy.
What is a typical day in your life as a choral educator and Director of Music? How important is leadership to your daily work, both musical and otherwise?
I’ve alluded to this a little above – I’m not sure there’s ever such as thing as a typical day – I’m still waiting for one! My days are inherently about working with others but then balancing teamwork, management, and leadership. I feel very lucky to have achieved the NPQSL (a National Professional Qualification in Senior Leadership) some years back, that has been truly invaluable in my day to day working. Senior Leadership is something that still interests me hugely as it’s not an aspect of CPD (Continuing Professional Development) that is talked about enough in our roles as Directors of Music or church choir leaders. More and more I find myself being called upon to take workshops on this aspect of the role, supporting and mentoring choir trainers and church musicians in this regard. For me, leadership is intrinsically linked to success in all aspects of my working life. The art of a great choir leader is to be able to balance harmoniously that trio of teamwork, management, and leadership, to bring everyone with you towards your common goal, and inevitably that comes more fluidly to some than others. It’s a passion of mine, helping to support people to get the best out of their choirs too, and having been a teacher for so long, self-reflection and professional development run through my veins and are crucial in tackling professional challenges and opportunities.
Do you have enough time to practise and learn new repertoire? How do you find new music for the choirs to explore?
This one’s like an honesty box question – there’s never enough time in truth, but it’s about managing your own needs and expectations and that’s part of being a leader and manager of yourself. For me, I have to schedule it in most of the time, which sounds ghastly, but otherwise another group of emails will come in and before you know it, they have taken another chunk of time up, and your needs fall down the list after everyone else’s! We have a rich and diverse library which would take years to get through and so it’s nice to take an afternoon here or there with a cup of tea and some chocolate hobnobs to explore what’s on a shelf you’ve not been to recently. Combined with commissioning local and national musicians, and listening to the radio and concerts, this ensures that there are always new things popping up each week.
You hold many and varied positions as a Cathedral Director of Music, choral educator and trustee of a number of musical institutions. How do you find time to pursue other interests? If so, what other activities – musical or non-musical – do you like to engage in?
I have a 4.5-year-old cockerpoo called Archie, who is full of beans and in between coming to work in the office and being borrowed by lots of friends whilst I’m at rehearsals, he also needs walking come rain or shine, be that at the park in town or at the seaside (our second home). I also swim, run (although some days I’m sure it should more accurately be classed as jogging at best), and take yoga and dance classes at the local gym. These all help with my conducting in terms of fitness, and fluency and shape of gesture – nothing so good as practising in the pool! Books for me are good to take my mind off things. I’ll flit between a good Scandi crime novel, to something a little more frivolous, to a professional development book, and then back to a good crime novel again.
Why do you think there are still so few female Directors of Music at English Cathedrals? Do you have any thoughts as to what might be done to change this?
Most likely it’s because we are trying to move an oil tanker with a feather! This isn’t something that is going to happen as fast as some might like. We live in a world where we like to have everything fixed or accomplished right here and now if it is to be classed as success or progress. Instead, we need to be patient and allow the space for evolution and remember that gradual change is also successful in being a next chapter of a much bigger book. Like everything, we do what we do not for ourselves but for those who come next, and church music at Cathedral level (and indeed, the church at any level) is a slow-moving profession. There are a comparatively limited number of roles to go round, and that role is changing; it’s quite different from the role as it looked on paper 25 years ago, and for some that’s appealing, and for others less so. Regardless, the tenure type system means that a role that appeals to you and your skillset may only come once or twice in your lifetime! What we can do as a profession, though, is work hard at changing the narrative and chapters that could emerge from some of the choral education in this country. There are so many fantastic choirs up and down the UK, and so many talented young girls in those groups. Acknowledging that they require different mentoring approaches and styles to their peers will help harness their enthusiasm and encourage them to step out in front or take to the organ bench for the first time. It’s never too late – just frame the best situations for them if you’re in a position to do so. Gone need to be the days of learning the organ for many years and then magically knowing how to conduct a choir; we don’t expect the experienced pot-washer to suddenly get a Michelin star! The art of leadership and choir training is multi-faceted. I hope that the UK can develop its support of choir conductors (be they organists too or not) in an affordable, systematic and logistically realistic way to help empower and mentor. Perhaps most humbly, and being rather less territorial, more leaders could step back occasionally to provide opportunities for the next generation and provide genuine apprentice type training in the choral leadership field, as we do for organists. It requires enormous trust, planning, risk evaluation, and the open mind of all in the church, but we’ve shown that can be done at Peterborough. Indeed, our first conducting scholar is now excelling in cathedral music in the Southern Hemisphere which is immensely rewarding to see.
Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ or wishing to pursue conducting or choral music?
It’s the same as it would be for anyone. Grasp all the prospects that come your way with tenacity and inquisitiveness, but also be sure to take chances and make opportunities for yourself to help write your own story. The music world can be ruthless at pigeon-holing and assuming – challenge some of those assumptions to find your strengths, values and non-negotiables. Find an organ / conducting / composition teacher that you admire and who will facilitate you to be the best version of yourself through their passion, exemplary guidance, and richness of experience, but who also gives you the space to explore and push the boundaries a bit for yourself at the same time.
Tansy Castledine is one of the UK’s leading women conductors, being a highly regarded British choral conductor at the forefront of the profession within church music. Through a busy schedule of performance direction, teaching conducting, and coaching and mentoring aspiring choir leaders across the UK and internationally, she has indelibly shaped the landscape of choral music and education.
Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral since 2018, Tansy is a prize-winning graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and University of Oxford. Tansy holds the FRCO diploma, National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership, and ARAM for services to choral music. She serves as a Trustee for the Royal School of Church Music and Church Music Society, and is a member of the Academic Board of the Royal College of Organists. Formerly President of the Music Teachers' Association and an Inspector for Music, Tansy has broadcast on BBC Radio and television, ITV, and Channel 4. In addition to recording numerous CDs, Tansy has also presented a broad repertoire of concerts and singing and conducting events across the UK and Europe, the USA and Australia. Performance venues have included the Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, the Cathedral of our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Cathedrals of St John the Divine and St Patrick in New York, and St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane.
Formerly Director of Music at St Mark’s, Hamilton Terrace, and St George’s College, Weybridge, Tansy’s dynamic and engaging style is known for engendering outstanding results from the choirs with which she works, making her in great demand as a conductor, educator, and animateur.