OME FIVE years ago I wrote an article describing the fantastic work in the vineyard of Sacred Music undertaken by the Leeds Cathedral Music Program, the Diocese of Leeds (England) and its Schools Singing Programme. At that time, the program weekly reached 3,500 students around the diocese through its music classes and choral tuition. Today, that number has surpassed 6,000 students, and from the original program has now developed the National Singing Programme, which encompasses all of the Catholic dioceses in England, Scotland and Wales.
Leeds Cathedral Choir and Music Program:
This incredible program developed out of a simple initiative of the diocese’s bishop in the late 1980s. The following excerpt from the cathedral choir’s website reports:
“In the 1960’s, a narrow reading of the documents from the Second Vatican Council brought about a general devastation of Catholic church music, putting an end to many traditional boys’ choirs throughout Europe. In Leeds, the Cathedral Choir was disbanded in 1968. In the following two decades limited resources were devoted to music: the organ eventually fell into disrepair and only a small mixed voice adult choir sang at mass. In 1988, Bishop Konstant decided to reverse the tide of decay and lay new foundations with the appointment of a full-time Director of Music for the Diocese. The new Director of Music was to recruit from any school in the Diocese to meet Bishop Konstant’s requirement for a boys’ choir of 24 voices. Bishop Konstant’s backing and practical support laid the groundwork for the rapid development of the present choral programme under the direction of Benjamin Saunders since 2002.”
What began as a command to recruit and train 24 boy choristers from throughout the diocese has now grown into a cathedral music program consisting of a children’s choir for boys and girls ages 5-9, separate Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ Choirs for those ages 6-11 (there are more than 60 singers in these two groups), separate Senior Boys’ and Senior Girls’ Choirs ages 11-16, and a Scholar’s Choir for those ages 12-18, as well as choral scholars who are currently in university. Most of these young people receive free one-on-one vocal tuition from the choir’s vocal coach.
The cathedral also awards competitive scholarships to choral scholars, who receive professional vocal and conducting tuition and actively take part in the cathedral’s Schools Singing Program. Organ scholars in particular are given regular and ongoing tuition, mentoring, performance opportunities with the chance to make invaluable contacts in the organ world in order to launch them into the field of sacred music.
In 2009 the cathedral founded its very own Leeds Cathedral Choir School, housed within Holy Rosary and St. Anne’s Catholic Primary School, where music now forms part of the school’s core curriculum and provides students the opportunity to sing in the Cathedral Choir (read the cathedral’s current music list (here), as well as singing for Masses and services at the two parishes of Holy Rosary and St. Anne’s.
Schools Singing Programme:
The Schools Singing Programme grew from the cathedral’s desire to bring the gift of music to other schools and centers within the diocese, especially those more impoverished areas. Cathedral musicians would go out to various schools or parishes to teach music classes and form small choirs, and from these humble beginnings the program has grown to included 150 choral groups as well as numerous boys’ and girls’ choirs of very high standards. If the reader is interested to see what kind of tuition primary school children receive as part of this program, he can find quite a number of online rehearsal sessions that were filmed during England’s exceptionally long lockdown period as an effort to keep some music learning going, and to help children experience a bit of normalcy during this time. Here is a video of the very first recorded session for children (and their families), which shows the highly engaging teaching style utilized in the Schools Singing Program.
Keyboard Studies Programme:
2016 saw the introduction of the Keyboard Studies Programme aimed at teaching keyboard skills at the organ and piano. As a means of introducing as many children as possible to these studies, the program also teaches classes using the melodica and accordion, both of which are easily portable, while the melodica is fairly inexpensive. The Keyboard Studies Programme was recently featured in the February edition of the American Organist (AGO) magazine in its UK Report.
David Pipe, who heads the program closes the article with the following, “To put this in perspective, at the time of writing we have 1,100 children playing the melodica each week, and 175 having individual lessons on either accordion, piano or organ. My dream would be that a child starting melodica at age nine could progress through out Keyboard Studies Programme by learning piano (or accordion), become a skillful enough organist to play regularly in church, and go on to win a university organ scholarship at age 18.”
The program has currently partnered with the Hamish Ogston Foundation to expand the program in the following four ways:
(1) Establishing the largest and highest-quality teaching school in the UK for the classical accordion. This instrument is widely taught in Europe and Asia to give children the independence of a portable instrument and has been used successfully in the UK in many rural primary schools to learn the basics, as a transition to larger keyboard instruments and, ultimately, to inspire some young people to progress to learning to play the piano and even organ;
(2) Establishing the largest and highest-quality teaching school in the UK for the melodica. This small air-powered keyboard instrument offers one of the most comprehensive introductions to keyboard studies, following the Japanese model where every primary school child is taught the basics of keyboard playing;
(3) Developing three bespoke tutor books for melodica, accordion and organ, to support the teaching and learning of the young students; and
(4) Capital contributions to facilitate the installation of 2 pipe organs; the purchase of 3 electronic practice organs; refurbishment of 4 upright pianos and the purchase of 16 classical accordions.
Expect to see great things from such a program with such a vision.
National Schools Singing Program:
The Hamish Ogston Foundation has also partnered with the Leeds Cathedral Music Program to found the National Schools Singing Foundation, which either already does, or will soon, work in every Catholic diocese in England, Scotland and Wales. According to the foundation’s website, this program, which began in 2021, already works with more than 17,000 students. To put this in perspective, England, Scotland and Wales are roughly the size of the state of Oregon and one can only imagine the impact such a venture, already so established in such a relatively small geographical area, will have in the lives of those students and the church music profession twenty year down the road. Benjamin Saunders, the mover behind the Leed’s Cathedral and diocesan music program for the last twenty years is to be congratulated on his fine work.
The Catholic Academy of Sacred Music:
I have long been following the work of Leeds Cathedral and over the years I have developed a strong desire to begin such an undertaking in my own diocese, and last summer The Catholic Academy of Sacred Music was incorporated for that very purpose. This year the academy works with approximately 120 students in two different groups, with the expectation of expanding to 4 groups next year. I hope to be able to share more information with readers next month, but in the meantime I would ask our readers to remember the academy in their prayers.
These are the types and kinds of institutions we need if we hope to have an impact on Sacred Music in the United States and I am grateful to know of so many different men and women throughout our country who work tirelessly in their own ways to make such institutions possible. We simply must needs keep pushing forward.