Libby Harborne is the new Choral Scholar at Bradford Cathedral. You may already have seen and heard her in the role of Cantor at some of our recent Sunday Eucharists, and we spoke to her ahead of one such service to find out more about her new role, the enjoyment of directing a choir, and how she rekindled her love of music. We started by asking her about her musical background.
“I first probably got into singing because my grandfather was in the choir of his church, and he would often take me to concerts that were held at his church or big services at cathedrals, so that’s probably when I first discovered choral church music.
“I grew up in a church that was a little more modern than that – with bands rather than choirs – but t I always had that appreciation for choral music from my grandfather.
“He bought me a piano so at the age of seven I started playing that and then, throughout my school years, I took up more and more instruments, and took up singing, and then I went to study classical singing at Leeds College of Music from 2012 – 2015.
“I didn’t think, growing up, I would ever consider music as a career. It was just something I really enjoyed doing. It was my teachers who were always asking why I wasn’t thinking about studying music. I kind of palmed it off but eventually applied for places, and I found myself getting in.
“I had taken a gap year before that, which was quite good for me, because it made me realise why I wanted to study, as when everything was gearing up to my final recital I lost the love for singing because it became quite stressful; I’d go into a practice room for over two hours a day to do the same reps; do the same scales; do the same exercises, all for one 45-minute recital at the end of the year.
“I took a year out and worked for a church in Leeds as a student intern. I did events and things and then after about three months I found I was really missing music again. I needed that space to remember that I loved it.
“After doing that internship – I did a lot of music that year, went to recitals and still surrounded myself in it – but I didn’t really perform as much, and then I became the Choral Scholar here in 2016, which was really good for me because it was totally different to what I learned at College. There we didn’t do Psalm singing; we didn’t do hymn singing; and there were lots of different techniques. I just really liked it because the staff at Bradford Cathedral are so lovely.
“I had lots of questions because I’d never really been in a cathedral before; I’d never really sung in one, and there were all these traditions and ways of doing things, but everyone was so lovely and explained them all to me so clearly so I could understand and appreciate it.
“It was interesting because it answered all the questions that I’d had when I was a kid.
“After that I started directing my own choir, which is Joy Choir, and that’s in Leeds and Bradford. For me I love directing as much as I love singing in choirs, because you get to see people enjoying it and I just think it’s really powerful what singing can do for people: it’s got so many benefits, and for mental health, and just general well-being. Communities can grow from it and that’s something I saw when I was in the choir here. The adults were a really close tight-knit group of friends, which was nice.
“I’ve been running choirs, teaching singing in schools and to private students, and I’ve also been in a theatre company although COVID means I’m not in a theatre company! I’ve done a couple of tours with them, so I’ve been very lucky that I’ve done lots of fun projects.
“Then this summer Alex Berry (Director of Music, Bradford Cathedral) has asked me back a couple of times to Cantor and it’s just been nice being back, because I do feel very much at home here and everyone’s so lovely. Bradford Cathedral has got a special place in my heart, so to be invited to come and sing here more regularly and be on the on the actual team, was it was a real privilege. I’ve come back less nervous than I was the first time, because I know what to expect but, my goodness, I’ve not I haven’t Psalm sung for three years so that’ll be tricky!
“It’ll be good to get involved with the Saturday Singers because before I didn’t do much teaching, I just did singing, so it’d be really cool to actually apply what I’ve learned since I’ve left here and bring those tools to helping out here.”
Does the variety in your musical projects keep things interesting for you?
“Yes, it does. The singing is no longer about how I’m doing this practice for this end, and this end only; I’m directing choirs; I’m seeing people and how it’s the highlight of their week; and I’m seeing how music affects people in different ways and for different reasons. I know music is so powerful and I’ve always been driven by the kind of holistic approach and the holistic benefits that music has, it’s just a lot more well-rounded.”
You’re the newest Choral Scholar at Bradford Cathedral. For those not familiar with the role, what does it entail?
“Obviously, at the moment, the choir’s not singing together in the morning or at Evensong so it’s a little bit different to what it was the last time I was here. I’m at Bradford Cathedral Mondays and Tuesdays, just doing a rehearsal for an hour. Most of them are with the back-row singers – the adults and the junior choral scholars – which is so sweet because they were choristers when I was first here, and they’re all taller than me now!
“I’m also doing the Saturday Singers, which wasn’t in place when I was here last time. It’s a great opportunity to get children, who would never normally have access to this kind of education and this kind of music, singing.
“Normally it would be in the building but because of COVID it’s being done remotely so I’ll be leading an online workshop. I’ll also be doing a couple of Sunday morning services.”
You’ve been the Cantor at some recent services; has that been a good experience?
“It’s been really nice because, with COVID, I’ve not really been performing or soloing at all and I only did the odd bit of soloing when I was last here. It’s so different singing on your own to singing in a choir because, obviously, in a choir you’re blending and you’re following a director, whereas when you are Cantoring, and yes whoever’s conducting is probably playing the organ, but there’s a lot more communication between the singer and the organist; you’re working together to create something beautiful.
“It’s completely different but now when I’m facing the front now and not staring at a director, I can see how the congregation are interacting and that’s really beautiful to see because, especially in the recent months, everyone’s just so happy to be back in the cathedral rather than being at home and watching it online, so it’s really nice to be a part of that.”
And what are your hopes for your time at Bradford Cathedral?
“I’m a Christian and I’m hoping that I can use my voice in a way that helps the congregation to connect with God, and to respond to him, and also I’m hoping to learn a lot while I’m here, from the team, from the clergy, and from the Director of Music and Associate Director of Music.
“I love learning and I want to come out of this having become a better musician, become a more well-rounded musician, and to get to know some people again, because everyone’s really friendly here; in whatever way that means right now because obviously a lot of community activities have been postponed for now, but it’d be it’d be really great to get to know some faces that I’ve not seen before.”