Take me to church: Blair School of Music students in U.K. learn how religious music pays the rent

Vocal performance graduates of Vanderbilt University with ambitions to land jobs in music often head to cities that boast bustling arts scenes—think New York, Chicago and Vienna.  

Markets with strong professional singing cultures are also often home to rich church music traditions, said Tucker Biddlecombe, associate professor of choral studies at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music. So faith communities are a natural place for newly graduated performers to keep music employment.   

“Some of our students will move to large city centers with active classical music scenes. Then to pay the rent, they usually get jobs in church music,” Biddlecombe said. “They’ll become a hired singer for a cathedral in New York City. Or they’ll become part of the hired crew for other denominations that provide music for their congregants as an artistic outlet.”  

Seeing alumni get jobs in the church music niche led to the development of curriculum designed to prepare Vanderbilt Blair musicians to work in liturgical settings.  

 Biddlecombe worked with Dean Lorenzo F. Candelaria to create an opportunity for students to go to the United Kingdom as part of a new course created with Immersion Vanderbilt called Vanderbilt Choral Scholars. This month, the inaugural VCS cohort traveled to learn more about the demands of church music. Students working with Biddlecombe spent a week in cathedrals in the United Kingdom to better understand their dynamics and traditions and to see firsthand the community impact of church music in Europe.  

Vanderbilt connections with diocesan music leaders in Leeds, England, set the stage for students to study at Leeds Cathedral, participating in services and in lessons with its unique children’s music program. School music instruction is provided by organ scholars employed by the cathedral. Vanderbilt students traveled to several schools, interacting with and performing for students. Their integration into daily worship services was a trial by fire experience made possible only through the unique opportunity of immersion.  

Blair student Ellie Repp said the experience brought a different perspective than training in Nashville.  

“We jumped right into the deep end, singing a Mass at the cathedral upon immediate arrival in Leeds. The process of learning different musical notations, blasting through an astonishing amount of repertoire and performing with minimal rehearsal has proved to be an irreplaceable educational and cultural experience,” Repp said.  

 “It was fascinating to learn how the diocese connects to the school systems throughout the city as well as how music has been institutionalized as a form of evangelism. Although we have more than likely barely scratched the surface, the taste of European culture and music we have been exposed to is inspiring, and even life-changing,” she added. 

The opportunity in the U.K. is ideal for students who aspire to teach music, Biddlecombe said, and it builds on the work they do at Blair. 

 “Vanderbilt students work daily with the youth choirs and direct rehearsals. It’s one of the strengths of our program to offer them the ability to teach in a live setting as opposed to sitting in a classroom and talking about teaching,” Biddlecombe said.  

Vanderbilt students traveled to the United Kingdom as part of a new summer program designed to introduce them to the experience of working in the church music industry.


Developing the Vanderbilt Choral Scholars program was a natural fit for Biddlecombe and Candelaria, who have expertise in the music of faith communities. Biddlecombe, who actively mentors music teachers and choral conductors across the country, is also a veteran church musician and will serve in June as senior high choral clinician for the annual Montreat Worship and Music Conference.  

 Candelaria has published research on contextualizing Roman Catholic liturgical music and is the author of The Rosary Cantoral,  American Music: A Panorama and the forthcoming Listening to Music and Music in Early Mexican Catholicism. 

 Creating pathways for the next generation of music educators to practice their craft is part of Blair’s mission, focusing on the professional development of highly talented young musicians.But, for Candelaria, there is something more. 

“Professionally, the U.K.’s long-standing sacred choral traditions offer unparalleled learning experiences for students who aspire to work in church music one day. Among other things, students are challenged to perform a familiar concert choral repertory—the music of Tallis, Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, for instance—in the dynamic contexts of the actual church services for which the music was originally intended. That pushes the training of even our most rigorous collegiate music programs in the U.S. to the limits. It’s humbling, to be sure, and you come to understand and appreciate the music—and the composers—in a very different way,” Candelaria said.  “Beyond that, our students experience firsthand the transformational role that music can play in society—uniting people from vastly disparate backgrounds in the common cause of a shared ideal. That is a lesson in unity that all of us can benefit from right now, and it happens in our mosques, synagogues and churches throughout the world every day.  We just need to take notice and learn from it.” 

“We have a lot of students who are interested in this particular travel, and engaging with a community and a cathedral, to see what that musical experience is like,” Biddlecombe said.  

While most students on the trip have experience with vocal performance, the effort is interdisciplinary, and several majors from across Vanderbilt are represented on the trip. A math major will be studying the acoustic properties of the cathedrals and running tests to offer a different perspective on the formula of success in church music.  

Biddlecombe said he’s hopeful the experience will lead to a multiyear partnership for Vanderbilt.  

“My conversations with the Leeds Cathedral team have been: ‘How can we serve? What can we do? How can we help? How can we make an impact on the lives of these students?’ Hopefully it’s going to lead to a partnership where we continue to bring students back and work with them, and eventually they can bring their students here,” he said.  “We hope it becomes something where we can share the unique properties of what we do [with music] here in the United States and what they do there in the United Kingdom.”   

In their own words: How did Vanderbilt Choral Scholars shape your experience at Vanderbilt? 

Emma Flores:  

“Upon arrival on Wednesday, we immediately went into rehearsal for the evening’s Mass.  I felt confident in my sightreading skills but was thrown off when we were given chant music, often written in neumes. The service was challenging, and the members of the church choir were incredibly helpful in showing me the order of things and teaching me a bit more about this new style of singing. ‘Immersive’ is truly the perfect word to describe this experience. The next day, we sang at a couple different schools. I absolutely loved engaging with the kids and felt encouraged by their enthusiasm for our music. It was fascinating to learn about the ways in which the church is the main support for music in these schools. I am curious as to what will happen if this system is no longer able to be sustained, as well as how it could be improved to better support the children’s study of music long term.” 

Sophie Heinz:   

“This trip has been a textbook example of what immersion is. As soon as we arrived in Leeds, we set our suitcases in the lobby of Leeds Cathedral and were thrown into the fastest-paced choir rehearsal I have ever been in. The music was nearly unreadable at first because so much of what is sung is written in Gregorian chant notation (using neumes) as well as Anglican chant notation, which follows a pattern of note shifting indicated by slashes. This was like deciphering a musical puzzle or a code and, though stressful at first, became fun. Not even 15 minutes after arriving we began the service and, as it was of the Catholic tradition, this was completely new to me as well. Thankfully there were singers there who helped us get through it, but the next day we were hardly helped at all by the choir, and the day after that we led the service entirely on our own. The other incredible part of this trip so far has been visiting the Catholic primary schools, which are tied to the Leeds Cathedral. Many of the kids at these schools had never been exposed to chamber singing like we did, and their faces all lit up with such joy and excitement. It was explained to us that there is a large percentage of children at these schools who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, highly transient families, or have parents in prison. They were all great, well-behaved kids with such amazing curiosity, and so it was so gratifying to be able to work with them, answer their questions and sing for and with them.” 

Noah Mond  

“This trip has been both incredibly rewarding and exhausting, but overall,  extremely immersive. This is only the middle of the third day, and already we are going  on our third Mass, this one run completely by ourselves, and two school visits. The  Masses have been super-challenging, since I had never even seen mensural notation  and now we are performing it. I have been depending heavily on the work I did with Dr.  Sienkiewicz in Musicianship VI to read the notation. I am certainly learning a lot about  Christianity and the U.K. by being so immersed in the church culture, both by  participating in the choir and by singing for the children at the Catholic schools. I have  also discovered a true love of vocal chamber music that I never knew I had.  Working with my peers and colleagues in a small chamber setting has been  extraordinary because I trust each of them and know them so closely that we are able to  make musical choices in the moment without ever discussing them, just by making eye  contact.”