Dr Emma Gibbins talks to Kath Skellon about her passion for music and becoming the Director of Music at Newport Cathedral.

“I HAVEN’T taken the standard career path to get to where I am now which is Director of Music at Newport Cathedral.

I knew music would always be a big part of my life but growing up my intention was to have a career in science. I was keen to be a forensic scientist for a while.

Neither of my parents is musical in the slightest but felt very strongly that my sister and I should have the opportunity to do various extra-curricular activities when we were small. So we did swimming and music classes and ballet, which didn’t last very long.

I started learning the recorder and my music teacher suggested I learn the violin.

I was completely desperate to learn the piano but we didn’t have one in the house. I nagged my parents for months to get one but they thought it was a passing phase.

I started lessons and eventually the music teacher in my primary school, Lysette Robson, who was very supportive of me and my attempts to compose music for the school orchestra, advised my parents that they really should buy a piano.

I benefited from attending a very musical secondary school, the School of St Helen and St Katharine in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where the head of music Andrew Tillett suggested I start playing the organ in the school chapel.

I went on to study chemical engineering at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Because I enjoyed music I also applied to be an organ scholar at the college. The organ scholars are responsible for playing the organ and running the choir in the college chapel.

At the end of my undergraduate degree I moved to London to study for a PhD in chemical engineering at Imperial College in London, working on processes used in the pharmaceutical industry and sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.

I gained my doctorate but was always keen on music throughout my studies. During my time in London I was organ scholar at St Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square and at a church in south London, in Croydon, St Michael and All Angels, where I worked with the organist and church musician Michael Fleming, who has sadly now died.

Michael was a superb musician and an absolute inspiration to me and I think getting to know him and learning from him may have been the turning point that made me think: “Is music what I would like to do for a living?”

Having done three years work in the laboratories for my PhD, I applied to be organ scholar for a year at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, which I combined with writing up my thesis.

I then went to the Royal College of Music in London to study for a masters course in organ performance with second study harpsichord.

And I haven’t looked back since. Having abandoned science, I now get to spend my time studying, preparing, rehearsing and performing the most beautiful music in the most beautiful church buildings and I am able to make a living doing something that I would actively choose to in my spare time for fun if I had a different job – what an enormous privilege.

It is something that I am thankful for every day, especially having spent so many years doing science when my heart wasn’t really in it.

Such a dramatic change of direction in life takes determination and a lot of hard work, but if you truly believe in something, it’s worth the effort.

After completing my music college degree, I spent a few years working in and around London, as director of music at All Saints Church in High Wycombe, at St Sepulchre without Newgate in the City of London and at Brentwood Cathedral in Essex.

In 2008 I moved to Belfast to take up the post of director of music at St George’s Church where I worked until earlier this year. Belfast is really the only place I’ve truly settled and put roots down in my adult life.

I love the city, and love St George’s – the choir, the clergy, the people – and I got involved with teaching, various other choirs and at the university and made lots of fabulous friends who I know I will stay closely in touch with for the rest of my life.

After six-and-a-half years there, leaving was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

Since deciding to pursue a career in church music, my long term goal has been the cathedral world.

So when the opportunity to apply for the post of director of music at Newport Cathedral arose, it seemed like the right thing at the right time.

I think the interview was one of the most enjoyable I have ever attended – I felt there was a lovely welcoming atmosphere, a hugely supportive and enthusiastic team of clergy and musicians who made every effort to help the candidates relax and we were even treated to a superb tea with members of the cathedral congregation.

So, although I was sad to leave Belfast, I was delighted to be offered the job and now I’m here – I officially started at the beginning of February – I am really excited by the scope and potential for development.

The director of music, along with the precentor (one of the cathedral’s clergy) is responsible for overseeing all the music making in the cathedral – recruiting, rehearsing and training the choir, choosing the music for worship, conducting the choir and playing the organ.

The cathedral has a traditional men and boys choir, a very special tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

The boys join the choir when they are seven or eight years old and continue until their voices break, at which point many then join the men’s section of the choir.

It’s a wonderful, free musical training and allows the boys to enjoy singing with their friends, working to a professional standard, developing good team work in a friendly environment, self-discipline, focus, confidence and commitment.

They also have the chance to travel with the choir to sing further afield.

The choir has recently sung in Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle.

The skills and attitudes they develop in the choir transfer positively to their school work and other musical activities.

Although rehearsals are pitched at an appropriate level and style for young people, ultimately expectations are on an adult level and I find they respond to this very positively and enjoy belonging to an organisation where aspirations and standards are high.

And they certainly enjoy getting their choir pay from the cathedral, in recognition of their hard work and commitment.

Any boy who lives in the area can get in touch about joining the choir or just to find out more.

We don’t expect them to be accomplished singers when they join. We welcome any boy who enjoys singing and is willing to try his best.

I find working with young people hugely rewarding – it really makes you challenge your own approach to things.

I love introducing things to children for the first time. The enthusiasm and eagerness with which the cathedral choristers approach new music is truly inspiring.

It is an honour to work with such motivated, interested youngsters.

It’s a big commitment for the boys in the choir, but ultimately it’s so rewarding and adds so much to their lives.

I really hope that every young person that I’ve worked with in various churches and cathedrals will have developed a love of music and the church that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

I’m really excited about how my role here at Newport Cathedral will develop. My main priority for next few months is to develop the boys’ choir as much as possible by giving many more boys the opportunity to get involved and see how much fun it is and convey to the parents what the children can gain from the experience.

We’re also in the process of starting up a new cathedral voluntary choir and in the future we hope to start a new cathedral girls’ choir so that local girls can have the chance to sing in the cathedral as well.

My role is fulfilling, enormous fun and it is a privilege to be able to contribute to the worship in a beautiful, historic cathedral and to be able to contribute to young people’s lives in hopefully a meaningful way.”

For more details about the choir e-mail emmagibbins1978@gmail.com

Visit the cathedral website newportcathedral.org.uk or find the Friends of Newport Cathedral Choir on Facebook.