Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music

Year of Graduation: 2014

Originally inspired by the likes of Reginald Dixon and fellow resident organists at The Blackpool Tower Ballroom, Aaron Shilson is a highly versatile musician who currently works at Ely Cathedral. A graduate of our Classical Music degree programme and a former organ scholar with the Diocese of Leeds Music Department, Aaron’s current position combines musical direction, accompanying and teaching.

Below, Aaron discusses the current outlook for organists within the UK and provides a fresh perspective on the highly diverse musical scene in Leeds.

What was your earliest musical experience?

My grandfather was a cinema organist, and he had an electronic instrument in his house, so since birth my Saturday mornings involved bashing random notes on that and being played old recordings of the likes of Reginald Dixon from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. It took a few more years for the organ to properly take hold in my life - but I’m certain these early memories have a lot to do with what I do now.

When did you begin your musical training as an organist?

I started learning the organ in year 8. There was a real pipe organ in the hall of my school and hearing the power and versatility when I arrived already got my attention - but I had to wait an extra year to be able to reach the pedals. I’d spent my first year of secondary school learning the violin but we never really got along, and my passion for the organ soon overtook my interest in the violin. My studies soon moved to the local parish church where I was awarded my first organ scholarship.

What attracted you to studying in Leeds and what do you think of the musical community here?

I think what really caught my attention in Leeds was the breadth of music available. From music being performed in the cathedral and Leeds Town Hall to gigs in smaller venues found all around the city - there’s a bit of everything.  Beyond that, there’s a real sense of support for everything that happens musically in the community. Concerts and gigs are well attended and there’s plenty of support for performers. At the conservatoire, the first priority was to create a supportive environment, where you’re encouraged and given the best opportunities for experience and exposure. The community in Leeds is incomparable - it inspires you to get involved.  

How did Leeds Conservatoire prepare you for your career as a professional musician?

Beyond course teaching, Leeds Conservatoire was always finding opportunities for us to go and experience what it was to work in the real world. For me, I was allowed the opportunity to rehearse and accompany the Chamber Choir, given chance to take part in external masterclasses on some highly renowned instruments, and the opportunity to give public recitals in the surrounding area - including one at Wakefield Cathedral as part of the lunchtime series. We were also allowed a lot of freedom and encouraged to go off and try our own thing and explore our own ideas. For me, this involved co-founding a choir with another course member.

In your final year of study, you were awarded an organ scholarship with the Diocese of Leeds Music Department. How was this experience?

Quite frankly it was the foundation for what I do now. It was my first real look at what it meant to be a cathedral musician and I was given a full range of experiences. I had my first attempts at conducting and accompanying a cathedral choir. I was able to take part in and experience what it’s like to be involved with recordings and live broadcasts. I think one of the most valuable things from my time as Organ Scholar was to experience the schools singing programme and to see the results it wields. It’s a program that is still heralded as remarkable in a time when recruitment for choristers is becoming more and more difficult, and I’ve found that it is talked about wherever I’ve been. It allowed me to work with choirs made up of various age ranges from different areas. In general it was a very informative experience!

Tell us a little bit more about your current role at Ely Cathedral, what does it involve?

My title is Assistant Organist for Ely Cathedral Girls Choir, so I mainly work with the Girls’ Choir, accompanying them in cathedral services and from time to time directing services and rehearsals. I also assist the Director of the Girls’ Choir, Sarah MacDonald, with a lot of the choirs’ admin (of which there is a surprising amount!). I also get the chance on occasion to work with the Boys’ Choir and the Lay Clerks when required. My post carries strong links to Kings Ely, the school at which all the choristers attend, so I find myself accompanying exams and doing the odd bit of teaching.  There’s plenty to keep me busy in the day.

There has been a sharp decline in the amount of organists and organ students in the UK. What do you see as the future of organ music?

I think right now the future lies in the efforts being made to encourage people to take the instrument up. There are plenty of courses being run around the country, many by the Royal College of Organists, in order to try and create an interest in the instrument and its rich repertoire. Such a pioneering effort is currently based in Leeds in association with the Diocese of Leeds Music Department

Given this lack of organists, has there been greater demand for your services?

Not as much as you would think. One of the symptoms of a decline in organists has been a slow decline in positions where alternative solutions have been found to overcome a lack of players. One example is the shift in churches from more ‘traditional’ music in services to a more ‘modern’ approach featuring bands. It’s a strange instance where a decrease in supply is resulting in a decrease in demand.

Organists and choral directors are some of the most versatile and creative musicians. What would you attribute this to?

I suppose in some ways we need to be versatile. As organists we get used to playing differing instruments, accompanying different sized groups in different buildings - all of which has an effect on how you approach playing.  As a Choral Director, you never know who you’ll be working with, what age ranges you’ll have in a group, what levels of experience, what style of music you’ll be working on. So again, you need to be adaptable in order to get the best out of who ever you’re working with and what ever you’re performing.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to study Classical Music at Leeds Conservatoire?

I would say to take full advantage of everything that is on offer. Don’t just limit that to Classical Music - make the most of all the music that happens on a regular basis in the city, and take in the different genres that are on offer, even if you wouldn’t normally consider them. If you go and get stuck in - then that experience can be inspiring and transformative in how you consider your own approach to music, whether that’s as a performer, a composer or as a listener.

Follow Aaron on Twitter - @ajshilson

Alternatively, find out more about Aaron on the Ely Cathedral website

Or learn about our Classical Music degree here

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

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