Tuning in to a spiritual life

Words by:
Barbara Young
Featured in:
July 2021

Twice awarded Classical Pianist of the Year while studying at Leeds College of Music during her first two years at university, Caroline Leighton has worked with many distinguished musicians, leading soloists and choral societies becoming recognised as a leading talent in her own right.

Growing up in Linwood, near Market Rasen, Caroline went to school at Caistor Yarborough and then De Aston in Market Rasen to take her three A Levels in Music, Theatre Studies and Psychology.

“As a youngster I was very ambitious to perform at school. My friends and I would always be first to ask to sing and play at concerts and I won many in-house school music competitions,” says Caroline, who admits that most evenings would find her “jamming along to Brian May”.

“As a young teenager, I loved improvising on the piano, singing folk songs and playing acoustic guitar, as well as writing songs based on my life experiences; I was quite deep, reflective and seeking to absorb life.

“I didn’t grow up in church and wasn’t raised a Christian, but was baptised by my grandad in the Church of England. I was also very into the mind, body and spirit world and had experiences of spirit contact which sparked my belief that there must be a creator behind all of this.”

Having thrived under the influence of her hugely talented musical family, it’s not surprising that Caroline received an unconditional offer from Leeds College of Music after auditioning for the Head of Piano, Julian Cima.

“We got on so well, but he was constantly making me play Beethoven and didn’t approve of anything else – it was a nightmare! Beethoven is great, but I wanted to play more than one composer for three years!

“Even today, I can’t just listen to one genre; I appreciate them all as it’s creative and art to me. My favourite band is Queen, and I also love Elton John, The Corrs, Florence and the Machine, Clannad and Blackmore’s Night.”

Award-winning student
Caroline says she felt honoured to twice be recognised with her prestigious award, which was based on musical talent and potential demonstrated during performance, as well as commitment and teamwork.

“The best thing about uni was working with like-minded musicians who became great friends I’m still connected with today.”

At Leeds, Caroline specialised in performance and Lieder, accompanying acclaimed sopranos Barbara Bonney, Lynne Dawson and the leading soloists of Opera North.

She has since worked with distinguished musicians Adrian Partington, whose Youth Choir at Gloucester Cathedral first performed her Evensong Canticles in 2015, and has accompanied choral workshops for Nigel Perrin, David Lawrence and Alexander L’Estrange.

On All Souls Day, 2019, Caroline worked with composer and conductor Matthew Coleridge in a ‘Come and Sing’ workshop and performance of his Requiem.

Caroline moved back to Lincolnshire after graduation in 2006 where she has given many solo recitals across the county and worked with young musicians at youth festivals.

Earlier this year, 35-year-old Caroline, who is also passionate about conservation, moved into her cosy country cottage in Tealby, tucked away in the Lincolnshire Wolds, which she describes as “the perfect environment to keep attuned to nature and compose music”.

“I love solitude and my cottage is surrounded by hills and walks, as well as so much wildlife and nature.

“Lincolnshire’s flat landscape that goes on for miles makes me smile and up here in the Wolds on a clear day, you can see Lincoln Cathedral; it’s just beautiful. I love how green our county is and the peace of the smaller villages is my perfect location.”

Religious life
Before moving to her cottage, the former Caistor Grammar School piano teacher spent four months living closely with “23 inspiring nuns” in the Carmelite Monastery in Norfolk, which she describes as “one big joyful family”.

“Chanting plays a huge role in their lives and this deeply meditative music is providing a moment of solace for listeners across the globe, amid the challenges the world continues to face during the pandemic,” she explains. “What attracted me to the women at the convent was that the whole life revolves round the chapel, praying for others and private prayer.

“In the convent you lose your freedom and follow the strict timetable; this had its advantages in terms of not worrying what you’d do each day because the routine was the same, a bit like school governed by bells.
“We didn’t wear make-up – it was so freeing not having to care about how you looked and be in front of a mirror – vanity wasn’t an option!

“The focus was all about who you are inside, and I believe that outside the convent as well. Monastic life shows us a real devotion to God daily and I grew up loving God in my solitude/prayer, being guided by him.”

Caroline relished her time with the nuns, who were aged 40-95, and describes the community as “fresh and vibrant”.

“I loved getting up at 5.30am every day, especially through Advent when I was in charge of the chapel wreath candles and lit them every morning and evening.

“We had walks in the woods every day and my room, on the top floor, had a beautiful view of a large crucifix down in the garden.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a nun, and many sisters say that, but the experience was the most intensely beautiful of my life.

“Many people were confused when I first said I was going because you have to leave everything: family, friends, house, job, car, and just plunge into a very radical setting not knowing how you’ll feel or how things will go.
“At first I felt as if I’d dived off a cliff but then realised I had wings and flourished. I’m very passionate and will throw myself 100% into anything I believe in and really live it.

“I found my true self in the convent by being still enough over those months to listen to what my heart really wants. That environment is ripe for bringing up all our internal needs and hitting us with them so that you can’t ignore it.

“It was like therapy for the soul and I healed in there as well. My mum and stepdad had both died within two months of each other before I entered, and the loving and safe environment enabled me to work through my grief without being afraid to cry and rant on the sister’s shoulders.

“However, after a few months I realised that I could also do this by being at home and have much more freedom to do other things as well.”

Caroline says the peace of the monastery made her want to live somewhere “which was just as quiet, with not too many people around” and replicate walking in woodland every day.

This period was the conclusion of Caroline’s many years of contemplation on a spiritual path, having also previously spent time with the Poor Clares in Arundel, West Sussex, an order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare in 1212.

“The Poor Clares are such an uplifting community and I had several visits there between 2018 and 2019. I stayed in the guest house and Sister Géraldine Marie looked after me. We had such a laugh together as I explained my pull to religious life. She said that a sense of humour in a convent is vital, especially when you’re stuck there all the time and can’t just go on holiday when you feel like it!”

Caroline says she felt drawn to the Franciscan spirit, with Saint Francis being famous for his love of animals and nature.

“I’m just the same, and I loved that the sisters walked around the convent in bare feet. For me to be connected to nature gives you natural medicine.

“Looking back I’m proud that I decided to enter the convent when everyone thought I was crazy and wasting my time – little do they know it’s actually an incredibly transforming and fruitful life!”

Early influences
Born in Hall Green, Birmingham, Caroline’s parents were both musical and she fondly recalls “fighting over the piano stool” with her two brothers at the age of two.

“My dad [Peter Leighton-Hoggett] was a baritone and a chorister when he was younger and later the verger at the church which I had a beautiful view of from my bedroom window. Mum [Gaynor Morgan] was a classical soprano and also sang at her church where her dad was organist/composer.”

Caroline’s parents both studied piano and singing at the Birmingham Conservatoire, while her grandfather Robert Hoggett was ordained as a priest in Worcester Cathedral in the mid-1960s and served as the rural dean in Lincolnshire at the churches of Riby, Keelby and Aylesby.

Taught at home by her mother, by the time she was 14, Caroline had passed all her piano exams (grades 1-8) and enjoyed her first public performance in school assembly at the age of six.

“Mum always disciplined me with practising and was so encouraging and strict as well, to make sure I didn’t go off the rails!” she says.

“I learnt the violin at 14 and passed my grade 5, but I wasn’t a natural at it. I also dabbled with the oboe, passing my grade 3, and I made lots of noise trying the bassoon, but piano stuck!

“My stepdad, Ashleigh, who my mother married when I was eight, studied singing at The Guildhall in London and was a brilliant tenor, singing in the choir at Lincoln Cathedral for many years.

“Growing up I loved classical music as my mum and dad had the house full of pupils so we were surrounded by so much of it, but when I hit my early teens, I got into heavy metal and rock music.”

Musical tastes

Caroline says her favourite composer is Bach. “To me, his religious spirit floods all of his music and his St John Passion is my favourite choral work. The way he sets the narrative of Jesus’ life is epic with the solo singers, a full chorus and orchestra.

“I also love Debussy’s colourful piano music, which I’ve performed many times and Gregorian chant is always on my iPod.”

Caroline explains that while she writes in different styles, her work is “always honest and heartfelt”.

“I don’t over-complicate my music. Keeping things simple can sometimes be the most profound. I’m not afraid to use two chords all the way through a piece. I write from intuition and don’t plan or structure at all beforehand.

“I always spend time just improvising at the piano until something comes that I love and will stick with. If it’s church music for choirs, then there’s always a text to work with so I’ll sit with the words, feel the emotions and that then drives what comes out musically.

“Sometimes I can create a choir piece in a week while other times it’s a couple of months just taking my time and having breaks. I can’t force something out; it’s as if it controls me.”

Caroline is currently celebrating two recently published pieces with Encore Publishing and a new Christmas piece The Christ Child for SATB choir and piano is being released soon.

Looking ahead Caroline has recently been commissioned to set music to a poem by Radio 4’s Anne Atkins for Mother’s Day next year and will be releasing a performance video of three songs with Allan Smith, baritone singer and director of music at St James’ Church, Louth.

“I love composing so it’s never a chore – I just step into my bubble and I’m there for hours. I like to not be disturbed and that’s easy living alone!”

For more information visit www.carolineleighton.co.uk

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