An insight into the Regional Music Adviser role at the Royal School of Church Music

Frances Novillo

Frances Novillo, RSCM Regional Music Adviser and Catholic cantor

We spent some time this morning with the delightful Frances Novillo, Regional Music Adviser for the Royal School of Church Music and were humbled by the breadth of musical knowledge, application and versatility required of her role. I wish I had recorded the conversation, but we’ll get some video interviews in the future.

Whilst Musicademy is more normally focussed on contemporary music, we recognise that across the church there are many more genres of musical expression in worship. Here Frances Novillo whose portfolio encompasses Townend and Resound, Parry and plainchant, polyphony, gospel, spirituals and folk styles, world church music, Iona and Taize, Wesley and Watts, and everything in between shares her experience of working at the RSCM.

I joined the staff team of the Royal School of Church Music in April 2010 as Regional Music Adviser providing training and advice on all aspects of church music-making in the South East of England. My Region extends from the south-easternmost point of Kent, along the south coast to Bournemouth, up and over Oxfordshire, then across to the north-eastern corner of Essex, and reaches out to churches of all denominations and worshipping styles who affiliate to the RSCM, including those with very little going on musically, and those with rich musical resources.


I’d worked in an RSCM affiliated church in Leeds after graduating, maintaining a traditional choir and developing a worship band. Since that time, while leading music at Scargill House in North Yorkshire and at Diocesan music days across the country, I’d met RSCM staff and learnt that the charity had a broad outlook operating ecumenically across a wide range of musical styles. I realised the RSCM could have appointed an Anglican organist to the newly-created RMA post in 2010, but instead chose me, a Catholic cantor. I brought with me experience working ecumenically with the Iona Community as Resident Musician, leading worship in venues as diverse as Wembley Arena and Greenbelt, and working in Anglican and Catholic parishes and schools, with a particular passion for getting all God’s people singing His praises.

Cantors are worship leaders. It’s about leading God’s people in sung prayer, and proclaiming God’s word in song; helping everyone gathered together to sing a new song to the Lord; singing some parts of some songs solo, following the Biblical precedent of Hannah, Zechariah and Mary – and the Psalmists – and enabling the assembly to offer a communal response; improvising during songs – sometimes harmonies, sometimes calls to which the congregation respond (especially in Gospel and world church music); following the flow of the worship and adapting the music accordingly.

I take a community music approach, that is, encouraging everyone to take part regardless of previous musical experience or ability.

I’m fascinated with the church as a unique environment in which all are expected to sing, and indeed, to find in singing a vehicle for prayer, a means of growing closer to the Lord Jesus whether or not they come in believing they’re capable of doing this.

It’s important for me as a cantor to be able to set worshippers at ease, inviting groups of all ages, large and small, to participate in singing together, overcoming their inhibitions and memories of being told that they can’t sing. If I had a pound for every person who told me ‘I can’t sing’ I’d be able to build my parish a new church!

Teenagers playing at Southwark RC cathedral

Teenagers from High Barnet Catholic parish playing at Southwark RC Cathedral

Regional Music Advisers are employed in our own churches to keep our advice and support to other churches through the RSCM relevant, and ensure we are sympathetic to the issues which commonly arise.  My church in High Barnet (North London) is thriving, with so many worshippers we can’t always fit everyone in. As a cantor, I animate the gathered faithful, singing familiar and new songs and liturgical music. I conduct the choirs – a singing group of parents and children playing a range of acoustic instruments at the Family Mass; a more traditional choir at the Solemn Mass singing up to 4-part harmony with the congregation; a group of teenagers leading contemporary songs at the Evening Mass. We explore Taizé and Iona music alongside plainchant, classical and contemporary pieces, songs from all around the world, with a bit of Gospel from time to time. I’ve trained a team of cantors, solo singers who can encourage the congregation to keep singing, and lead them in new songs, call and response, including responsorial Psalms. I offer piano and guitar lessons to the teenagers who want to improve their musical skills in return for their commitment to leading music in worship regularly.

For the RSCM, I lead a range of workshops to help everyone involved in church music to develop musically and spiritually, I hope. I work with clergy and congregations, instrumentalists and singers, choirs and bands and those who lead and direct them. Workshop titles include:

  • For churches with limited resources: making the most of what you’ve got
  • For churches with extensive resources: fusion events blending different styles and musical approaches
  • For leaders: conducting skills / cantor training
  • For congregations: widen your musical horizons / sound the right note / music from Iona and Taize
  • For children and those who lead them: children in Church? Enthuse them through music / young voices festivals / music for all God’s family (celebrating all-age worship)
  • For choirs: singing skills / seasonal repertoire / Psalms and service music in different styles
  • For instrumentalists: let us play / the organ and other instruments
Widen your Musical Horizons workshop at St John’s Locks Heath, Hampshire

Widen your Musical Horizons workshop at St John’s Locks Heath, Hampshire

With the RSCM, I’ve worked in partnership with related organisations, including the Society of Saint Gregory, URC Musicians’ Guild, Dioceses and Circuits, the National Network of Pastoral Musicians, Organists’ Associations and the East Herts Church Choirs Association. It’s mutually beneficial to our various networks of contacts and members to meet each other to co-operate, overcome misconceptions, and share ideas. I also visit churches of all sizes, worshipping in different styles, meeting with key people who wish to develop music-making in worship, and I particularly enjoy setting up receptions for church music leaders from a wide range of Christian communities in each neighbourhood, including the mainstream denominations along with emerging churches and alternative Christian groups. It’s easy for church music leaders to become preoccupied with the many demands of our own worshipping communities, leaving little time to find out what’s going on in the church down the road, when given the chance, we have a lot to share – music arrangements, skills and expertise, deputising for each other, supporting each other through prayer, attending each other’s concerts and special services, expanding each other’s musical groups when in need or on special occasions.

The RSCM is a membership organisation, and churches and individuals affiliate through [email protected] to contribute to developing and sustaining music in worship according to the charity’s aims, and in order to access membership benefits including discounts on published music for worship, accredited training programmes and residential courses for singers and church music leaders, and tailored support and advice from Regional Music Advisers. Our work is funded by the generosity of the Liz and Terry Bramall Charitable Trust, extending the reach of local voluntary committees, who are key supporters of church music in each Area providing relevant local training to singers, leaders and other musicians in all aspects of church music.