Since its founding in 2018, singers of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities have joined the St Mary's Cathedral 9am Sunday choir.

The group is an important part of the tapestry that makes up the musical life of St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.

“I think the choir’s life is shaped by three overlapping priorities”, explains director of music Michael Ferguson, “musical, spiritual, and social.

“Membership of the choir is open to everyone regardless of musical background, and we usually find that people come looking for all three of these things in some way when they join us.

"We’ve had many successes as a group, but I think the way we integrate these musical, spiritual, and social dimensions has been key to our flourishing as a choir”.

Musical life

Ailsa, a soprano, says: “The choir does absorb everybody who comes into it.

"There are different backgrounds...but it is all made to work, using everybody’s talents to encourage everyone to participate more and more — and that wouldn’t work in every setting”.

Currently, members come from such diverse occupational backgrounds as education, the legal profession, film and animation, marketing and promotions, and the music industry.

The inside of St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh, where the choir sing at the 9am Sunday Mass.

According to Michael, the choir’s musical repertoire plays an especially important role in enabling wide participation amidst this diversity.

"There is quite a different approach to the 12pm Schola Cantorum, say, where in a Palestrina Mass you might have six separate voice parts, each of which demands a specific range and skillset from the singers.

"In the 9am choir we move much more freely between solo and unison singing, and two and three-part harmony, and sometimes we even write our own harmonies when there aren’t pre-composed ones available”.

Lucy, an alto, says: “There are some hymns that we might be over-familiar with or remember from school, and maybe not remember that happily, but we can make them our own again”.

Spiritual life

Being part of the choir also brings spiritual rewards for the singers.

“Singing feels such a more intense form of prayer”, says alto Rosie, whilst others mention that singing helps them to engage more deeply with Scripture and the texts of the Mass.

“I quite like the hymns that draw on texts”, explains Lucy, “where you can make that connection between the hymns and whatever the readings are.

"It is interesting to see that you’ve got a version of the words, and then music on top of that — it enriches the engagement with the readings.

"When you’re learning a language you learn songs because it helps imbed it in your memory much better. And it’s quite like that with our music”.

People come up to us at the end of Mass quite regularly...telling us how moved they’ve been by the music.

Rebecca agrees: “it’s different when the texts are sung than when you read them”.

Likewise for Ailsa, when one encounters a text in the context of singing, “it can help you think about it in a different way”.

Fr Ajeesh George joined the choir in autumn 2022, and while he is often busy celebrating Mass on Sunday mornings, he sings regularly with the ensemble on Wednesday evenings.

He said: “Some people are attracted to the words and ideas the priest says in the homily, and some people are attracted to the songs and they come to God.

"So we are really spreading the Gospel to people who come to church”.

Ideally, the spiritual enrichment stemming from the choir’s music-making extends beyond the confines of the group, to the Cathedral community at large.

" People come up to us at the end of Mass quite regularly — to be honest, most weeks there is someone telling us how moved they’ve been by the music — and this is especially true of visitors to the Cathedral.

"In some sense it’s not for us to predict what people might find spiritually helpful, but it seems to be the case that what moves us tends to move other members of the worshipping community too.”

As well as singing stand-alone songs and reflections, the primary role of the choir is to lead the congregational singing each week.

For the choir members, this connection between their singing and the wider congregation is strongest when they themselves feel enlivened and uplifted by the music.

“I think the congregation come on side when they can tell that we’ve loved something”, explains Rosie, “there are moments where the congregation feels buoyed too, I think”.

Rebecca agrees: “If we’ve done a reflection and it was really good, the Communion hymn tends to be louder than the Offertory hymn was.

"And then the recessional hymn is always louder still. I think sometimes people say, ‘Yes! I’ll join in’.”

Social life

For all of the singers, the social dimension of the choir’s life is important.

Soprano Liz says:“I enjoy being with younger people, and a few not much younger than me, from backgrounds different from my own”.

Choir members enjoy social time together with Director of Music Michael Ferguson (left).

Bass David agrees: “We’re a very welcoming and friendly choir and as a new joiner I’ve encountered great camaraderie and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.”

For others like Rosie, joining the choir has helped her feel more connected to the wider St Mary’s Cathedral community.

“This is the church that I’ve felt most a part of the parish community, which is almost entirely to do with coming to choir and feeling like I know people better than I would if I just turned up and sat in the pews.

"There’s not that much social engagement within a Mass, unless you already know people.

And so it’s outside the Mass — for example at a choir rehearsal — that that social connection really happens.”

“We understand that singers need to balance the commitment of choir membership with working and family life,” explains Michael.

“And so part of our ethos is that we allow as flexible an approach to attendance as we’re able.

"This is another benefit of our adaptable musical style, because so long as we have a core of singers each week — which we always do — we’re able to excuse people from certain commitments if they need time away in a manner that just isn’t possible with the Schola Cantorum.

"What we find though is that attendance is very strong and consistent simply because people love singing in the choir. We’re blessed with a very loyal and committed bunch!”

The choir rehearses on a Wednesday evening at 7:00pm at 63 York Place, and sings at the 9am Sunday morning Mass each week. The group is open to members of all backgrounds and abilities. To get involved, please contact Michael Ferguson at

*This is an abridged version of the original article that appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Crux, the magazine of the Friends of St Mary's Cathedral.