Why Bury St Edmunds-based musician came back to East Anglia to help bring communities together through music
When Tom Appleton’s parents packed him off to sing in the church choir on Sundays they were almost certainly not planning to set him up for his future career.
But his talent soon shone through. Aged only eight he won a place in one of the most prestigious cathedral choirs in the country, and went on to be a professional singer and conductor.
Then after spending 10 years touring the world with a major choir he realised what he really wanted to do was to enrich the musical life of his native East Anglia.
He now combines performing with working to bring people together through music and helping other musicians “to make their dreams come true”.
And his outstanding contribution recently earned him the top spot in the new freelance category in the Bury Free Press West Suffolk Business Awards.
A delighted Tom was thrilled that freelancers had been included, and jokes that his previous biggest award was a Blue Peter badge for rescuing a pigeon stuck in a chimney.
“It’s really nice that they have launched that category. Freelancers are like honey bees, they go around and pollinate the various businesses. Every business needs freelancers to come in and do various things. We are the ones who are the unsung heroes.
“When I heard I had been shortlisted it was amazing. I was really pleased to be flying the flag for the arts in the awards, and equally pleased to see other categories that had more traditional businesses.
“I’d also like to thank the sponsor of my award, Jane Cattermole at Bay Tree VA, and the Bury Free Press for their support.”
Describing how his career got started Tom, who grew up in Sible Hedingham near Sudbury, says: “I’m the eldest of four children. I always think my parents were looking for childcare on Sunday mornings, so they shipped me off down the road to the church.
“I started singing in the choir while I was at primary school. I got spotted by a teacher who said why don’t you go and audition for one of the major cathedrals.”
He applied to join the choir of St Paul’s in London, and was accepted. Even at such a young age he understood what a great opportunity it would be.
“I was keen to go to St Paul’s and excited about it. I went off at the age of eight and was boarding there to age 13.
“They only took about eight choristers at a time. I realised it would be an amazing opportunity - singing at a very high level for a lot of hours.
“I sang in all the major services, and to royalty at events attended by the Queen and the Queen Mother. It’s an amazing way to learn your trade.”
With him in the choir stalls was a boy who went on to a very different career - swapping musical scores for test scores as England’s cricket captain and leading run scorer.
“I was there at the same time as Alastair Cook. We got on well and I bowled him out once at school cricket … my biggest-ever sporting achievement,” Tom recalls.
“After St Paul’s I got a music scholarship to Gresham’s School in Holt in Norfolk. Among its alumni is Benjamin Britten and I have a huge fascination with him and his life and work.
“I’m very fortunate now to work a lot in Aldeburgh a director of music at Aldeburgh Music Club, which was set up by Benjamin Britten. We perform at Snape Maltings.”
“While I was a Gresham’s I joined the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, sang with them through my teenage years, and went on a world tour with them in 2003. We went to places including Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Then I went to the University of York where I read music.”
York was also where he met his wife Ellie, who is head of speech and language therapy at a brain injury rehabilitation unit in Stowmarket. They have two children and have recently moved from Bury St Edmunds to nearby Ingham.
From university Tom joined the Monteverdi Choir, which a few years ago was voted the world’s best choir by Gramophone Magazine.
“I spent 10 years with them touring to all the major festivals and opera houses around the globe.
“We performed a lot of Bach and Handel, including in Bach’s church, St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. To sing the St John’s Passion with Bach’s tomb in front of you is quite a powerful thing.
“But I had a bit of a problem with this. We were flying around the world, doing four countries in a week, but towards 2016/17 I was wondering about legacy and what the point of this was. What was the footprint? What had we left there?
“And I realised I wanted to make East Anglia, and Suffolk and Norfolk in particular, the focus of my career. How could I help my place?
He set up a company - Come and Sing - with Elenor Bowers-Jolley, a fellow member of the Monteverdi Choir who lived in Downham Market in Norfolk.
“Together we decided we would like to try and bring communities in Norfolk and Suffolk together using music.
“We thought, what would happen if you brought together people from companies for instance - their CEO, factory manager and apprentices - all making music, a lovely team-building exercise.
“But most of our work was in the education field. We led the vocal strategy for Norfolk Music Education Hub for a while.
“It saw us take about 800 children from Norfolk to the Royal Albert Hall to perform in the Music for Youth Proms. We hired 50-plus coaches, that was amazing. Children from primary, secondary and SEN schools all performing. It was opening their eyes and helping to inspire them.”
Coming through the tough times of the Covid pandemic prompted another change in direction for Tom. One of his priorities now is helping other local musicians to stage projects and, as he puts it, make their dreams come true.
“In Covid the arts in particular were blacked out, and one of the first to be shut down and the last to reopen was where there were a lot of people singing together.
“The sector realised like never before the importance of the ecosystem and how we relied on so many different parts of the ecosystem to survive …. Including audiences.
“I benefited from support from people like Arts Council England and we were lucky to get some of the funding to keep our heads above water.
“About six months after the start of Covid I looked back at some stuff from the Arts Council with the criteria to gain funding - you had to have lost money and done public-funded work.
“Twelve musicians from Suffolk applied for the fund and six were successful. But were there only 12 (that met the criteria)?
“So I decided to set up Suffolk Freelance Musicians Network to help people with job applications, continuing professional development and networking.
“We have now grown to become the Norfolk and Suffolk Freelance Musicians’ Network with 800 members.
“As I have come out the other side of Covid I have continued the performing side of things, conducting and singing, but increasingly working as a consultant to help musicians connect with other people, build projects, and fundraise. I’ve also been acting as a producer.
“Tom Appleton Arts is my consultancy. The Freelance Musician’s Network is my shop window for that really.
“They can join the network for free, then they can employ me as a consultant.
“Say they want to apply to the Arts Council to put on a project, the process is very long winded and complicated.
“I can tell people what they need to build a project, and ultimately to try and make more work happen here in Norfolk and Suffolk.
“Some things (in the arts) are leaving London, the government decided it wanted to spread the money out. In Suffolk and Norfolk it is a way to grasp that opportunity.
“Trying to encourage people to move out to Suffolk and Norfolk and be part of the ecosystem is a good thing.
“It is really important that we have the wherewithal to put together high quality experiences. We need to have a viable workforce.
“I think of the arts as a lot like an orchestra. You need the viola player or trumpeter and stage management team, and they all have to be brilliant or it all falls apart. As a musician I need a massive amount of other things to do my work.”
He often conducts large educational projects around the county, “At the moment I’m working with an organisation who are working with 13 primary schools and they are all writing songs based on their local heritage.
“They have found stories in libraries and we have sent in a composer. Now we are bringing the schools together to perform at Snape Maltings. At the moment I am driving around the schools teaching them the songs.
“I love working with children - especially as I am now a father too, with a nine and a four year-old - and helping show people that the arts and singing are really valuable and good for you.
“I would hate to always be at Carnegie Hall. I would much rather be working at grass roots level and do that occasionally.
“I left the day to day running of the Come and Sing Company in April, but am still used by them for project delivery as and when they need me.
“I’ve sometimes toyed with not being a freelance, but it wouldn’t suit me. At my core I’m a project-based person. I love working with different people, not going to one place every day.
“Next year I have been asked to be a judge in the Abu Dhabi young musician of the year awards, through a guy out there who is director of music at an international school, who I have worked with before. That will be a fun and interesting thing to do.”
For more information go online to www.tomappletonarts.co.uk