If you’ve gone to the movies in the past 30 years or so, chances are you’ve also heard the melodic voice of Lesley Leighton, chair of CSUSB’s Department of Music and director of Conducting and Choral Activities.
Leighton, an acclaimed conductor and singer, has left an indelible mark on the world of film and television soundtracks. With a career spanning more than three decades, she has worked on more than 120 soundtracks and collaborated with prestigious orchestras and choirs, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Opera.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Leighton’s passion for music was nurtured by her mother, who played guitar in a band during her youth. At the age of seven, Leighton began piano lessons.
“I enjoyed it. I really liked music, obviously, and somewhere along the line – I can’t honestly remember when it happened – but my singing became more prevalent than anything else,” she recalled.
“As I got older and gained more experience, people were starting to recognize that my singing voice was unusual, so I started voice lessons. When I was 16, my mother enrolled me in private voice lessons. And then my parents encouraged me to go to college – it was an opportunity they didn’t have.”
A first-generation college student, Leighton attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU), launching her academic career as an undeclared major. “LMU had a well-known choir and a well-known conductor, so I auditioned for the choir, and found I really liked it. And the next thing I knew I was majoring in music,” she said. When she took her first conducting class, she found “I really, really liked it,” so much so that she earned her B.A. with a focus in conducting.
After graduating, she became a choir teacher in a high school, and “by the time I went to do my master’s, which was five years later, I had started studying with a different voice teacher, and my voice was really taking off classically.” She received a master of music degree in vocal performance at the University of Southern California (USC) and went on to audition successfully for singing positions with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and for the Los Angeles Opera.
Simultaneously, she ventured into the world of singing on film soundtracks, securing her first opportunity with the movie “Hook.”
Leighton’s film career quickly gained momentum, and with her exceptional sight-reading abilities and a voice well-suited for classical scores, she has contributed to numerous film and television soundtracks, including “Captain Marvel,” “Mulan,” “Frozen II,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” and the latest rendition of “The Lion King.”
In addition to her successful film career, Leighton has made significant contributions to the world of conducting. She has premiered more than 50 compositions by renowned composers and her talent as a conductor has been recognized by prestigious organizations, including the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC), where she served as the associate conductor for six years from 2010-2016. Of her many accomplishments, she said conducting the LAMC has been one of the most fulfilling.
“Conducting is probably my biggest wheelhouse,” she said. “I’ve also been able to conduct for the L.A. Philharmonic and for L.A. Opera. So as a conductor, those things are pretty fulfilling,” she noted. While at LAMC, she also earned a doctorate in musical arts from USC.
In 2016, Leighton joined CSUSB for one year as a visiting full-time guest lecturer and returned to campus in fall 2019 when she was offered a full-time, tenure-track position.
But the following spring, the pandemic necessitated campus closures, with no onsite classes. CSUSB’s student choirs, which Leighton directs, “were decimated,” she recalls. Only six students remained in the choir. “Who wants to take choir online? We came back in 2021 and for an entire year we were all wearing masks. That was rough – singing in choir when masked is hard.” Today, she says, “I’m building it back up,” and the number of choir students has grown to 31.
In 2022, she was appointed interim chair of the music department. The same year, she was named principal guest conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
“To be a good conductor, you have to have leadership qualities. You can’t lead anything if you don’t have that. You have to have an ability to make decisions. You have to have an ability to follow through, to create policies and procedures,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re leading. You have to have organization. I think the other thing as a conductor, beyond the leadership ability, you have to know what you want. You have to know how to get it, and then you have to be able to get it.”
The same qualities also apply to Leighton’s leadership role as interim chair. Her vision for the music department, which includes about 90 students, is to enhance its visibility both on campus and within the broader community. And, she has already established a brand new bachelor of music degree in conducting performance during her relatively short tenure.
While she recognizes the challenges of competing with universities that have more resources and more established music programs, Leighton’s focus is to provide students with guidance and support, ensuring they receive high-quality instruction to prepare them for their future careers, which, she notes, are typically in teaching or performance.
“The majority of our students are first-generation going to college. I was first-generation as well, so I certainly understand – my parents could not guide me. They had no idea what was involved. So, as a faculty member, you give guidance when the kids ask for it.
“My vision for the students is to see them graduate within four years. Sometimes that is not possible, but whenever it is, we encourage that and help them accomplish that.”