Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.




Tom, do you come from a musical family? What was your training as an organist?

Music and organs have always been part of the background to my life, as my father is an organist. His Dad also played, and my Mum had lessons at one stage too! I had piano lessons and sang from a young age. My father acquired a digital practice instrument when I was about 10 and the rest is history! I was lucky that the organ in our local church was a good one, and I gravitated to that pretty quickly. I started having lessons at Liverpool Cathedral with Ian Wells; always on the small organ in the Lady Chapel, but also always immediately after Saturday evensong where I would hear Ian Tracey unleash the mighty Willis. Inspirational! As an aside, the point to note here is that I had easy access to an instrument/instruments. Access is a huge barrier to creating new organists.

My family moved to Kent when I was 12, and after having organ lessons at Canterbury Cathedral with Michael Harris I was awarded an organ scholarship to St Edmund’s School, where the Cathedral Choir go to school, so it has a strong musical tradition and a chapel with organ. Had it not been for this specific opportunity (i.e. a big scholarship) my parents would never have contemplated sending me to an independent school, yet it was a move which made a huge difference. There was lots of time to devote to music-making, tuition from Andrew Bryden and Ian Sutcliffe at school, and the opportunity to head to London sometimes for lessons with Ann Elise Smoot, every one of which I remember vividly! I could list the pieces I played to Ann Elise, and tell you what she said, and how I still draw on her musical wisdom to this day. Again, in writing all this down I find myself reflecting on how lucky I was to have access both to instruments and teachers of quality. I had so much support and encouragement …and fun!... I used to be able to knock on David Flood’s door in the Cathedral precincts, ask for the key to the Cathedral, let myself in, and let fly on the Cathedral organ.

At the prompting of Ian Sutcliffe, the Director of Music at my school, I attended a few Oundle courses, at one of which I met Kevin Bowyer. This fired an emerging interest in modern music. As I reached the end of my A’ levels I knew I wanted to play the organ professionally, but wasn’t sure what route to take. I happened to discover that Kevin taught at the RNCM. Bingo! So I went there, after a gap year Cathedral organ scholarship. I remember taking my audition repertoire for a lesson with Ann Elise at St Matthew’s Westminster and she transformed my playing of the classical French piece I had prepared. I probably owe her a drink.

Study with Kevin at the RNCM was supplemented by trips to Amsterdam or Haarlem to study with Jacques van Oortmerssen. I used to walk into the St. Bavo, note the hoards of tourists gawping in disbelief at the organ case, then stride west, opening the organ door with a flourish. I hope they all noticed.


Describe a typical week for you. What gives you the most satisfaction?

I have always been freelance, and I am not sure there has ever been a typical week. Playing the organ is absolutely central, and my patterns of work are dictated by what concerts I might have coming up, what projects I am working on etc. When I lived in London, I also did a fair bit of teaching, and had a wonderful church job. These days I live in the wilds of the Pennines – cities aren’t for us - and playing is still the central feature of my week. Ideally, I have a couple of days or more which are entirely days of practice and study, or almost entirely. This is especially enjoyable now I have a little Robin Jennings pipe organ in my home. The other regular features of the working week include my role as a Regional Director of the RCO (about a day a week) and organ consultancy. The latter ebbs and flows, and my most recent completed project was the relocation of the Susi Jeans organ to a girls’ school in Warwick.

I enjoy all of it, and especially the playing. Modern music still fires my imagination, but I like to explore the repertoire widely and try as far as I can to tailor programmes to instruments as opposed to repeating things. Sometimes this is easier than other times. On the music desk at the moment is a W. T. Best arrangement of a Handel concerto, some Frescobaldi, and a LOT of Messiaen. Variety is the spice of life!

Beyond work, I like doing a lot of things. I volunteer on the engineering team of a steam locomotive - a big, loud, fast, blue engine named Sir Nigel Gresley. I garden, cook, climb hills and am a trustee of (and volunteer at) a local community charity which via gardening, a café, and multiple other activities works with people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or who are recovering from addiction.

Above all I love hanging about with my wife Nikki, new son Rowan – who is busying himself in his baby bouncer as I write – and cat, Bucket (who at this moment is staring out of the window. Again).


Why did you become a member of SWO?

Technically, I didn’t join SWO! As the society was in the process of being founded I was invited to be one of the patrons, at which I was completely stunned and delighted. Before then, having heard that SWO was being created, I was at first worried because there are already far too many groups within the organ world. But the point of SWO is not to create another group per se, rather to raise an issue and encourage change. This is so important, and I would have joined anyway had I not been invited to become a patron first.


Many argue that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists. Do you agree or is this question becoming less and less relevant to ask? Where there is a noticeable imbalance, how might we address it?

There is no question that, at a professional level, there is a huge gender imbalance and the question is more relevant now than ever. The hope that Cathedral girls’ choirs would magically create a substantial generation of female professional organists has long since been dashed. It seems to me that there is a flaw in the way we – I include myself in this - recruit and teach young people; perhaps it is inevitable that I communicate in a way which is best suited to boys, so I need to find a way of addressing this. Via Pam Hulme, SWO is involved with a recruitment day planned in Newcastle later this year (we hope!); we will be at pains to structure the day in a way which encourages girls to play.

It isn’t just about the young people though. Of the many village organists I taught in Kent over several years, the men often were members of local organists’ associations, BIOS or the RCO. Rarely was this the case with the women. My feeling was that the number of female organists I was encountering was not markedly lower than the number of men. The number of female organists connected with the wider organ world was substantially lower though. This is a problem.


Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for? What is your advice to someone campaigning for gender equality?

The frustration is that this is an issue at all. I detect in recent times clear moves in a positive direction, and a genuine desire to do the right things. It’s pretty late coming, but it is encouraging.

I don’t think it is my place to give advice to those who campaign, except to say that I think the approach SWO takes – constructive, firm, articulate, respectful, gracious – is excellent and effective.


Do you notice any difference in ambition when comparing your young male and female students?

Many of my students over the years have been female, possibly as many as half, most of whom were adults playing for their own pleasure or at their local church. Amongst my younger students the balance was less even, and of those who have gone into the profession the number of female students is yet smaller. I have had a number of ambitious students, male and female, of all ages, and I hope I have served them well. The fact remains though that, if we are talking about young people who have then headed out into the professional musical world, the vast bulk of students I have encountered (my own students, or students on RCO or Oundle courses) have been male. Is that a difference in ambition or a failure in teaching?


Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What can we do to change this?

Better recruitment and – crucially - retention of young women at amateur and professional levels would bring about change; addressing the huge gender imbalance on the membership rolls of our various organisations would also make an impact. Very few IAO associations are led by women, for example, and the leaderships of the RCO, BIOS etc are largely male. Likewise the teaching teams in our Conservatoires and Universities are largely male. We need more female role models, more female voices. This is, in fact, a bewilderingly big problem.


As a Patron of SWO, what do you most value about the Society?

Lack of representation in our sector was something which was occasionally talked about quietly, accompanied either by hand-wringing or guffaws. No longer. SWO have contributed positively to an environment in which representation is considered regularly at the highest levels. There is open acknowledgement that we Must Do Better. It is a big hill to climb, but we are climbing.

Personally, I enjoy the presence of many long-standing friends, colleagues and students in the membership of SWO and – via these Spotlights for example – the opportunity to learn a little about people I do not know.


What can SWO do, and what can we all do, to further gender balance in the organ world in a positive, collaborative way?

I’d like to think that if the SWO-RCO-NDSO event in Newcastle works well, the concept can be used elsewhere. That alone would be a great thing.

We need to pay attention and learn from successes and failures. I remember directing a beginners’ course for Oundle where the gender balance of the students was 50/50. This was sufficiently unusual to elicit a lot of comment. But why did that happen? Was it a fluke? Was there a lesson to learn? Could that have been achieved again via targeted marketing? Were the girls present adequately catered for? Did a 50/50 gender balance of those students continue to play the organ in following years, or did more girls drop out than boys? I don’t have the answers. I fear that at the time I just thought “how lovely, more girls than usual!” and left it at that. What an idiot!

Taking great care to present female role models at every opportunity is also important – at the RCO we need to get better at that, for example. As Artistic Director of the London Organ Day I have tried to engage and promote female practitioners, though I am prepared to admit the average gender balance on that platform is not 50/50. Some years it is, and once it was better than this, so the average is climbing…


What would your advice be to girls and women learning the organ?

Stick at it! Join SWO! There might not be as many female role models as male ones – we must be honest about that – but they are there.


So finally, going back to your organ career, what have been the highlights so far?

So many! Playing Volumina on the Naumburg Hildebrandt – they asked for an unusual programme and got it. My assistants and I had an uproarious time. Performing with a beatboxer and a Hammond organist in the Radio 1 Live Lounge (albeit on Radio 3!) My on-going involvement with the wonderful, fascinating Orgelbüchlein Project, especially the huge performances in Amsterdam and Erfurt. The reopening of the RFH organ in 2014. I played twice, and the public and press attention the festival received was enormous. I actually turned down an interview on a major radio programme, in connection with one concert, because I had a rehearsal for the other! Seeing hundreds and hundreds of primary school children being enthralled by the organ on various education projects. Recording William Bolcom’s extraordinary Black Host for organ, percussion and tape, on the even more extraordinary organ at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook. It appears on a recording named Freak Out! to be released by Regent soon. Buy it! (Please). At the moment I am engaged with two projects which I am loving: exploring Victorian performance practice as embodied by the likes of W.T.Best, via traditional scholarly research – I am writing some journal articles at the moment – and via performance, including the creation of a sort of musicological steampunk mash-up called The Best Experience, where I perform in costume. This I hoped to launch in 2021 but the plague has delayed that. Similarly, my other project (Messiaen, Livre du Saint Sacrement, initially for performance in the Grand Organ Festival at Westminster Cathedral) has been delayed, but I am enjoying playing the music to myself for now, at least! I have a Messiaen Vlog on the RCO YouTube channel, which is an outlet for this too.


Thank you, Tom, for talking to Spotlight!






Tom Bell’s playing has been described as “invigorating” (Sunday Times), “compelling” (Organists’ Review) and “brilliant” (American Record Guide). He has built a vibrant international portfolio of work as performer and educator which has taken him across Europe, to Asia, the USA and Australia. Tom is known as an innovator having worked with beatboxers, visual artists, poets, folk musicians and dancers, and his work has been broadcast worldwide. Current projects involve music by Messiaen, and nineteenth century editions of Bach. His educational activities are centred on work with the Royal College of Organists; he is equally at ease leading workshops for children or teaching the next generation of professionals. His students have held prestigious scholarships in the UK. Tom is Artistic Director of the London Organ Day, studied with Kevin Bowyer, Jacques van Oortmerssen and Ann Elise Smoot, and lives in the north of England.


tombell-organist.net

Katherine Dienes-Williams became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral in 2008, after holding positions at several other UK Cathedrals




Welcome to Spotlight, Katherine! You are well known as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral and the first woman to have been appointed to a Church of England Cathedral post in the UK. Your biography shows a highly successful career. And recently you have become a Patron of SWO, for which many congratulations! Do you come from a very musical family?

My mother and father were not particularly musical but had a great appreciation of music, and it was my maternal grandfather who decided that I had some musical interest and purchased a piano for me. My parents’ library student (they were both librarians) lived nearby so every Saturday I was sent off for a piano lesson from the age of seven, and then auditioned for and graduated to a new piano teacher with whom I continued right through university. I began to play the organ at the age of seventeen in my last year at secondary school, having been fascinated by the instrument for a long time. I can define two moments of note – one in Helsinki Cathedral age 10 (we were on a very exciting family holiday / business trip when my parents took me out of school for three months and we travelled around Europe) I sat and listened to the organ being played and was so entranced I refused to leave – as a result of which we missed a train! The second moment was at my parish church in Wellington, New Zealand, where the actual console was set in a ‘pit’ and you could peer over the edge of the pews and watch the organist playing the voluntary – this was very exciting. My secondary school had a scholarship for a girl to learn to play the organ which had never been taken up (this was in the 1980s which, looking back, seems a wonderful thing – how many secondary schools in the UK offer such a scholarship even now?) and it was offered to me at the end of Year 9 – but I didn’t take it up at that point as I wanted to concentrate on and complete my piano studies to diploma level – which I did by the age of 16 – Year 12. As my Year 13 began in January of 1987 I began lessons and at the end of a year sat for and passed my diploma in Organ, had successfully auditioned for the new post of Richard Prothero Organ Scholar at Wellington Cathedral, New Zealand and auditioned successfully to read Performance Music at Victoria University alongside my BA in Modern Languages! In New Zealand, I was able to combine studying for two degrees at the same time, cross crediting a third of each degree to the other. I left school with a French government prize and was heading down a career path of teaching or indeed civil service in the direction of the Foreign Office, until my clear love of the organ sent me off in another direction entirely!


Why did you come to England (straight away to Winchester?)

I came to England having successfully auditioned for the post of Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral combined with Assistant Organist at Winchester College. This followed my attendance at an RSCM Summer School in Auckland, New Zealand in the summer of 1989 where I encountered the Director of the summer school, Dr. David Hill. David encouraged me to think about coming to England to study and I knew I was travelling there in August 1989 for a family holiday so I asked if I could have a lesson with him – at the end of which he told me I had improved so much in six months he wanted me to consider auditioning for the organ scholar post in Winchester – which I duly did and was appointed!


What does a typical week look like nowadays?

A typical week (in non pandemic times) revolves around rehearsals, services and administration – not necessarily in that order! The day begins with a drive to the choir school for morning boy chorister rehearsals, replete with boxes and folders of music – which then have to make a return journey to the Cathedral. Then straight to the office to begin the administrative work and rounds of meetings involved in Cathedral life. At some point, if I’m lucky, I may get to practise the organ, although this is more often likely to be at 9 p.m. on a given night. There may be a return trip to the choir school for a meeting or to teach theory, a trip to a school to recruit or, for example, to judge a music competition or to teach an organ pupil, or an evening teaching an organ pupil. After school on a Tuesday and Thursday the boy choristers arrive on site by bus to sing Evensong at 5.30 p.m. with the lay clerks – the lay clerks sing Evensong by themselves on a Monday after which I dash down to Winchester to conduct the chamber choir ‘Southern Voices’. On a Tuesday evening as the boy choristers leave the girl choristers arrive for their two hour rehearsal. Wednesday is a day off. The girls and layclerks sing Evensong together on a Friday. Saturday can be a concert day, a workshop day, a recital day or, rarely, a free day. Sundays can be a two or a three service Sunday. There is a great deal of administration around running music in a Cathedral – everything from cassocks to safeguarding, from forward planning to recordings. The joy remains in making music, however.


Congratulations on becoming a patron of SWO! Why did you become a member of SWO? What do you value about SWO?

I became a member of SWO because I realise the vital work that needs to be done to encourage and inspire young women to play the organ. If I can be a role model to them in that respect, that is hugely important. I feel it is important not just to be a visual role model but to assist and encourage them on their own journeys – to be enablers for the next generation and open and available to teach, to offer performance opportunities and to answer questions.


Many have argued in recent years that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists - statistics on the SWO website underline this. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?

In 1983 in New Zealand I was given the chance to have organ lessons through a scholarship available to me at my (independent) girls’ school. Where are the schools and the scholarships for this to happen in the UK? Why is the organ not taken seriously as a musical instrument learning option across all schools in all sectors? Many children will never get to see or hear this instrument in their lifetimes and that is a tremendous shame as even to see or hear it can captivate a young child. How many of us training choirs of children tell all our choristers that they can learn the organ? How many of us try to sow small seeds in our local schools continuously to offer the organ as an instrument? We are far off many of these targets – but we are on a journey!


You are an excellent example of a woman who has been successful in the world of cathedral music but comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What do you think might be done to change this? Have there been instances when your being a woman rather than a man has been a decided help? – or a hindrance?

Women need to ensure they have the necessary musical and interpersonal skills to take on leadership roles and work towards that constantly even when in post. We need to bring people alongside and encourage each other. There are many different opportunities to take on leadership roles in the organ world – not just in Cathedral and collegiate church posts. Teaching is vital. Recitalists are vital. Parish church organists are vital. Organists playing with orchestras are vital. The more we can share our skills and spread them, the greater success women will have in the profession. I have been asked to take part in recitals featuring women as performers so I guess that’s a help in promoting all female organists. I have also been asked to take part in various committees as the female representative so I guess that’s a help by my being able to bring my voice, and the voice of so many others to the table.


Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for? What advice would you give to organists and people campaigning for gender equality?

Focus on the journey – not a fight. Across society there are structures and laws protecting you. If you don’t succeed, do not use your gender as an excuse – reflect, learn. Fail, fail again. Learn to laugh at yourself (this is crucial). Set high standards and goals and live them out. Be the role model you can be – inspire by your leadership, strength and positivity. Listen. Be prepared to go last. Leave no one behind. True effort and hard work reap rewards which cannot be argued against. Be positive in all things - enthusiastic and encouraging. The question ‘why not’ should be affirmed positively – ‘of course we can’! Find the joy in your music making.


Do you think it’s a good idea to have women-only programmes?

Recently I received an email from an A level student doing an extended essay project on female composers for the organ. Despite knowing and performing some works, I felt this was the email I needed to spur me into action. I became curious (during lockdown 3) about this subject and began to read and research it a little – although I know I have only scratched the surface. I promptly bought some new music (lockdown is dangerous for that!) and began to learn many new pieces immediately.


What are the highlights of your career so far? Plans for the future?

Highlights include wonderful music making at Winchester Cathedral with David Hill and David Dunnett, being able to travel the world and play some fantastic instruments in recital, meeting some wonderful people all over the world all trying to make music and bring joy to others, choir tours, recordings, live broadcasts (most especially the most recent live broadcast from Guildford Cathedral Choir following lockdown one when we met for two weeks then sang live on BBC Radio 3 in September 2020), letters of thanks, 24 hour Organathons, celebrating the successes of organ students. Conducting the first ever girls’ voices Evensong broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral, working in dioceses with ordinands and the RSCM, being awarded an FRSCM and a FGCM, meeting composers and performing their music, conducting J S Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’, teaching choristers and organ pupils – just all of it. I feel very blessed as I have been able to follow my dream. The future will be whatever comes but I have so much more music to give and to share and so much more to learn!


What would be your advice to girls learning the organ? (no.1 Join SWO!)

Go for it! Reach out and talk to people. We can and will help. No question is too silly to ask. We all began in the same place. Join SWO where you will find a team of like-minded individuals to answer your questions and encourage you. Take part in as many experiences as you can.




Katherine Dienes-Williams, MA, BMus, FRCO, LTCL, Hon. FRSCM, Hon. FGCM was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral in January 2008 following six years as Director of Music at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary, Warwick. She is also the Musical Director of the Winchester-based chamber choir, Southern Voices.

Katherine was born and educated in Wellington, New Zealand and studied for a BA in Modern Languages and a BMus at Victoria University, Wellington. Katherine was Organ Scholar at Wellington Cathedral from 1988 to 1991 when she was appointed Assistant Organist there.

Katherine came to England in 1991 as Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Organist at Winchester College. She has since held posts as Organist and Assistant DoM at the Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, Assistant Organist and Director of the Cathedral Girls’ Choir at Norwich Cathedral prior to moving to Warwick as DoM at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary.

She is a Council member of the Royal College of Organists and a trustee of the Organists Charitable trust and regularly asked to be a guest choral workshop leader for the Royal School of Church Music in the UK, South Africa, the USA, Canada and Australia. Katherine has given organ recitals in Europe, the US, and Australasia. and has performed as organ soloist with many major UK orchestras.

Katherine is married to Patrick Williams, and they have a daughter (Clare College Choral Scholar) Hannah.

Making Music in the Fens: Sarah MacDonald talks about her career as DoM at Selwyn College, Cambridge and Director of the Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral


Sarah MacDonald


What was your training to become an organist?

I grew up in a musical family in Canada—both my parents were professional singers, and my three younger brothers were cathedral choristers and/or violinists. I trained as a pianist, accompanying singers and violinists at home from a young age, and then as a teenager, I moved away to study as a soloist in what’s now called the Glenn Gould Professional School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where my teachers were Marek Jablonski and Leon Fleisher. In my spare time I sang in a number of adult mixed choirs (as a child, I hadn’t been allowed to sing in a cathedral choir, of course, since I was a girl). During this time, I became really interested in choral conducting, so the conventional next stop—which is odd, if you think about it—was to learn the organ. After studying for a year in Toronto with John Tuttle, I made the rash decision to apply for a Cambridge organ scholarship. Rather improbably, I was successful, and I spent three very happy years as Organ Scholar of Robinson College, studying with David Sanger. Robinson was ideal for me, since not only did it have a wonderful instrument (a 1980 II/26 Frobenius), and modern, new-world-friendly accommodation facilities, but also there was no resident Director of Music at the college, so I was effectively in charge of the choir and college music-making throughout my time as an undergraduate. It was an amazing training, and I am very grateful to the academics who took a chance on me as an overseas student with a very different background from the average Cambridge organ scholar.


What did you have to do for the Cambridge organ scholarship?

For the audition, we were required to play a Bach Trio movement, and do tests in sight-reading and transposition. We also had to take a short choir practice, and undergo academic interviews and written tests. I was very confident with the trio, the interviews, and the academic tests, and I absolutely loved the choir practice. As a trained concert pianist, however, transposition was a complete mystery to me, and was definitely a bit of a disaster in the audition. As for the sight-reading—I remember more than one of the academic-gown-clad men who were auditioning me taking me to a piano and asking me to play something to find out if I had any potential at all. I was completely at home at a Steinway, and played everything they put in front of me absolutely accurately. At the organ, however, where feet and stop-changes were involved, it was quite a different matter!


Describe a typical week for you.

Well, like everyone, at the moment a typical week consists of way too much time on Zoom seated at my kitchen table. In normal times though, I have quite a busy and carefully-constructed jigsaw puzzle of a week, which looks as below. I live in Cambridge, so commute to Ely, about 15 miles away, either by train/bicycle or in the car, depending on the weather.


Sunday – Ely + Cambridge

am: conducting in Ely Cathedral, otherwise playing in Little St Mary’s, Cambridge when I can

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn College Choir


Monday — Ely

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong followed by some organ teaching


Tuesday – Ely + Cambridge

am: girls’ practice at 0755; return to Cambridge to do some university teaching

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir


Wednesday – Ely (+ Cambridge in some weeks)

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong and sometimes travelling back to Cambridge for rehearsal at compline with Selwyn Choir


Thursday – Cambridge

admin and university teaching day ending with rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir


Friday – Ely + Cambridge

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, some weeks ending with evensong, other weeks travelling back to Cambridge to do university teaching


Saturday – my “day off” which inevitably consists of work: catching up with email; composition or writing (I am series editor for a major choral music publisher in the States, and a monthly columnist for the Ameri

can Organist magazine); very occasionally the luxury of some practising.

Selwyn Choir

Why did you become a member of SWO?

Anne Marsden Thomas and Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, the co-chairs of SWO, invited me to come along to the very first meeting, and I have been involved since then, first as a committee member, and now as a Patron. It has been fantastic to be able to watch the Society find its feet through the public launch and subsequent events, and I am delighted to be able to continue my support for the group.


There are those who argue that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists? Do you agree?

At the most elite levels in the UK, yes there is definitely an imbalance. The cathedral and Oxbridge world is rather like Michelin-starred chefs and Savile Row tailors—there are so many more men than women in both of those professions that people have been heard to say that it appears that the only thing that men can do better than women is cook and sew! I think at the parish/school level (as opposed to cathedral/university) the numbers are probably more equitable, and certainly in Canada and the States there is nowhere near the same imbalance. In Oxbridge, there are four female Directors of Music (one of whom isn’t an organist) out of about 45 DoMs; in the cathedral world there are about nine women in permanent positions, out of about 150 permanent staff across the country.


How should we address it?

I think by encouraging girls to play, and aiming for the highest levels that they can. And for those of us who are working at those levels to persevere and to maintain a high profile so that we are seen.


Do you think female and male organists are treated differently?

Probably not intentionally, but possibly accidentally. I think, for example, that male organists get more opportunities than their female colleagues because they happen to be mates with the right people. For example, when I see a poster advertising an organ recital series which includes only male players, I wonder whether someone just put the series together “down the pub” rather than actually going out of their way to construct and book a more balanced and representative list of recitalists. But I also wonder whether those doing the glitzy promo schemes for that sort of recital series even actually notice that it is so one-sided? The latest one I noticed was just last month: nine white men—it was a virtual series too, for obvious reasons, so surely booking one woman, or one non-white organist, would not have been difficult, since everyone was submitting their recitals to YouTube in their own time!


Do you think your career would have developed differently if you had been male?

No, I don’t think so actually—I think I am rather fortunate in that my “otherness” here is that I’m Canadian, rather than that I’m female. I have always thought it was interesting that of the tiny handful of women organists in permanent positions in UK cathedrals, such a high proportion of us are migrant workers from the Commonwealth, including Katherine at Guildford, Rachel at Coventry, Hilary at Chelmsford, and me at Ely. There are also a couple of high-profile Americans in important roles, including Ann Elise at Oundle and Katharine in Oxford.


Do you notice any difference in ambition when comparing your young male and female students?

No—the ones who want to do it and do it well will end up doing that regardless of their sex.


Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What can we do to change this?

We need to be patient. Equality will happen, but not for a few generations yet. Already just in the past few years there are more of us in cathedrals than there used to be—five years ago there were only four or five women in permanent positions, now there are nearly twice that. For my first 15 years at Cambridge, I was the only woman DoM; there are now three of us.


Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for?

Well, if I’m honest, I do worry when it becomes too obvious—I’m not always sure that is the most effective way to make the point. I think quietly getting on and doing one’s job as well as one can, and for a long period of time, is the way to gain the respect we need and deserve. To be fair, men don’t necessarily have to do this, but I think women do need to aim quietly to be the best, and in the long run that will contribute towards equality better than if we were to chain ourselves to the pipes or burn our organ shoes (if that’s the organist’s equivalent of a feminist rebellion). I believe it was the great Madeleine Albright who said “True equality will have been achieved only once there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men.”


What do you value about SWO?

The comradeship, the collegiality, and (not sure if I’m allowed to say this!) the notable lack of patriarchy!


The Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral


SARAH MACDONALD is a Canadian-born UK-based organist, conductor, and composer. She is Fellow and Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of Ely Cathedral’s Girl Choristers. She has been at Selwyn since 1999, and is the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge Chapel. Sarah studied at Toronto’s Glenn Gould School, and at Cambridge University, and her teachers were Leon Fleisher, Marek Jablonski, John Tuttle, and David Sanger. She has performed across the UK, North America, and mainland Europe, and is in demand as a conductor for international residential courses. She has made over 35 recordings, and her music is performed regularly throughout the world. She is a Fellow of the RCO, and writes a popular monthly column for ‘The American Organist’. Sarah recently received the honorary ARSCM in recognition of her work. She is a Patron of SWO, and an Honorary Patron of the Herbert Howells Society. In her spare time she is a keen photographer, and during 2020 she has also become an amateur film-maker.