In conversation with Rachel Mahon
Rachel, you are officially, from September 1st, the Director of Music at Coventry Cathedral. Many congratulations from SWO!
Thank you – I’m very excited about my new role!
Do you come from a musical family? What made you want to play the organ?
The short answer is, yes! My parents are both professional singers, so we were always surrounded by classical music growing up. My father conducts a few choirs in Toronto and my mother started a children’s choir years ago and was also my piano teacher. I have many siblings too and most of them sing professionally, although not all of them do it as their main career. I didn’t even think about playing the organ until I was a teenager, despite being a chorister in my parish church and hearing and singing with it every week. I went to an organ introduction workshop for children entitled, “Pedals, Pipes and Pizza” which is really where I first discovered more about the instrument. I thought how exciting it would be to play something like the Widor Toccata and, with a beginner’s scholarship from the RCCO, I started taking lessons from my choir director, Melva Graham, who gave me a very good technical foundation on which to start. She insisted that I work diligently to acquire a good pedal technique before progressing further and I am very grateful to her.
A lot of your training years were spent in your home country, Canada. Are there ways in which it is very similar to the training you would have had in the UK? And differences?
Yes, I think there are many similarities. I started with private lessons and very soon after I had an organ scholarship at St James Cathedral in Toronto where I learned by doing the job and observing the Assistant. At the University of Toronto, I was the organ scholar at Trinity College, which is modelled on Trinity College, Cambridge. In these ways, my training was very similar to any young organist’s over here. One difference might be my degree programme, which was four years long and performance based. I know that university music degrees vary widely here, but my degree incorporated academic subjects and also performance courses and opportunities. We had weekly performance classes where we had to play (whether we were ready or not!) for the other student organists. Luckily, it was a very supportive environment and also extremely useful as we used to try to meet on a different organ in the city every week. Perhaps another difference is that while I was a student at University, I was at the same time performing professionally and working in two or three different church jobs.
How much playing do you do in the Cathedral? Do you have enough time to practise on your own account? What forces make up the choirs at Coventry?
There is a girls’ choir, which currently stands at 36 members, a boys’ choir, the Choral Clerks and Scholars who provide our alto, tenor and bass parts, and the Cathedral Chamber Choir, which is an adult volunteer choir that sings a number of services in the year. I try to take time to practise every day, usually in the morning before I become distracted by anything else. I suspect I won’t have time to practise as much as I did in my role as Assistant, but I do want to play as much as possible, particularly because I do a lot of recitals. The lockdown has made me realise I really need to get some kind of practice instrument at home!
How has the lockdown of the past few months affected the music at Coventry? How concerned are you for the state of the choirs and music?
Like every other institution, it has been a struggle for the Cathedral financially. It will be a vastly different music department from the one which was abruptly shut down in March. There won’t be an Organ Scholar or Assistant Director of Music and I will be on reduced hours. I hope this is a temporary situation until the Cathedral can get back on its feet with some financial stability.
The last choral service in the Cathedral was mid-March and I haven’t seen or communicated with the choristers since then because I’ve been on furlough. I know that quite a number of our boys were heading for a voice change by the summer or were not expecting to return. It’s very worrying because while we do have approximately 13 probationers who began in February, there will likely be very few experienced boys left in the choir. I hope this won’t be the case, but I’m prepared if it is! None of the girls were due to leave at the beginning of the summer, so I am very optimistic about all of them returning. I hope we will be able to get back to rehearsing and singing in services at the beginning of September, but even if we can’t, there are creative ways in which we can make singing start to happen and I will do everything I can to get the music going again.
We talked of you becoming one of a small select group of organists who hold the number 1 position in an English cathedral, and there are many who believe that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists, especially when we reach the most senior of posts. Do you agree that is the case and, if so, do you have any thoughts about how we address it?
Nobody can deny that there is a huge gender imbalance between the organists at English cathedrals, but I don’t see this as a big problem. It was not always the case, but I think that the opportunities are available now for anyone, regardless of gender, who wants to pursue a career in church music. With so many cathedrals offering chorister opportunities to girls, and therefore more girls hearing and perhaps taking an interest in the organ, it’s only a matter of time before things become less skewed in the cathedral world. So, my answer is that we needn’t do anything directly to “address it”. We should simply be encouraging to young players, promote our instrument as widely as we can and reward and appoint based on skills/talent/suitability for the post.
You are also a member of the Duo Organized Crime – tell us about this! How did it come about? What sort of entertainment does it give? For you, is this work or relaxation?
I came up with Organized Crime Duo with my friend Sarah Svendsen while we were in university together. I love performing with her because it is so completely different from conducting an Evensong in an English cathedral. OCD is a comedic organ duo – our shows involve all genres of music, skits, costume changes and props. It definitely counts as work. I don’t think most people realise quite how much more difficult it is to play the organ while, at the same time, being funny and coordinating movements with another organist. On top of this, we co-write all our own shows and have to find a way to agree on costumes and musical interpretation. It is a labour of love though. We really enjoy working together (which usually involves dissolving into laughter far too frequently) and it makes a nice change to what we do in our day-to-day lives. Most recently, we toured our 90-minute show in Canada this past February and in the summer of 2019.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career to date? What would be your advice to girls and women learning the organ?
It’s hard to pinpoint what the most rewarding part has been because there have been so many! Working at St Paul’s Cathedral, which was a wonderful experience, and releasing my first solo album have to be at the top though. My advice is to work hard and don’t be afraid to go for your dream job. Also, practise keyboard skills!
Thank you Rachel for talking to SWO – we wish you all the best in your new post at Coventry.
Rachel Mahon is Director of Music at Coventry Cathedral, where she trains and conducts the Cathedral Choir and runs the music programme. She was Assistant Director of Music from 2018-2020 and prior to this, she was Assistant Organist at Chester Cathedral where she worked regularly with the Cathedral Choir.
Rachel was Organ Scholar at St Paul's Cathedral in London, England from 2014-2016, and made history as the first female organist on staff in its 1400-year history. As one of the full-time organists, she gave recitals and regularly played and conducted for services, working with the world-famous Cathedral Choir in the daily cycle of worship as well as services of National significance.
She combines life as a Cathedral musician with a busy international recital schedule. Recent and upcoming engagements include an opening concert for the Montreal Symphony; Royal Canadian College of Organists' National Convention 2016; Orgelsommer Festivals 2016 & 2017, Lüneburg, Germany; The Toronto Bach Festival 2018; Haderslev Cathedral, Denmark; and the Lichfield Festival. Rachel's debut solo album, featuring all Canadian music on the organ of Coventry Cathedral, was released to excellent reviews - it received five stars in Choir and Organ and was Gramophone Magazine Editor's Choice in March 2020.
Rachel has won numerous awards and competitions in Canada, including a graduating scholarship from the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto and the Godfrey Hewitt Memorial Scholarship from the Royal Canadian College of Organists. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Organ Performance from the University of Toronto, where she studied with Professor John Tuttle and since moving to the UK, she has studied with Henry Fairs at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Whilst pursuing her degree, Rachel was the Bevan Organ Scholar at Trinity College, Toronto, as well as the Principal Organist at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. She has also held organ scholarships at St James Cathedral, Toronto and Truro Cathedral, UK. In 2014, she was named one of the top 30 musicians under 30 in Canada by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
In 2012, Rachel and fellow organist, Sarah Svendsen, founded the duo Organized Crime and the two organists aim to entertain audiences with their music and crazy antics. The pair have toured across Canada many times and performed in the opening concert of the Montreal Organ Festival in 2017 and at the RCCO National Convention in Halifax in 2019. For details of upcoming shows and other information, visit organizedcrimeduo.com and rachelmahon.co.uk.