Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

What was your training as an organist?

I actually started the organ comparatively late! I had always loved taking up new instruments as a child – I really enjoyed the process of transferring skills between instruments and learning to think about sound from a different perspective depending on the instrument I was playing. I think it’s a little bit like languages – the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to pick up a new one. By the time I was about 15 I was studying at the Junior department of the Royal Academy of Music as a first study harpist (with joint 2nd study violin/viola/piano/composition/conducting…!), and was pretty set on a career as an orchestral harpist. I was starting to think about University vs Conservatoire and my mum asked if I had thought about taking up the organ so that I could apply for an organ scholarship. In a typically teenage fashion I rolled my eyes and said ‘don’t be ridiculous’, but I reconsidered when she mentioned that Oxbridge organ scholars get grand pianos in their rooms*. I was lucky that my dad was a school Chaplain and we lived on site at the school so had free access to the chapel and its organ. I started lessons with the school Director of Music, a wonderful man called Gareth Price. I didn’t warm to the instrument straight away– it was the first instrument I had encountered that I found truly difficult. All instruments have their challenges, but the rewiring of the brain required to coordinate hands and feet was something I found frustrating and unfamiliar.

A couple of years later I was starting to get the hang of it, although it still didn’t come anywhere near as naturally as my other instruments. I was thinking of applying for a small organ scholarship, playing for a couple of services a week so I could really focus on the harp. I went on the RCO Organ Scholar Experience course and met Magdalen’s Director of Music, who suggested I should consider applying there. I did, and ended up getting the scholarship, not quite realising what I was letting myself in for…! I turned up to Magdalen having only accompanied a choir on the organ once before, and having no real knowledge of standard choral repertoire despite my best efforts to familiarise myself over the summer. I really struggled at first because I was having to learn everything for the first time, playing for 8 services a week whilst doing a degree, and generally existing in a very unfamiliar world. I vividly remember being asked to go and pick up the Psalters from the song school mid rehearsal and having no clue what a psalter was – I was looking for something relating to salt…! I will also never forget spending hours learning a Mozart mass only to realise on the morning of the service that there was, in fact, more than one Mozart mass and I had learnt the wrong one. I was lucky that everyone was very patient with me as I floundered around – there were several moments in my first term when I very nearly decided to quit and just go and be a harpist, but at the end of that term I remember giving myself a stern talking to and deciding to try and turn things around. That vacation I stayed in College and just practised for 8 hours every day so by the time the next term started, I was up to the standard I should have been when I arrived. After that I was hooked.

* I never actually got a grand piano in my room…! I did have an organ, though, which I guess is just as good…

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

Weeks vary quite a bit depending on whether I’m in term or out of term. In termtime it’s pretty intense! I try to do four hours practice at the start of every day to get it done before emails and life admin take over – I tend to have that done by midday, and then on Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the day is filled with meetings and attempting to clear my email inbox…! Wednesdays are my busiest day – I get the train into college first thing and do my organ practice, then have a weekly meeting with our Chaplain before setting things up for the Girls’ Choir rehearsal. I rehearse the girls 4:15-6 and then conduct Evensong 6:15-7:15. I then wolf down some supper before our Chapel Choir rehearsal at 8pm, followed by Compline at 9:30. It took me a while to get used to having such a long day, but actually I tend to find working with the choirs renews my energy and I often can’t sleep on a Wednesday evening because I’m so overexcited by all the music! I rehearse the girls on a Thursday too, and then run a virtual rehearsal for the NHS choir that I set up with a friend over lockdown. Fridays tend to be for practice, admin and meetings, and every couple of weeks I’ll be in London to give a concert or record something for radio. I try and keep Saturday as a full practice day, but will often do some individual work with members of the Chapel Choir ahead of our Sunday services. Sundays are then busy again – rehearsing at 9:15 and playing for Eucharist at 10:15, followed by the highlight of the week: the Pembroke College brunch (featuring the best hash browns in Cambridge)! I use the gap between services to blitz my emails (so many emails…) and prepare the music for Evensong. We rehearse from 4, and then sing Evensong 6:15-7:15. I try and keep Sunday evenings as my evening off and when I get home at about 9 I tend to curl up on the sofa with something mindless on Netflix. I recently moved out of Cambridge so I now have a 20 minute train journey with a 20 minute walk at each end – I actually really value this time to create some separation between work and home.

Outside of term my schedule can vary hugely! I tend to fill that time with concerts, presenting and leading courses. In the summer I travel quite a bit and lead music workshops all over the place – I’m not very good at sitting still! I do always have a couple of days after the end of term where I just let myself do absolutely nothing other than go on long walks, nap, and watch TV. I’m certainly at my happiest when I’m rushing around the place making music in lots of different contexts and getting to have musical dialogues with lots of different people. Admin isn’t my strong point, but it’s unavoidable – having 3 different careers (DoM, broadcaster, organist) means three times the number of emails and sometimes it drives me a little mad, but it’s always worth it by the time I get into the rehearsal room.

Why did you become a member of SWO? What do you most value about the Society?

I think increasing the visibility of female organists is so important, and so when Ghislaine(Reece- Trapp) told me about SWO I jumped at the chance of being involved. I think even now there is a misconception that there aren’t that many female organists, but just taking a glance at the SWO members page shows that really isn’t the case. I wish that I had had a support network like SWO when I was starting out as an organist, and I really do think it’s our responsibility to help prepare, nurture and support the next generation of organists as best as we can. I say that fully aware that I’m still in that generation…!!

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 definitely still an imbalance although I think really positive steps have been made in recent years. A look at the current crop of school-age organists shows a really encouraging number of strong female organists, and we are definitely seeing more women applying for Cambridge organ scholarships. I think where the imbalance still exists is in high profile positions/recitals – for example, 3/5 of the Oxbridge choral foundations still haven’t had a female organ scholar. This is a tricky one as it can be partly due to female organists self-selecting themselves out of a position because they think they aren’t good enough. I always say to any perspective organ scholar that if they really want one of the top scholarships they should try for it no matter what they think of their own playing! The worst that can happen is they are allocated somewhere else. I also think that we as Directors of Music need to be aware that female organ scholar applicants have often come to the instrument later and are less likely to have grown up with the repertoire. I don’t think we should let that hold us back from appointing people, even if it feels like a bit of a risk. I was lucky - Magdalen took a massive risk in appointing me, trusting that I would work hard enough to get myself up to speed. I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today had they not taken that risk. It’s obviously a delicate balance – we also have a responsibility not to push young people beyond their limits.

The other area where I think the imbalance is most keenly felt is in the organists booked for recitals. Again, I feel progress is being made, but I still frequently see series publicised which are comprised entirely of white men. This is just lazy in my view – it’s really not hard to ask yourself the question ‘have I booked any women, and if not, why not?’. I feel the same about diversity in music lists – I just don’t think there is any excuse to have a music list entirely made up of music by dead white men, and I think the few places that continue to do that are really missing out on a wealth of repertoire!

Do you think your career would have developed differently if you had been male or does your gender make no difference?

I have no doubt that my career would have been very different if I were male. Personally, I’ve found being a female organist a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m acutely aware of the fact that my gender has made me memorable and has perhaps made me stand out more than my male counterparts. The push for equality in programming means I know I’ve been booked for things because of my gender (particularly at the start of my career), and it has given me some incredible opportunities. On the other hand, I feel I’ve had to fight harder to prove that I am actually a capable organist. To generalise, I think female organists are assumed to be not particularly good, with amazing players such as Gillian Weir seen as the exception instead of the rule. I think we have to fight hard against perceptions of positive discrimination equating to an easy ride- it’s so easy for people to say ‘oh she only got that concert/job because she’s a woman’, completely ignoring the hours and hours of work that still go into it. I might get one gig because I’m female, but my hope is that I’ll play well enough in that concert to get five more based on my playing, not my gender. It’s hard not to let those comments get to you, and it gets harder as the opportunities get bigger. Someone recently asked me to my face if I was worried that one of these days I was going to be caught out and people were going to realise I wasn’t as good as they thought I was. We all experience ‘self-doubt & imposter’ syndrome as musicians, so then to have people actively reinforcing those feelings can be really, really tough – but you learn to develop a thick skin!

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

I get frustrated when I hear men being cast as the enemy in discussions surrounding gender equality. My experience has been that most men are actively trying to do the right thing and want to be included in the conversation, not pushed to one side. How are they to know how they can help if they aren’t part of the conversation? This is why I think it’s so fantastic that SWO has male members too. I also get frustrated when women (or men!) are overly aggressive in their approach, making absolutely everything a question of gender. In my experience this never works, and just breeds resentment and fear of saying the wrong thing. I think the most productive conversations surrounding gender equality are calm, honest and involve listening just as much as talking.

I really hope we will reach a time when it’s not necessary to define an organist by their gender, but at the moment I think shining a light on female organists plays a crucial role in helping encourage young girls to consider taking up the organ, and to embolden and inspire those who already play. I think it’s so important to demonstrate that we do exist, we can play the organ, and we deserve our seat at the table for our musicality, not because of what appendages we do or don’t possess.

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

It’s a slow process but I think it will happen in time if we continue to encourage and support young female organists. Developing the skills necessary for these leadership positions means climbing the ladder slowly, learning as an organ scholar and then perhaps an assistant organist. Again, I’m aware that Pembroke took a risk in appointing me as I didn’t have any prior experience of running a music department – I realise not all institutions are able to take that kind of risk, and not every DoM position can allow you to learn on the job in the way I did. I think all we can do is try and prepare young organists for that kind of job as best as we can – give them plenty of experience in front of a choir, make sure they have a good knowledge of the repertoire, and build up their confidence so that they might consider applying for one of those jobs when the time is right.

You have many strings to your bow – concert organist, College Director of Music, broadcaster, transcriber, entrepreneuse, web designer (as in the SWO website) - anything else?!? Is there a favourite role or do you enjoy them all equally? How do you manage to allocate time effectively?

Allocating time is always really difficult. As I mentioned earlier, I always try and make sure organ practice is the first thing I do each day. It isn’t always possible, but I find I really benefit from carving out that time – music absolutely has to come first. I tend to have a specific focus for any given week – if I have a big concert coming up I know that admin will have to take a back seat and my practice time will increase. If I’ve just done a concert, I lighten off on the practice a little bit and catch up with whatever tasks I was meant to do the previous week and neglected thanks to practice…! I genuinely enjoy all my roles equally – they all stretch me in different ways. People often ask me how I don’t get absolutely exhausted doing so many things – I think the trick is that every different role feels like a break from the others. When I’m recitalling, it’s a break from the people-management necessary to be a DoM; when I’m conducting the choirs it’s a break from the pressure of being a solo performer; when I’m broadcasting it’s a break from everything else. Every now and then I do just have to stop completely and have a total break – about once every three months…! Most of the time the adrenaline keeps me going.

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

Aim high, feel, don’t think, and do it for yourself, not for anyone else.

The first one is self-explanatory – don’t limit yourself by assuming you’re not good enough for something! Feel, don’t think – this was a big one for me recently. The organ is such a theoretical instrument and there’s a great deal to think about from a mechanical perspective – pistons, boxes, etc. Practice is the chance to really think about these processes, but when it comes to the performance, I try and let feeling & musicality dominate instead. I would far prefer to give a compelling and musical performance with one missed piston than give an absolutely perfect performance that had no feeling. Do it for yourself, not for anyone else. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about negative comments – someone will almost always disapprove of something you do, whether it’s a musical decision, a concert programme or wider career choices. Don’t waste your energy trying to please everyone – if you know you’ve made those decisions for the right reasons, that’s enough.

As one of your “followers” in facebook, I have learned lots about you e.g. that you can never have too many plants and that your dog likes toast!! Would you argue that using social media is a vital part of the modern performer’s toolkit?

100%! I could talk about this for hours, but will try and keep it brief… I think social media is such an important tool to help us bring the organ to more people. Classical music organisations are always banging on about trying to reach young people and get them into concert halls – in my view, if we’re going to create real change we need to take classical music to young people instead. Where do young people spend most of their time? Social media! We need the organ (and classical music more generally) to be something they might stumble across on their news feed, not something they have to actively go out and seek. There’s an organist on TikTok called Wesley – he has over 27,000 followers, and posts videos explaining how the organ works. His followers aren’t organists -they are just people who are fascinated to learn about an instrument that is pretty mysterious to most people. An organ video I posted a couple of months ago got 2.8 million views on TikTok – that’s a far greater reach than we could ever hope for in ‘real life’. Our annual Bach-a-thon is another good example – last year’s event reached over 240,000 people on Facebook and allowed us to bring together a community of organists from all over the world.

I think there is still quite a lot of snobbery surrounding use of social media – assumptions that if you post frequently, you’re self-obsessed, no matter what those posts are about. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, and I also respect those people who have decided social media just isn’t for them. I think we would be foolish, though, to ignore the potential of social media to do good and create real change in the demographic engaging with classical music. Personally, I always try and make sure anything I post is going to do one of four things: educate, inspire, celebrate the talent of others, or make someone smile. Dogs and plants tend to fall into that last category…!

What has been the highlight of your Organ Career so far?

A recent highlight was doing my first concerto – I recorded the Poulenc organ concerto with the London Chamber Orchestra and Chloé van Soeterstède at St John’s Smith Square, and it was one of the most wonderful musical experiences of my life. Being an organist can be quite a lonely thing – you tend to be completely alone on the concert platform, often invisible to the audience. In this case, I was still quite a long way from the other musicians but had an earpiece so I could hear the orchestra as if they were next to me. It felt like chamber music! I think one of the reasons I loved it is because it reminded me of the thrill I used to get playing orchestral harp – there’s nothing quite like the electricity of making music in a large group, all breathing and moving together.


Anna Lapwood is a conductor, organist, and broadcaster, and holds the position of Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Performing recitals on some of the world’s greatest organs each season, Anna is releasing her debut solo album this year on Signum Records. The album will feature her transcription of Britten’s ‘Four SeaInterludes’. As a radio broadcaster she is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, and until July 2020 she hosted a live, weekly classical music show on Radio Cambridgeshire. She has also been featured on Classic FM and presented for Scala Radio.

Increasingly in demand as a guest conductor, she has also directed the BBC Singers as part of the Proms Inspire programme and has led choral workshops around the world. A strong advocate for music education at home and abroad, she specialises in bringing music to children from impoverished backgrounds. As a Trustee of the Muze Trust, a charity committed to making music accessible to children and young adults in Zambia, Anna works in Zambia regularly and leads the Muze-Pembroke Music Exchange Programme. When the Covid-19 Pandemic put a stop to much of Anna's work in this area overseas, she focussed her efforts closer to home, founding & conducting the NHS Chorus-19, a virtual choir made up of over 1000 NHS staff from across the UK.


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.

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.