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.