Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

Morwenna Campbell-Smith, our SWO website designer, introduces The Lady Organist and explores ideas of gender equality.

I remember vividly, as a fourteen-year-old, deciding that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and a musician. I’ve taken a meandering route, but I’ve managed finally to achieve both these things.

I come from a large and musical family – in the sense that singing in choirs, listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, and playing the piano along with an instrument in the school orchestra were taken as a normal part of growing up. My mother taught us all the piano (vivid memories of her shouting F SHARP!! from the kitchen as we practised on the piano in the next room). We bickered over who would play the top part in piano duets, and all took grade exams. Music was not considered appropriate as a career, however, and when it came to a degree course I went to Oxford to read sciences.

After Oxford, along with many of my friends, I drifted to London. Having managed Oxford Theatre Group along with the Cambridge Footlights at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought arts administration was a world I might be comfortable in. I bought a house with my first partner, a professional orchestral manager, and, having to be frugal, started making curtains on the kitchen table: first for the house, then for friends, then for friends of friends who paid real money. And when my partner and I split up, I turned this into a business, which blossomed into an interior design and colour consultancy, a teaching career at one of London’s top design schools, and a move into interior design journalism and books.

So what happened to being a musician? Well, sometime just under ten years ago I was helping friends put on a concert in a small local church in North London, and the Vicar saw me eyeing the organ, and pounced. ‘Would you like to play it on the Patronal Day, because we don’t have an organist?’

I lurched that day through several hymns, trying to revive rusty keyboard skills and remember my homework on the difference between 8 foot and 4 foot stops. It was probably a pretty awful performance, but the church was delighted it now had an ‘organist.’ I was fully aware this ‘organist’ didn’t really know what she was doing: I needed some lessons. The internet told me about the RCO Summer Organ Course, and I nervously turned up at St Giles Cripplegate, along with 70 others who I assumed would all be immensely superior musical beings and show me up as the imposter that I obviously was.

I was wrong, of course; I was welcomed into the clan. Being an adult learner on the organ can be a painful process though, and you have to be prepared to make endless mistakes in public. I thought if I wrote about this other people in the same boat might be interested – and having joined a few organ clubs and societies, I also thought it was time to poke gentle fun at the male-dominated organ world, while still making it clear how much I now loved the instrument, its music, culture and traditions.

So THE LADY ORGANIST blog was born, the title being a proud reclaiming of the slightly demeaning label given, historically, to any woman who played the organ. And it got attention because there wasn’t anything like it at the time (and there still isn’t).

My approach to blogging was the same as to organ-playing, as is my advice when taking up anything you haven’t a clue about: just make a start, however shaky, learn as you go along, and doors will open. In 2015, as the Royal College of Organists took its operations online, I was asked to take on their own blog, StopPress. Five years later I now look after most of their publications: I curate iRCO, the RCO’s online campus, and am Editor of their twice-yearly print magazine, RCO News. This is a bit of a dream job for me – I get paid to write about what I’m most interested in, in the company of impressive colleagues. And looking after organists’ interests in the face of assorted current existential threats is essential work.

In fact, I love being amongst organists: folk who keep far too quiet about their amazing skills. I have a few nicely-honed dinner party anecdotes which I trot out to demonstrate to non-musical friends how extraordinary organists are: and I do think we ought to be less of a secret society and boast more – but maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe that’s where THE LADY ORGANIST comes in.

Seven years later and THE LADY ORGANIST has morphed into an international online magazine, and like all blogs it continues to shape-shift. It’s gone through several design changes (nothing dates as quickly as a website!) and my most recent focus has been on introducing reviews – of recitals, CDs, new music – and drawing attention to the re-imagining of the organ by contemporary musicians.

And the organ playing? - well, lessons with RCO teachers built a good enough technique and gave me enough self-confidence to put myself forward as Director of Music at St Mary’s, in Frittenden, Kent, as I moved here when Duncan and I got married three years ago. (More rusty skills to be dragged back to life – I now had a choir to train.)

I’ve never found not being a man stopped me getting where I wanted to be, though I continue to wince at the patches of misogyny and discrimination that I and female colleagues still encounter, and for this reason SWO is needed. The shocking statistics on the representation of women in the organ world that we highlight here on our website (available on the computer version of our website at the moment - but soon available on the mobile version) are, I believe, primarily historical, and are being overcome by women whose obvious talents and skills can no longer be ignored (you can’t fake being able to play the organ), along with a genuine desire to effect change within many responsible organisations.

There are still lazy and infuriating assumptions around what women can, or should, do, but I think back to my early teens, just before the Equal Opportunities Acts of the 1970s, when women couldn’t take out financial credit in their own name (a responsible man had to do it for them); when a self-employed woman was treated by the tax man as a trading entity of her husband; and when being what was described as ‘a career girl’ raised eyebrows, although it usually only involved getting a secretarial job before ‘settling down’ to have babies. When I started working in the music business in the 1980s orchestras were predominately male, with a culture of hierarchy based around the lordly (male) conducting maestro. (Women conducted choirs, but that didn’t count.)

The ‘second wave’ of feminism was needed, but now it is happening I think the genie is well and truly out of the bottle: it’s taken for granted now that an orchestra will be as female as male. Look at the headway women have made in just the past few years as conductors, composers, and in re-introducing the work of women composers to the mainstream concert repertoire. And women conductors are casting aside the old maestro culture, in favour of a more collaborative approach to making music.

My concern now is about the future in practical terms for the young women who are taking up the organ: particularly those outside the traditional church-and-organ-scholar route, who don’t go to church, and who may not want church positions, if indeed there were ones to be had. That we went to church on Sundays was unquestioned in my sort of childhood – and there’s no doubt it contributed hugely to my musical education. In an increasingly secular society however, the organ as an instrument needs a secular identity as well as its role in the church to survive and flourish. With our instrument primarily situated in churches there is much collaborative work to be done to ensure its survival as both a supporter of religious worship and as a concert instrument. It’s so sad that in this year we lost two great role models who were concert organists first and foremost: Jane Parker-Smith and Jennifer Bate. But I hope being a concert organist will be a career ambition open to all talented young organists in the future.

Morwenna’s CHURCH ORGANIST infographic was first published on Twitter in 2015, and has since appeared on church vestry noticeboards everywhere. She devised it to show how ‘just playing a hymn' requires multi-tasking skills approaching that of a fighter pilot.


Morwenna Campbell-Smith is Director of Music at St Mary’s, Frittenden, in the Weald of Kent. She was previously a choir leader and rota organist around many churches in North London, having retrained from pianist to organist as an adult. Morwenna’s website, THE LADY ORGANIST (www.theladyorganist.com), has an international following as does her Twitter feed @theladyorganist. As a music journalist she has written for Organists’ Review, and works for the Royal College of Organists as Editor of iRCO, their online learning campus, and Editor of their official blog StopPress, and RCO News.

Website www.theladyorganist.com

Twitter @theladyorganist https://twitter.com/theladyorganist

In conversation with Gerdi Troskie, highly respected organist, teacher, and infectious enthusiast of historically informed performance.

Welcome to Spotlight, Gerdi and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. You now live in Worcester with your husband (Andrew McCrea, Deputy Chief Executive of the RCO) and your teenage son and daughter. To begin this conversation, do tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to play the organ. Do you come from a musical family?

I grew up in a very musical family. My mother’s father was an organist and music lecturer at the University of Cape Town and my mother was a primary school music teacher and choir mistress. My father has worked in music education all his life and was Head of Music at the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa until his retirement about 20 years ago. Since I can remember, my father has held posts as organist in several Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa. As a family we went to services every Sunday and joined the church choir. My father still plays the organ in his local church. He founded the South African Church Organists Association (SAKOV) 40 years ago. The aim of this Association was to promote communication between organists across the country, to improve church musicianship and liturgy in the Dutch Reformed churches and to support the education of young organists. This work is still ongoing.


Presumably, you began by learning to play the piano? Did you learn any other instruments at school?

I started learning the piano at the age of 9 and the organ around the age of 14. I went on to complete my BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Port Elizabeth. As a teenager, I was taught by organ teachers who had studied in Europe, so I felt connected to a bigger world and expressed the wish to also go abroad to further my studies. The inspiration that the historical instruments would provide, and the way they could inform playing style and technique, were the reasoning behind many South African organists aiming to study further in Europe. Some of the organs we played in South Africa as students were imported from the UK (given the Colonial history). I performed the Poulenc organ concerto on the Norman and Beard instruments in Johannesburg City Hall and Cape Town City Hall. I also played recitals on good mechanical instruments: some imported (the 3-man Marcussen at Stellenbosch University) and others by organ builders based in SA. These instruments had served us well, but it was the truly authentic organ culture and its inspiring instruments that I wanted to experience. I won a scholarship to study at the Amsterdam Conservatorium and left South Africa in 1993. I completed a one-year diploma, and auditioned to enrol for a further two years to complete a performance diploma. I finally completed my studies there in 1996. and moved to the UK. I started teaching in schools and I held an organist’s post at a Catholic church in Holborn.


What struck you most about the differences between learning the organ in the Netherlands, and in the UK?

What I really discovered was that we were extremely lucky as students in the Netherlands to have had access to amazing instruments. I encountered the St Bavo Church organ in Haarlem several times as we had group lessons there. These group lessons were entirely performance-based and we had lively and stimulating debates and exchanges of views about technique and interpretation. We also regularly had lessons at the Waalse Kerk where my teacher, Jacques van Oortmerssen, was the organist. For French repertoire, we relocated to a Cavaillé-Coll instrument which was located in a care home in Amsterdam. It was a happy time and I learned so much when I was living in Amsterdam. I received detailed tuition in organ technique from JvO who really understood the instruments we had lessons on. I often turned pages when he played recitals and it was wonderful to stand on the side-lines and watch him perform. In lessons he went into great detail about the attack and release of keys on these organs and encouraged us to listen acutely to the sounds we were producing: the start/attack and also the end/release of sounds. We learnt how to use our energy wisely when playing these huge instruments. The initial instinct might be to ‘fight’ against the weight of these heavy actions, but we learnt how to control and conserve energy and behave in a more efficient way on the keyboard. In return, the organs rewarded us with their glorious power and colour.


I wonder if the care home residents appreciated having a Cavaillé-Coll to hand!

So 1996 sees you settling in the UK - might we ask why the UK rather than any other European country or the USA?

I met my future husband, who is from the UK, on a residential Organ Summer School in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1994. Things took their natural course and I eventually decided to relocate to the UK.


Nowadays what does a typical week look like?

Nowadays, I spend most of my week teaching. I am one of the accredited teachers at the RCO and also work as visiting teacher at the King’s School in Worcester, where I live. I have built up a considerable private teaching practice and do some teaching at home on most evenings of the week.


Do you still play in a church regularly?

I don’t hold an organist’s post currently but have access to a church in Worcester town centre where I teach my students. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have been working online. Students who have instruments at home have been sending recordings of their playing to me which we’ve discussed in a Zoom meeting. Zoom has offered a good solution at this time, and I know the RCO courses that were taught online were a great success. Piano tuition via Zoom provided a workable solution during lockdown, but I much prefer being back to face-to-face teaching at school again.

I have a husband and two teenage children who keep me busy. The juggling of the children’s various after-school activities was greatly reduced during lockdown as the kids kept going with their clubs, music and dance lessons online. But during pre-Covid times, I would spend much more time in the car driving the kids around and making sure the household ran smoothly.


Do you think your career wold have developed differently if you had been a man?

I don’t believe my career would have developed differently if I had been a man. It was my choice to learn the organ, to keep studying the organ repertoire and to travel to further my understanding of organ culture. I enjoyed taking part in recitals and developing a professional life as a teacher. It was also my choice to put my organ playing on the backburner to have children. I can’t say that I have ever been discriminated against purely because I am female.


Why did you become a member of SWO and what do you value about it?

I joined SWO because I support the training of more young organists and I’m keen to see that the organ is taken up by more girls. I have not personally experienced any gender inequality in my working life, nor been treated differently. In South Africa there are many female organists so I was not conscious of a gender imbalance as I was growing up. Likewise, in Holland there seemed to be a sense of equality.


Do you have any specific advice to give to girls learning to play the organ?

I would encourage girls to investigate all the educational opportunities that the RCO and Oundle for Organists have to offer. Their courses give access to superb tuition and feedback from really experienced, inspirational tutors. Girls (and boys for that matter) should be encouraged to use the organ to hone their musical instincts and discover new horizons. The organ might be perceived as a male preserve, used in a specific environment, but it is, after all, an instrument with a rich, incredibly large repertory of original music and a unique ability to realise transcriptions: it surely allows access to Music (capital M) in an exciting and enthralling way.


What do you plan for your own future when the teenagers have flown the nest?

I would love to have more time to study new organ repertoire and to travel more.


Gerdi, many thanks for taking the time to talk to SWO.



Gerdi Troskie completed her BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and continued with postgraduate organ studies at the Amsterdam Conservatorium with the early music specialist Jacques van Oortmerssen (1993–96). She was awarded the Conservatorium’s Soloist’s Diploma (organ) in 1996. In 1996, on completion of her studies, Gerdi moved to the UK. She taught organ and theory at the Royal College of Music Junior Department from 1998 to 2005. She held the appointment of Organist and Director of Music at St Anselm & St Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, Holborn, London, from 1996 to 2002 and started teaching organ and theoretical studies for the St Giles International Organ School in 2000. She is currently an accredited teacher of the Royal College of Organists’ RCO Academy Organ School, and teaches students in Worcester and across the West Midlands and surrounding regions. Gerdi has participated as a tutor on several residential courses, including the RCO/St Giles Summer Course and courses for Oundle for Organists. Since 2016, she has been working as a part-time teacher of piano at the King’s School, Worcester. She has played recitals at home and in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and South Africa.

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.