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Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

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A conversation with Gerard Brooks



As current President of the RCO there is nobody better placed to understand the ‘feel’ of the professional organ world and, especially, the increasing number of women organists in important organ positions.

First though, tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to play the organ; what was your training as an organist?


My father was very interested in the organ, in particular the theatre organ, although he always maintained the classical organ took precedence! At first I followed in his footsteps, but eventually my own interest was sparked, and I became a bit of an ‘anorak’, wanting to go into every church to see what the organ was like! I was fortunate in having my first lessons with John Webster, who was organist of University College Oxford, up the road from Abingdon where I was brought up. He made sure I was playing the pedals correctly, and was a most genial but attentive mentor. He sadly died in his 50s, so I continued for a year or so with Walter Hillsman, eventually getting an organ scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford. Whilst there, I travelled down to Cleveland Lodge, Dorking, to have lessons with Susi Jeans. Her rambling house (later to become the home of the RSCM for a short while) contained several organs, in particular a baroque-style Eule instrument that was very different from English organs of the time. I wanted to study abroad after university, so applied for several scholarships and was fortunate to win the Stephen Arlen Award which enabled me to spend time in France. I wasn’t sure with whom I wanted to study, and although I had already had single lessons with both Jean Langlais and André Marchal (intimidating and charming, respectively!), I felt it would be easier to relate to a younger person. On the advice of Edward Higginbottom at New College, I got in contact with a young and then little known organist called Daniel Roth, organist of the Sacré-Cœur. Neither of us have forgotten our first meeting: arriving at his flat, I saw him on the balcony anxiously scanning the road for an expected taxi and so I hailed him from the street! At his suggestion, I applied to study at Strasbourg Conservatoire where he was about to begin teaching and thus saved myself the cost of private lessons: at the time, a year’s study for a foreign student there cost about £50! I spent two years in France, learning a great deal from Daniel Roth who was and is an excellent teacher, concerned not only with the finer details of interpretation, but also the basics of technique. Knowing I had to decide in which country to pursue a career, I increasingly felt called back to this ‘green and pleasant land’ – there is nothing like a spell abroad to help you appreciate your own country! On my return I completed a PGCE teaching diploma and had some lessons with Peter Hurford and Nicolas Kynaston.


Did that PGCE take you into full-time teaching?


Indeed it did: for about three years I was the music teacher at a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire, and it was a very happy period when I spent a lot of time writing school musicals alongside being organist and choirmaster at the church where I was once a choirboy in Abingdon.


Now you are President of the RCO, curator-organist of The Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a recitalist and a teacher. What does a typical week look like?


A mixture of things: Sunday and Monday at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, for services and planning meetings, Tuesday to Thursday teaching the organ at Latymer Upper School, Sevenoaks School and the Royal Academy of Music, Friday and Saturday usually either free or sometimes playing somewhere. Practice is fitted in all the gaps!


It is excellent to see that there are a number of male organists, including yourself, who are members of SWO Why did you join? What do you value about SWO?


I’m very happy to back an organisation that offers support to women because it’s so clearly needed: female representation in our profession at every level is still very low. I value the fact that SWO from the start has made it clear that they are not trying to compete with men but to address an imbalance, which they hope to do with support from men as well as women. The majority of musical institutions are run overwhelmingly by men: I wonder how men would feel if the opposite was true!


You describe current female representation in the profession as "very low". Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?


I don’t think the reasons for it are necessarily to do with prejudice, although there is probably still plenty of that. Our profession has always been male-dominated but that’s been true of many other professions too for historical reasons. The situation is undoubtedly changing, but I think for some people all that’s needed is for them to see how a woman can do the job just as well as a man and maybe better. Speaking from a personal viewpoint – and one that might get me into trouble at that! – I remember as a young man many years ago when women first became priests feeling instinctively like many others, no doubt, that ‘it was a man’s job’. Before I’m pilloried for this, let me add that this was no more than a conditioned reflex: all it took was for me to encounter a wonderful female parish priest to realise how wrong I was! (The Bible is full of ‘strong women’ and, cultural and historical differences aside, it’s clear that they were respected and honoured far more than is sometimes recounted today). As for addressing the imbalance, I think it just needs to be worked at constantly: gender should play no part whatsoever in a selecting a candidate for an organ post. It would be impractical to interview candidates anonymously, but it’s not for nothing that competitions are often run that way.


Do you think female and male organists are treated differently?


I can’t say that I have experienced this personally, but of course you would have to ask a female organist this question. Unfortunately, and it’s a hard truth to acknowledge, I suspect that sometimes a female organist might be unfairly judged by her appearance - one way or another - rather than by her playing, something that would not usually happen to a male organist. In a good sense, female organists may sometimes be favoured over a male organist simply because an enlightened concert promoter may be seeking to redress the gender balance in a series, although I firmly believe that organists male or female should be judged solely on their playing, not their gender.


Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What could be done to change this? Is there a specific role for the RCO in this?


I think women have often struggled in what is certainly a sphere dominated by men. The equal pay debate which has arisen in the last few years in the media particularly has highlighted the astonishing and outrageous fact that women doing the same job as men are sometimes paid less because of their gender! It’s significant that when certain high-profile cases have been successfully challenged, the majority of people seem supportive, as one would hope. It’s clear that women are just as able to do a job as any man – why would it not be so? In fact I sometimes reflect that if we had more female world leaders, there would be fewer wars! The RCO is certainly aware of the imbalance and is all too happy to seek to redress it where they can. There are few women on the trustee board at the moment, but those that are there are valued just as much as the men and I feel sure I can speak for the council when I say that we would welcome many more.

The small proportion of women in leadership roles in the organ world may partly be because traditionally fewer girls have taken up the organ than boys – probably because choirs were long seen as male institutions. However, as we know, the picture has changed greatly in recent years with so many fine girl and mixed choirs.


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?


As I said above, I’m not keen that gender should play a part in selecting people for jobs (excepting where role demands it, of course), and there can be a danger that in attempting to redress a gender balance, female candidates might be better received just because they are female. I’m not a fan of positive discrimination, as I think it’s important to assess candidates or performers on the basis of ability rather than gender. I would much rather that both male and female organists had an equal chance to compete on a level playing field when it comes to examinations and jobs, and therefore the way forward is to work at encouraging more girls to take up the organ. However, I don’t think the way to do that is to organise events for girls only: better to work hard at encouraging equal numbers of girls and boys to participate in organ classes. SWO has made it clear that it is not a ‘girls only’ organisation!


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


I’m pleased to say that I teach almost as many girls as boys. It’s a generalisation, but with school students I find that girls often tend to be more focussed and conscientious, but in any case I try not to let a student’s gender change the way I teach them. I make sure that all are aware of the opportunities that may lie ahead in terms of organ scholarships and so on. These days, when far more girls are singing in church choirs than formerly, there’s a good chance girls will think of playing the organ. Interestingly, however, quite a number of my school students have been attracted to the organ for purely musical reasons – in both schools at which I teach the organs are in concert rooms rather than chapels. The problem then is that finding an instrument outside of school on which to practise may be difficult if the student has no involvement with a church. I have no hesitation in encouraging parents to acquire an electronic instrument for the home if possible, and quite a number of students have done this.


What have been the most rewarding parts of your time as President of the RCO?


It was an unexpected honour to be asked, and I enjoy working with a very good team at the RCO. Being President is an honorary, non-executive role – I’m asked to be an ambassador for the college and to promote it when I can. I attend trustee meetings and am able to give opinions on anything discussed. It’s a two-year appointment, which the trustees have kindly extended for a year in light of the recent pandemic. My main duty is to give a speech at the annual conferment ceremony and present the college’s diplomas. This is an enjoyable occasion, and one at which I am able to speak from the heart about the organ and its music and to congratulate the successful candidates, and perhaps encourage the unsuccessful ones! – and it’s great to see increasing numbers of girls and women attaining those famous diplomas.

Gerard Brooks is a concert organist and teacher of wide experience. He is Director of Music at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, and Curator Organist of the reconstructed 18th century Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields. He teaches at Latymer Upper School and for the Royal College of Organists Academy and is an organ professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He contributed many articles to musical journals as well as writing the chapter on French and Belgian organ music for the Cambridge Companion to the Organ. His recordings on the Priory label have all been broadcast on national radio and include the complete works of Eugène Gigout played on historic organs in France on five CDs, the first of which was voted an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine. His recent recording of 18th century English music at Christ Church Spitalfields has garnered five star reviews in both Choir and Organ and Organists’ Review. He has played with many orchestras, among them the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Gerard is a regular tutor on RCO courses and has also taught for the London Organ Day, Oundle for Organists, the Royal School of Church Music and Edinburgh Organ Academy. He is a founding Director of the London Organ Improvisation Course and is on the examination panel of the Royal College of Organists. Concerts in recent years have taken him to England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and the USA. Gerard is the current President of the Royal College of Organists 2019-2021.

Talking with Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, organist, composer and SWO Co-Chair


What made you decide to play the organ? Did you learn any other instruments or sing?

I joined my local church choir at the age of four, and loved it, and began playing the piano at the age of nine. One night after choir practice, when I was ten, I was playing the piano when the organist, Robert Yeomans, heard me, and offered me organ lessons. On being introduced to the organ I was immediately intrigued, excited and eager to learn more, and gained an organ scholarship to secondary school after six months of lessons.

Tell us a little about your training as an organist.

I was Junior Organ Scholar at Wells Cathedral in my sixth form years while at the Cathedral School, where I studied with Matthew Owens. I spent my gap year as Organ Scholar at Guildford Cathedral under the direction of Katherine Dienes-Williams, before becoming Organ Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, where I worked closely with Stephen Darlington and Clive Driskill-Smith, and studied music at Oxford University. Following graduation I stayed on for a year at Christ Church to play for services at the Cathedral and perform around the city, and I became Director of Music at All Saints’ Church, Headington. I also gained my FRCO in that year, winning the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes, and the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award. I then moved to London to work at Eltham College, where I became a qualified teacher, and I now teach at Highgate School. I am a published composer and give organ recitals across the UK.

Describe a typical week for you.

Every day I practise repertoire for my organ recitals, and work on composition commissions by my publishers (Encore Publications and RSCM) or by independent choirs. I regularly attend meetings for a number of musical boards on which I sit (I’m Co-Chair of SWO with Anne Marsden Thomas, a Consultant for the RSCM, a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, and I’m on the RCO Academic Board), and spend a few hours each week doing admin for the various exciting projects that are under way with those organisations. At the moment, SWO and the RCO are creating a DVD about the organs in the City of London, featuring all female performers, and SWO is organising the memorial concert for Jennifer Bate, our former patron who sadly died during lock-down, so it’s a busy time. I work full-time at Highgate School as an academic teacher, organ teacher and choral director. Highgate is an inspiring, forward-thinking educational institution, and I greatly enjoy my work there.

Juggling all of these commitments each week means life is full, varied and stimulating!

What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

That’s a difficult question. Giving recitals on beautiful instruments (Westminster Cathedral, St David’s Hall, Cardiff) or at exciting events (St Alban’s International Organ Festival) is fun, and I enjoy the challenge and thrill of playing for live radio broadcasts. It’s been an honour to have my choral compositions performed and recorded by ensembles such as BBC Singers. I am also delighted to be the Co-Chair of SWO, which is an important initiative to me.

What has been the most important thing about yourself that you have learned so far?

I used to get anxious if I made the smallest slip when playing. I’ve tried over the years not to place unrealistic expectations on myself, and to focus on what really matters: musicality and expression (although I still learn my music thoroughly). I recognise I need time to relax (I resisted getting a smartphone until last year, much to the amusement of my friends!), and enjoy seeing friends, walking, swimming and cooking in my free time.

Do you feel you might be treated differently if you were a man?

Yes.

Some people have low expectations of female organists; I am sometimes assumed to be junior to my male colleagues; on descending the steps from the organ loft after a service or recital, I have been asked on a number of occasions, “are you the page-turner?”; at a recent high-profile recital of mine, an organist reminded me to “open the swell box when you finish, as it can damage the instrument if you leave it closed”, as if I were a beginner organist. One-off comments, you might hope, but these have been consistent experiences throughout my career - and not experiences that seem to resonate with my male counterparts.

There is also pressure to worry about one’s image as a female organist; dress codes for women can be particularly specific; a Director of Music for whom I worked once told me that I was the most attractive organ scholar that that place of worship had ever had, as if that were a concern to me, when I was trying to focus solely on playing to the best of my ability.

Of course, I also recognise that I will have been booked for certain recitals or events or invited to be on certain boards as a result of being female, as so many institutions are keen to improve their gender balance, so I understand that being a female organist can bring opportunities.

What are the consequences of this?

None of the experiences I mention above help any of us; experiencing low expectations or objectification before you open your mouth or play is frustrating, and being booked solely because you are female is disheartening; the many men who treat every organist equally may feel personally attacked or frustrated by discussions about gender equality, and may be discriminated against specifically because of gender balance quotas. This is why institutions like SWO are so important, so that we can address prejudices and tackle the gender imbalance in a positive, collaborative way.

Some might say that having an institution dedicated solely to this cause is divisive, but I believe that gender inequality is such a complex major issue that an institution dedicated solely to it is necessary. SWO encourages anyone and everyone to be members, and hopes to engage in meaningful conversations, and organise events, in order to make things better for us all. Our hope in the end is that SWO won’t need to exist and that every man or woman who plays the organist will be just 'an organist'.

It would be good to see a similar society dedicated to addressing racial imbalance in the organ world, as this is also a complex major issue which needs serious thought and attention.

Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ?

My advice for girls learning the organ is the same as my advice for boys learning the organ. Aim high and believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who will support your ambitions. Embrace opportunities to develop your skills, connect with other people in the profession, and listen to, and reflect upon, feedback. Enjoy engaging with a wide variety of music on a daily basis.


Ghislaine Reece-Trapp is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, winning the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes, and the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award. She is a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, a Consultant for the Royal School of Church Music, a member of the Royal College of Organists’ Academic Board, and Co-Chair of the Society of Women Organists (SWO) with Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, which launched at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2019. Ghislaine has performed live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, and on Chinese national television. Recent solo organ recital venues include Westminster Cathedral, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, and St Albans Abbey (as part of the International Organ Festival). Ghislaine is a published composer with Encore Publications and the Royal School of Church Music, and receives regular composition commissions. Her work has been recorded and performed by ensembles including BBC Singers and Harmonia Sacra (whose album, featuring the first performance of Ghislaine’s A virgin most pure, was listed as one of the best new Christmas classical music releases 2019 by BBC Music Magazine), and her anthem, Alleluia! A new work is come on hand, is the Royal School of Church Music’s second-best-selling carol ever. Ghislaine leads the organ department at Highgate School, where she also teaches academic music and directs the Girls’ Chapel Choir.

Clare Stevens, classical music and organ specialist


© Alex Ramsay

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of members of the Society of Women Organists are....organists! So who is this member who doesn't play?!


I’m a freelance writer, editor and publicist, currently living in the Welsh Marches after 30 years in London. I specialise in writing about classical music, particularly choral and church music and contemporary classical music, and music education. I’ve been an amateur choral singer all my life and I love organ music, though I’m not a player.

What was your musical involvement as you were growing up? Do you come from a musical family?


My father loved music, listened to 78s and reel-to-reel tapes of classical music all the time and played the piano reasonably well; my mother was a good amateur choral singer who was also heavily involved with the semi-professional opera scene in Northern Ireland, singing in the chorus and then as properties mistress and eventually stage manager. I grew up in a suburb of Belfast in the 1970s, and musical involvement was severely curtailed by the Troubles, but we did go to occasional concerts, especially on the rare occasions when well-known artists from elsewhere were performing. A concert by the King’s Singers, then at the height of their fame, in St Anne’s Cathedral and a violin recital by Yehudi Menuhin in a cinema are stand-out memories. I sang in the choir of my girls’ grammar school but, whereas in the past it had collaborated with a boys’ grammar school for performances of things like the Fauré Requiem, this didn’t happen while I was a member because of the difficulties of crossing town or staying late for after-school rehearsals.

We attended a Presbyterian church where I enjoyed singing hymns from a very early age; but the church didn’t have a particularly strong choral tradition and although I was interested in the organ there was no opportunity for me to learn to play it . I was intrigued enough by the instrument for my dad to take me to a couple of recitals in other churches with better organs by Desmond Hunter, still an eminent member of the Northern Ireland organ scene; and my enthusiasm was fired even more by a sixth form general studies class visit to the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, for a demonstration recital/introduction to the organ by Philip Hammond, now better known as a composer. I still remember that one of the pieces I particularly enjoyed on that occasion was by Flor Peeters, a completely unknown name to me at the time.

After school, how did this enthusiasm develop?


At St Andrew’s University I often attended organ recitals by the university organist John Kitchen. I was studying English and Medieval History, not music, and most of my friends thought that going to organ recitals was a very odd thing to do. When my husband and I got married in St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrew’s, a few years after I graduated it was a real thrill to be able to choose some organ showstoppers for John to play for us, which –as anyone who knows him will be able to imagine – he did brilliantly (Bach’s Dorian Prelude & Fugue during the signing of the registers was the highlight)!

What really turned me from an occasional attender of organ recitals to a knowledgeable enthusiast was joining the Choir of St Barnabas, Dulwich, in 1990. This was my first opportunity to discover Anglican liturgy and music and to hear a pipe organ played by experts on a regular basis. I had only been in the choir for a year when the church burned down and its Victorian Henry Speechley organ was destroyed. The parish commissioned a three-manual instrument from Kenneth Tickell of Northampton for the brand new church and I was enthralled by the whole process of designing and installing it, which was led by William McVicker, then Director of Music at St Barnabas. I was one of the congregation members who offered hospitality to Kenneth Tickell and some of his team during the installation, and extended conversations over evening meals fired my enthusiasm still further.

When the new church was finished and the lovely organ had been completed and dedicated I did have the opportunity to start learning to play it, but work commitments soon meant that I was rarely free to practise when the church was open and I wasn’t able to develop my skills very far. However I did discover some of the possibilities offered by a pipe organ, and how relatively simple pieces can be so effective if carefully registered and played in an appropriate style for their period.

Having an opportunity to tell the story of how the choir of St Barnabas was both a focal point for worship in the parish hall and elsewhere, and also an inspiration to the congregation while the new church was under construction, led me from writing about fruit and vegetables for a fresh produce trade magazine to classical music journalism. I wrote an article about the fire and its impact on the choir, particularly the young choristers, for the Church Music Quarterly, which then commissioned me to write about a Saturday music project for youngsters from inner-city estates run by a neighbouring parish in Camberwell. Just before the fire, the head chorister of St Barnabas, Gavin Moralee, had won the last ever Royal School of Church Music Chorister of the Year competition, and I interviewed him for our parish magazine, so suddenly I had a small portfolio of music-related articles to support job applications. As a result I spent six years as deputy editor of Classical Music magazine, followed by four years editing Music Teacher magazine, and I’ve been a regular contributor to Choir & Organ.

Helping to promote the activities of the St Barnabas Choir both locally and nationally, for example running a press campaign for its very successful millennium lottery-funded community production of Noye’s Fludde in 2000, gave me my first experience of PR management. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the experience of being part of that community at that very significant time changed my life as well as consolidating my interest in organ music.

And over the last 30 years ……..?

Over the past couple of decades I’ve been lucky enough to write about new instruments and restorations in iconic buildings such as Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, the Royal Festival Hall, London, Bridlington Priory and St John’s, Upper Norwood (where the T C Lewis organ in a church designed by John Loughborough Pearson is to me the perfect marriage of architecture and instrument). I’ve had tours of the organ-building workshops of Kenneth Tickell, Harrison & Harrison and Mander Organs, sat in on choir practices, attended services and organ recitals, interviewed the Directors of Music at many UK cathedrals and collegiate chapels, and learned an immense amount about matching repertoire and playing style to instruments, often through the fascinating study days run by the British Institute of Organ Studies, of which I’m also a member.

Attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral every Saturday and Sunday for six years while our son was a chorister there was another formative experience that expanded my knowledge of organ repertoire – I loved hearing the organ scholars and assistants playing before the services, and afterwards there would be spectacular voluntaries by the likes of Vierne, Langlais, Dupré and Duruflé, played brilliantly by the sub-organist Andrew Lucas or by the legendary John Scott.

More recently I spent three years in the full-time role of marketing manager for the Three Choirs Festival, based in Gloucester but also involving work in Hereford and Worcester as the festival rotates annually between the three cities, with the cathedrals as the main performance venues. I loved the opportunity this gave me to attend services regularly in these wonderful buildings, hear their choirs, get to know the music staff and familiarise myself with the very different characters of their magnificent organs. An extended stay back home in Northern Ireland for family reasons happened to coincide with the launch of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC) for players under the age of 21, and I was very pleased to be invited to join the board of what is now a very influential event.

And what made you join SWO?

I joined the Society of Women Organists in order to support a worthwhile venture and show solidarity with its founders; I’m very aware of how difficult it has been in the past for girls to develop an interest in organ-playing and for gifted female players to progress up the career ladder. It is great that the situation has changed for the better in the 21st century, but I still think there is much more to be done to ensure that women are accepted without a single raised eyebrow in organ lofts and concert hall consoles around the world. While the past couple of years have seen a few more women being appointed to cathedral posts, and major venues such as the Royal Festival Hall are including high-profile female players like Catherine Ennis and Isabelle Demers in their recital series, the lists for recitals in other venues still tend to be dominated by men and only one of the nine NIIOC winners so far has been female. Catherine Ennis tells stories of being mistaken for the page-turner when she emerged from the organ loft to receive the enthusiastic applause after a challenging recital, and I’m afraid that would still be a common assumption by many people.

Finally, what advice would you give to a girl who hopes to make a career for herself as a professional organist?

Have confidence in yourself and don’t be afraid to express an interest in the instrument and ask for lessons; and don’t limit yourself to your local church and its organ but go to as many recitals as you can in other places. Look out for pre-concert talks, study days and holiday courses run by organisations like the RCO and RCM – you don’t always have to participate as a player but can learn an immense amount as an observer.