Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

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.

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.