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Making Music in the Fens: Sarah MacDonald talks about her career as DoM at Selwyn College, Cambridge and Director of the Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral


Sarah MacDonald


What was your training to become an organist?

I grew up in a musical family in Canada—both my parents were professional singers, and my three younger brothers were cathedral choristers and/or violinists. I trained as a pianist, accompanying singers and violinists at home from a young age, and then as a teenager, I moved away to study as a soloist in what’s now called the Glenn Gould Professional School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where my teachers were Marek Jablonski and Leon Fleisher. In my spare time I sang in a number of adult mixed choirs (as a child, I hadn’t been allowed to sing in a cathedral choir, of course, since I was a girl). During this time, I became really interested in choral conducting, so the conventional next stop—which is odd, if you think about it—was to learn the organ. After studying for a year in Toronto with John Tuttle, I made the rash decision to apply for a Cambridge organ scholarship. Rather improbably, I was successful, and I spent three very happy years as Organ Scholar of Robinson College, studying with David Sanger. Robinson was ideal for me, since not only did it have a wonderful instrument (a 1980 II/26 Frobenius), and modern, new-world-friendly accommodation facilities, but also there was no resident Director of Music at the college, so I was effectively in charge of the choir and college music-making throughout my time as an undergraduate. It was an amazing training, and I am very grateful to the academics who took a chance on me as an overseas student with a very different background from the average Cambridge organ scholar.


What did you have to do for the Cambridge organ scholarship?

For the audition, we were required to play a Bach Trio movement, and do tests in sight-reading and transposition. We also had to take a short choir practice, and undergo academic interviews and written tests. I was very confident with the trio, the interviews, and the academic tests, and I absolutely loved the choir practice. As a trained concert pianist, however, transposition was a complete mystery to me, and was definitely a bit of a disaster in the audition. As for the sight-reading—I remember more than one of the academic-gown-clad men who were auditioning me taking me to a piano and asking me to play something to find out if I had any potential at all. I was completely at home at a Steinway, and played everything they put in front of me absolutely accurately. At the organ, however, where feet and stop-changes were involved, it was quite a different matter!


Describe a typical week for you.

Well, like everyone, at the moment a typical week consists of way too much time on Zoom seated at my kitchen table. In normal times though, I have quite a busy and carefully-constructed jigsaw puzzle of a week, which looks as below. I live in Cambridge, so commute to Ely, about 15 miles away, either by train/bicycle or in the car, depending on the weather.


Sunday – Ely + Cambridge

am: conducting in Ely Cathedral, otherwise playing in Little St Mary’s, Cambridge when I can

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn College Choir


Monday — Ely

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong followed by some organ teaching


Tuesday – Ely + Cambridge

am: girls’ practice at 0755; return to Cambridge to do some university teaching

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir


Wednesday – Ely (+ Cambridge in some weeks)

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong and sometimes travelling back to Cambridge for rehearsal at compline with Selwyn Choir


Thursday – Cambridge

admin and university teaching day ending with rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir


Friday – Ely + Cambridge

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, some weeks ending with evensong, other weeks travelling back to Cambridge to do university teaching


Saturday – my “day off” which inevitably consists of work: catching up with email; composition or writing (I am series editor for a major choral music publisher in the States, and a monthly columnist for the Ameri

can Organist magazine); very occasionally the luxury of some practising.

Selwyn Choir

Why did you become a member of SWO?

Anne Marsden Thomas and Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, the co-chairs of SWO, invited me to come along to the very first meeting, and I have been involved since then, first as a committee member, and now as a Patron. It has been fantastic to be able to watch the Society find its feet through the public launch and subsequent events, and I am delighted to be able to continue my support for the group.


There are those who argue that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists? Do you agree?

At the most elite levels in the UK, yes there is definitely an imbalance. The cathedral and Oxbridge world is rather like Michelin-starred chefs and Savile Row tailors—there are so many more men than women in both of those professions that people have been heard to say that it appears that the only thing that men can do better than women is cook and sew! I think at the parish/school level (as opposed to cathedral/university) the numbers are probably more equitable, and certainly in Canada and the States there is nowhere near the same imbalance. In Oxbridge, there are four female Directors of Music (one of whom isn’t an organist) out of about 45 DoMs; in the cathedral world there are about nine women in permanent positions, out of about 150 permanent staff across the country.


How should we address it?

I think by encouraging girls to play, and aiming for the highest levels that they can. And for those of us who are working at those levels to persevere and to maintain a high profile so that we are seen.


Do you think female and male organists are treated differently?

Probably not intentionally, but possibly accidentally. I think, for example, that male organists get more opportunities than their female colleagues because they happen to be mates with the right people. For example, when I see a poster advertising an organ recital series which includes only male players, I wonder whether someone just put the series together “down the pub” rather than actually going out of their way to construct and book a more balanced and representative list of recitalists. But I also wonder whether those doing the glitzy promo schemes for that sort of recital series even actually notice that it is so one-sided? The latest one I noticed was just last month: nine white men—it was a virtual series too, for obvious reasons, so surely booking one woman, or one non-white organist, would not have been difficult, since everyone was submitting their recitals to YouTube in their own time!


Do you think your career would have developed differently if you had been male?

No, I don’t think so actually—I think I am rather fortunate in that my “otherness” here is that I’m Canadian, rather than that I’m female. I have always thought it was interesting that of the tiny handful of women organists in permanent positions in UK cathedrals, such a high proportion of us are migrant workers from the Commonwealth, including Katherine at Guildford, Rachel at Coventry, Hilary at Chelmsford, and me at Ely. There are also a couple of high-profile Americans in important roles, including Ann Elise at Oundle and Katharine in Oxford.


Do you notice any difference in ambition when comparing your young male and female students?

No—the ones who want to do it and do it well will end up doing that regardless of their sex.


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

We need to be patient. Equality will happen, but not for a few generations yet. Already just in the past few years there are more of us in cathedrals than there used to be—five years ago there were only four or five women in permanent positions, now there are nearly twice that. For my first 15 years at Cambridge, I was the only woman DoM; there are now three of us.


Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for?

Well, if I’m honest, I do worry when it becomes too obvious—I’m not always sure that is the most effective way to make the point. I think quietly getting on and doing one’s job as well as one can, and for a long period of time, is the way to gain the respect we need and deserve. To be fair, men don’t necessarily have to do this, but I think women do need to aim quietly to be the best, and in the long run that will contribute towards equality better than if we were to chain ourselves to the pipes or burn our organ shoes (if that’s the organist’s equivalent of a feminist rebellion). I believe it was the great Madeleine Albright who said “True equality will have been achieved only once there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men.”


What do you value about SWO?

The comradeship, the collegiality, and (not sure if I’m allowed to say this!) the notable lack of patriarchy!


The Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral


SARAH MACDONALD is a Canadian-born UK-based organist, conductor, and composer. She is Fellow and Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of Ely Cathedral’s Girl Choristers. She has been at Selwyn since 1999, and is the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge Chapel. Sarah studied at Toronto’s Glenn Gould School, and at Cambridge University, and her teachers were Leon Fleisher, Marek Jablonski, John Tuttle, and David Sanger. She has performed across the UK, North America, and mainland Europe, and is in demand as a conductor for international residential courses. She has made over 35 recordings, and her music is performed regularly throughout the world. She is a Fellow of the RCO, and writes a popular monthly column for ‘The American Organist’. Sarah recently received the honorary ARSCM in recognition of her work. She is a Patron of SWO, and an Honorary Patron of the Herbert Howells Society. In her spare time she is a keen photographer, and during 2020 she has also become an amateur film-maker.

Hannah Parry talks about her other life in Bosnia and France

Hannah Parry carrying a huge bag of bread in Serbia


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

I like to say that I combined both my parents’ jobs into one. My Dad was a vicar and my mum is a violin teacher, so becoming an organist was the ideal combination of both of those. I came the way of the cathedral chorister. Fortunately for me, the Girls’ Choir at Norwich Cathedral had started a couple of years before I was eligible to audition. Katherine Dienes-Williams was Director at that time, and she was certainly an inspiration to start learning the organ. When I was 14, I managed to get a scholarship from the Diocese which paid for organ lessons with Katherine’s successor, Julian Thomas.

After meeting Ann Elise Smoot at an Oundle course, I started travelling to London for lessons (generously supported by an anonymous sponsor!) and auditioned for the Royal College of Music. I remember audition day vividly. I thought I’d stuffed it up and was planning my gap year, but I got in!

Four amazing years at the RCM was followed by an intense 12 month Masters at Royal Holloway. I had already started my freelance career at that point, and looking back, I have no idea how I managed to fit everything in.


What does a typical week look like?

As a freelancer, I haven’t often had a typical week, but I teach and accompany for the Triborough Music Hub as well as teaching privately and playing for weddings and funerals as they come along. Sunday playing has been a feature of my life since I could just about manage a hymn and I’ve worked at numerous different churches.


Do you have much time to practise?

I make time to practise a lot when I have a recital coming up and I always try to be working on new repertoire. However, the pandemic restrictions have made this ever more difficult.


As well as playing the organ, you are involved in work with refugees and write a blog as an aid worker (www.hannahparry.co.uk) Tell us something of this…. How do you fit this in with earning your own living?

I started out writing a travel blog about my exotic trips abroad. It started with spending the summer holidays backpacking in Southern Peru and I soon found that I really enjoyed writing. My trips gradually got more ambitious before I moved out of London and went on a big trip to India. Since then I have managed to spend chunks of time in London earning, as well as plenty of time abroad.

Volunteering has been part of my life for a while in different ways, but I don’t quite remember how I found out about the situation for refugees in Calais. I was planning my next getaway to South East Asia but thought I’d do something worthwhile before jetting off. After a month of meeting the most incredible people and working in hard conditions, I knew I would stay involved with this issue.

I did the same thing this last year. I spent two cold weeks in Calais in January before a sunny trip to Mexico to complete my professional scuba diving certificate. That’s when the pandemic disrupted my plans. I didn’t have any work, except some online teaching. So I headed back to Calais where the situation was horrendous during the strict French lockdown.


What sort of work are you involved in, when in the refugee camps - for example in France? Does playing the organ ever prove a useful tool in your work abroad?

The work in France is about providing clothes and equipment to those sleeping rough in Calais and Dunkirk. There isn’t a camp there, so the refugees, who are largely from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and Kurdistan, have to find secluded places to sleep. The police clear the tents all the time - it’s a never ending cycle.

Whilst the pandemic ensured I still didn’t work, I set off for Serbia, with my piano in my car. The work there, for the tiny NGO No Name Kitchen, included cooking massive pots of hot food as well as conducting interviews with those who had been victims of violence by the authorities. The reports are then published by BVMN ( borderviolence.eu)

The work in Bosnia was similar, except that helping people is much more criminalised. I was providing food to cook for those who were staying in abandoned buildings, as well as writing the border violence reports and distributing clothes and equipment when we had it.

Organist and aid worker didn’t really feed into each other, except for a nice connection with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bosnia which led to continued ties with Farm Street Church in Mayfair where I had been playing. Going forward, this is definitely something I want to work on!


Hannah with some refugee friends outside the building where they sleep in Bihac, Bosnia | photo Kristian Skele


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

I became a member of SWO as soon as I heard about it. I had consistently been the only female organ student at the RCM; some years there were two of us. I had fantastic female role models in my own musical life, and I think it’s really important to share that with others.

I would not have been an organist if I hadn’t been a chorister. Without the work of Katherine Dienes-Williams and other pioneers of girls’ choirs, I would not have had access to the inspiration and education provided by cathedral music. My Mum never had that chance and she was therefore specially supportive of my sister and I having this opportunity.


How do the aims and values of SWO help an aid worker?

I think it’s important to stand up for something that you see is wrong and that you want to change. For me, I cannot unsee what I saw in Bosnia and France so I will continue to fight for change. It’s the same with women in music. The inequality is wrong. SWO is a cheerful, friendly and motivated organisation working for something that we all believe in.


It is argued that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists? Do you agree and, if so, do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?

I think the gender imbalance is well documented. It starts with equality in education. Even now, choristers are not given equal opportunities. As at Norwich, the boy choristers have access to the cathedral school and the girls do not. The cathedral school has a chapel with an organ, I’m guessing the numerous state schools which the girl choristers attend do not.

This also leads to a discussion about class bias. I could only attend organ lessons and courses because I received a lot of funding. That funding is available, but knowing it is there to access, auditioning or sending in application forms are all additional barriers.

I was fascinated to read Jeremiah’s article last month (Jeremiah Stephenson/December 2020 Spotlight) about his students who start learning through charitable projects. Once money and religion are set aside, enthusiasm to learn has an equal gender split at that early stage. So, with care taken over giving opportunities in different ways, it is possible to move towards a more even gender split.


Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What could be done to change this?

You don’t have to be a cathedral Director of Music to be a successful organist. It is an obvious benchmark and an easy statistic, but many women are at the top of our field without necessarily holding such lofty titles.

However, there is much to be done. I remember one occasion - I had booked a deputy to play in my absence at a major London church. She overslept. The following week, the singer and I were appreciating how awful it would be to miss one’s alarm. She said “Especially as a woman; it’s hard enough gaining respect as it is.” To some extent, she was right. But to draw attention to it in this way does somewhat add to the bias that is already there.

Funding and courses which provide education to everyone are important. I think careful use of language is another important point. Casual slips are easy - during a break before a service at an unfamiliar church “How does the organist take his coffee?”

I admit it is a bit of a minefield. Talking to a colleague about a recital series, it was actually impossible to find enough women who were available, and of a sufficient ability, to play half the recital dates. I would be mortified if I thought I’d been included only on the grounds of my gender and not for my ability.


For you, what has been the hardest part of this last pandemic year?

For me, the hardest thing has been accepting that my London musician days are over. I can’t earn enough to live in London any more. Churches will be struggling for funds and without singers to accompany and concerts to give, there isn’t a way forward.

I am fortunate to have qualified for the government Self Employment Support Scheme, which supported me while I was volunteering. And I am currently pursuing writing, journalism and social media as a new income stream, which I can maintain when I return to Bosnia in February.


What are the most rewarding aspects of your organ and aid worker commitments?

Meeting interesting and inspiring people, without a doubt.

Just recently I was chatting with someone who is a trustee of a charity encouraging people to apply the teachings of Jesus in a super practical way.

My friends who are refugees and asylum seekers have undoubtedly changed my perspective on life. To be able to stay cheerful, friendly and kind in the face of truly horrendous situations is nothing short of miraculous.

The other volunteers I’ve met have been extremely enlightening too. It’s very refreshing to speak to people from walks of life that I wouldn’t usually encounter. They have challenged beliefs I thought I had, and they make it seem possible to take my own life in a different direction.


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

Never apologise for your femininity. It’s Franck’s fault that the stretches in the chorals are too big, not your fault that your hands aren’t big enough!

And practise a lot! I found that confidence in my own ability, through being extremely prepared for all my engagements, meant that I could easily stand confidently shoulder to shoulder with my male colleagues.


(To find out more and to support refugees in the Balkans, visit www.hannahparry.co.uk or www.facebook.com/hannahthetraveller)



Hannah Parry is an organist, journalist, scuba diving professional and aid worker. She studied the organ at the Royal College of Music and Royal Holloway University of London and has had a busy freelance career in London, including church positions, most recently at Farm Street Church in Mayfair. She has given recitals around the country and is a committed teacher. She was a DiveMaster in Xcalak in Mexico. The pandemic caused her to travel to Europe searching for usefulness. Volunteer positions in Calais, Serbia and Bosnia have led her to pursue a career in journalism, in order to better tell the stories of refugees and asylum seekers she has met. The situation for vulnerable people in the Balkans, where political tensions and human rights violations create dire conditions, needs to be spoken of more.




Talking with Jeremiah Stephenson



I suppose that believers in destiny would say that I never ‘chose’ to play the organ. My parents’ first date was an organ recital. My mother taught herself to play at Killinghall Parish Church as a girl, and my father played Beatles tunes and Monty Python songs on the organ at St Peter’s School in York (much to the annoyance of the ‘serious’ organ students there) before rescuing a defunct pipe organ and rebuilding it in his grandmother’s house. There are hilarious family photos of Billy the Jack Russell trying out the pedalboard, captioned ‘His Bach was worse than his bite’!


That said, it wasn’t all straight forward. Growing up in a house where the only music played was the organ works of Bach (Peter Hurford, always) rather turned me off at the beginning. The C minor Passacaglia is a great piece, but not exactly what you want to hear when you’re 8 years old, have finished your homework and are ready to watch TV! I think it’s a credit to my parents that they never became ‘tiger parents’ despite seeing my rapid bouts of progress on the piano and ability to play back tunes I heard without music.

If I can point at a single thing that inspired me to start learning the organ, it was becoming a Chorister at Sheffield Cathedral and hearing the instrument in the context of accompaniment and liturgical improvisation. I had only just started lessons with Neil Taylor, then Director of Music, when we went on tour to Normandy and I heard the Cavaillé-Coll at Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen. I decided I was going to throw everything I had at learning the organ, in order to be able to play Widor’s 6th Symphony.

Three years later, I could more or less play the Widor! I had passed my ARCO with the highest total marks and started as Organ Scholar at Queens’ College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences. It was a tough balancing act, but I definitely learned how to sight-read! I enjoyed the Natural Science tripos a great deal, and still found time to sneak into AVJ’s Fugue Class between General Relativity and Astrophysical Fluids as the music faculty isn’t too far from the Cavendish Laboratories. Even so, I knew that my Masters would be in music rather than physics.


Two years as Organ Scholar at Peterborough Cathedral allowed me to come up with a plan as well as building my repertoire and virtuosity at photocopying. My interests by this point were strongly towards solo performance so I pursued this goal on the MMus programme at the Royal Academy of Music, studying primarily with Susan Landale. I am very grateful to Susan, not just for the support and encouragement she gave me during the course but also for suggesting further study in France: not something I would have naturally put myself forward for. This was also made possible by the generosity of the Nicholas Danby Trust.

The two years I spent in Toulouse were deeply transformative. Quite apart from changing my basic cooking technique to rely heavily on garlic and duck fat, there’s nothing quite like having to make yourself understood in a different language and culture every day to make you more aware of how you relate to others and how you communicate your intentions, artistic and otherwise. The highly collegiate organ class, with students attending each other’s lessons to help with registration changes, large range of characterful historic instruments and standard practice of playing the same piece to different teachers only to be given conflicting advice contributed to a highly stimulating environment of rich creative synthesis. It was from this environment that I started competing internationally as a soloist, eventually winning first prize in the 19th Petr Eben International Organ Competition in 2016.


Since moving back to London, I have kept up a fairly busy international concert diary as well as playing the organ regularly at All Saints Margaret Street (a must-see church if you haven’t visited) and starting my own teaching practice. I was honoured to join the RCO Academy as one of their youngest Accredited Teachers, as well as taking on plenty of school-aged students as part of various charitable schemes to get children playing the organ. I have found it greatly rewarding to introduce these students to the instrument and its repertoire, find what inspires them, and build with them the technique and practice methods that allows them to explore and create sounds that are personal to them.


I only select students on two criteria: their interest in the organ and willingness to do the necessary work. If those two things are in place, I find the rest follows - even building a technique from scratch for students with no prior keyboard experience. I also tailor the repertoire very closely to each student’s interests and constantly build in the other skills such as sight-reading, improvisation, transposition and figured bass in such a way that there is a constant interaction of musical ideas and different ways of viewing the same thing - this approach is most likely a hangover from Toulouse days. All of my students are unafraid of improvisation and sight reading, and only earlier this term a student who had just learnt his first hymn tune (Caswall) played it to me from memory, then was able to transpose it, also from memory. He doesn’t have the preconception that it should be difficult, and we have a strong culture of giving things a go so he just got on with it!


This all seems a far cry from my own memories of being told I needed at least Grade 6 piano to even start the organ, and that you either had skills such as sight-reading and improvisation or you didn’t because you weren’t ‘naturally talented’ enough. I genuinely believed it at the time - who wouldn’t? - but now I know that these skills absolutely can be taught if you work out what makes each student tick. I was also very interested to notice that selecting students along these lines in a system where there was no pre-existing tradition of organ tuition produced a consistently even split between boys and girls (and even a couple of non-binary students!), as well as drawing on a broad range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds entirely by accident. It struck me that the organ world needn’t necessarily be the sole preserve of a narrow section of society, and indeed for the sake of growing an audience it mustn’t be. This was my primary motivation for joining SWO.


I’m sure you can easily draw to mind an image of a typical organist, and perhaps even more easily a typical organ recital audience member. If boys and girls show equal enthusiasm in taking up organ lessons before they have any preconceptions about the typical organist, then why are there so many more men than women in our profession and in our audiences? What is it about our little corner of the artistic world that fails to inspire as many women as men, or indeed actively turns them away? To answer this question, I think it’s important first to recognise that sexism is still alive and well in the wider Classical Music world, as evidenced by the under-representation of women in positions of authority (e.g. conductors, conservatoire professors, section leaders) compared to the fairly even gender split of conservatoire students and other qualified individuals. This in turn sits alongside trends of underrepresentation along race and class lines as well. Dr Christina Scharff wrote a brief but detailed overview of this in her paper for KCL ‘Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession’[1], which I found to be an extremely useful starting point for understanding these issues.


[1] Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession, Kings College London 2015 Dr Christina Scharff https://www.impulse-music.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Equality-and-Diversity-in-Classical-Music-Report.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2bXdG3i62fD2J8MyImF05cNADzZ3dYqtIfeHAk9fRy7zUIGwPuAMs3r1M


The conversation about sexism in the organ world is also linked to a wider conversation of sexism in workplaces associated with the Church, and indeed bullying in those workplaces. It is easy to forget that sexism in its more aggressive manifestations is a subset of bullying behaviour and that, although there has been no formal research yet, horror stories of such behaviour abound in our profession (affecting both men and women).


An Organ Scholar in a Cathedral, for example, is at the bottom of a tall power structure and has very little agency with which to challenge the behaviour of their superiors. They may not know what the workplace policy on bullying is, or how to access a mediation service if indeed such a thing exists. Conversations can be impossible because those in authority feel duty bound to replicate the experience they had as Organ Scholars, which was also not acceptable. I was once told, in response to being a bit slow to give chords etc in rehearsal, that what I really needed was ‘(insert name here) swearing at you in rehearsal to speed you up’. No. That person needs to get a grip and learn to behave professionally in front of their colleagues and in front of children.


Conversations about sexism in the organ world are difficult, often uncomfortable and can be met with quite strong resistance. I am grateful to SWO for inviting my thoughts on this, and remaining a forward-facing rallying point for those who hope to change our status quo for the better.



One of the major resistance points encountered in conversations about sexism is that we don’t necessarily agree what it is. We might all agree that taking a candidate for a job less seriously because she’s a woman is sexist and wrong, but less extreme examples of sexism are more common and harder to agree upon. We might all agree that sexism is bad, but because of that we can’t imagine any of the nice people we know being sexist and we certainly wouldn’t want to be labelled as such ourselves. The result is that we create distance between ourselves and a rather cartoonish and unrelatable idea of what sexism is.


To be clear, it is not necessarily a sleazy boss patting his secretary on the bum on the way out of the office. It could be unconsciously valuing a male colleague’s opinion more highly than that of a female colleague or happening to use certain terms to describe the same trait in colleagues along gendered lines e.g. emotional vs passionate, bossy vs assertive. It could be devising a range of branded ties and cufflinks without thought for more feminine accessories reinforcing the idea that, although women are tolerated as guests at the table, they will never be members of the club.


Another common problem in having a conversation about sexism (or any -ism you would care to mention) is when the particular comes up against the general. In talking about systemic biases in our environment, we are talking at the level of large groups of people interacting and general patterns of behaviour being observed. Pointing out a successful woman in a male dominated career isn’t evidence against sexism existing, and neither should an aspiring young female organist have to see sexism as an insurmountable obstacle to having a high-flying career.


Groups labels such as ‘woman’, ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ also have this problem of being limited in usefulness when it comes to discussing individuals, as it is impossible to fully untangle these threads from where they intersect in someone’s unique lived experience. It’s important to remember that there is no single defining experience of womanhood in the organ world, for example the obstacles in our profession faced by a white woman from the South of England will most likely be different from those experienced by a South Asian woman from the North of England.


Evidence of sexism is also divided along particular/general lines. The data presented by Scharff, for example, allows us to see global trends in representation (or more likely under-representation) of women and those of minority ethnic backgrounds but doesn’t give much insight into the experience of a particular individual. The only recourse we have here is anecdotal evidence, which requires us to listen and be open to each other’s experiences.


Here I have some particular insights to offer, having previously been read as female in social situations and now being read as male. With a different name, I was described as headstrong and difficult to work with, but now I am a natural leader who stands his ground. Emails asking for recital opportunities are answered much more frequently, and more care is taken to engage with my promotional materials. People are more likely to ask my opinion and less likely to dismiss me as argumentative when I don’t necessarily agree with them.

The scientist in me wants to correct for other factors which aren’t held constant between these two scenarios: I am now more experienced and accomplished (I would hope!) as a performer and teacher than I was in 2016, not to mention all the subtle positive changes which come from a more comfortable existence post-transition. There’s no way to do this rigorously, any more than it’s possible to separate sexism from other factors when they arrive in combination for anyone else, but I think it highly unlikely that sexism didn’t play a major part given how marked and immediate the changes I observed in others’ behaviour were.


So where does this leave us? In the wider Classical Music world, formal measures to mitigate selection bias and address under-representation, such as blind auditions and quotas, are already coming into play. It is hard to see how quotas would help even out the gender balance for organists as we aren’t recruited in a bunch like string players and imbalance is already established as early as organ courses for teenagers. What we can do, as individuals as well as in organisations such as SWO, is keep the conversation about inequalities on the table. We can recognise that we don’t live in a perfectly meritocratic profession (if we did, we would be forced to conclude that women are just less good at the organ than men..!) so success and failure aren’t only down to how deserving and hard-working an individual is: there are stronger forces at work in our environment. We can change that environment to be one that is more welcoming and inspiring for those that don’t fit the stereotype of an organist, and by doing so open up our wonderful corner of artistic treasure to more music lovers.




One of the UK’s busiest young organists, Jeremiah’s work has taken him across Europe and to America. His work has been broadcast on television and radio in the UK and Europe, both as a soloist and accompanist. Upcoming projects include recitals in venues such as Uppsala Cathedral, Sées Cathedral, and Selby Abbey, where he will open next year’s Celebrity recital series.


Jeremiah combines his recital work with the post of Associate Director of Music at All Saints Margaret Street, and various educational projects. He is regularly called upon to give masterclasses and help students prepare for diploma examinations. Jeremiah’s particular passion is introducing children to the organ, and he currently teaches four groups of state school students, whose lessons are sponsored by Inspiring Organists (part of the RCO’s outreach), Union Chapel Islington, the Church of Our Lady St John’s Wood and the St John Kennington Organ Studentship Scheme.