Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

  • SWO

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?


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.

  • SWO

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.

The multi-faceted career of Alison Howell

Describe a typical week.

A typical week includes practising accompaniments for choirs, attending choir practices, playing in concerts, learning continuo parts and solo music for concerts, teaching some piano and organ students, examining for the RSCM, and associated admin.

What made you want to learn the organ? What, if any, obstacles did you have to overcome? Was your school supportive?

I attended a big comprehensive school which, fortunately, had excellent music teachers. Whilst there was no organ in the school they encouraged me to be piano accompanist of the school choir which I found I enjoyed and led me towards my career path.

What was your initial training as an organist? And thereafter, at university or college?

I began organ lessons at the age of 16, having learned the piano from the age of 9. One of my grandfathers was an organist and I was taken along to his church one day to try out the instrument, and then pestered my parents for lessons as it was such fun! The lesson venue was in Yelverton on the western edge of Dartmoor so this involved a weekly trip in all weathers across the moors and a considerable amount of effort from my mother who was the driver. I then went to the Royal Academy of Music and was fortunate to learn with Peter Hurford and Anne Page who were both brilliant musicians and superb teachers. Subsequently I was given bursaries by various trusts, including the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, to study in Holland with Jacques van Oortmerssen and in London with David Sanger. I graduated with BMus (London) and won the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award on passing FRCO. As my career developed, I found that I thrived as a choral accompanist, so I now spend lots of time in this line of work.

Why do you think choral accompaniment is so interesting?

I find choral accompanying most interesting because of the joy of working closely with a group of people aiming towards a performance. Usually the atmosphere is engaging and there is a great sense of camaraderie.

Do you have other playing/conducting duties? Do you have enough time to practise and learn new repertoire?

I work mostly as a choral accompanist and currently play for Bristol Cabot Choir, University of the West of England student singers and choral society, and Cheltenham Choral Society. Other work includes playing for graduation ceremonies and solo recitals. I am trying to finish learning the works of Bach and also include lots of repertoire by women composers in recitals and services.

How much playing do you do in your church? Do you have supportive clergy and a congregation who value the music?

I play most weeks at my church for the morning Eucharist and also for the monthly choral evensong. We have a half-time Director of Music, a thriving choir and very supportive clergy and congregation.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

Some of the highlights include going on choir tour with different groups, playing in a concert with Gillian Weir in the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, accompanying Dame Felicity Lott in a song recital, accompanying choral days with Sir David Willcocks, John Rutter and Bob Chilcott. But mainly I just love the organ and choral repertoire and find it equally enjoyable choosing suitable repertoire for a service in a church with a one manual historic instrument as playing cathedral instruments.

Did your children have music lessons? Are any of them professional musicians? Any organists?

All of my children had music lessons and learned various instruments. Three of them just play for relaxation as adults but the youngest is currently studying music at Chichester University Conservatoire and is switching to first-study organ in the autumn term.

Do you think your organ playing career would have been easier if you had been a man?

I've enjoyed every aspect of being an organist as the job is so varied and involves working with so many different people. I don't think it would have made any difference being a man!

Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ? Do you feel you were treated differently as a girl?

I give similar advice to girls and boys who are starting to learn the instrument..........enjoy learning, find repertoire you find interesting and be prepared to wrap up warmly when you practise!

What is the most rewarding part of your professional life?

The most rewarding aspect of my professional life is the variety of music which I get to play each week, in different venues on many lovely instruments.

Final thoughts?

If you like playing the organ, keep practising, find a good teacher and enjoy the many fine instruments available to play.

Alison Howell MA, FRCO, FISM, LGSM, lives in Bristol and works as a freelance musician. Her main interests are choral and solo accompaniment (both as organist and pianist) and she gives regular solo organ recitals, examines for the RSCM, plays for several choral societies, and is organist of St John the Baptist, Keynsham. Alongside this she has a keen interest in teaching and currently has 7 organ pupils. Her favourite hobby is long-distance walking and she has completed over half of the South West Coast path in stages.