Spotlight Media

Explore the lives of inspiring organists, past and present,

in our Spotlight articles.

  • SWO

Anne Marsden Thomas on her career and why she has written and compiled so many books for the student organist

Why is education so important?

Every student is full of untapped potential in all areas, including music. Teaching is about unleashing that potential. Witnessing a student’s joy as they achieve their ambition is a wonderful privilege. When I teach, my aim is to help each student believe in their ability to make music on the organ, building their skill through careful training, helping them to express the music and providing opportunities for them to shine. Every student, whatever their age, starting point or ambition, is worth helping. I don’t believe that some are more ‘talented’ than others: anyone can show ‘talent’ if they are given opportunity, training and confidence. That belief inspires my sense of responsibility as a teacher, meaning that every student I encounter can achieve great things if I teach them well!

Is teaching a particularly female vocation?

I’m not sure. Looking at lists of organ teachers would seem to contradict that – there are probably far more men than women teaching the organ – but that’s because women organists are in a minority (though not for much longer, if SWO has anything to do with it!).

At what clientele are your books pitched and why?

All my books are aimed at student organists, from the first lesson to Grade 8 standard. That is where there was a gaping hole in the market when I started. I never imagined I would write so many books – 22 so far, and 2 more due for publication next year – but every book has been prompted by a need I found when teaching.

Did your teaching career ever get in the way of your playing?

Teaching and playing go hand in hand, really. One needs to play the repertoire to teach it, and experiencing the challenge of performing enables one to give relevant advice to students facing public performance. But I learn so much from my students, too, and that has greatly informed my own playing.

What have been the highlights of your career?

I have had many wonderful opportunities through my career – playing recitals here and in other countries, directing the music at a major City church for 35 years, teaching a huge variety of students – and it’s impossible to pinpoint any one highlight. But perhaps the greatest highlights were receiving an MBE for services to organ playing in 2015 and, 2 years later, becoming the first woman to receive the RCO Medal.

What gives you most pride?

Proving, through National Learn the Organ Year 1990, that, contrary to popular belief, there was a huge demand for organ teaching. That campaign set out to recruit 500 new organists but succeeded in recruiting 2,000. I founded St Giles International Organ School on the back of that campaign, which eventually became the RCO accredited teacher scheme.

Which of your many publications is your favourite?

The one I’m working on now, written in conjunction with the composer and organist Frederick Stocken. It is the New Oxford Organ Method, but its structure is quite unlike anything else on the market.

You have been such an inspiration and a great mentor to so many organists over the years – how does this make you feel?

That’s extraordinarily generous of you! How do I feel? – I feel lucky. My career started at a time when I think most people would agree that organ teaching was at a low ebb in this country. I love teaching, so I was determined to do something to raise organ-teaching standards, encourage more organists to teach to a high standard, nurture all the students I encountered, and provide better resources for them. That, together with playing in concerts and church, has given me an exceptionally rewarding career.

Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, FRSCM, ARAM, FRCO, BMus, Dip RAM, ARCM, LRAM, is an organist, organ teacher and author of 22 books for organ students and church organists. Anne teaches organ at The Royal Academy of Music, both in the Junior and Senior departments. Since 2006 she has taught the LRAM course there which trains those wishing to qualify as organ teachers. She has taught hundreds of students over the last 45 years, with many of these students continuing into the music profession. She has wide experience of examining grade examinations and diplomas. She has been Director of Music at St. Giles Cripplegate Church since 1982. Although she no longer gives organ recitals, her concert and teaching work has taken her to the USA, Canada, Japan, Europe and all over the UK and she has made several commercial recordings. She has also published many articles for organists and their teachers, including a long-running series ‘Anne Marsden Thomas’s Organ Lessons’ published in both Church Music Quarterly and The American Organist. Anne has received several honorary awards, including the FRSCM and ARAM. In March 2017 she was the first woman to receive the RCO Medal. She was awarded the MBE in the Queen's New Year Honours 2015 for 'services to organ music'. Anne is a founder and co-chair of the Society of Women Organists.

  • SWO

The rewards and pitfalls involved in composing for the organ

Cecilia McDowall, composer

What instruments did you play when you were growing up?

I began learning the piano when I was seven, though as a five-year-old I always enjoyed ‘messing about' at the keyboard. The sounds entranced me. Later I studied the violin and oboe for a bit and then, more seriously, the cello. I remember being let loose on the tenor horn at one point but soon realised my incompatibility!

What was the first piece you wrote with an organ part?

I’m not entirely sure but I think my first real piece of organ writing will have been ‘Sounding heaven and earth’, the first of my George Herbert trilogy commissioned from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, performed by Leon Charles in 2010.

If you didn’t play the organ growing up, how did you approach writing for it?

I always enjoy talking with organists about the rich array of possibilities on the instrument and usually, after writing an organ work, I consult with kind organist friends as to whether the writing is ‘organic’. I’m always keen to make sure the writing is not unrealistic. My first experience of playing the organ was for a church service in Wales when I was about 12 . . . I soon appreciated that its complexities were beyond my ability! Far better to leave to those with a real technical and musical understanding, and just enjoy the colours and the magnificence of the organ as a listener, and later, as a composer.

What do you think are the differences for a choir being accompanied by the organ, piano, or other instruments?

One of the differences – and concerns – I’ve encountered has been to do with organ pitch. On a couple of occasions I found the organ was tuned at variance with standard pitch and provided a challenge for the choirs to meld. But more usually the organ provides strength, subtlety and colour, inspiring choirs to add dynamic nuance to the tone.

How prescriptive are you with regards to registration?

I am very aware of my own limitations in understanding the great scope of the organ and prefer to leave registrations to the judgement of the performer. I will often write something descriptive which I hope might give a flavour of the desired colour. Registrations can be so different in America and in Europe and I hope by leaving options open the organist will be able to select the best available stops for the occasion.

Katherine Dienes-Williams performs an extract from Cecilia McDowall's O Antiphon Sequence

Your George Herbert trilogy for organ has proved very popular liturgically – any idea why?

The metaphysical poetry of George Herbert brings great depths and insight in a devotional context and purely as inspiration to any composer his poetic imagery strikes home. Perhaps it is significant that Herbert was a musician; there are so many references to music in his poetry.

Have you ever experienced any opposition/prejudice as a composer due to being female?

I don’t feel I have, though I haven’t been looking for it or expecting difficulties. As one who has come late to composing I have just been focused on trying to do the best I can in all I write.

Cecilia McDowall's organ works:

Celebration (2016) OUP 9780193406131

Church bells beyond the stars (2013) OUP 9780193393363

O Antiphon Sequence (2018) OUP 9780193522947

Sacred and Hallowed Fire (2013) OUP 9780193394018

Sounding heaven and earth (2011) OUP 9780193378865

Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns halt (2012) OUP 9780193386624

Born in London in 1951, Cecilia McDowall has won many awards and been eight times short-listed for the British Composer Awards. In 2014 she won the British Composer Award for Choral Music. Much of McDowall’s choral music is performed worldwide, as well as her orchestral music. Recent important commissions include one for the BBC Singers, Westminster Cathedral Choir, London Mozart Players and a joint commission from the City of London Sinfonia and the Scott Polar Research Institute to celebrate the life of the British Antarctic explorer, Captain Scott, in Seventy Degrees Below Zero. Three Latin Motets were recorded by the renowned American choir, Phoenix Chorale; this Chandos recording, Spotless Rose, won a Grammy award and was nominated for Best Classical Album. New commissions for 2016 include works for the BBC Singers, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and a new song cycle for Roderick Williams, amongst others. Earlier this year the BBC Singers premiered When time is broke, three Shakespeare settings. Oxford University Press has signed McDowall as an ‘Oxford’ composer and she is currently ‘composer-in-residence’ at Dulwich College, London. In 2013 she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Portsmouth.

  • SWO

A woman in the organ maintenance business

Laura Johnson, tuner at Harrison and Harrison

How did you get into this business?

I used to want to be an organ builder when I was little. I would go into the workshop in Durham and play with the scraps in the metal shop or watch Alf, an ‘old hand’, at his bench, or sometimes I accompanied my father when he was fixing a fault on an organ. Aged seven, I came in handy one Saturday afternoon in Durham Cathedral when, shortly before a big service, I managed to fit into an awkward space to fix a cypher. That day the service's procession was accompanied up the nave by an organ improvisation on ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be?’. Then I became a teenager and had other ideas. I studied languages at Bristol University, before returning to plan A for what was intended to be a post-graduate ‘gap’ year. I went on to complete my organ building apprenticeship, moved into organ tuning and maintenance, and have now been working in the business for 18 years.

Do you play as well as tune?

My skills as a tuner are better than my skills as a player, but I do play the organ sometimes. I’m more of a pianist than an organist.

How many instruments are you responsible for?

The London tuning round is shared between three of us. I work part-time, and have a couple of dozen organs on my list, but we also swap about depending on availability, so I get to visit many more organs than that.

How many other women organ technicians/tuners do you know?

More now than when I started out. At the beginning I used to find that the organists would often talk to my assistant (usually older than me and male) rather than to me, but now it’s quite normal to be a woman in the trade. As part of my apprenticeship, I went to organ building school in Germany where 10 out of 60 of us were women.

Did you find it difficult being accepted?

Not really. When I started out colleagues were sometimes a bit polite around me, but that didn’t last!

What is the hardest thing about what you do?

Nowadays the main issue is getting the timing right so that the children aren’t left at the school gate at the end of the school day. I am over-reliant on London transport behaving itself.

What is the most rewarding thing about tuning?

I get to see some wonderful places – some of the really big London cathedrals, of course, but I also enjoy going to the smaller churches (and the biscuits are sometimes better there). I enjoy doing site-work, as it makes a nice change to work as part of a team, but I don’t do that so often these days. However, our take on the London tuning round can be fairly generous geographically-speaking, (for example stretching as far as Portsmouth amongst other places), so I do still get to travel a bit. Fixing faults keeps things interesting, as no two organs are the same, though some faults are definitely more satisfying than others to fix, and some can of course be downright infuriating. I like the work because, even on a tough day, I still find it immensely rewarding to be involved in the upkeep of such beautiful instruments. I also feel part of a continuous history of the organ: often inside an instrument one will come across a signature or bit of graffiti from a previous tuner, builder or chorister, or perhaps an idiosyncratic way of fixing a fault that was obviously only meant to be temporary but is still there and doing its job (or not) years later. Over the years I have had some organs to look after which have very much been on their last legs, meaning that every visit involves choosing to concentrate on either tuning or fault-fixing as there is no time for both. Seeing these organs going back to the workshop for restoration and then getting to know them again in full working order and sounding their best feels like a new lease of life for the tuner too.

What do you do in your spare time?

I am training as an upholsterer, and I also do some translating work. I enjoy playing the piano and spending time outdoors with my family. We have a house in Kent, where I tinker with various bits of minor DIY.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into organ maintenance?

Start out as a note-holder to get the flavour of it – we always have trouble in finding enough assistants, so you’d be doing us a great favour! Our boss at H&H started out as one of our note-holders.

Laura Johnson (née Venning) works as a London tuner for Harrison & Harrison. She started out at H&H, then spent several years working with Manders in London. As part of her three-year apprenticeship with them, she attended the Oscar-Walcker Organ building School in Ludwigsburg, Germany, for which she first had to learn German in a great hurry. She has also worked for organ builders in Strasbourg and Latvia. Major projects that she has been involved in include The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, and Stockholm City Hall. She graduated with a double first in French and Italian from Bristol University, and speaks five languages. Laura is married to Simon, whom she met when she was working at St Albans Abbey, and they have two children, aged 8 and 6.