The inspirational portfolio career of Hilary Norris
*The Marches is a glorious part of the country on the Herefordshire/Welsh border!
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was the fifth of six children in a musical family, and had an unusual childhood. Born in Africa, we moved to Malaysia where my mother ran a music workshop for local children. I played the recorder from the age of about three, and could read music before I could read books. I started formal piano lessons when I was seven, but spent most of my time making up songs, accompanying myself on the piano.
What made you want to learn the organ?
Some years after we returned to England I joined a church choir and was encouraged by the organist, Trevor Tipple, to learn the organ. I enjoyed accompanying the choir, leading the hymns, and also the sheer challenge of playing the organ. Most of all I loved the fact that I could contribute to music that had a real function along with the community of all ages that was the choir. Trevor also enabled me to have experience of training and conducting the choir, and passed on his passion for the music of J. S. Bach. I was a sociable, normal teenager, but loved nothing more than working on a tricky piece by Bach in the dark!
Did you have any other musical input in your teenage years?
I also played the clarinet and violin, loved singing, and was unclear for a while about which instrument to pursue. I was encouraged to apply for an organ scholarship at Oxford and this made the decision for me. I read music at Keble College, Oxford where I had many interesting duties as the organ scholar, including accompanying or directing the college choir, conducting the college choral society and orchestra, and organising concerts. After graduating I did a PGCE before going to the Sweelinck Conservatoire in Amsterdam, where I spent two years specialising in organ (Jacques van Oortsmerssen) and harpsichord (Anneke Uittenbosch). In Amsterdam I had the opportunity to learn through playing some of the finest instruments in the world combined with the strict but inspirational instruction of Jacques van Oortmerssen. To pay for the groceries while I was studying, I also played the organ in many different environments, including for chapel services in a men’s high-security prison, playing for a Nigerian congregation and at De Boom Catholic Church.
Then I went on to do a Masters in Music at the Royal Academy of Music, London, again specialising in harpsichord (with Terence Charlston and organ with David Titterington), but also doing research into early keyboard music and techniques.
What obstacles, if any, did you have to overcome?
My first teacher, Trevor Tipple, gave me every opportunity and encouragement I could have wished for. In hindsight I realise how fortunate I was and I’m very grateful. The church, St Martin’s Road, Worcester, also had a very supportive congregation and inspiring priests, important factors in my development. When I decided to apply to Oxford, Trevor wisely arranged for me to have lessons with Adrian Partington, then Assistant Organist at Worcester Cathedral, during a crucial year of preparation.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
When I took up my place at Oxford, it wasn’t easy. I had been to state schools, was entirely inexperienced in dealing with a certain private school confidence and was also unusual in being female. I was the first female organ scholar at Keble: not all of the key people I had to work with were happy about this and throughout my time I met with some unhelpful attitudes and comments. Of course many others were positive. It was a time of hot debate about the ordination of women (the first in the UK being ordained in 1994) and feelings about the contribution of women to the church in general were running high on both sides. My time afterwards in Holland was helpful since the Northern Europeans were much more egalitarian about women in general.
At the end of my studies I had to decide whether to pursue a career as a Cathedral Organist. At this point I was playing a great deal of chamber music as a harpsichordist and organist, enjoying work as an accompanist on the piano and also working part-time as a teacher. I enjoyed my varied life both musically and generally. I also knew that I wanted to have children. I didn’t see how I could bring up children while meeting the demands of a full -time Cathedral job. So, although you could deem the call to motherhood an obstacle, for me the joys of bringing up my children have been the most fundamental of my life, so ‘obstacle’ hardly seems an appropriate word.
What sort of time do you have to devote to your own playing?
This has varied enormously as the demands of life have changed. As a teenager I spent many hours playing through piles of music (and songs) for fun, along with a moderate amount of formal practice. In Amsterdam and while at the Academy I had time to devote about 3 hours a day to my playing. Since then the amount of time to spend on my playing is entirely dictated by what I have to prepare for.
Have you given up playing temporarily at any point?
How important to you is teaching the organ? How do you maintain a good balance between playing and teaching?
Teaching is very important to me. I like people of all ages and find them endlessly fascinating. I enjoy considering what an individual needs to develop but also find the general patterns of what most people find difficult interesting. Both elements have helped me to improve my own practice and performance. Another demand of teaching is that you often have to analyse and make helpful comments about a piece that you don’t know. This is particularly true of teaching adults and helps me to draw on years of education and musical experience in a demanding way.
I am always learning new repertoire myself, partly because performances with others demand this and also because I make myself include new pieces in every recital I do. It is important to continue to grapple with technical and musical issues, and also to understand the demands and pleasures of performing.
You are Director of Studies of DHOTS (the Diocese of Hereford Organists Training Scheme). It was created by Peter Dyke, organist at Hereford Cathedral, wasn’t it? Tell us all about this. What range of abilities does a scheme like DHOTS cater for? Do you do all the teaching yourself?
The scheme was set up in 2000 by Peter to encourage people of all ages to take up the organ and to provide training for organists of all levels. Many organists are pianists who have been persuaded to play for local churches, often with little or no training. The scheme provides lessons, publications and assessments to support various elements of organ playing, with an emphasis on the skills needed for service playing; playing hymns, psalms, accompanying anthems, learning voluntaries. We also arrange specific workshops for schools. DHOTS has several teachers taking on pupils in particular areas of the Diocese (and beyond). Some teachers have particular expertise in one area or another, eg improvisation, French classical music or keyboard harmony, so students can have lessons with a particular teacher to suit their needs. We do take on complete beginners, but most students play the piano to a reasonable level. When this is the case, the main areas of study include learning to play the pedals, organ technique, management of the organ, and service playing in general. Amateur organists of all levels are playing for services in a wide variety of settings. Some need help to learn a basic hymn at a good standard with their manuals only, while others who are fairly accomplished wish to widen their repertoire, learn about a particular musical style, or want to work at a particular skill, like improvisation or transposition. DHOTS also runs workshops for students, giving them a chance to meet and discuss a particular topic, such as the playing of modern worship songs.
What is your favourite thing about teaching?
The most fulfilling aspect of being a teacher is when a student improves, whether that be in a technical sense or in their musical understanding. Pupils are always excited when they know that they are improving and it is a privilege to facilitate this. In the DHOTS scheme one important aspect is preparing students for particular circumstances e.g. their first funeral service, first hymn with pedals etc. It is a very practical way of teaching with tangible results for the pupil.
What is your least favourite thing about teaching?
Some adults find it hard to follow advice about what pieces are appropriate for them. Most learn to trust a teacher’s view on this, but a few don’t, constantly presenting you with pieces that are too difficult.
Do you have other playing/conducting duties in this lovely part of the world you live in?
I am Director of Music at Leominster Priory, a role which involves playing for services and conducting the traditional choir for the Eucharist, Choral Evensong and special services. Much of my energy goes into preparing and motivating the choir, especially the children, but I really enjoy playing for all kinds of services, including funerals.
I am also Associate Conductor for the Leominster Choral Society, Deputy Conductor for two other choirs and an orchestra and, for many years, ran school choirs. I love working with choirs. I had singing lessons while at college, but have had lessons with Margaret Field for the last few years to keep improving my own vocal technique. There is nothing more important in music than singing. I am forever encouraging my organ students to sing lines in order to understand them.
Much of my concert work is as an accompanist, including continuo work on harpsichord and organ. I play with soloists, small groups, opera companies, orchestras and choirs, performing music from many different periods. My experience as a continuo player has been especially informative. Constantly thinking about bass lines has changed me as a musician, giving me a much greater understanding of the compositional process and the rhythmic and textural complexities of music, whatever the style.
Recently I have been experimenting with duet concerts; organ and another instrument. This has drawn me into a world of entirely new repertoire, including many orchestral transcriptions, and is an interesting way to engage the public.
Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ?
Working alone on difficult repertoire in a cold, dark church can feel like a strange thing to do. However, the musical understanding you gain through learning the organ is incredibly broad and will give you the flexibility to choose many musical paths in the future, whether as an amateur or professional, particularly if you have been involved with a choir as well. Work includes accompanying all sorts of combinations of instrumentalists and singers, running choirs, teaching, composing etc. This kind of work can be very flexible, making choices about family life easier.
The world has moved on, and female organists have become a normal part of life. However, there are still pockets of discrimination, mostly because a woman has not fulfilled a particular role before. If you find yourself being patronised or treated in a peculiar way, remember that the proof is in the pudding – prepare well and do a good job with confidence and grace.
Do you think your organ playing career would be easier if you had been a man?
In some ways, yes, including the fact that I would probably have been more single-minded about a career. My life is rich and varied, and has included the demands of bringing up my children and caring for my mother and mother-in-law. No doubt these commitments have limited my career, but they have also shaped me as a person and a musician. Much of Bach’s music is all the more poignant to me having nursed someone I loved through considerable pain and suffering, and, when I play a joyful piece of Buxtehude, my sons are never far from my mind. Also, when a chorister runs through the door, falls over and ends up needing some first aid and TLC, it is no problem.
Whether you are a child or an adult, SING - preferably in a choir - and play with other instrumentalists. A deep sense of pulse is the hardest and most important thing to learn and is best learnt with others. Be respectful and encouraging to the many amateurs of all different levels playing throughout the country: many are crucial in keeping church music going and they are often isolated and are playing in difficult circumstances. Music is a wonderful way to nurture yourself, but is also a passion to share with the wider community. You are fortunate to have something so positive to contribute.
Hilary Norris is a full-time musician based in the lovely country town of Leominster, in Herefordshire, where she is Director of Music at Leominster Priory. She is much in demand as a teacher, both privately and as Director of Studies of the Diocese of Hereford Organists’ Training Scheme (DHOTS) and regularly performs in organ, choir and chamber concerts throughout the UK. She also gives recitals across the UK.