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SPOTLIGHT ON… Ann Elise Smoot – international concert organist and renowned educator


What was your training as an organist?

I started to play the piano when I was five. I was fortunate that my excellent piano teacher was also a keen amateur organist, who played in a few local churches. When I was eleven, she suggested I started to play the organ. At the same time, the organist at my church was a former pupil of my piano teacher, so there was a connection there. And he was a very, very fine organist; I was lucky to hear the organ being played extremely well every week at church. The organ at my church, however, was absolutely terrible, and this was partly a blessing in disguise as I think it taught me to be creative in really listening to instruments and finding effective combinations of sounds. But it also meant I didn’t take playing the organ entirely seriously as a possible profession until I went to Yale. I studied there with Thomas Murray (who also really taught me so much about registration, finding colours, thinking outside the box with registration and organ management), and there were some terrific instruments, most notably the renowned EM Skinner in Woolsey Hall. Even then, I thought for a long time about being a lawyer, but organ won out in the end. In between finishing my BA at Yale and doing the second year of my Master’s Degree (which I started in my final year as an undergraduate) I studied organ and harpsichord for a year at the RAM. I had won a fellowship from Yale to study in London one summer, and fell in love with the UK. I studied with some wonderful organists: Catherine Ennis, Peter Hurford, Thomas Trotter, and Gillian Weir to name some. All were generous teachers who gave me different things, and I am so grateful for all of their help and support.


What brought you to the UK, and why did you decide to stay here?

I obtained funding from Yale to study here for a summer between the final two years of my undergraduate degree, which led to my eventually coming back for one year at the RAM. The standard of organ and choral music in the UK is so high; that’s what really lured me to stay. I also knew that I could probably more easily establish a freelance, portfolio career here than I could in the USA, for a variety of reasons (not least the immense size of the US). Freelancers in the US on the organ are pretty rare.


You have given performances throughout the US, UK and Europe. Can you give us an insight into the life of an international concert organist?

At the moment, my career focus is on education. I haven’t given a public recital in eight years, by choice. There are lots of reasons why I made this choice. Much of it is to do with a very serious health scare I experienced during my pregnancy with my son (now 7), which made me think about life very differently. That experience led to re-evaluating the cost to my physical and mental health of juggling performing and travel with a young family.


Life as a travelling performer was great fun, though, and may well be something I return to in the future. I am someone who is very happy with my own company, and I always enjoyed travelling on my own, getting to know new instruments, and having that sort of deep involvement with pieces of music that I loved, trying to bring them to life on different organs and share them with audiences. I enjoyed visiting new cities and countries, although I can’t say that being on tour provides you with many opportunities to get to know the places you are working in very well – I was always conscious of focussing most of my energy on doing my job.


I think the most wonderful moments I had on tour – apart from meeting some lovely people with whom I became friends – was the magic of being alone in a great cathedral or ancient place of worship, in the dark, after hours. Being the last person in a great building at night is a huge privilege, and it’s one I never tire of.


I love history, and to play on some wonderful historic organs in Europe has sometimes moved me to tears (though fortunately not during a recital). When you play an old instrument it’s different somehow from looking at an old painting, for me anyway; yes, you can see the brush strokes and marvel at the artistry of the painter, but with a musical instrument it’s like hearing a living voice from the past. You are hearing sounds that others heard hundreds of years ago. There’s something very immediate, visceral, and moving about that.


Of course, lots of strange things happen if you travel enough, too, and you definitely see a wide cross-section of humanity when you’re stuck for hours in an airport waiting for a delayed flight, for example. I am really fortunate in that my travel karma seems to be pretty good, though, so I never missed a concert due to travel problems, although I’ve missed plenty of practice sessions and had to play on rather less rehearsal than is ideal. That’s where experience really comes to your rescue.


Given that you are currently on a break from public recitals, where and when do you get to play the organ?

I haven’t had a regular church job since 1999, which is when the recitals really began to take off after a competition win. I play on our very nice little house organ, and I’m obviously demonstrating and so forth in lessons on various organs all over the place. Most of my creative energy goes into figuring out how to help my current students in various places (Eton, Cambridge, a few private pupils, and of course on the Oundle for Organists courses) and it’s something I find endlessly fascinating. I’m constantly thinking about how I can do it better, how I can reach a student better, how I can structure a course better.


You were, until recently, Chairman of the Trustees for YOST – the Young Organ Scholars Trust. Can you tell us about the work of this trust?

I stepped down as Chair in May, having taken it on in 2018. YOST is now chaired by David Saint, and we are really lucky to have him. I’m still serving as Treasurer, for the time being. YOST was the brainchild of a lovely man named Christopher Cowell, who wanted to help train up the next generation of church musicians; he was deeply concerned by the decline in numbers of organists. He also wanted to make sure that young musicians who couldn’t afford lessons could still learn to play the organ – so important in this day and age when access to free music education is constantly under threat with cuts to arts programmes in schools and communities. Chris was a retired Headmaster, and he approached a former student of his, Dr Martin Clarke, to help fund his vision for the Trust. It was established in 2013. You can find out more about YOST on our website, www.yost.org.uk. YOST pupils study with approved teachers, with an emphasis on making sure they gain some liturgical experience (when they are ready). We also run group events once or twice a year – just starting up again after the pandemic – so that pupils can meet each other and enjoy a day of study and performance together.


You are also Director of Creative Oundle for Organists (COfO), which has been running for almost 40 years. What does Oundle for Organists offer young organists and why has this proved to be so successful?

I feel extremely honoured to carry on the important work of COfO, and am coming up to my tenth anniversary in the job. The residential courses that we run are a vital way for young organists not only to receive instruction and inspiration, but to meet each other. We all know that the organ can be a very lonely profession, and some young organists know no one else their own age who shares their interest. So the social component of our courses is just as important as the musical component. I love working with teenagers, and I choose my tutors carefully: not only are they top musicians, but I know they also will enhance our friendly, warm, and family-like ethos. That is really important to me. We provide support, advice, introductions, and whatever help we can to our students throughout the year; we don’t just say goodbye at the end of a course. That’s important, because finding your way into the organ music profession, unless you come from a musical family, is a completely alien world to most people. Parents need help navigating the complexities of everything from finding a place to practise, to learning about university organ scholarships and what’s needed to succeed in obtaining and holding one, to learning about options for study abroad or auditioning for a conservatoire place. We are told over and over again that COfO courses are the highlights of many of a student’s year and that they change lives for the better. Ultimately, that is what keeps me going in the face of the huge obstacles that all arts organisations are facing right now, like the ever-increasing difficulty finding funding.


Can you tell us about any other educational projects that you are involved with, or which you have been involved with in the past?

Education has always been a big part of my life and career, even when I was playing a lot of recitals. I started teaching beginner piano pupils when I was a teenager, so I’ve always been interested in teaching. I started working as a tutor for the St Giles International Organ School, thanks to Anne Marsden Thomas, when I first came to the UK, and I learned a lot by watching her teach and by watching her run the school. She then started the St Giles Junior Organ Conservatoire, a programme which brought young organists together on Saturdays for a variety of master classes on various topics. Anne then handed the Junior Organ Conservatoire over to me to run, until the St Giles IOS was taken under the umbrella of the RCO. I ran the organ department at Trinity Laban Conservatoire for two years between 2011 and 2013. I co-founded the London Organ Forum with William Whitehead, an annual study day that looked at elements of the organ repertoire in a wider cultural context; the Forum arose from a rather hazy, wine-filled evening when we were bemoaning the fact that many organists never listen to any other kinds of music. We ran it for 10 years, before handing it over to the RCO. I was Education Editor at The Organists’ Review for several years, which I enjoyed – I’ve always liked writing, and I enjoyed commissioning articles and playing a small role in shaping the publication. I love to do master classes and study days, generally, and get asked to do them often. Teaching a class is a very different dynamic from that of a one-to-one lesson, and it’s one I very much enjoy. All the teaching on our COfO courses is done in small groups, so I get quite a lot of practice!


During the time that you have been involved with YOST, COfO and other educational projects, have you noticed any increase in interest in the organ amongst girls? Why do you think this is?

Yes, there is certainly more interest from girls. The gender balance on COfO courses is certainly more balanced than it was; now, at least a third of the students on each course are girls. When I started ten years ago, we sometimes had as few as two or three girls per course. There are probably many reasons for this: an increase in the number of girls’ choirs at cathedrals is perhaps one factor that has now started to filter into more girls taking up the organ. More women in senior clergy roles, more visibility of women in the church may be another. The great work of organisations like the RCO, SWO, the Jennifer Bate Academy, and many other institutions – plus groups on social media – has also played a big part.


It’s interesting, and heartening, talking to the girls who come to COfO courses; I’ve asked a lot of them whether or not they think gender is a barrier to playing the organ. They have all said that they feel gender is no longer the major factor in people feeling excluded from organ study, and certainly I do not sense any reluctance of girls to play in classes on COfO courses – or certainly no more reluctance than I see from boys. The boys and the girls support each other in the classes; I think the dynamic in education generally has changed hugely in the 30 years that I’ve lived in the UK, with things becoming less gendered in many schools.


I see this in the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, too, which was the first Royal Peculiar to take girls as choristers, singing alongside the boys. The girls and boys are colleagues; there’s no odd dynamic based on gender (that I can see), and I think this is largely due to changes in education as a whole, with admirable efforts being made not to pigeon-hole certain attributes or activities as being ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’.


No, rather than gender, I think (and the students I have talked to agree) that the major barrier to learning to play the organ is now money. Music education in state schools has been cut ruthlessly over the past decades. There is nearly 50% less take up of Music A level than there was roughly ten years ago. Music lessons are expensive, and most state schools do not possess organs. Unless a student goes to church or to an independent school with an organ and (often) a chapel music programme, they won’t encounter the organ as an instrument in their daily lives. So in my view, the biggest obstacle to learning to play the organ is probably not gender – though we mustn’t be complacent and should keep up the good work here – it’s socio-economic background and lack of exposure to good music education, and to instruments.


You are married to James Vivian (Director of Music at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle). As two professional organists, how do you manage to balance work commitments and family life?

A rather flippant answer would be ‘by not getting enough sleep’ or ‘with difficulty’. There’s no way to sugar-coat it; it can be hard. You can’t always do everything you want to do. It’s tempting to try, especially when you see music in public life and education being eroded, and political will to support the arts at what must be an all-time low – you feel even more compelled to step up and continue to give 100%, all the time, to make a difference. But I have to keep telling myself that it’s not all up to me. James would say the same thing, I think. Hopefully our children see us trying to make a difference and respect that, but we also try very hard not to let that make either of us miss out on what’s going on in their lives. I work odd hours (early in the morning/late at night) so that I can be there for their projects and things, to pick them up from school and hear about their day.


What do you like to do in your spare time, away from the organ?

I love to read, to play with my dog (Pippa, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), to spend time doing crafts with the children (despite not being very good at it) or to visit somewhere with the whole family. We live on site for James’s job, and so it’s really important for him to get away from work, which means most Saturdays will find us out somewhere on a walk or a visit, rain or shine. Fortunately, both children are good walkers and don’t mind rain. At the moment I’m watching ‘MasterChef: The Professionals’ with James. He’s a great cook; he looks after the vast majority of the food-related things in our house, thank goodness. I most definitely am not a great cook, but I like to watch people who are. We love to have friends over, but we haven’t got back into that enough since the pandemic and it’s something we are determined to change in 2024.


It’s been interesting to support both children in their interests, and that really takes up a lot of my ‘spare’ time. My daughter plays the cello and sings, and is good at both, but she’s also a gifted athlete and it’s been very interesting to see her journey with that and compare it to how I help my students; I’ve learned a lot and can also help her because I know what it’s like to perform - not in the sporting arena, although it’s not really so different. I spend a lot of time standing by a netball court, as she plays for a variety of teams, in all weathers, and help out with team stuff if I can. My son is hugely into mechanics, trains, science (actually both children love science), reading, and figuring out how things work, and it’s been fun to learn with him about those things, because I do not have a mechanically gifted bone in my body – I find opening a new cereal box challenging. As a working parent, ‘spare’ time is hard to come by and I don’t mind that at all – health and longevity permitting, there will hopefully be plenty of time to sit under a tree and read later when they’ve left home. They’re only young once, and I intend to enjoy that time.

 

Ann Elise Smoot is the Director of Creative Oundle for Organists.


Her recital career took her throughout the United States, Great Britain and Europe. With a repertoire that ranges from the 14th century to the present day, she has received wide critical acclaim for her ability to move between musical eras, styles and genres with sympathy and flair. After completing two degrees at Yale, where she won several prizes for scholarship and for organ playing, she moved to England, where she studied organ and harpsichord at the Royal Academy of Music, and privately with Peter Hurford and Dame Gillian Weir. Success in two major competitions (third prize at St Albans in 1997 and First prize in the American Guild of Organists National Young Artists Competition in 1999) were instrumental in launching her career. Three critically acclaimed recordings have been issued by the JAV label.


Education has always been a major part of Ann Elise’s career, and, for the moment, is where her professional focus lies. In London, in the early part of her career, Ann Elise combined a busy private teaching practice (as part of the St Giles International Organ School) with directing the Junior Organ Conservatoire of London, a unique and highly successful programme of masterclasses for young organists. She also was Head of Organ at Trinity Laban Conservatoire from 2011-2013, and co-founded the London Organ Forum, a study day which examined organ repertoire in its wider cultural context. From 2011-2015 she was Education Editor at The Organists’ Review magazine, and has contributed several articles as a freelance writer to other publications such a Music Teacher Magazine, Classical Music, and Choir and Organ. She is frequently in demand for classes and education events all over the UK, and is an examiner for the Royal College of Organists. She took up her current role as Director of COfO in 2014.


Ann Elise also teaches a sizeable studio of organ scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, and at Eton College.

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