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Spotlight on Diplomacy

Updated: Aug 31, 2019

Cultural differences in the organ world between America and the UK

Katharine Pardee, Betts Fellow in Organ Studies, University of Oxford; Director of Music, Wadham College

When did you come to the UK?

My husband flew over with two of our children on September 10th, 2001, while I was finishing packing back in New York with our daughter, watching the Twin Towers fall. Because no planes were allowed to fly after the attack, it took several weeks before my daughter and I could leave the States.

What brought you here?

My husband and I both felt it was time for a move. My husband is British and wanted to be closer to his elderly parents, and when we were both offered jobs at Oxford we knew it was a situation we could not refuse.

How does the training differ here for young organists from that in the States?

There are significant differences in the recruitment of young organists that are important to the issue of women organists. Here, most organists come from the cathedral chorister tradition, where boys are introduced to the organ and its music at a very early age. In the US, girls and boys are introduced at an early age to the organ through their churches in more-or-less equal numbers. When I was studying in the States, female and male organists were much more balanced than they are here. As more girls’ choirs are started in UK churches and cathedrals, the number of female organists should increase.

My experience in the US was primarily at Eastman. Oxford is very different, since the focus is on academics, not performance. American conservatoire training is prescribed and carefully guided: a stepwise progression was like a curated gradus ad parnassum. At Oxford, playing is a secondary activity to academic studies. When an organ scholar arrives in Oxford, s/he is expected to have reached a reasonably advanced stage of playing, and until relatively recently, most organ scholars had achieved their ARCO by the time they came up. Now, organ scholars often do not get their ARCO before they graduate. The expectations in Oxford have not changed however, and colleges have not always recognised that their incoming organ students are often at a lower level of playing ability than in decades past. The learning curve is steep, occasionally too steep to manage. Organ scholars are dropped in the deep end and expected not only to swim, but to swim strongly; the successful ones learn to swim very well; the less-successful ones develop bad habits which may hamper them for the rest of their musical lives. Perhaps worse—they are turned off organ playing altogether.

The standard of music-making differs dramatically from college to college: some students are part of superb music programmes; other college music programmes are not as good. A little more of the gradus ad parnassum approach from colleges would result in more successes, and everyone would benefit. However, the system is not set up that way, and in Oxford change comes very slowly!

Katharine Pardee working with Oxford University undergraduates

What were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make when you arrived in Oxford?

One of the most surprising things was the expectation—indeed, point-of-pride–that you would rock up and play a service or concert with very little practice time. The abilities of English organists to sight-read is well-known, but it has down-sides: first, not everyone is good enough to play at a high level with little preparation time; and second, non-musicians get the impression that music (especially church music) is something you do without having to put in a lot of work in advance. Other adjustments for me were the fact

that practice time was so hard to come by, and the appallingly low pay for musicians.

Were you able to carry on with your career or did it feel like you had to start again when you moved?

Definitely the latter: I had had an active performing and teaching career in the US, but that level of recognition was not in place in the UK so I felt as though I had to prove myself all over again. When I took up my post at Wadham College, I discovered that in England, being the Organist means you have a Sub-organist who actually does the playing, so I went back to choral directing, and with three children I had little time to practise.

Did you feel you got treated differently?

I found ancient, male, history-laden Oxford quite intimidating. Part of this was cultural: what seems to British organists like American over-enthusiasm was the norm for me, and therefore British reception felt cool. Aside from this, outsiders seemed to be viewed with a certain suspicion (I am still the only female Director of Music in an Oxford college). The thought of having to prove myself all over again was exhausting. The success of young women coming through the colleges now shows that the things that intimidated me are less of an issue now.

There is a disproportionate number of foreigners among the small number of women organists in the UK. Why do you think that is?

Perhaps because foreign women organists do not have the weight of male tradition and history to contend with. Early in my time here I organised a four-year conference series in Oxford centred on the Organ in Britain from 1500 to the present. It was a wonderful, stimulating series involving many international scholars and players, and it was well attended. Nonetheless, I realise now that I blundered into many areas and probably appalled several Oxford colleges by my ignorance of the English way, and by my clumsy and noisy American-ness. The conferences were highly successful though, and one wonders if they could have happened had I been a native Brit instead of an American. Times are changing (slowly), so hopefully more women will step up to the plate and get involved.

Katharine (Katie) Pardee holds the posts of Director of Chapel Music, Wadham College, Oxford, and Lecturer in Music and Chapel Music Advisor, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and is the Betts Fellow in Organ Studies for the University of Oxford. She is the only female Director of Music in an Oxford chapel. Katie has recently completed a DPhil in Music (J. S. Bach in nineteenth-century England), and has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Eastman School of Music, New York.

Before moving to Oxford from the US in 2001, Katie had an active career as an organ recitalist and teacher, and held teaching positions at Syracuse University and the Eastman School, both in upstate New York. She has made two organ CDs, and, more recently, a choir CD with Wadham College Chapel Choir. In addition to making music with the choir and organ in the inspirational Wadham chapel, Katie enjoys exploring the intersection of the academic discipline of music and performance.


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