Spotlight on Equality and Diversity in the Organ World

Talking with Jeremiah Stephenson

I suppose that believers in destiny would say that I never ‘chose’ to play the organ. My parents’ first date was an organ recital. My mother taught herself to play at Killinghall Parish Church as a girl, and my father played Beatles tunes and Monty Python songs on the organ at St Peter’s School in York (much to the annoyance of the ‘serious’ organ students there) before rescuing a defunct pipe organ and rebuilding it in his grandmother’s house. There are hilarious family photos of Billy the Jack Russell trying out the pedalboard, captioned ‘His Bach was worse than his bite’!

That said, it wasn’t all straight forward. Growing up in a house where the only music played was the organ works of Bach (Peter Hurford, always) rather turned me off at the beginning. The C minor Passacaglia is a great piece, but not exactly what you want to hear when you’re 8 years old, have finished your homework and are ready to watch TV! I think it’s a credit to my parents that they never became ‘tiger parents’ despite seeing my rapid bouts of progress on the piano and ability to play back tunes I heard without music.

If I can point at a single thing that inspired me to start learning the organ, it was becoming a Chorister at Sheffield Cathedral and hearing the instrument in the context of accompaniment and liturgical improvisation. I had only just started lessons with Neil Taylor, then Director of Music, when we went on tour to Normandy and I heard the Cavaillé-Coll at Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen. I decided I was going to throw everything I had at learning the organ, in order to be able to play Widor’s 6th Symphony.

Three years later, I could more or less play the Widor! I had passed my ARCO with the highest total marks and started as Organ Scholar at Queens’ College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences. It was a tough balancing act, but I definitely learned how to sight-read! I enjoyed the Natural Science tripos a great deal, and still found time to sneak into AVJ’s Fugue Class between General Relativity and Astrophysical Fluids as the music faculty isn’t too far from the Cavendish Laboratories. Even so, I knew that my Masters would be in music rather than physics.

Two years as Organ Scholar at Peterborough Cathedral allowed me to come up with a plan as well as building my repertoire and virtuosity at photocopying. My interests by this point were strongly towards solo performance so I pursued this goal on the MMus programme at the Royal Academy of Music, studying primarily with Susan Landale. I am very grateful to Susan, not just for the support and encouragement she gave me during the course but also for suggesting further study in France: not something I would have naturally put myself forward for. This was also made possible by the generosity of the Nicholas Danby Trust.

The two years I spent in Toulouse were deeply transformative. Quite apart from changing my basic cooking technique to rely heavily on garlic and duck fat, there’s nothing quite like having to make yourself understood in a different language and culture every day to make you more aware of how you relate to others and how you communicate your intentions, artistic and otherwise. The highly collegiate organ class, with students attending each other’s lessons to help with registration changes, large range of characterful historic instruments and standard practice of playing the same piece to different teachers only to be given conflicting advice contributed to a highly stimulating environment of rich creative synthesis. It was from this environment that I started competing internationally as a soloist, eventually winning first prize in the 19th Petr Eben International Organ Competition in 2016.

Since moving back to London, I have kept up a fairly busy international concert diary as well as playing the organ regularly at All Saints Margaret Street (a must-see church if you haven’t visited) and starting my own teaching practice. I was honoured to join the RCO Academy as one of their youngest Accredited Teachers, as well as taking on plenty of school-aged students as part of various charitable schemes to get children playing the organ. I have found it greatly rewarding to introduce these students to the instrument and its repertoire, find what inspires them, and build with them the technique and practice methods that allows them to explore and create sounds that are personal to them.

I only select students on two criteria: their interest in the organ and willingness to do the necessary work. If those two things are in place, I find the rest follows - even building a technique from scratch for students with no prior keyboard experience. I also tailor the repertoire very closely to each student’s interests and constantly build in the other skills such as sight-reading, improvisation, transposition and figured bass in such a way that there is a constant interaction of musical ideas and different ways of viewing the same thing - this approach is most likely a hangover from Toulouse days. All of my students are unafraid of improvisation and sight reading, and only earlier this term a student who had just learnt his first hymn tune (Caswall) played it to me from memory, then was able to transpose it, also from memory. He doesn’t have the preconception that it should be difficult, and we have a strong culture of giving things a go so he just got on with it!

This all seems a far cry from my own memories of being told I needed at least Grade 6 piano to even start the organ, and that you either had skills such as sight-reading and improvisation or you didn’t because you weren’t ‘naturally talented’ enough. I genuinely believed it at the time - who wouldn’t? - but now I know that these skills absolutely can be taught if you work out what makes each student tick. I was also very interested to notice that selecting students along these lines in a system where there was no pre-existing tradition of organ tuition produced a consistently even split between boys and girls (and even a couple of non-binary students!), as well as drawing on a broad range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds entirely by accident. It struck me that the organ world needn’t necessarily be the sole preserve of a narrow section of society, and indeed for the sake of growing an audience it mustn’t be. This was my primary motivation for joining SWO.

I’m sure you can easily draw to mind an image of a typical organist, and perhaps even more easily a typical organ recital audience member. If boys and girls show equal enthusiasm in taking up organ lessons before they have any preconceptions about the typical organist, then why are there so many more men than women in our profession and in our audiences? What is it about our little corner of the artistic world that fails to inspire as many women as men, or indeed actively turns them away? To answer this question, I think it’s important first to recognise that sexism is still alive and well in the wider Classical Music world, as evidenced by the under-representation of women in positions of authority (e.g. conductors, conservatoire professors, section leaders) compared to the fairly even gender split of conservatoire students and other qualified individuals. This in turn sits alongside trends of underrepresentation along race and class lines as well. Dr Christina Scharff wrote a brief but detailed overview of this in her paper for KCL ‘Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession’[1], which I found to be an extremely useful starting point for understanding these issues.

[1] Equality and Diversity in the Classical Music Profession, Kings College London 2015 Dr Christina Scharff https://www.impulse-music.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Equality-and-Diversity-in-Classical-Music-Report.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2bXdG3i62fD2J8MyImF05cNADzZ3dYqtIfeHAk9fRy7zUIGwPuAMs3r1M

The conversation about sexism in the organ world is also linked to a wider conversation of sexism in workplaces associated with the Church, and indeed bullying in those workplaces. It is easy to forget that sexism in its more aggressive manifestations is a subset of bullying behaviour and that, although there has been no formal research yet, horror stories of such behaviour abound in our profession (affecting both men and women).

An Organ Scholar in a Cathedral, for example, is at the bottom of a tall power structure and has very little agency with which to challenge the behaviour of their superiors. They may not know what the workplace policy on bullying is, or how to access a mediation service if indeed such a thing exists. Conversations can be impossible because those in authority feel duty bound to replicate the experience they had as Organ Scholars, which was also not acceptable. I was once told, in response to being a bit slow to give chords etc in rehearsal, that what I really needed was ‘(insert name here) swearing at you in rehearsal to speed you up’. No. That person needs to get a grip and learn to behave professionally in front of their colleagues and in front of children.

Conversations about sexism in the organ world are difficult, often uncomfortable and can be met with quite strong resistance. I am grateful to SWO for inviting my thoughts on this, and remaining a forward-facing rallying point for those who hope to change our status quo for the better.

One of the major resistance points encountered in conversations about sexism is that we don’t necessarily agree what it is. We might all agree that taking a candidate for a job less seriously because she’s a woman is sexist and wrong, but less extreme examples of sexism are more common and harder to agree upon. We might all agree that sexism is bad, but because of that we can’t imagine any of the nice people we know being sexist and we certainly wouldn’t want to be labelled as such ourselves. The result is that we create distance between ourselves and a rather cartoonish and unrelatable idea of what sexism is.

To be clear, it is not necessarily a sleazy boss patting his secretary on the bum on the way out of the office. It could be unconsciously valuing a male colleague’s opinion more highly than that of a female colleague or happening to use certain terms to describe the same trait in colleagues along gendered lines e.g. emotional vs passionate, bossy vs assertive. It could be devising a range of branded ties and cufflinks without thought for more feminine accessories reinforcing the idea that, although women are tolerated as guests at the table, they will never be members of the club.

Another common problem in having a conversation about sexism (or any -ism you would care to mention) is when the particular comes up against the general. In talking about systemic biases in our environment, we are talking at the level of large groups of people interacting and general patterns of behaviour being observed. Pointing out a successful woman in a male dominated career isn’t evidence against sexism existing, and neither should an aspiring young female organist have to see sexism as an insurmountable obstacle to having a high-flying career.

Groups labels such as ‘woman’, ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ also have this problem of being limited in usefulness when it comes to discussing individuals, as it is impossible to fully untangle these threads from where they intersect in someone’s unique lived experience. It’s important to remember that there is no single defining experience of womanhood in the organ world, for example the obstacles in our profession faced by a white woman from the South of England will most likely be different from those experienced by a South Asian woman from the North of England.

Evidence of sexism is also divided along particular/general lines. The data presented by Scharff, for example, allows us to see global trends in representation (or more likely under-representation) of women and those of minority ethnic backgrounds but doesn’t give much insight into the experience of a particular individual. The only recourse we have here is anecdotal evidence, which requires us to listen and be open to each other’s experiences.

Here I have some particular insights to offer, having previously been read as female in social situations and now being read as male. With a different name, I was described as headstrong and difficult to work with, but now I am a natural leader who stands his ground. Emails asking for recital opportunities are answered much more frequently, and more care is taken to engage with my promotional materials. People are more likely to ask my opinion and less likely to dismiss me as argumentative when I don’t necessarily agree with them.

The scientist in me wants to correct for other factors which aren’t held constant between these two scenarios: I am now more experienced and accomplished (I would hope!) as a performer and teacher than I was in 2016, not to mention all the subtle positive changes which come from a more comfortable existence post-transition. There’s no way to do this rigorously, any more than it’s possible to separate sexism from other factors when they arrive in combination for anyone else, but I think it highly unlikely that sexism didn’t play a major part given how marked and immediate the changes I observed in others’ behaviour were.

So where does this leave us? In the wider Classical Music world, formal measures to mitigate selection bias and address under-representation, such as blind auditions and quotas, are already coming into play. It is hard to see how quotas would help even out the gender balance for organists as we aren’t recruited in a bunch like string players and imbalance is already established as early as organ courses for teenagers. What we can do, as individuals as well as in organisations such as SWO, is keep the conversation about inequalities on the table. We can recognise that we don’t live in a perfectly meritocratic profession (if we did, we would be forced to conclude that women are just less good at the organ than men..!) so success and failure aren’t only down to how deserving and hard-working an individual is: there are stronger forces at work in our environment. We can change that environment to be one that is more welcoming and inspiring for those that don’t fit the stereotype of an organist, and by doing so open up our wonderful corner of artistic treasure to more music lovers.

One of the UK’s busiest young organists, Jeremiah’s work has taken him across Europe and to America. His work has been broadcast on television and radio in the UK and Europe, both as a soloist and accompanist. Upcoming projects include recitals in venues such as Uppsala Cathedral, Sées Cathedral, and Selby Abbey, where he will open next year’s Celebrity recital series.

Jeremiah combines his recital work with the post of Associate Director of Music at All Saints Margaret Street, and various educational projects. He is regularly called upon to give masterclasses and help students prepare for diploma examinations. Jeremiah’s particular passion is introducing children to the organ, and he currently teaches four groups of state school students, whose lessons are sponsored by Inspiring Organists (part of the RCO’s outreach), Union Chapel Islington, the Church of Our Lady St John’s Wood and the St John Kennington Organ Studentship Scheme.