Updated: Dec 8, 2022
This article was written before Catherine’s death in 2020.
Raising a family and juggling a busy recital career
Catherine Ennis, recitalist, Director of Music, St Lawrence Jewry, former President of the Royal College of Organists
How much help raising your family have you had over the years from your husband, nannies and other people?
Most women recitalists I have known who have children chose to take a career break during their children’s infancies. This is fine if you have made the statutory “2.5 children and a mortgage” lifestyle choice, and indeed admirable. For me, I arrived in our family when three small children were already here, with their lives already supported by a nanny, and so my career continued as normal until the birth of my first (our no. 4). Returning to work after maternity leave seemed an obvious choice. With the arrival of the two subsequent babies, further domestic help was essential if I was to be enabled to continue working – even if it was just to limp along as an exhausted automaton!
I was Director of Music at St. Marylebone Church, loved working with the professional singers there, and loved the Rieger organ I had helped the church to commission with the Royal Academy of Music. However, after baby no. 5, it became apparent that Sundays were desperately unfair on everyone. This is what used to happen. I would leave early; the baby came with me, met my mother at the church who walked him around Regent’s park until I had a break to feed him between rehearsal and service. Father would dress, feed and bring all the others to church having first prepared lunch and switched on the oven-timer. Inevitably the older children began to have parties to go to and homework to do, which filled the rest of Sunday as we all piled into the car again to ferry everyone around. The Sundays when I had an evening service as well were a nightmare for domestic arrangements, especially if my husband was away working. Enough! It was sad to leave a job I loved and an organ I adored, but it was the right decision for our family life.
Concurrently I held the post of Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry, where I still work. As it’s a Guild Church there are no Sunday services and so my working life there is pretty much office hours only. Special services for Civic occasions and City Livery Companies and a weekly lunchtime recital comprise my workload. Generally, this and practice time could be managed between the morning school run and the afternoon collection times. With the vagaries of London traffic, I had to be firm about rushing away at 3pm in order to zigzag around North London to collect from the various schools, sport activities, music lessons etc., and would arrive home any time between 5pm and 6pm with a carload of grumpy children ravenously hungry and laden with homework.
Did your children all have music lessons? Are any of them professional musicians?
All of our children had some music lessons and all enjoyed the experience, some more than others, some with more success than others. None has chosen to make music their career. Perhaps they saw how little my salary seemed to contribute to their upkeep! There was no way I could be diva-ish about how wonderful and important it is to play the organ (which it obviously is) when my major role in the family was (is) to support everyone else, especially my husband, the main provider, who had a particularly stressful and high-profile job. Perhaps I was guilty of underselling music – but it would have been a hard sell. One Christmas I announced I would arrange a few carols for all the instruments they were being taught, plus bassoon, their father’s instrument. I was informed by our oldest, then 12, that it would be “in your dreams, Mum”! It was so not cool, alas. No Von Trapp family music-making for us.
Did you ever have time to practise?
Music practice did happen, but how could it be prioritised with so much else going on? When a higher-profile recital was in my diary, I could prepare the domestic arrangements in advance. Parents of the children’s friends were very kind, and my mother was always an absolute star. We had numerous excellent babysitters. However, the unexpected often threw a spoke in the wheels. One rehearsal for a recital was agonisingly interrupted by a phone call from a tearful son who’d just suffered repeated wasp stings in the outfield during cricket. The day before another recital, my husband (a lawyer) was suddenly required to fly off to the British Virgin Islands for a case, meaning extra school runs adding to the crammed schedule. There were times when I felt I did not do myself justice because my head was so much in the family rather than in the music! It was often easier to play better during a few days’ concert tour, though missing everybody and juggling domestic arrangements from afar by telephone was a negative counter-balance.
Did you give up playing temporarily at any point?
Though arrangements become less frenetic as the children progress through school, the emotional energy required to be a parent when only you can deal with whatever the problem is (and you can’t delegate to anyone else) seems just as demanding and time-consuming. I did have an enforced career break for a year of cancer treatment in 2007, and returned to a much reduced schedule for the first few years thereafter, because I realised how important to everyone in the family it was that I was just there at home and not dashing about.
Do you think your organ playing career would have been easier if you’d been a man?
For me there were disadvantages both of gender and denomination: as a woman Roman Catholic I wasn’t eligible for the best apprenticeships, i.e., C of E chorister/organ scholarships. I also did experience occasional misogynist attitudes, for example, when conducting choir in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where I was briefly Assistant Organist in the mid-80s, from men in the choir and in the congregation. On the other hand, perhaps some positive discrimination (standing out because of being a rarity) mean that everything balances out? So I can’t say definitively if my career would have been better if I’d been a man!
In the past few years there has been more time to focus on playing again and to return to teaching which I had missed. We have just had our first granddaughter, with another one due imminently. I am fortunate indeed to be still playing and loving making music at the organ.
Catherine Ennis is an organ recitalist, teacher, and advisor. She is Director of Music at St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, Vice-President of the Royal College of Organists, Director of the John Hill Young Artists recitals, Trustee of the Nicholas Danby Trust for young organists, founder-editor of the London Organ Concerts Guide, and Past President of the Incorporated Association of Organists. In 2018 she was awarded the Medal of the RCO. Recitals and recordings have taken her to many international venues. She has given master classes throughout the UK and abroad, both as organist and choir director, and is frequently examiner and adjudicator for colleges and festivals.
Catherine Ennis has helped create four major new London organs (the Rieger at St Marylebone, shared with the Royal Academy of Music, the Klais at St Lawrence Jewry, the William Drake at Trinity College of Music, and the Queen’s Organ in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, built by Mander).