SPOTLIGHT on the first woman in a Church of England Cathedral post in the UK
Katherine Dienes-Williams became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral in 2008, after holding positions at several other UK Cathedrals
Welcome to Spotlight, Katherine! You are well known as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral and the first woman to have been appointed to a Church of England Cathedral post in the UK. Your biography shows a highly successful career. And recently you have become a Patron of SWO, for which many congratulations! Do you come from a very musical family?
My mother and father were not particularly musical but had a great appreciation of music, and it was my maternal grandfather who decided that I had some musical interest and purchased a piano for me. My parents’ library student (they were both librarians) lived nearby so every Saturday I was sent off for a piano lesson from the age of seven, and then auditioned for and graduated to a new piano teacher with whom I continued right through university. I began to play the organ at the age of seventeen in my last year at secondary school, having been fascinated by the instrument for a long time. I can define two moments of note – one in Helsinki Cathedral age 10 (we were on a very exciting family holiday / business trip when my parents took me out of school for three months and we travelled around Europe) I sat and listened to the organ being played and was so entranced I refused to leave – as a result of which we missed a train! The second moment was at my parish church in Wellington, New Zealand, where the actual console was set in a ‘pit’ and you could peer over the edge of the pews and watch the organist playing the voluntary – this was very exciting. My secondary school had a scholarship for a girl to learn to play the organ which had never been taken up (this was in the 1980s which, looking back, seems a wonderful thing – how many secondary schools in the UK offer such a scholarship even now?) and it was offered to me at the end of Year 9 – but I didn’t take it up at that point as I wanted to concentrate on and complete my piano studies to diploma level – which I did by the age of 16 – Year 12. As my Year 13 began in January of 1987 I began lessons and at the end of a year sat for and passed my diploma in Organ, had successfully auditioned for the new post of Richard Prothero Organ Scholar at Wellington Cathedral, New Zealand and auditioned successfully to read Performance Music at Victoria University alongside my BA in Modern Languages! In New Zealand, I was able to combine studying for two degrees at the same time, cross crediting a third of each degree to the other. I left school with a French government prize and was heading down a career path of teaching or indeed civil service in the direction of the Foreign Office, until my clear love of the organ sent me off in another direction entirely!
Why did you come to England (straight away to Winchester?)
I came to England having successfully auditioned for the post of Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral combined with Assistant Organist at Winchester College. This followed my attendance at an RSCM Summer School in Auckland, New Zealand in the summer of 1989 where I encountered the Director of the summer school, Dr. David Hill. David encouraged me to think about coming to England to study and I knew I was travelling there in August 1989 for a family holiday so I asked if I could have a lesson with him – at the end of which he told me I had improved so much in six months he wanted me to consider auditioning for the organ scholar post in Winchester – which I duly did and was appointed!
What does a typical week look like nowadays?
A typical week (in non pandemic times) revolves around rehearsals, services and administration – not necessarily in that order! The day begins with a drive to the choir school for morning boy chorister rehearsals, replete with boxes and folders of music – which then have to make a return journey to the Cathedral. Then straight to the office to begin the administrative work and rounds of meetings involved in Cathedral life. At some point, if I’m lucky, I may get to practise the organ, although this is more often likely to be at 9 p.m. on a given night. There may be a return trip to the choir school for a meeting or to teach theory, a trip to a school to recruit or, for example, to judge a music competition or to teach an organ pupil, or an evening teaching an organ pupil. After school on a Tuesday and Thursday the boy choristers arrive on site by bus to sing Evensong at 5.30 p.m. with the lay clerks – the lay clerks sing Evensong by themselves on a Monday after which I dash down to Winchester to conduct the chamber choir ‘Southern Voices’. On a Tuesday evening as the boy choristers leave the girl choristers arrive for their two hour rehearsal. Wednesday is a day off. The girls and layclerks sing Evensong together on a Friday. Saturday can be a concert day, a workshop day, a recital day or, rarely, a free day. Sundays can be a two or a three service Sunday. There is a great deal of administration around running music in a Cathedral – everything from cassocks to safeguarding, from forward planning to recordings. The joy remains in making music, however.
Congratulations on becoming a patron of SWO! Why did you become a member of SWO? What do you value about SWO?
I became a member of SWO because I realise the vital work that needs to be done to encourage and inspire young women to play the organ. If I can be a role model to them in that respect, that is hugely important. I feel it is important not just to be a visual role model but to assist and encourage them on their own journeys – to be enablers for the next generation and open and available to teach, to offer performance opportunities and to answer questions.
Many have argued in recent years that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists - statistics on the SWO website underline this. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?
In 1983 in New Zealand I was given the chance to have organ lessons through a scholarship available to me at my (independent) girls’ school. Where are the schools and the scholarships for this to happen in the UK? Why is the organ not taken seriously as a musical instrument learning option across all schools in all sectors? Many children will never get to see or hear this instrument in their lifetimes and that is a tremendous shame as even to see or hear it can captivate a young child. How many of us training choirs of children tell all our choristers that they can learn the organ? How many of us try to sow small seeds in our local schools continuously to offer the organ as an instrument? We are far off many of these targets – but we are on a journey!
You are an excellent example of a woman who has been successful in the world of cathedral music but comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What do you think might be done to change this? Have there been instances when your being a woman rather than a man has been a decided help? – or a hindrance?
Women need to ensure they have the necessary musical and interpersonal skills to take on leadership roles and work towards that constantly even when in post. We need to bring people alongside and encourage each other. There are many different opportunities to take on leadership roles in the organ world – not just in Cathedral and collegiate church posts. Teaching is vital. Recitalists are vital. Parish church organists are vital. Organists playing with orchestras are vital. The more we can share our skills and spread them, the greater success women will have in the profession. I have been asked to take part in recitals featuring women as performers so I guess that’s a help in promoting all female organists. I have also been asked to take part in various committees as the female representative so I guess that’s a help by my being able to bring my voice, and the voice of so many others to the table.
Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for? What advice would you give to organists and people campaigning for gender equality?
Focus on the journey – not a fight. Across society there are structures and laws protecting you. If you don’t succeed, do not use your gender as an excuse – reflect, learn. Fail, fail again. Learn to laugh at yourself (this is crucial). Set high standards and goals and live them out. Be the role model you can be – inspire by your leadership, strength and positivity. Listen. Be prepared to go last. Leave no one behind. True effort and hard work reap rewards which cannot be argued against. Be positive in all things - enthusiastic and encouraging. The question ‘why not’ should be affirmed positively – ‘of course we can’! Find the joy in your music making.
Do you think it’s a good idea to have women-only programmes?
Recently I received an email from an A level student doing an extended essay project on female composers for the organ. Despite knowing and performing some works, I felt this was the email I needed to spur me into action. I became curious (during lockdown 3) about this subject and began to read and research it a little – although I know I have only scratched the surface. I promptly bought some new music (lockdown is dangerous for that!) and began to learn many new pieces immediately.
What are the highlights of your career so far? Plans for the future?
Highlights include wonderful music making at Winchester Cathedral with David Hill and David Dunnett, being able to travel the world and play some fantastic instruments in recital, meeting some wonderful people all over the world all trying to make music and bring joy to others, choir tours, recordings, live broadcasts (most especially the most recent live broadcast from Guildford Cathedral Choir following lockdown one when we met for two weeks then sang live on BBC Radio 3 in September 2020), letters of thanks, 24 hour Organathons, celebrating the successes of organ students. Conducting the first ever girls’ voices Evensong broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral, working in dioceses with ordinands and the RSCM, being awarded an FRSCM and a FGCM, meeting composers and performing their music, conducting J S Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’, teaching choristers and organ pupils – just all of it. I feel very blessed as I have been able to follow my dream. The future will be whatever comes but I have so much more music to give and to share and so much more to learn!
What would be your advice to girls learning the organ? (no.1 Join SWO!)
Go for it! Reach out and talk to people. We can and will help. No question is too silly to ask. We all began in the same place. Join SWO where you will find a team of like-minded individuals to answer your questions and encourage you. Take part in as many experiences as you can.
Katherine Dienes-Williams, MA, BMus, FRCO, LTCL, Hon. FRSCM, Hon. FGCM was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral in January 2008 following six years as Director of Music at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary, Warwick. She is also the Musical Director of the Winchester-based chamber choir, Southern Voices.
Katherine was born and educated in Wellington, New Zealand and studied for a BA in Modern Languages and a BMus at Victoria University, Wellington. Katherine was Organ Scholar at Wellington Cathedral from 1988 to 1991 when she was appointed Assistant Organist there.
Katherine came to England in 1991 as Organ Scholar at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Organist at Winchester College. She has since held posts as Organist and Assistant DoM at the Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, Assistant Organist and Director of the Cathedral Girls’ Choir at Norwich Cathedral prior to moving to Warwick as DoM at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary.
She is a Council member of the Royal College of Organists and a trustee of the Organists Charitable trust and regularly asked to be a guest choral workshop leader for the Royal School of Church Music in the UK, South Africa, the USA, Canada and Australia. Katherine has given organ recitals in Europe, the US, and Australasia. and has performed as organ soloist with many major UK orchestras.
Katherine is married to Patrick Williams, and they have a daughter (Clare College Choral Scholar) Hannah.