Finding this Spotlight turned in my direction is a little surprising after the distinguished musicians previously featured but perhaps illustrates the wide diversity that exists across the organ world.
Who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ?
I heard an amazing sound during a family visit to our local Cathedral in Durham in the early 1960s. I suspect it was the power and grandeur of the organ that awaked a latent power-crazy mania. I told my parents I wanted to command such a machine. Not being musicians themselves, they sought advice and were told I needed first to learn the piano, which I did.
What was your training as an organist?
Aged 12, based on my piano playing, I got an organ scholarship at the Grammar School I was attending. That provided free tuition which took me to ABRSM Grade 8 by the time I did ‘O’ levels. The school lost its Head of Music, the wonderfully inspiring Hector Parr FRCO, as I entered the sixth form. After much cajoling, the local education authority agreed to fulfil the scholarship obligations by funding lessons for me with Dr Conrad Eden at Durham Cathedral. There was a nice symmetry in finding myself studying on the same organ that ten years earlier had first inspired me. I was never a star pupil and was guided toward the Trinity College (Teacher) diplomas as they demanded slightly lower playing skills. I joined the RCO but, despite having achieved an ‘A’ level in music which overlapped with some of the ARCO theory work, the playing challenges of the RCO diplomas were not for me and I allowed my membership to lapse.
You had a long career in broadcast and sound engineering. How has this influenced your approach to playing and listening to the organ?
I knew I would never be a ‘first division’ organist and therefore chose to make music a serious hobby, one that has proved to be a lifelong passion. My first organ teacher read Mathematics at Cambridge and had not been a music student. He was also a philosopher and an inspired engineer who built his own electronic organs, tape recorders and much more. He rebuilt the school’s two manual J J Binns pipe organ, guided by the then fashionable concepts promoted by the Orgelbewegung [Organ Reform Movement]. As a 13-year-old, I assisted in the butchery of a perfectly adequate little pipe organ, but in doing so I learned a great deal about its inner workings.
All this made clear to me that my career should be in engineering and build on my keen hobby of sound recording. Aged 14, I created an audio archive of ten of the town’s organs, interviewing the resident organists and asking now slightly toe-curling questions about how they managed to play instruments lacking Larigots! Those interviews and short demonstration pieces survive today as a curious historical document, accessible on the internet.
You have described yourself, rather modestly, as a ‘jobbing parish church organist’. Have you always been a freelance organist? Can tell us about some of the positions that you have held as an organist or choir director?
While still doing ‘A’ levels, I was hired by a Roman Catholic Church which had just bought a brand-new pipe organ from Peter Collins. The priest decided hiring someone from an Anglican background would help introduce the still new Vatican II concept of hymn singing to his church. As such I led congregational hymn practices before mass, knowing only what I had learned as a singer in the school choir and local choral society. I stayed there only until aged 18 and my move to Lancashire.
After ‘A’ levels, I failed to get employment as a sound engineer so opted to do a BSc degree in electronic engineering. The shortest course I could find was three years at the Bolton Institute of Technology and an organist job seemed a good way to help fund indulgences such as running a car. I became not only organist but also choirmaster of a church on the edge of Bolton where their two manual 1891 Willis organ had enjoyed a recent restoration. Directing the choir was a new experience and my youthful arrogance meant relationships with some of the mature choir members weren’t easy. I was glad to find that a relationship with one pretty alto a couple of years younger than myself was much happier. I should perhaps mention I have a trans-history so it didn’t seem odd to even the most conservative villager that this alto was being dated by the choirmaster! Once her school and university days were over, we married in that church and this was perhaps a first example of how music would dictate the shape of my life.
I went on to hold organist and sometimes organist/choirmaster positions in a range of churches, managing only once to get summarily dismissed from a Methodist one in Carlisle. I had played the Westminster chimes to prompt an over-running preacher to stop talking but one does such things when in one’s twenties! I continued holding resident organist positions more or less continuously in whatever places my audio career took me. My interest in pipe organ history led me to membership and, soon after, a seat on the Council of BIOS, an organisation I continue to support.
Even a three-year period living in Cyprus saw me as resident organist to the army garrison at Episkopi and the RAF at Akrotiri. By that time transition was a few years behind me and I met my husband-to-be at an organ recital while we were both on a Balearic holiday. Once again, music was shaping my life. Within a couple of years we married in the Anglican Chapel at Akrotiri, playing much of the music myself, part live and some pre-recorded.
We returned to the UK in 2016 after taking early retirement from my audio and broadcast career. I again took on two resident organist positions, not now so much for the money as for the pleasure of being involved and having custody of instruments. One was a good 1899 Harrison & Harrison and the other an ailing 1873 Hill with a specification stretched out to 43 stops. Given regular attention from both the organ builder and my own engineering skills it still makes a decent sound.
With my husband and I both retired and a desire for flexibility, I eventually decided to no longer have resident positions but to focus on freelance playing. I suppose I can for the first time call myself a professional organist as I now earn money no other way.
In your experience, what are the most significant ways in which being a freelance organist differs from being an appointed organist?
Resident organists sometimes develop reputations for being quirky and not always keen for change. Parishes may tolerate that from a person who has become part of their furniture. It might also work for a brilliant superstar freelance recitalist too. A parish level ‘jobbing freelance’ has to be willing to accept whatever comes their way, whether in the form of instruments that are not in good order, which may be pipe organs, electronic instruments or sometimes pianos. They have to willingly perform music they consider less than fine and perhaps even unbecoming for a church service. The freelance organist is hired, not to judge the music, the building, or the liturgy but just to play. A sufficient skill level to sight read music someone forgot to supply earlier and even an IT literacy to find music online at zero notice all helps build a reputation as a reliable deliverer of what is needed. Clients may often be funeral directors and not churches and sufficient commercial awareness to understand the need for invoices is important.
As a freelance organist, you play a wide variety of instruments at various venues. What are the challenges and pitfalls of playing so many different instruments, especially when you encounter an instrument for the first time? What do you do if there is no organ, or if it turns out to be very poor quality or not suited to the requested repertoire?
Whenever the wise freelance is unsure there will be a useable instrument, they should take a portable device with them. That might mean they can’t offer all the repertoire and in the way a composer intended but for many purposes a flavour of the piece is all that is needed. Quickly assessing what is the essential core of a piece of music and delivering a suitable congregational or choir support while not getting in the way of the singers is essential. Creating suitable organ accompaniments to worship songs, maybe from a lead sheet and set of chords, is a useful skill.
You are the SWO Media Officer. What does this involve and how important is social media to the work of SWO?
I managed the social media for BIOS for some years and more recently was happy to take on a similar role for SWO. Like most voluntary run organisations, we do not have the budget for lavish advertising. Social media provides a way to keep the aims of SWO in front of a huge number of people, many of them not members of the organisation. Advertising SWO events is central to the social media topics, but people follow Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) feeds only if they regularly find fresh content that interests them. We therefore feature far more than SWO events and anything relevant and likely to prove interesting might be featured. We try to avoid promoting commercial causes but the boundaries are not always easy to define and no doubt mistakes get made.
You are a volunteer for a charity called Diversity Role Models which promotes LGBT+ inclusivity amongst young people. During your many years as an organist, do you think diversity and inclusivity in the organ world has improved, or is there still a long way to go?
My trans-history has taught me much, not least to see the world from different perspectives. I’ve hit a few bumps along the way but mostly overcame them thanks to friends, family and a certain blunt resilience. The world today is generally more diverse and accepting of difference than it was in my student days in the 1960s/70s. At that time the only living trans musician I knew of was the composer and Moog synthesizer pioneer, Wendy Carlos. Today it isn’t unusual to know organists who are transmen and others who are transwomen.
Diversity covers so many aspects of life, but the fact SWO needs to exist reminds us gender can still be an obstacle. For others, being a gay musician may be an employment barrier. After a few decades of progress, we have reached a time when some factions want to revert to a less tolerant world. It is a duty for everyone to ensure all the protected characteristics identified in the UK Equality Act 2010 are respected and demolished as barriers.
Melanie Plumley first had lessons in the mid-1960s as an organ scholar at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Darlington with Hector C Parr. She later studied under Dr Conrad Eden at Durham Cathedral and was probably among his least adequate pupils.
Mel has entered major organ playing events with one of her greatest achievements being elimination in the first round of the 1971 Cambridge Competition. She has held organ playing positions and given concerts in a number of churches in the UK and overseas for over half a century. She has not been summarily dismissed from an organ playing residency since 1977.
Now retired from a long and mostly enjoyable professional career in audio engineering and broadcasting, she focusses on freelance service and concert playing. Audiences leaving her occasional recitals have been overheard to say “I’ve never before heard anything like it”.