Spotlight on Teaching
Anne Marsden Thomas on her career and why she has written and compiled so many books for the student organist
Why is education so important?
Every student is full of untapped potential in all areas, including music. Teaching is about unleashing that potential. Witnessing a student’s joy as they achieve their ambition is a wonderful privilege. When I teach, my aim is to help each student believe in their ability to make music on the organ, building their skill through careful training, helping them to express the music and providing opportunities for them to shine. Every student, whatever their age, starting point or ambition, is worth helping. I don’t believe that some are more ‘talented’ than others: anyone can show ‘talent’ if they are given opportunity, training and confidence. That belief inspires my sense of responsibility as a teacher, meaning that every student I encounter can achieve great things if I teach them well!
Is teaching a particularly female vocation?
I’m not sure. Looking at lists of organ teachers would seem to contradict that – there are probably far more men than women teaching the organ – but that’s because women organists are in a minority (though not for much longer, if SWO has anything to do with it!).
At what clientele are your books pitched and why?
All my books are aimed at student organists, from the first lesson to Grade 8 standard. That is where there was a gaping hole in the market when I started. I never imagined I would write so many books – 22 so far, and 2 more due for publication next year – but every book has been prompted by a need I found when teaching.
Did your teaching career ever get in the way of your playing?
Teaching and playing go hand in hand, really. One needs to play the repertoire to teach it, and experiencing the challenge of performing enables one to give relevant advice to students facing public performance. But I learn so much from my students, too, and that has greatly informed my own playing.
What have been the highlights of your career?
I have had many wonderful opportunities through my career – playing recitals here and in other countries, directing the music at a major City church for 35 years, teaching a huge variety of students – and it’s impossible to pinpoint any one highlight. But perhaps the greatest highlights were receiving an MBE for services to organ playing in 2015 and, 2 years later, becoming the first woman to receive the RCO Medal.
What gives you most pride?
Proving, through National Learn the Organ Year 1990, that, contrary to popular belief, there was a huge demand for organ teaching. That campaign set out to recruit 500 new organists but succeeded in recruiting 2,000. I founded St Giles International Organ School on the back of that campaign, which eventually became the RCO accredited teacher scheme.
Which of your many publications is your favourite?
The one I’m working on now, written in conjunction with the composer and organist Frederick Stocken. It is the New Oxford Organ Method, but its structure is quite unlike anything else on the market.
You have been such an inspiration and a great mentor to so many organists over the years – how does this make you feel?
That’s extraordinarily generous of you! How do I feel? – I feel lucky. My career started at a time when I think most people would agree that organ teaching was at a low ebb in this country. I love teaching, so I was determined to do something to raise organ-teaching standards, encourage more organists to teach to a high standard, nurture all the students I encountered, and provide better resources for them. That, together with playing in concerts and church, has given me an exceptionally rewarding career.
Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, FRSCM, ARAM, FRCO, BMus, Dip RAM, ARCM, LRAM, is an organist, organ teacher and author of 22 books for organ students and church organists. Anne teaches organ at The Royal Academy of Music, both in the Junior and Senior departments. Since 2006 she has taught the LRAM course there which trains those wishing to qualify as organ teachers. She has taught hundreds of students over the last 45 years, with many of these students continuing into the music profession. She has wide experience of examining grade examinations and diplomas. She has been Director of Music at St. Giles Cripplegate Church since 1982. Although she no longer gives organ recitals, her concert and teaching work has taken her to the USA, Canada, Japan, Europe and all over the UK and she has made several commercial recordings. She has also published many articles for organists and their teachers, including a long-running series ‘Anne Marsden Thomas’s Organ Lessons’ published in both Church Music Quarterly and The American Organist. Anne has received several honorary awards, including the FRSCM and ARAM. In March 2017 she was the first woman to receive the RCO Medal. She was awarded the MBE in the Queen's New Year Honours 2015 for 'services to organ music'. Anne is a founder and co-chair of the Society of Women Organists.