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SPOTLIGHT on… The ABC of a feminist rock star who is also a church organist

Marion Lees McPherson, Campaign Leader for SWO’s Adjustable Bench Campaign (ABC)

What was your training as an organist?

There was always a piano at home, but my mother was reluctant for me to have lessons as my sister hated her lessons from a local teacher. She finally relented and asked one of her school friends who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music to take me on. As a teenager I had a few organ lessons on a tiny one manual Hill organ in the local church and I sometimes deputised for services but – guess what? – playing the pedals was just about impossible for me as my legs didn’t reach the pedals from the non-adjustable bench, so I never really managed to play properly. But I loved playing the music for matins and evensong even though it was manuals only. I left home for the Royal Academy of Music just before my seventeenth birthday to study piano and violin. I was a dreadful violinist and felt very out of place in this rather grand establishment.


For the rest of my organ training we have to fast-forward 24 years and travel to Scotland where I acquired a Church of Scotland minister husband and two small children. The CofS at the time was operating a scholarship scheme of two free years of organ tuition for pianists as there was a shortage of organists. I decided to give this a go but found playing the pedals from non-adjustable benches exhausting, until one day I spotted a pair of chunky high-heeled shoes in an organ loft. Trying them on, in true Cinderella fashion I found that they fitted perfectly and got me near enough to a comfortable posture – from then on I became completely hooked on the organ. Since then I’ve always worn chunky Cuban-heeled dance character shoes – that extra inch or two can make all the difference. After my two years were up I continued having lessons, taking grades seven and eight on a far too high bench and finally – hurray! – an adjustable bench for my ARCO.


Can you tell us about being the bass player in an all-female rock band?

I started playing the bass when I was about fifteen and a friend’s mother told me that she knew some brothers in a group who had some gigs lined up and were looking for a bass player. Alongside my love of classical music I was also a huge fan of pop which was going through some exciting changes, especially the Beatles, but I didn’t just want to be an adoring fan, I wanted to do what they did. So I persuaded my father, who gave me my nickname Benni, that it would be a worthwhile investment for him to buy me a second-hand bass and amp/speaker which he kindly did. I taught myself by listening to the bass lines of songs on the radio, introduced myself to the boys in the group and, because I could play and they couldn’t find anyone else, got the job and found myself playing in all kinds of venues at a very tender age. Some Sunday mornings I went red-eyed to play for matins having arrived back from a Saturday night gig only an hour or two earlier. My parents only permitted this because we were managed by the two boys’ father who drove us everywhere and kept a very strict eye on things, nevertheless with exams looming, plus piano practice, I had to shelve the bass.


After the Academy and piano diploma I went on to University where the music department could not have been more different. The liberal atmosphere seemed at first quite refreshing, but it was an overwhelmingly male-dominated community with no women on the music faculty. At that time, just after the ‘summer of love’ (the late sixties and early seventies), many traditional assumptions and societal norms were being challenged and I became aware that this seemed to work far more in the men’s favour; there was an atmosphere of machismo that simply dismissed the idea that women were their creative equals.


One day I saw a notice advertising a meeting of the University's Women's Liberation Group; I went along and discovered that the discomfort that I was feeling and the questions that I was asking were being expressed by other women too. I began to read all the feminist classics beginning with Simone de Beauvoir and the recently released Germaine Greer book ‘The Female Eunuch’. I started to do some research into women composers of the past. In those pre-Google days you had to travel to London, dig out scores and books from the basements of libraries and advertise to buy out of print books in music magazines. I had heard of Ethel Smyth through reading about the Suffrage Movement, but all of her books were out of print; eventually I managed to buy some and was surprised to read of how successful and well known she had been in her lifetime, even though she had to overcome monumental hurdles of prejudice. What struck me most forcefully was the fact that she had disappeared from history; it was as if performances of her music, her books and scores had never existed. It soon became obvious to me that women had always composed music, but had either had their works suppressed, attributed to men or never had the connections, support or money for performance. If by some rare chance their music had become known, after death their legacy died with them.


My fellow students Caroline and Ruthie and I sang with a university soul band called Expensive and we were often the support act at university gigs. On one occasion we were amazed by a band called The Wailers (later Bob Marley and the Wailers) who played strange music called reggae; we had never seen or heard anything like them. They asked if we would be their backing singers but we told them we had to finish our degrees!


After university we decided that we would take Expensive to London and seek our fortunes. We lived in a squat in Stepney on very little money. Realising that we had to earn a living, I started working as a pianist with contemporary dancers (which was terrifying as I had to teach myself to improvise for the Martha Graham dance technique). The band had a few auditions and gigs but the men who played the instruments started to drift in other directions so we decided that we would be self-sufficient and play ourselves. I resurrected my bass playing, Ruthie took up the sax, Nony joined on guitar, Sharon played keyboards and Susy, who was the only one in the band that we had met after university, was the drummer. Almost immediately we started rehearsing like mad and performing at the many Women’s Movement conferences and events taking place in the mid-seventies, travelling for long distances, sleeping on floors and then rushing back to our ‘day jobs’. We called ourselves the Stepney Sisters and, because of our shared feminism, we decided that we had to write our own songs which took on feminist issues and portrayed women as positive and autonomous. We printed the words and distributed them and appeared in feminist publications such as Spare Rib. The Steppoes (as we came to call ourselves) played mainly to women only audiences but also to mixed audiences for local events in Stepney or fund-raisers in London for the Gay Liberation movement and other campaigns.


Around the time when we all turned 60 we got together and recorded our songs. It may seem strange now that we’d never recorded anything but at the time recording was a very expensive process and we never had any money. There was no intention to do anything with the CD apart from having a memento of a highly formative and intense time in our lives that forged a deep lifelong bond. However, guitarist Nony’s daughter, Anya, herself a guitarist in the LGBTQ+ punk band Dream Nails decided otherwise and at our ages of 70+ we were signed up by her record label and our album Stepney Sisters found its way onto Spotify, with many accompanying interviews, articles, podcasts and trips down memory lane. Just in time as it happened, as Nony died shortly afterwards.


You have also composed. Can you tell us about some of the compositions?

I was approached by a production company who specialised in children's programmes. They were making an animation series for the BBC called ‘Pigeon Street’, which was a kind of young children’s version of Coronation Street – a story about the goings on in an urban street, with pigeons overseeing everything from the rooftops. It was quite innovative as it reflected urban life and contemporary practices. I was given the words of the songs which I put to music and arranged for the last band in which I played bass, Soulyard, which consisted of women and men. I didn’t make the music in any way different from my other songs because it was for children.


After Pigeon Street, I composed another series for the same production company for ITV. It was called Rub a Dub Dub and was a series of stories using nursery rhymes played out in a very skilful and humorous way by highly colourfully drawn animal characters. Although a lot of the tunes were traditional, I arranged them for Soulyard’s line-up (saxophones, trumpet, guitar, piano, synth, bass, drums and congas, plus violinists, cellists, banjo and harmonica players) and I composed incidental music and music for rhymes that I couldn’t find tunes for. The singers were John Telfer, keyboardist from our university band Expensive who now plays Alan the vicar in the Archers, and Madeline Bell, who had been a backing singer for Dusty Springfield.


After moving to Scotland, I started working as a pianist for Scottish Ballet’s outreach team and found myself writing music to order (when Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn et al just wouldn’t suffice!) in contemporary renditions of the great ballet classics. With a mortgage and two children to educate I was fortunate to find a full-time job at the only state-funded full time professional ballet school in the UK, the Dance School of Scotland in Glasgow. The end of year performances with Scottish Ballet were pretty special, and I wrote various pieces to order for the choreography as well as playing the piano and once again dusting off the bass in a piece with rock band and bagpipes.


There have also been pieces for the church choir and some hymn tunes when I fancy a change from the ones provided.


Describe a typical week in your current role as Director of Music at Stockbridge Parish Church in Edinburgh.

I became the Director of Music and organist at Stockbridge Church in 1995, just after the previous organist had installed the 2 manual August Gern organ which had come from a former monastery in the Scottish borders. It has no reeds or upper work but it does have a decidedly French flavour, as one might expect from a former foreman at the Cavaille-Coll workshop. The church itself is a beautiful Georgian building.


There was a small amateur choir when I arrived; the church has never had a paid choir like the more prominent Edinburgh churches. We have always carried the mantra that being able to sing in our choir is a bonus and not by any means essential! In other words, enjoyment has always been key. We rehearse at 10am on Sunday for the service at 11am, and sometimes hold extra rehearsals during the week if necessary. We have collaborated with other choirs at home and away for performances such as The Crucifixion and The Christmas Oratorio and have performed most years since 1996 in concerts with the Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra who rehearse in our building. The orchestra has no fear in taking on any of the great masterpieces and lesser-known adventurous works, and the choir is happy to be a part of the challenge. The Orchestra also joins in with the music at Easter and the Lessons and Carols at Christmas.


As the Campaign Leader for SWO’s Adjustable Bench Campaign (ABC), can you give us an update on how that is going


SWO’s ABC began as no more than a conversation amongst women organists but over the last few months it has achieved nationwide publicity, getting organists talking about an issue that has been neglected for too long. ABC is privileged to be endorsed by Katelyn Emerson and Sir Andrew Parmley, and we were thrilled that ABC attracted attention in the national press. Our article and press release appeared in quite a few church music-related publications, with our ‘dangling feet’ logo appearing in Organists’ Review. The article in the Church Times in March 2022 was tweeted by Caroline Criado-Perez, the author of ‘Invisible Women’, and suddenly SWO and ABC were in the Times and the Guardian, which attracted related correspondence.


Radio 4 asked me on to their Sunday programme to talk about the campaign and recorded me playing and falling off a too high bench, and Hannah Gill was interviewed on UCB1 radio. To our great excitement we got a call from Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and I was interviewed by Emma Barnett. It is encouraging that ABC has been taken seriously by people who know nothing about the organ.


We sent out a letter to all the IAO societies and also emailed all the Deaneries. We have received many replies not only asking for support and advice but also sharing ideas. The campaign has also attracted attention on social media and many people have been in touch via our webpage to tell us their bench stories, some of them pretty hair-raising.


The Guardian newspaper has described you as a ‘feminist musical trail-blazer’. What are your thoughts about the gender imbalance amongst organists?

As I came fresh to playing the organ when I was 40 and in very changed times to my young adulthood, when women couldn’t take out a loan or a hire purchase agreement without a male guarantor, I was depressed at how reactionary and male-dominated the organ world was. Not surprised though; I had been following the movement for women’s ordination closely and it was clear that the Anglican church and its music tradition which had been established for generations as exclusively male had a problem with accepting women as equals. For far too long they simply refused to acknowledge the injustice of denying half of humanity the opportunities to follow the calling that they took for granted. No wonder that women didn’t feel welcome to aspire to careers as organists.


The Church of Scotland, despite having had women ministers since 1969, still has a preponderance of male organists in the more prestigious churches and women organists tend to be known as ‘ladies’. Thanks to increased equality of educational opportunities, I believe that the genie is now truly out of the bottle and women across society are refusing to be defined by outdated perceptions; however there are years of catching up to do within institutions that have been largely white and male for generations.


Becoming a composer or a performer requires role models as well as education and opportunity. A few women have prevailed in the past despite a lack of these basic rights, but with these rights women are unstoppable. Most of all, what is needed is a change of consciousness within communities and society at large and SWO‘s vision for organists has never been more important. Ethel Smyth said that women need to ‘slip the slave collar’ and not be afraid to make their voices heard. SWO enables women not to be deterred or intimidated by any tradition or institution, whether they are highly talented organists with the aim of conquering the world or simply wanting to reach the pedals!

Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share?

Something that connects all my threads of bass, working with dancers and organ is improvisation. I like the way that it is a part of learning the organ. I can’t say that I ever had a plan for my life, I’ve just improvised!


 

For further information about SWO’s Adjustable Bench Campaign (ABC), visit https://www.societyofwomenorganists.co.uk/abc


There are now some printed flyers available, promoting the campaign. If anyone would like some to distribute in churches, especially those with fixed height benches, please email Marion Lees McPherson at SWOABC@gmail.com


 

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