Spotlight on the Collaborative Organist
The multi-faceted career of Alison Howell
Describe a typical week.
A typical week includes practising accompaniments for choirs, attending choir practices, playing in concerts, learning continuo parts and solo music for concerts, teaching some piano and organ students, examining for the RSCM, and associated admin.
What made you want to learn the organ? What, if any, obstacles did you have to overcome? Was your school supportive?
I attended a big comprehensive school which, fortunately, had excellent music teachers. Whilst there was no organ in the school they encouraged me to be piano accompanist of the school choir which I found I enjoyed and led me towards my career path.
What was your initial training as an organist? And thereafter, at university or college?
I began organ lessons at the age of 16, having learned the piano from the age of 9. One of my grandfathers was an organist and I was taken along to his church one day to try out the instrument, and then pestered my parents for lessons as it was such fun! The lesson venue was in Yelverton on the western edge of Dartmoor so this involved a weekly trip in all weathers across the moors and a considerable amount of effort from my mother who was the driver. I then went to the Royal Academy of Music and was fortunate to learn with Peter Hurford and Anne Page who were both brilliant musicians and superb teachers. Subsequently I was given bursaries by various trusts, including the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, to study in Holland with Jacques van Oortmerssen and in London with David Sanger. I graduated with BMus (London) and won the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award on passing FRCO. As my career developed, I found that I thrived as a choral accompanist, so I now spend lots of time in this line of work.
Why do you think choral accompaniment is so interesting?
I find choral accompanying most interesting because of the joy of working closely with a group of people aiming towards a performance. Usually the atmosphere is engaging and there is a great sense of camaraderie.
Do you have other playing/conducting duties? Do you have enough time to practise and learn new repertoire?
I work mostly as a choral accompanist and currently play for Bristol Cabot Choir, University of the West of England student singers and choral society, and Cheltenham Choral Society. Other work includes playing for graduation ceremonies and solo recitals. I am trying to finish learning the works of Bach and also include lots of repertoire by women composers in recitals and services.
How much playing do you do in your church? Do you have supportive clergy and a congregation who value the music?
I play most weeks at my church for the morning Eucharist and also for the monthly choral evensong. We have a half-time Director of Music, a thriving choir and very supportive clergy and congregation.
What are the highlights of your career so far?
Some of the highlights include going on choir tour with different groups, playing in a concert with Gillian Weir in the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, accompanying Dame Felicity Lott in a song recital, accompanying choral days with Sir David Willcocks, John Rutter and Bob Chilcott. But mainly I just love the organ and choral repertoire and find it equally enjoyable choosing suitable repertoire for a service in a church with a one manual historic instrument as playing cathedral instruments.
Did your children have music lessons? Are any of them professional musicians? Any organists?
All of my children had music lessons and learned various instruments. Three of them just play for relaxation as adults but the youngest is currently studying music at Chichester University Conservatoire and is switching to first-study organ in the autumn term.
Do you think your organ playing career would have been easier if you had been a man?
I've enjoyed every aspect of being an organist as the job is so varied and involves working with so many different people. I don't think it would have made any difference being a man!
Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ? Do you feel you were treated differently as a girl?
I give similar advice to girls and boys who are starting to learn the instrument..........enjoy learning, find repertoire you find interesting and be prepared to wrap up warmly when you practise!
What is the most rewarding part of your professional life?
The most rewarding aspect of my professional life is the variety of music which I get to play each week, in different venues on many lovely instruments.
If you like playing the organ, keep practising, find a good teacher and enjoy the many fine instruments available to play.
Alison Howell MA, FRCO, FISM, LGSM, lives in Bristol and works as a freelance musician. Her main interests are choral and solo accompaniment (both as organist and pianist) and she gives regular solo organ recitals, examines for the RSCM, plays for several choral societies, and is organist of St John the Baptist, Keynsham. Alongside this she has a keen interest in teaching and currently has 7 organ pupils. Her favourite hobby is long-distance walking and she has completed over half of the South West Coast path in stages.