Who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ?
I was the youngest of three boys. When my eldest brother was born my mother bought a piano but he refused to learn to play. The next brother only wanted to play football. I wasn’t given a choice. I didn’t like it, but I did my best. One Saturday when I was pretending to practise, a delivery boy (on a bicycle, with a basket) arrived with the groceries. He heard my reluctant fumblings and told my mother that I should learn to play properly. I told him to get lost.
When I later went to the grammar school the delivery boy turned out to be the Head Boy. Now, Parmley, he said, you are going to learn to play the school organ. It was a revelation! I didn’t know you could make that much noise on your own. I was hooked. (Incidentally, the delivery boy is now the Arts Editor at the South China Morning Post.)
What was your training as an organist?
My teacher was a Ruthless Yorkshireman. One of my duties was to play the organ for the morning hymn. The RY would stand behind the organ bench and when the Headmaster announced the hymn number he would whisper with glee, “Down a tone”. It is amazing how adept one can become at transposition when doing it at sight in front of 800 rugby-playing boys. Still, it paid off, when I passed the ARCO and won a scholarship, sponsored by the Royal College of Organists and tenable at the Royal Academy of Music.
I had three very happy years at the Academy with Alan Harverson as my organ teacher and the “Three Arthurs” (Jacobs, Pritchard and Wills) teaching the less interesting stuff.
What have been the highlights of your musical career to date?
I often tell people that I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up! Apart from playing the organ, I have spent a lot of time in theatres and famously accompanied Mary Chipperfield’s Ice-Skating Chimpanzees (not to mention Abacus, the Tap-Dancing Camel – in pantomime, of course). I played jazz with John Dankworth’s big band and the Saint-Saëns organ symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in St Paul’s Cathedral.
I used to edit the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier for William Christie and Les Arts Florissants but was eventually made redundant by Sibelius (the software, not the Finnish Symphonist).
I get huge pleasure out of the simpler aspects of playing. I believe that every hymn should be an event and thoroughly enjoy the preparation. As a long-term music teacher, I derive great satisfaction from watching the success of my former students. Inevitably, most are much better players than I could ever be.
You were Lord Mayor of London 2016-17. How did you use this prestigious position to promote music in general, and the organ in particular?
The role of Lord Mayor of the City of London is all-consuming. In the twelve months I only had two days off (one in Nepal and one in Hong Kong). The main work is to travel the globe promoting the UK’s Financial and Professional Services; in my case I was away for 100 days and visited monarchs, finance ministers, governors of central banks and the like, in 30 countries. At home, the Mansion House staff fill the diary with up to 20 meetings a day and then there are the endless newspaper and television interviews (around 250) and speeches (around 900 – or was it one 900 times?). So, by the time you have chaired meetings, dealt with charities, attended services and military parades there isn’t much time for personal interests.
I continued to play the organ in my little Wren church [St James Garlickhythe, where the above photograph was taken] whenever I was in the UK and I was televised playing the organ at the Astana Conservatoire from where I now have an honorary title (and a lovely thick brown robe I use as a dressing gown in the winter!).
One of the great joys of the year was the chance to support my beloved London Symphony Orchestra. As one of my honorary titles is International Ambassador for the LSO, Mansion House staff managed to make my visits to Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul coincide with the orchestra’s tour. Mahler’s 4th Symphony every time!
What are the most rewarding aspects of being Director of the RCO, and what are the challenges?
The RCO is one of the great gems in the musical stratosphere! I think it is right to say that it is the only College in the world dedicated to promoting just one instrument. The RCO’s staff are a pure joy – dedicated, creative and wonderfully collaborative. Of course, I enjoy being involved with our “gold standard” qualifications (not just in organ playing but also watch out for our new suite of choral-training diplomas), but the College is a great deal more than examinations. If you are in doubt, please visit our website.
The challenges are many. How do we reach more people of all ages and introduce them to our “wondrous machine”? A hangover from the distant past is that the College is seen as elite – well, at the top end it is but it is not elitist, if you understand – whereas I see it as being for anyone and everyone with an interest in the organ. “The first stop for every organist” as we like to say.
To answer my own question, I am happy that our scheme to place digital organs in maintained sector schools is growing well and in just two years we have placed some thirty instruments where they will be available to young people who might otherwise never have thought of having a go.
What is the RCO doing to help understand and address the gender imbalance in the organ world?
I loathe discrimination on any level and in another part of my life I chair an EDI committee.
As many organists find themselves playing in churches, one of my biggest challenges is the attitude of some priests (and congregations) towards women clergy. I know of many churches where female Bishops aren’t allowed into the Sanctuary. How can this be right? (And don’t get me started on the early church and the suppression of women!)
The organ world is, of course, far from being one world - it is incredibly varied and rather fragmented by its nature, and as such rather difficult to analyse precisely. However, the College has been monitoring for many years the diversity of those who engage with our membership, examinations, events, and other activities, and then comparing that with information from other sources, from our own research data to the experience of other organisations in the sector. Taken as a whole, these figures do tend to point to a considerable general imbalance, perhaps as much as 85/15. But more encouragingly we do see signs that the imbalance is becoming less and less pronounced among both younger organists and some key older demographics such as those returning or switching to the instrument in later life.
Huge credit for this must go to the many organisations, groups and individuals who have run events, created online content, launched social media campaigns, and simply been inspirational role models in their own right. The College is directly involved in many of these things, and absolutely committed to supporting and promoting as many as we are able. At the same time, we are committed to making sure our own services and activities are appropriate, diverse and accessible, that our governance, committees, teaching and examining teams are as representative as possible, and that diversity and inclusivity are a key consideration in everything we do.
What would you say to girls or women who are thinking of learning the organ and pursuing a career as an organist?
That's easy - go for it! In the words of my friends at the American Guild of Organists, “Let’s Do This!” – a phrase sometimes quoted to me by the RCO’s illustrious President [David Hill MBE]. I've always been a big believer in saying yes to opportunity, and there are plenty of brilliant and inspirational women organists in high profile positions at the moment to show what's possible. So be inspired, start practising, and I look forward to seeing you collecting prizes at the College's conferment ceremony in the near future!
You are clearly a very busy person. How do you find time to play the organ and to learn new repertoire?
You know the old line about “ask a busy person”! I love discovering new repertoire and rediscovering old favourites. In 2026 it will be fifty years since I passed the FRCO and I plan to see if I can still play the repertoire I played back in 1976 (remember that summer?) at Kensington Gore. The Reubke fugue may not be as secure as it once was!
Thank you reading this article and please get in touch if I can assist you in any way. Oh, and these ramblings are my own and do not represent the RCO’s position.
As I write, I am in Blackpool and the sun is shining. And that, in a nutshell, is my position.
Andrew Parmley was born in Lancashire, grew up in Blackpool and educated at the Royal Academy of Music, Manchester and London Universities and Jesus College, Cambridge. He has had a career in education and music. In 2016-17 he was the 689th Lord Mayor of London and was knighted in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List for services to music, education and civic engagement.
Andrew Parmley is the Director of the Royal College of Organists, past Chairman and Visiting Professor of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, International Ambassador and Honorary Member of the London Symphony Orchestra, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and, in addition to a doctorate in 17th-century French opera, holds honorary doctorates from City and Strathclyde Universities. He is also Principal of the Harrodian School, Past Chairman of the Blackpool National Advisory Board, Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, Fellow of Trinity College of Music, Fellow of Goodenough College, Hon. Fellow of Royal Holloway College and an Hon. Bencher of Middle Temple.
Andrew is a keen liveryman and is a member or honorary member of over twenty Livery Companies. He is Past Master of the Parish Clerks, the Musicians, the Glass Sellers and the Vintners Companies. He has been honorary organist at St James Garlickhythe in his own Ward of Vintry for over forty years.
Sir Andrew Parmley
The Royal College of Organists