Spotlight on the historically informed organist
In conversation with Gerdi Troskie, highly respected organist, teacher, and infectious enthusiast of historically informed performance.
Welcome to Spotlight, Gerdi and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. You now live in Worcester with your husband (Andrew McCrea, Deputy Chief Executive of the RCO) and your teenage son and daughter. To begin this conversation, do tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to play the organ. Do you come from a musical family?
I grew up in a very musical family. My mother’s father was an organist and music lecturer at the University of Cape Town and my mother was a primary school music teacher and choir mistress. My father has worked in music education all his life and was Head of Music at the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa until his retirement about 20 years ago. Since I can remember, my father has held posts as organist in several Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa. As a family we went to services every Sunday and joined the church choir. My father still plays the organ in his local church. He founded the South African Church Organists Association (SAKOV) 40 years ago. The aim of this Association was to promote communication between organists across the country, to improve church musicianship and liturgy in the Dutch Reformed churches and to support the education of young organists. This work is still ongoing.
Presumably, you began by learning to play the piano? Did you learn any other instruments at school?
I started learning the piano at the age of 9 and the organ around the age of 14. I went on to complete my BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Port Elizabeth. As a teenager, I was taught by organ teachers who had studied in Europe, so I felt connected to a bigger world and expressed the wish to also go abroad to further my studies. The inspiration that the historical instruments would provide, and the way they could inform playing style and technique, were the reasoning behind many South African organists aiming to study further in Europe. Some of the organs we played in South Africa as students were imported from the UK (given the Colonial history). I performed the Poulenc organ concerto on the Norman and Beard instruments in Johannesburg City Hall and Cape Town City Hall. I also played recitals on good mechanical instruments: some imported (the 3-man Marcussen at Stellenbosch University) and others by organ builders based in SA. These instruments had served us well, but it was the truly authentic organ culture and its inspiring instruments that I wanted to experience. I won a scholarship to study at the Amsterdam Conservatorium and left South Africa in 1993. I completed a one-year diploma, and auditioned to enrol for a further two years to complete a performance diploma. I finally completed my studies there in 1996. and moved to the UK. I started teaching in schools and I held an organist’s post at a Catholic church in Holborn.
What struck you most about the differences between learning the organ in the Netherlands, and in the UK?
What I really discovered was that we were extremely lucky as students in the Netherlands to have had access to amazing instruments. I encountered the St Bavo Church organ in Haarlem several times as we had group lessons there. These group lessons were entirely performance-based and we had lively and stimulating debates and exchanges of views about technique and interpretation. We also regularly had lessons at the Waalse Kerk where my teacher, Jacques van Oortmerssen, was the organist. For French repertoire, we relocated to a Cavaillé-Coll instrument which was located in a care home in Amsterdam. It was a happy time and I learned so much when I was living in Amsterdam. I received detailed tuition in organ technique from JvO who really understood the instruments we had lessons on. I often turned pages when he played recitals and it was wonderful to stand on the side-lines and watch him perform. In lessons he went into great detail about the attack and release of keys on these organs and encouraged us to listen acutely to the sounds we were producing: the start/attack and also the end/release of sounds. We learnt how to use our energy wisely when playing these huge instruments. The initial instinct might be to ‘fight’ against the weight of these heavy actions, but we learnt how to control and conserve energy and behave in a more efficient way on the keyboard. In return, the organs rewarded us with their glorious power and colour.
I wonder if the care home residents appreciated having a Cavaillé-Coll to hand!
So 1996 sees you settling in the UK - might we ask why the UK rather than any other European country or the USA?
I met my future husband, who is from the UK, on a residential Organ Summer School in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1994. Things took their natural course and I eventually decided to relocate to the UK.
Nowadays what does a typical week look like?
Nowadays, I spend most of my week teaching. I am one of the accredited teachers at the RCO and also work as visiting teacher at the King’s School in Worcester, where I live. I have built up a considerable private teaching practice and do some teaching at home on most evenings of the week.
Do you still play in a church regularly?
I don’t hold an organist’s post currently but have access to a church in Worcester town centre where I teach my students. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have been working online. Students who have instruments at home have been sending recordings of their playing to me which we’ve discussed in a Zoom meeting. Zoom has offered a good solution at this time, and I know the RCO courses that were taught online were a great success. Piano tuition via Zoom provided a workable solution during lockdown, but I much prefer being back to face-to-face teaching at school again.
I have a husband and two teenage children who keep me busy. The juggling of the children’s various after-school activities was greatly reduced during lockdown as the kids kept going with their clubs, music and dance lessons online. But during pre-Covid times, I would spend much more time in the car driving the kids around and making sure the household ran smoothly.
Do you think your career wold have developed differently if you had been a man?
I don’t believe my career would have developed differently if I had been a man. It was my choice to learn the organ, to keep studying the organ repertoire and to travel to further my understanding of organ culture. I enjoyed taking part in recitals and developing a professional life as a teacher. It was also my choice to put my organ playing on the backburner to have children. I can’t say that I have ever been discriminated against purely because I am female.
Why did you become a member of SWO and what do you value about it?
I joined SWO because I support the training of more young organists and I’m keen to see that the organ is taken up by more girls. I have not personally experienced any gender inequality in my working life, nor been treated differently. In South Africa there are many female organists so I was not conscious of a gender imbalance as I was growing up. Likewise, in Holland there seemed to be a sense of equality.
Do you have any specific advice to give to girls learning to play the organ?
I would encourage girls to investigate all the educational opportunities that the RCO and Oundle for Organists have to offer. Their courses give access to superb tuition and feedback from really experienced, inspirational tutors. Girls (and boys for that matter) should be encouraged to use the organ to hone their musical instincts and discover new horizons. The organ might be perceived as a male preserve, used in a specific environment, but it is, after all, an instrument with a rich, incredibly large repertory of original music and a unique ability to realise transcriptions: it surely allows access to Music (capital M) in an exciting and enthralling way.
What do you plan for your own future when the teenagers have flown the nest?
I would love to have more time to study new organ repertoire and to travel more.
Gerdi, many thanks for taking the time to talk to SWO.
Gerdi Troskie completed her BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and continued with postgraduate organ studies at the Amsterdam Conservatorium with the early music specialist Jacques van Oortmerssen (1993–96). She was awarded the Conservatorium’s Soloist’s Diploma (organ) in 1996. In 1996, on completion of her studies, Gerdi moved to the UK. She taught organ and theory at the Royal College of Music Junior Department from 1998 to 2005. She held the appointment of Organist and Director of Music at St Anselm & St Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, Holborn, London, from 1996 to 2002 and started teaching organ and theoretical studies for the St Giles International Organ School in 2000. She is currently an accredited teacher of the Royal College of Organists’ RCO Academy Organ School, and teaches students in Worcester and across the West Midlands and surrounding regions. Gerdi has participated as a tutor on several residential courses, including the RCO/St Giles Summer Course and courses for Oundle for Organists. Since 2016, she has been working as a part-time teacher of piano at the King’s School, Worcester. She has played recitals at home and in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and South Africa.