Spotlight on the International Aid Worker
Hannah Parry talks about her other life in Bosnia and France
Hannah Parry carrying a huge bag of bread in Serbia
First of all, Hannah, tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to play the organ: what was your training as an organist?
I like to say that I combined both my parents’ jobs into one. My Dad was a vicar and my mum is a violin teacher, so becoming an organist was the ideal combination of both of those. I came the way of the cathedral chorister. Fortunately for me, the Girls’ Choir at Norwich Cathedral had started a couple of years before I was eligible to audition. Katherine Dienes-Williams was Director at that time, and she was certainly an inspiration to start learning the organ. When I was 14, I managed to get a scholarship from the Diocese which paid for organ lessons with Katherine’s successor, Julian Thomas.
After meeting Ann Elise Smoot at an Oundle course, I started travelling to London for lessons (generously supported by an anonymous sponsor!) and auditioned for the Royal College of Music. I remember audition day vividly. I thought I’d stuffed it up and was planning my gap year, but I got in!
Four amazing years at the RCM was followed by an intense 12 month Masters at Royal Holloway. I had already started my freelance career at that point, and looking back, I have no idea how I managed to fit everything in.
What does a typical week look like?
As a freelancer, I haven’t often had a typical week, but I teach and accompany for the Triborough Music Hub as well as teaching privately and playing for weddings and funerals as they come along. Sunday playing has been a feature of my life since I could just about manage a hymn and I’ve worked at numerous different churches.
Do you have much time to practise?
I make time to practise a lot when I have a recital coming up and I always try to be working on new repertoire. However, the pandemic restrictions have made this ever more difficult.
As well as playing the organ, you are involved in work with refugees and write a blog as an aid worker (www.hannahparry.co.uk) Tell us something of this…. How do you fit this in with earning your own living?
I started out writing a travel blog about my exotic trips abroad. It started with spending the summer holidays backpacking in Southern Peru and I soon found that I really enjoyed writing. My trips gradually got more ambitious before I moved out of London and went on a big trip to India. Since then I have managed to spend chunks of time in London earning, as well as plenty of time abroad.
Volunteering has been part of my life for a while in different ways, but I don’t quite remember how I found out about the situation for refugees in Calais. I was planning my next getaway to South East Asia but thought I’d do something worthwhile before jetting off. After a month of meeting the most incredible people and working in hard conditions, I knew I would stay involved with this issue.
I did the same thing this last year. I spent two cold weeks in Calais in January before a sunny trip to Mexico to complete my professional scuba diving certificate. That’s when the pandemic disrupted my plans. I didn’t have any work, except some online teaching. So I headed back to Calais where the situation was horrendous during the strict French lockdown.
What sort of work are you involved in, when in the refugee camps - for example in France? Does playing the organ ever prove a useful tool in your work abroad?
The work in France is about providing clothes and equipment to those sleeping rough in Calais and Dunkirk. There isn’t a camp there, so the refugees, who are largely from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and Kurdistan, have to find secluded places to sleep. The police clear the tents all the time - it’s a never ending cycle.
Whilst the pandemic ensured I still didn’t work, I set off for Serbia, with my piano in my car. The work there, for the tiny NGO No Name Kitchen, included cooking massive pots of hot food as well as conducting interviews with those who had been victims of violence by the authorities. The reports are then published by BVMN ( borderviolence.eu)
The work in Bosnia was similar, except that helping people is much more criminalised. I was providing food to cook for those who were staying in abandoned buildings, as well as writing the border violence reports and distributing clothes and equipment when we had it.
Organist and aid worker didn’t really feed into each other, except for a nice connection with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bosnia which led to continued ties with Farm Street Church in Mayfair where I had been playing. Going forward, this is definitely something I want to work on!
Hannah with some refugee friends outside the building where they sleep in Bihac, Bosnia | photo Kristian Skele
Why did you become a member of SWO? What do you value about SWO?
I became a member of SWO as soon as I heard about it. I had consistently been the only female organ student at the RCM; some years there were two of us. I had fantastic female role models in my own musical life, and I think it’s really important to share that with others.
I would not have been an organist if I hadn’t been a chorister. Without the work of Katherine Dienes-Williams and other pioneers of girls’ choirs, I would not have had access to the inspiration and education provided by cathedral music. My Mum never had that chance and she was therefore specially supportive of my sister and I having this opportunity.
How do the aims and values of SWO help an aid worker?
I think it’s important to stand up for something that you see is wrong and that you want to change. For me, I cannot unsee what I saw in Bosnia and France so I will continue to fight for change. It’s the same with women in music. The inequality is wrong. SWO is a cheerful, friendly and motivated organisation working for something that we all believe in.
It is argued that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists? Do you agree and, if so, do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?
I think the gender imbalance is well documented. It starts with equality in education. Even now, choristers are not given equal opportunities. As at Norwich, the boy choristers have access to the cathedral school and the girls do not. The cathedral school has a chapel with an organ, I’m guessing the numerous state schools which the girl choristers attend do not.
This also leads to a discussion about class bias. I could only attend organ lessons and courses because I received a lot of funding. That funding is available, but knowing it is there to access, auditioning or sending in application forms are all additional barriers.
I was fascinated to read Jeremiah’s article last month (Jeremiah Stephenson/December 2020 Spotlight) about his students who start learning through charitable projects. Once money and religion are set aside, enthusiasm to learn has an equal gender split at that early stage. So, with care taken over giving opportunities in different ways, it is possible to move towards a more even gender split.
Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What could be done to change this?
You don’t have to be a cathedral Director of Music to be a successful organist. It is an obvious benchmark and an easy statistic, but many women are at the top of our field without necessarily holding such lofty titles.
However, there is much to be done. I remember one occasion - I had booked a deputy to play in my absence at a major London church. She overslept. The following week, the singer and I were appreciating how awful it would be to miss one’s alarm. She said “Especially as a woman; it’s hard enough gaining respect as it is.” To some extent, she was right. But to draw attention to it in this way does somewhat add to the bias that is already there.
Funding and courses which provide education to everyone are important. I think careful use of language is another important point. Casual slips are easy - during a break before a service at an unfamiliar church “How does the organist take his coffee?”
I admit it is a bit of a minefield. Talking to a colleague about a recital series, it was actually impossible to find enough women who were available, and of a sufficient ability, to play half the recital dates. I would be mortified if I thought I’d been included only on the grounds of my gender and not for my ability.
For you, what has been the hardest part of this last pandemic year?
For me, the hardest thing has been accepting that my London musician days are over. I can’t earn enough to live in London any more. Churches will be struggling for funds and without singers to accompany and concerts to give, there isn’t a way forward.
I am fortunate to have qualified for the government Self Employment Support Scheme, which supported me while I was volunteering. And I am currently pursuing writing, journalism and social media as a new income stream, which I can maintain when I return to Bosnia in February.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your organ and aid worker commitments?
Meeting interesting and inspiring people, without a doubt.
Just recently I was chatting with someone who is a trustee of a charity encouraging people to apply the teachings of Jesus in a super practical way.
My friends who are refugees and asylum seekers have undoubtedly changed my perspective on life. To be able to stay cheerful, friendly and kind in the face of truly horrendous situations is nothing short of miraculous.
The other volunteers I’ve met have been extremely enlightening too. It’s very refreshing to speak to people from walks of life that I wouldn’t usually encounter. They have challenged beliefs I thought I had, and they make it seem possible to take my own life in a different direction.
Do you have any specific advice to give to girls learning the organ?
Never apologise for your femininity. It’s Franck’s fault that the stretches in the chorals are too big, not your fault that your hands aren’t big enough!
And practise a lot! I found that confidence in my own ability, through being extremely prepared for all my engagements, meant that I could easily stand confidently shoulder to shoulder with my male colleagues.
Hannah Parry is an organist, journalist, scuba diving professional and aid worker. She studied the organ at the Royal College of Music and Royal Holloway University of London and has had a busy freelance career in London, including church positions, most recently at Farm Street Church in Mayfair. She has given recitals around the country and is a committed teacher. She was a DiveMaster in Xcalak in Mexico. The pandemic caused her to travel to Europe searching for usefulness. Volunteer positions in Calais, Serbia and Bosnia have led her to pursue a career in journalism, in order to better tell the stories of refugees and asylum seekers she has met. The situation for vulnerable people in the Balkans, where political tensions and human rights violations create dire conditions, needs to be spoken of more.