Spotlight on the International Organ Blogger
Morwenna Campbell-Smith, our SWO website designer, introduces The Lady Organist and explores ideas of gender equality.
I remember vividly, as a fourteen-year-old, deciding that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and a musician. I’ve taken a meandering route, but I’ve managed finally to achieve both these things.
I come from a large and musical family – in the sense that singing in choirs, listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, and playing the piano along with an instrument in the school orchestra were taken as a normal part of growing up. My mother taught us all the piano (vivid memories of her shouting F SHARP!! from the kitchen as we practised on the piano in the next room). We bickered over who would play the top part in piano duets, and all took grade exams. Music was not considered appropriate as a career, however, and when it came to a degree course I went to Oxford to read sciences.
After Oxford, along with many of my friends, I drifted to London. Having managed Oxford Theatre Group along with the Cambridge Footlights at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought arts administration was a world I might be comfortable in. I bought a house with my first partner, a professional orchestral manager, and, having to be frugal, started making curtains on the kitchen table: first for the house, then for friends, then for friends of friends who paid real money. And when my partner and I split up, I turned this into a business, which blossomed into an interior design and colour consultancy, a teaching career at one of London’s top design schools, and a move into interior design journalism and books.
So what happened to being a musician? Well, sometime just under ten years ago I was helping friends put on a concert in a small local church in North London, and the Vicar saw me eyeing the organ, and pounced. ‘Would you like to play it on the Patronal Day, because we don’t have an organist?’
I lurched that day through several hymns, trying to revive rusty keyboard skills and remember my homework on the difference between 8 foot and 4 foot stops. It was probably a pretty awful performance, but the church was delighted it now had an ‘organist.’ I was fully aware this ‘organist’ didn’t really know what she was doing: I needed some lessons. The internet told me about the RCO Summer Organ Course, and I nervously turned up at St Giles Cripplegate, along with 70 others who I assumed would all be immensely superior musical beings and show me up as the imposter that I obviously was.
I was wrong, of course; I was welcomed into the clan. Being an adult learner on the organ can be a painful process though, and you have to be prepared to make endless mistakes in public. I thought if I wrote about this other people in the same boat might be interested – and having joined a few organ clubs and societies, I also thought it was time to poke gentle fun at the male-dominated organ world, while still making it clear how much I now loved the instrument, its music, culture and traditions.
So THE LADY ORGANIST blog was born, the title being a proud reclaiming of the slightly demeaning label given, historically, to any woman who played the organ. And it got attention because there wasn’t anything like it at the time (and there still isn’t).
My approach to blogging was the same as to organ-playing, as is my advice when taking up anything you haven’t a clue about: just make a start, however shaky, learn as you go along, and doors will open. In 2015, as the Royal College of Organists took its operations online, I was asked to take on their own blog, StopPress. Five years later I now look after most of their publications: I curate iRCO, the RCO’s online campus, and am Editor of their twice-yearly print magazine, RCO News. This is a bit of a dream job for me – I get paid to write about what I’m most interested in, in the company of impressive colleagues. And looking after organists’ interests in the face of assorted current existential threats is essential work.
In fact, I love being amongst organists: folk who keep far too quiet about their amazing skills. I have a few nicely-honed dinner party anecdotes which I trot out to demonstrate to non-musical friends how extraordinary organists are: and I do think we ought to be less of a secret society and boast more – but maybe that’s asking too much. Maybe that’s where THE LADY ORGANIST comes in.
Seven years later and THE LADY ORGANIST has morphed into an international online magazine, and like all blogs it continues to shape-shift. It’s gone through several design changes (nothing dates as quickly as a website!) and my most recent focus has been on introducing reviews – of recitals, CDs, new music – and drawing attention to the re-imagining of the organ by contemporary musicians.
And the organ playing? - well, lessons with RCO teachers built a good enough technique and gave me enough self-confidence to put myself forward as Director of Music at St Mary’s, in Frittenden, Kent, as I moved here when Duncan and I got married three years ago. (More rusty skills to be dragged back to life – I now had a choir to train.)
I’ve never found not being a man stopped me getting where I wanted to be, though I continue to wince at the patches of misogyny and discrimination that I and female colleagues still encounter, and for this reason SWO is needed. The shocking statistics on the representation of women in the organ world that we highlight here on our website (available on the computer version of our website at the moment - but soon available on the mobile version) are, I believe, primarily historical, and are being overcome by women whose obvious talents and skills can no longer be ignored (you can’t fake being able to play the organ), along with a genuine desire to effect change within many responsible organisations.
There are still lazy and infuriating assumptions around what women can, or should, do, but I think back to my early teens, just before the Equal Opportunities Acts of the 1970s, when women couldn’t take out financial credit in their own name (a responsible man had to do it for them); when a self-employed woman was treated by the tax man as a trading entity of her husband; and when being what was described as ‘a career girl’ raised eyebrows, although it usually only involved getting a secretarial job before ‘settling down’ to have babies. When I started working in the music business in the 1980s orchestras were predominately male, with a culture of hierarchy based around the lordly (male) conducting maestro. (Women conducted choirs, but that didn’t count.)
The ‘second wave’ of feminism was needed, but now it is happening I think the genie is well and truly out of the bottle: it’s taken for granted now that an orchestra will be as female as male. Look at the headway women have made in just the past few years as conductors, composers, and in re-introducing the work of women composers to the mainstream concert repertoire. And women conductors are casting aside the old maestro culture, in favour of a more collaborative approach to making music.
My concern now is about the future in practical terms for the young women who are taking up the organ: particularly those outside the traditional church-and-organ-scholar route, who don’t go to church, and who may not want church positions, if indeed there were ones to be had. That we went to church on Sundays was unquestioned in my sort of childhood – and there’s no doubt it contributed hugely to my musical education. In an increasingly secular society however, the organ as an instrument needs a secular identity as well as its role in the church to survive and flourish. With our instrument primarily situated in churches there is much collaborative work to be done to ensure its survival as both a supporter of religious worship and as a concert instrument. It’s so sad that in this year we lost two great role models who were concert organists first and foremost: Jane Parker-Smith and Jennifer Bate. But I hope being a concert organist will be a career ambition open to all talented young organists in the future.
Morwenna’s CHURCH ORGANIST infographic was first published on Twitter in 2015, and has since appeared on church vestry noticeboards everywhere. She devised it to show how ‘just playing a hymn' requires multi-tasking skills approaching that of a fighter pilot.
Morwenna Campbell-Smith is Director of Music at St Mary’s, Frittenden, in the Weald of Kent. She was previously a choir leader and rota organist around many churches in North London, having retrained from pianist to organist as an adult. Morwenna’s website, THE LADY ORGANIST (www.theladyorganist.com), has an international following as does her Twitter feed @theladyorganist. As a music journalist she has written for Organists’ Review, and works for the Royal College of Organists as Editor of iRCO, their online learning campus, and Editor of their official blog StopPress, and RCO News.
Twitter @theladyorganist https://twitter.com/theladyorganist