Updated: Mar 8
Hannah Gill, Organist, Pianist, Conductor, Teacher… and the new SWO co-Chair
Why did you become a member of SWO? What do you hope to achieve as co-Chair?
I joined SWO as I’ve often felt rather isolated as an organist, and as someone who didn’t come through a typical organ scholar route I didn’t know many other organists before joining SWO. I certainly didn’t meet many women playing the organ, compared with other instruments.
As a member of SWO I have really valued being part of a community of musicians with similar aims, and one that has an increasing international presence. Previously I was responsible for SWO’s social media, communications and editing the newsletter, and I’ve also been involved with the Adjustable Bench Campaign and Adult Learners’ Group. It’s been wonderful to see the effect of getting together to discuss the challenges we face, and how this has led to creative campaigning and making our voices heard. As co-Chair I look forward to broader responsibilities working with all members of the committee and increasing our membership both in the UK and further afield.
My lessons with Anne Marsden Thomas before entering the ARCO exam a few years ago were extremely valuable, and although I had many years of piano practice under my belt by this point, I definitely benefitted from her disciplined approach to learning and problem-solving. It’s a pleasure to be able to work with Anne on a regular basis, and I’m continually impressed by how dedicated our committee members are to promoting our cause.
I’d love to encourage more girls and women to play the organ both in a personal capacity and through my work with SWO, which hopefully means that in the future we will see more women recitalists, organ teachers, and a greater proportion of women playing in places of worship.
What was your training as a musician?
I was very fortunate to grow up in Wales which has strong musical traditions, and this was particularly the case in my primary school where there was lots of singing, recorder playing and musical theatre productions. As I didn’t come from a family of musicians, I was a relatively late starter and didn’t have piano lessons until the age of 11. However, I was fully supported in my music studies and I went on to devote a huge amount of time to music as a teenager, eventually auditioning for music college. I was drawn to the piano as I enjoyed the potential to make music independently (likewise with the organ), and this became a really important outlet for me when I found school frustrating. Academically, I was bored and unchallenged, so the aim of developing my performance skills to an advanced level in a few short years provided me with a much-needed focus and mental stimulation. My piano teacher Alison Bowring at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama was a hugely important influence in my musical development and invested a great deal of time and energy in helping me achieve my goals. Lessons would regularly go on for 2-3 hours, covering a large amount of repertoire and technical work. I look back in amazement at her dedication!
I began playing the organ at the age of 13 as my church needed someone to play from time to time. I was largely self-taught apart from a few lessons with a local organist, and although the organ was in a poor condition, I still found it hugely exciting to play. At the time I was also dabbling in guitar, saxophone and viola too, and went on to earn pocket money by playing the organ for funerals and weddings while still at school.
At Guildhall my training was intensely focused on the piano and there wasn’t an organ course on offer, although I played organ from time to time at City churches. A year after graduation, I was offered a church job and decided to brush up on my organ skills to give me more confidence in the role. This led to some lessons with the RCO Academy, and eventually passing ARCO. I really enjoyed attending organ courses in preparation for my diploma and being the only woman attending in some cases didn’t bother me, but I know that other women feel less comfortable in such situations.
I was fortunate to be appointed Organ Scholar at the Southbank Centre in 2015, which was not a typical organ scholarship experience, but one that was perfect for me in that it involved working with the education department. I really enjoyed my experience there working with Dr William McVicker, who is now a Patron of SWO. William was very generous in sharing his time and expertise, and I learnt a lot during this year. It was such a treat to perform on the Royal Festival Hall organ, especially the duet ‘Martyrs’ by Kenneth Leighton.
I don’t believe in ‘completing’ one’s education – there is always more to learn, and that’s why the RCO is so valuable in offering opportunities for lifelong learning to adults at any stage of their career. I’d love to have more organ lessons but now that I’m ten years into my career and busy with lots of other projects it’s difficult to find the time for regular study. However, being a member of SWO has challenged me to learn new things, for example seeking out pieces to perform for Woman Composer Sunday. I certainly don’t feel I’m at the point where I have ‘mastered’ the organ, and in some ways that’s what keeps me coming back to the instrument to continue to improve and eventually become as comfortable as I am at the piano (although I have many hours to make up to achieve that!) I hope to continue to develop confidence and discover new music, as well as the novelty and enjoyment of encountering different instruments and buildings along the way.
Have there been any particular highlights of your career to date?
One experience that was particularly transformative was the two months I spent volunteering as a teacher at a music school in India in the middle of my performance degree. I discovered how much I enjoyed teaching, the adventure of travelling to unfamiliar places and trying new foods, as well as meeting a diverse range of people and working as part of team of musicians. When I returned to my studies the following term, I found the scope of my course in solo performance narrow and confining in relation, and I knew from then onwards that my musical life would be more fulfilling when it encompassed a broader range of activities. I’ve especially enjoyed becoming more involved in choral music as an accompanist and conductor, where I have met many wonderful friends (and my husband!)
In terms of events, as a conductor the choral competition performances I’ve directed in Wales have been a particular highlight. When singing from memory, it’s such a rewarding experience to have the choir in constant eye contact so that you can really communicate with them and shape the music while sharing the experience of being on stage (and often on television!) I’ll never forget the roar in the stadium when leading a choir on to the pitch at Twickenham to sing the National Anthems at the England v Wales Rugby World Cup game in 2015. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to cover it!
I’ve already mentioned performances at the Southbank Centre, but the weekly highlights as an organist are just as important to me in sustaining an enjoyable musical life – the thrilling experience of a last verse reharmonization surrounded by a choir in full voice (especially if it’s a Welsh hymn tune).
You have many strings to your bow as an organist, pianist, conductor and teacher. What gives you the most satisfaction and why?
The enjoyable thing about my musical life is exactly as you’ve alluded to – the variety involved means I almost never get bored! Satisfaction comes in many guises, but helping young people develop skills and confidence in music-making is among the most fulfilling aspects of my work. Although the time available to devote to personal practice is now much more limited, when I do have longer periods of time to become immersed in learning new music, I enjoy the sensation of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as ‘flow’, where you lose all track of time from becoming so absorbed in an activity.
Please describe a typical week in your musical life
It varies greatly between term-time and school holidays. During school terms, my schedule is packed with teaching on every weekday, from primary school aged children to adult learners. I’ve only just started teaching the organ in one school, but I’m hoping that this will become a more substantial part of what I do. Any time when I’m not teaching or performing is devoted to practice, examining, choral directing and admin tasks. Saturdays are my day off, and usually involve a long bike ride, cooking and reading. On Sunday mornings I play regularly at St Nicholas’ Church in Harpenden, which has a fantastic choir of adults as well as boy and girl choristers, led by Marie Price.
What do you do in your spare time?
My main passion outside of music is cycling, which only came about my accident when I moved out of London in 2016 and needed a way of getting around as a non-driver. My commuter bike quickly developed into an obsession with road cycling. I ride with a women’s club and have entered lots of cycling events, such as London to Brighton and the Dragon Ride in Wales. I get such a thrilling sense of adventure in travelling long distances by bike. I’ve recently joined Audax UK and hoping to complete my first audax this year. My dad has been a keen cyclist for many years, so perhaps it’s in the blood!
Cycling is a sport that has traditionally been male-dominated, although things have greatly improved in both the amateur and professional scene in recent years, thanks to initiatives such as those led by British Cycling to encourage women-only beginner group rides, and the long-fought campaign for a women’s Tour de France (which only began last year). It’s encouraging to see how the landscape can be transformed when people refuse to accept the status quo, so I am optimistic for the organ world.
During the cooler months I keep fit with running and recently completed the Watford Half Marathon, although cycling is much more fun! I also enjoy hiking in places like North Wales and Scotland, skiing, baking (Welsh cakes are a favourite!) and am something of a transport geek, as I’ve enjoyed lots of Hidden London tours of abandoned Underground stations.
Hannah Gill graduated with First Class honours in piano performance from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Born in Wales, Hannah was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. She was a concerto finalist in the Texaco Young Musician of Wales and performed on ITV in a documentary about the competition. Performance highlights have included conducting and accompanying prize-winning choirs on live television at both National and International Eisteddfod competitions. Previously the Organ Scholar at the Southbank Centre, she is now Organist at St Nicholas’ Church in Harpenden. Hannah teaches piano and organ at Haberdashers’ Girls’ School and at Dame Alice Owen’s School. She is an Associate of the Royal College of Organists (ARCO) and an examiner for the ABRSM.