Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Reflecting on 26 years of parish music ministry
Fiona Brown, ex-Director of Music, St Peter’s Church, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire
What was your training as an organist?
I began lessons at 12 at school with Jean Taverner FRCO, who taught 9 girls the organ at any one time. The girls were given their lessons free in return for providing all the organ accompaniment for daily assemblies. I also sang in the school choir. I then became organ scholar at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where I was the first woman to gain an Oxbridge organ scholarship at a mixed-gender college. I read Music, and had organ lessons with Gillian Weir. At Trinity Hall, the organ scholars were responsible for fostering the musical life of the college, so we had plenty of practice at recruiting, retaining, training and accompanying the chapel choir, as well as the college choral society and orchestra. I also assisted at Pembroke College during my PGCE year.
You made a conscious choice to pursue a career in parish music rather than cathedral. Why?
I decided to focus on education and parish music, rather than following the recitalist or cathedral paths, partly because I envisaged myself with a family, and was concerned that the working hours generally associated with the latter two careers wouldn't be compatible with motherhood. Also, although school and Cambridge had afforded plenty of opportunities to play a variety of smaller organs, I still felt daunted at that stage by four-manual instruments (I love them now!). This was despite accompanying services at Ely, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds, and gaining the ARCO as a recent graduate. During my first teaching post, at Repton School, I continued to give recitals, and gained the FRCO in 1984 under David Sanger's tutelage. In 1985 I moved to Cheltenham Ladies' College as College Organist, where I also directed the college choir and taught academic and instrumental music.
I was teaching full-time and attending our local parish church, and realised that during services I was both back-seat driving and worried that I was getting out of practice at playing in a church setting. The educational side of parish music – being able to introduce children to organ and choral music as well as church life – was a particular attraction. Parish work, I felt, would also allow me to continue with a variety of classroom and instrumental music teaching, as well as my various other playing commitments. It felt more like part of ordinary life, not so far removed as cathedral music seemed to be. I have always appreciated being at the centre of a small community, helping friends to celebrate the rituals of life such as weddings and funerals. It was an added bonus that my two children and my husband were all in the Choir for many years.
Describe a typical week.
Generally Mondays to Wednesdays were teaching days, Thursdays and weekends were Winchcombe days, and Fridays were for dealing with domestic matters. On Thursdays I practised in the morning to prepare for the weekend, and did admin in the afternoon before the evening choir practice. Sunday mornings were a rush (especially when the children were small; and also when we were taking my beloved dementia-suffering mother-in-law to church and then giving her lunch). However, they felt very satisfying. The rehearsal and parish communion were followed by lunch at home; back to Winchcombe for Evensong with the adults-only choir. Other days were often taken up by meetings, chorister training (using the RSCM Voice for Life scheme), attending assembly at a local primary school to teach the children a song and recruit for the parish choir, and, of course, my other playing and teaching duties.
Did you have supportive clergy and congregation who valued the music?
Yes, all of the clergy and and congregation were very encouraging about the music during my time. I was dependent on them and the Youth Ministers for keeping the church a youth-friendly organisation. Sometimes the clergy favoured pieces of music that I didn't, and negotiation was required, but I was never stopped from doing repertoire that I really wanted to programme. The congregation even became used to, and, in some cases, fond of, Messiaen! The church raised over £42,000 for organ repairs overall. They were willing to experiment with different liturgical placements of the choir at times, in order to support congregational singing.
Did you have an assistant organist?
A few years ago a good organist came to Winchcombe who was keen to join the choir, and also to help with the organ playing. He had no formal role, but was in effect an assistant organist, occasionally playing while I conducted. It is difficult to conduct and generally communicate with a large choir of children and adults effectively while playing; two people are really needed - so I am glad to say that he became the organist when I left Winchcombe, and the choir is now directed by an excellent singer.
What are some of the highlights of your career at St Peter’s?
One particular highlight was our weekend in St Davids Cathedral, Wales, which was a rewarding trip both musically and socially. I will never forget the children singing 'Turkey in the straw' on the way back from the beach, and then switching immediately to a difficult psalm around the youth hostel kitchen table. A few years ago it was also wonderful for me to direct two performances of Britten’s community opera, ‘Noye’s Fludde’, with 200 people from all 17 churches in the Winchcombe team of parishes. This required cooperation and participation from people of differing abilities and backgrounds; the organisation practically drove me mad, but conducting it in an absolutely packed church, with hand bells, strings, recorders, trumpets, and percussion all in different parts of the building, ‘animals’ approaching from the back, and an inspired set and costumes, was definitely one of the best things I have ever done!
Any final thoughts?
Parish work at St Peter's was very rewarding, though it was quite capable of taking over my thoughts completely when trying to juggle a portfolio of jobs – it was certainly then the biggest of my responsibilities. The only thing that still irritates me is the low expectation that people tend to have of parish music. To strive for excellence right where we are is surely essential – and anyway, it's all to the glory of God. I remember someone joking that I couldn't have much of a choir at Winchcombe (with its population of about 5,000). We had a choir of 45. Why not?
Fiona Brown was born in Haslemere and educated at Christ's Hospital School for Girls, Hertford; Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where she read Music as Organ Scholar; and Homerton College. Cambridge, where she gained her PGCE. Her teachers have included James Dalton, Gillian Weir, David Sanger (organ) and Allan Schiller (piano). She holds the Fellowship diploma of the Royal College of Organists. She has combined class teaching at a number of educational establishments (including Repton School, Cheltenham Ladies' College, Prestbury St Mary's Junior School and Gloucestershire College) with many years of piano and organ teaching. She relinquished her post at St Peter's, Winchcombe, a year ago, spent six months deputising and is now organist at St Stephen's, Cheltenham. She continues to teach organ and piano at the Ladies' College, is repetiteur for Charlton Kings Choral Society, runs occasional courses for the RSCM, and enjoys concert and recital work on the organ and piano.