Talking with Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, organist, composer and SWO Co-Chair
What made you decide to play the organ? Did you learn any other instruments or sing?
I joined my local church choir at the age of four, and loved it, and began playing the piano at the age of nine. One night after choir practice, when I was ten, I was playing the piano when the organist, Robert Yeomans, heard me, and offered me organ lessons. On being introduced to the organ I was immediately intrigued, excited and eager to learn more, and gained an organ scholarship to secondary school after six months of lessons.
Tell us a little about your training as an organist.
I was Junior Organ Scholar at Wells Cathedral in my sixth form years while at the Cathedral School, where I studied with Matthew Owens. I spent my gap year as Organ Scholar at Guildford Cathedral under the direction of Katherine Dienes-Williams, before becoming Organ Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, where I worked closely with Stephen Darlington and Clive Driskill-Smith, and studied music at Oxford University. Following graduation I stayed on for a year at Christ Church to play for services at the Cathedral and perform around the city, and I became Director of Music at All Saints’ Church, Headington. I also gained my FRCO in that year, winning the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes, and the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award. I then moved to London to work at Eltham College, where I became a qualified teacher, and I now teach at Highgate School. I am a published composer and give organ recitals across the UK.
Describe a typical week for you.
Every day I practise repertoire for my organ recitals, and work on composition commissions by my publishers (Encore Publications and RSCM) or by independent choirs. I regularly attend meetings for a number of musical boards on which I sit (I’m Co-Chair of SWO with Anne Marsden Thomas, a Consultant for the RSCM, a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, and I’m on the RCO Academic Board), and spend a few hours each week doing admin for the various exciting projects that are under way with those organisations. At the moment, SWO and the RCO are creating a DVD about the organs in the City of London, featuring all female performers, and SWO is organising the memorial concert for Jennifer Bate, our former patron who sadly died during lock-down, so it’s a busy time. I work full-time at Highgate School as an academic teacher, organ teacher and choral director. Highgate is an inspiring, forward-thinking educational institution, and I greatly enjoy my work there.
Juggling all of these commitments each week means life is full, varied and stimulating!
What are some of the highlights of your career so far?
That’s a difficult question. Giving recitals on beautiful instruments (Westminster Cathedral, St David’s Hall, Cardiff) or at exciting events (St Alban’s International Organ Festival) is fun, and I enjoy the challenge and thrill of playing for live radio broadcasts. It’s been an honour to have my choral compositions performed and recorded by ensembles such as BBC Singers. I am also delighted to be the Co-Chair of SWO, which is an important initiative to me.
What has been the most important thing about yourself that you have learned so far?
I used to get anxious if I made the smallest slip when playing. I’ve tried over the years not to place unrealistic expectations on myself, and to focus on what really matters: musicality and expression (although I still learn my music thoroughly). I recognise I need time to relax (I resisted getting a smartphone until last year, much to the amusement of my friends!), and enjoy seeing friends, walking, swimming and cooking in my free time.
Do you feel you might be treated differently if you were a man?
Some people have low expectations of female organists; I am sometimes assumed to be junior to my male colleagues; on descending the steps from the organ loft after a service or recital, I have been asked on a number of occasions, “are you the page-turner?”; at a recent high-profile recital of mine, an organist reminded me to “open the swell box when you finish, as it can damage the instrument if you leave it closed”, as if I were a beginner organist. One-off comments, you might hope, but these have been consistent experiences throughout my career - and not experiences that seem to resonate with my male counterparts.
There is also pressure to worry about one’s image as a female organist; dress codes for women can be particularly specific; a Director of Music for whom I worked once told me that I was the most attractive organ scholar that that place of worship had ever had, as if that were a concern to me, when I was trying to focus solely on playing to the best of my ability.
Of course, I also recognise that I will have been booked for certain recitals or events or invited to be on certain boards as a result of being female, as so many institutions are keen to improve their gender balance, so I understand that being a female organist can bring opportunities.
What are the consequences of this?
None of the experiences I mention above help any of us; experiencing low expectations or objectification before you open your mouth or play is frustrating, and being booked solely because you are female is disheartening; the many men who treat every organist equally may feel personally attacked or frustrated by discussions about gender equality, and may be discriminated against specifically because of gender balance quotas. This is why institutions like SWO are so important, so that we can address prejudices and tackle the gender imbalance in a positive, collaborative way.
Some might say that having an institution dedicated solely to this cause is divisive, but I believe that gender inequality is such a complex major issue that an institution dedicated solely to it is necessary. SWO encourages anyone and everyone to be members, and hopes to engage in meaningful conversations, and organise events, in order to make things better for us all. Our hope in the end is that SWO won’t need to exist and that every man or woman who plays the organist will be just 'an organist'.
It would be good to see a similar society dedicated to addressing racial imbalance in the organ world, as this is also a complex major issue which needs serious thought and attention.
Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ?
My advice for girls learning the organ is the same as my advice for boys learning the organ. Aim high and believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who will support your ambitions. Embrace opportunities to develop your skills, connect with other people in the profession, and listen to, and reflect upon, feedback. Enjoy engaging with a wide variety of music on a daily basis.
Ghislaine Reece-Trapp is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, winning the Limpus, Shinn and Durrant prizes, and the Coventry Cathedral Recital Award. She is a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, a Consultant for the Royal School of Church Music, a member of the Royal College of Organists’ Academic Board, and Co-Chair of the Society of Women Organists (SWO) with Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, which launched at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2019. Ghislaine has performed live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, and on Chinese national television. Recent solo organ recital venues include Westminster Cathedral, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, and St Albans Abbey (as part of the International Organ Festival). Ghislaine is a published composer with Encore Publications and the Royal School of Church Music, and receives regular composition commissions. Her work has been recorded and performed by ensembles including BBC Singers and Harmonia Sacra (whose album, featuring the first performance of Ghislaine’s A virgin most pure, was listed as one of the best new Christmas classical music releases 2019 by BBC Music Magazine), and her anthem, Alleluia! A new work is come on hand, is the Royal School of Church Music’s second-best-selling carol ever. Ghislaine leads the organ department at Highgate School, where she also teaches academic music and directs the Girls’ Chapel Choir.