Spotlight on the President of the Royal College of Organists
A conversation with Gerard Brooks
As current President of the RCO there is nobody better placed to understand the ‘feel’ of the professional organ world and, especially, the increasing number of women organists in important organ positions.
First though, tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to play the organ; what was your training as an organist?
My father was very interested in the organ, in particular the theatre organ, although he always maintained the classical organ took precedence! At first I followed in his footsteps, but eventually my own interest was sparked, and I became a bit of an ‘anorak’, wanting to go into every church to see what the organ was like! I was fortunate in having my first lessons with John Webster, who was organist of University College Oxford, up the road from Abingdon where I was brought up. He made sure I was playing the pedals correctly, and was a most genial but attentive mentor. He sadly died in his 50s, so I continued for a year or so with Walter Hillsman, eventually getting an organ scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford. Whilst there, I travelled down to Cleveland Lodge, Dorking, to have lessons with Susi Jeans. Her rambling house (later to become the home of the RSCM for a short while) contained several organs, in particular a baroque-style Eule instrument that was very different from English organs of the time. I wanted to study abroad after university, so applied for several scholarships and was fortunate to win the Stephen Arlen Award which enabled me to spend time in France. I wasn’t sure with whom I wanted to study, and although I had already had single lessons with both Jean Langlais and André Marchal (intimidating and charming, respectively!), I felt it would be easier to relate to a younger person. On the advice of Edward Higginbottom at New College, I got in contact with a young and then little known organist called Daniel Roth, organist of the Sacré-Cœur. Neither of us have forgotten our first meeting: arriving at his flat, I saw him on the balcony anxiously scanning the road for an expected taxi and so I hailed him from the street! At his suggestion, I applied to study at Strasbourg Conservatoire where he was about to begin teaching and thus saved myself the cost of private lessons: at the time, a year’s study for a foreign student there cost about £50! I spent two years in France, learning a great deal from Daniel Roth who was and is an excellent teacher, concerned not only with the finer details of interpretation, but also the basics of technique. Knowing I had to decide in which country to pursue a career, I increasingly felt called back to this ‘green and pleasant land’ – there is nothing like a spell abroad to help you appreciate your own country! On my return I completed a PGCE teaching diploma and had some lessons with Peter Hurford and Nicolas Kynaston.
Did that PGCE take you into full-time teaching?
Indeed it did: for about three years I was the music teacher at a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire, and it was a very happy period when I spent a lot of time writing school musicals alongside being organist and choirmaster at the church where I was once a choirboy in Abingdon.
Now you are President of the RCO, curator-organist of The Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a recitalist and a teacher. What does a typical week look like?
A mixture of things: Sunday and Monday at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, for services and planning meetings, Tuesday to Thursday teaching the organ at Latymer Upper School, Sevenoaks School and the Royal Academy of Music, Friday and Saturday usually either free or sometimes playing somewhere. Practice is fitted in all the gaps!
It is excellent to see that there are a number of male organists, including yourself, who are members of SWO Why did you join? What do you value about SWO?
I’m very happy to back an organisation that offers support to women because it’s so clearly needed: female representation in our profession at every level is still very low. I value the fact that SWO from the start has made it clear that they are not trying to compete with men but to address an imbalance, which they hope to do with support from men as well as women. The majority of musical institutions are run overwhelmingly by men: I wonder how men would feel if the opposite was true!
You describe current female representation in the profession as "very low". Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and how one might address this?
I don’t think the reasons for it are necessarily to do with prejudice, although there is probably still plenty of that. Our profession has always been male-dominated but that’s been true of many other professions too for historical reasons. The situation is undoubtedly changing, but I think for some people all that’s needed is for them to see how a woman can do the job just as well as a man and maybe better. Speaking from a personal viewpoint – and one that might get me into trouble at that! – I remember as a young man many years ago when women first became priests feeling instinctively like many others, no doubt, that ‘it was a man’s job’. Before I’m pilloried for this, let me add that this was no more than a conditioned reflex: all it took was for me to encounter a wonderful female parish priest to realise how wrong I was! (The Bible is full of ‘strong women’ and, cultural and historical differences aside, it’s clear that they were respected and honoured far more than is sometimes recounted today). As for addressing the imbalance, I think it just needs to be worked at constantly: gender should play no part whatsoever in a selecting a candidate for an organ post. It would be impractical to interview candidates anonymously, but it’s not for nothing that competitions are often run that way.
Do you think female and male organists are treated differently?
I can’t say that I have experienced this personally, but of course you would have to ask a female organist this question. Unfortunately, and it’s a hard truth to acknowledge, I suspect that sometimes a female organist might be unfairly judged by her appearance - one way or another - rather than by her playing, something that would not usually happen to a male organist. In a good sense, female organists may sometimes be favoured over a male organist simply because an enlightened concert promoter may be seeking to redress the gender balance in a series, although I firmly believe that organists male or female should be judged solely on their playing, not their gender.
Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What could be done to change this? Is there a specific role for the RCO in this?
I think women have often struggled in what is certainly a sphere dominated by men. The equal pay debate which has arisen in the last few years in the media particularly has highlighted the astonishing and outrageous fact that women doing the same job as men are sometimes paid less because of their gender! It’s significant that when certain high-profile cases have been successfully challenged, the majority of people seem supportive, as one would hope. It’s clear that women are just as able to do a job as any man – why would it not be so? In fact I sometimes reflect that if we had more female world leaders, there would be fewer wars! The RCO is certainly aware of the imbalance and is all too happy to seek to redress it where they can. There are few women on the trustee board at the moment, but those that are there are valued just as much as the men and I feel sure I can speak for the council when I say that we would welcome many more.
The small proportion of women in leadership roles in the organ world may partly be because traditionally fewer girls have taken up the organ than boys – probably because choirs were long seen as male institutions. However, as we know, the picture has changed greatly in recent years with so many fine girl and mixed choirs.
Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for? What is your advice to organists and people campaigning for gender equality?
As I said above, I’m not keen that gender should play a part in selecting people for jobs (excepting where role demands it, of course), and there can be a danger that in attempting to redress a gender balance, female candidates might be better received just because they are female. I’m not a fan of positive discrimination, as I think it’s important to assess candidates or performers on the basis of ability rather than gender. I would much rather that both male and female organists had an equal chance to compete on a level playing field when it comes to examinations and jobs, and therefore the way forward is to work at encouraging more girls to take up the organ. However, I don’t think the way to do that is to organise events for girls only: better to work hard at encouraging equal numbers of girls and boys to participate in organ classes. SWO has made it clear that it is not a ‘girls only’ organisation!
Do you have any specific advice to give to girls learning the organ?
I’m pleased to say that I teach almost as many girls as boys. It’s a generalisation, but with school students I find that girls often tend to be more focussed and conscientious, but in any case I try not to let a student’s gender change the way I teach them. I make sure that all are aware of the opportunities that may lie ahead in terms of organ scholarships and so on. These days, when far more girls are singing in church choirs than formerly, there’s a good chance girls will think of playing the organ. Interestingly, however, quite a number of my school students have been attracted to the organ for purely musical reasons – in both schools at which I teach the organs are in concert rooms rather than chapels. The problem then is that finding an instrument outside of school on which to practise may be difficult if the student has no involvement with a church. I have no hesitation in encouraging parents to acquire an electronic instrument for the home if possible, and quite a number of students have done this.
What have been the most rewarding parts of your time as President of the RCO?
It was an unexpected honour to be asked, and I enjoy working with a very good team at the RCO. Being President is an honorary, non-executive role – I’m asked to be an ambassador for the college and to promote it when I can. I attend trustee meetings and am able to give opinions on anything discussed. It’s a two-year appointment, which the trustees have kindly extended for a year in light of the recent pandemic. My main duty is to give a speech at the annual conferment ceremony and present the college’s diplomas. This is an enjoyable occasion, and one at which I am able to speak from the heart about the organ and its music and to congratulate the successful candidates, and perhaps encourage the unsuccessful ones! – and it’s great to see increasing numbers of girls and women attaining those famous diplomas.
Gerard Brooks is a concert organist and teacher of wide experience. He is Director of Music at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, and Curator Organist of the reconstructed 18th century Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields. He teaches at Latymer Upper School and for the Royal College of Organists Academy and is an organ professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He contributed many articles to musical journals as well as writing the chapter on French and Belgian organ music for the Cambridge Companion to the Organ. His recordings on the Priory label have all been broadcast on national radio and include the complete works of Eugène Gigout played on historic organs in France on five CDs, the first of which was voted an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine. His recent recording of 18th century English music at Christ Church Spitalfields has garnered five star reviews in both Choir and Organ and Organists’ Review. He has played with many orchestras, among them the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Gerard is a regular tutor on RCO courses and has also taught for the London Organ Day, Oundle for Organists, the Royal School of Church Music and Edinburgh Organ Academy. He is a founding Director of the London Organ Improvisation Course and is on the examination panel of the Royal College of Organists. Concerts in recent years have taken him to England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and the USA. Gerard is the current President of the Royal College of Organists 2019-2021.