Updated: Jul 10
Who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ?
I sang in my local church choir in Cambridge from the age of about 13 – although I’d been playing the piano for a few years and had started to improvise and compose I hadn’t really wanted to join a choir until a school friend suggested it. I was taking Music ‘O’ level and had started to love the musical Sudoku aspects of harmony we used to do – and realised that I wanted to take Music ‘A’ level. My school insisted on two instruments for this but my parents were unable to afford another instrument, so I think I suddenly became aware that the organ, played by an inspiring young organist at our church at that time, was a possibility. Growing up in Cambridge, in an era when college chapels were more than happy to use local schoolgirls for their soprano and alto lines, I then joined a college choir – plenty of inspiration for a young organist.
What was your training as an organist?
I was very fortunate as, after two very short-term blocks of lessons with organ scholars, I found myself, through a chance friendship with one of the organ scholars, a student of a youthful David Hill at St John’s College, Cambridge.
I was then Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Oxford. I think I was pleased to have become the first female organ scholar at a mixed college in Oxford, but I’m not sure my confidence matched that I found in the organ scholars from the very established choral foundation colleges. I approached Nicolas Kynaston for lessons to restore confidence, and soon realised that I wanted to further the development of my playing – both as pianist and organist. I later went to the RNCM as a postgraduate student, where I rather nervously also took on the organ scholarship of Manchester Cathedral. It turned out to be a steep learning curve, but one of the most formative experiences of my studies in that it showed me the organ as a concert instrument, as well as building confidence in service playing and the other versatile skills needed in an organist’s life. I had a long-held ambition to study abroad and was lucky to be encouraged by the then organist of Manchester Cathedral, Gordon Stewart, to go to Geneva to study at the Haute École de Musique with François Delor. Playing standards were (and still are) very high, and it was there that I fell in love with much of the earlier repertoire that needs the colours of organs true to their historical traditions – Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and the music of the French Baroque remain my go-to favourites, and the expectation to play all the core Bach repertoire has stood me in good stead.
In looking back, I realise that these three teachers shared something that influenced me profoundly in the way I choose to be a musician: all focused on music and musicianship and none on gender. All took me seriously as a musician, and taught with honesty, humour and great positivity.
What have been the highlights of your musical career to date?
The best experiences of my musical career have been when I feel that I have played at my best – those experiences don’t always happen when expected!
A very long time ago I’d unfortunately found myself unwell in hospital a week before Christmas – it meant that I played a recital before a big carol service rather less prepared than I wanted. I played the Schübler Chorales and the Reger Fantasia and Fugue on Wachet Auf on the wonderful Metzler instrument at St-Pierre in Geneva and they went better than I could ever have prepared for – I puzzled about this for some time and later realised that some of our best playing experiences happen when we truly bring our mind on the moment in hand rather than over-prepare and worry about reputation. I had many playing highlights in my years at Clifton Cathedral – again, I think I found the instrument particularly inspiring.
Very recently I’ve had some lovely highlights – a surprise invitation to play a Handel Concerto soon after we moved to Bristol gave me (and I hope the audience) enormous pleasure as we returned to concerts after Covid.
I’d have to say that some of my highlights in recent years are the quieter ones – seeing a long-term pupil through to a fantastic Grade 8 piano result that led to a change of choice and a subsequent Cambridge place; seeing some of those I work with in music therapy make a real connection through music and move away from isolation.
Following organist positions at the Anglican Church in Geneva, Bristol Cathedral and Clifton Cathedral, you retrained as a music therapist. Can you tell us about your work as a music therapist?
The decision to retrain as a music therapist came out of my experiences of being a very lone organist in the years before cathedral girls’ choirs and the ordination of women. While choirs and many individuals were always supportive, the environment was challenging and I often found myself reflecting on the real purpose of musical communication – for musicians and listeners – in cathedrals. I retrained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and subsequently worked for some years for the NHS in London in multidisciplinary teams in mental health and learning disability. We lived for many years in St Albans, and once my own children reached school age I moved to work in education, much of the time for Hertfordshire Music Service. Within their music therapy team, I set up a project with Children in Care, developed adult music therapy and supervised student music therapists. More recently, with children grown and time to return to playing, I work part time for a Bristol organisation, Musicspace, running sessions in an adult learning disability setting. Over the years this work has led me to consider the ways in which music therapy and my organ playing life interact – and the immense value it has had in changing my approach to the psychological aspects of performance, choir work and teaching.
Do you think your career might have developed differently if you had been male, or has your gender made no difference?
Yes, I think it may well have done – but I don’t think for better or worse. Gender makes a difference to how we see ourselves in any context, but I think it came down to other factors that led me to develop my career along the path I did. I soon realised that demanding full-time work needs recovery time at weekends! As soon as I had children, I realised that a musical career needs careful thought and compromise if it is not to impact family life and their own development. We do have to remind ourselves that the success of our career choices is measured by the experience of those we work with, teach, conduct, etc., not by status in a church or organisation – not always easy!
Can you tell us about your current musical life, including your recent work as Director of Music at the Lord Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol?
I’ve been running the music at the Lord Mayor’s Chapel on a temporary basis – it’s a fascinating place that has had the unique status of having been a municipally run chapel since the days of Henry VIII. It has recently been taken under the wing of Bristol Cathedral and I’ve been helping out as new plans are being developed. There is a small and very able choir – it’s been a lovely journey back into choral conducting and service playing and, with all the years of experience of therapy, I hope I’ve brought something a little different to it and I hope to work on a new choral project soon. I still work as a music therapist in a learning disability setting and supervise other music therapists. Last year was a busy recital year, but this year has had other challenges. I am currently Vice President of the Bristol and District Organists’ Association and will be their President next year, so I am hoping to work on planning some events looking at the organ in a chamber music setting.
You have recently become the RCO’s newest accredited teacher. What is your approach to teaching and what are you most looking forward to?
I’m about to start work with one or two new pupils who have come forward through the RCO and, like many adult pupils, they come with a history of experiences in music very different from my younger piano pupils. My approach is one that I hope draws on my own learning in all aspects of my musical life. My starting point is to understand, from an empathic position, what a pupil is hoping to achieve. I like to help a pupil discover the immense repertoire of our instrument, from the Renaissance to the present day, and to understand some of the fascinating reasons for the organ’s very different development in different European traditions. Every lesson has a 3-part approach in my head: it must include technique, musical understanding and the psychology of performance – one of those may come to the fore but all need to be included, whether it is a group or individual lesson.
Do you have any specific advice for girls who are learning the organ?
Absorb yourself in the music – and the wonderful depth of human experience that can be expressed through it. Forget about gender and build the best core skills you can in playing – this is what will serve you lifelong, whatever career or life choices you are faced with.
Growing up in Cambridge, Claire Hobbs studied the organ with David Hill before taking a music degree, as organ scholar at St John’s College, Oxford. She continued her performance study at the Royal Northern College of Music, where she was organ scholar at Manchester Cathedral, and subsequently at the Haute Ecole de Musique in Geneva, Switzerland, completing her studies with a Prix de Virtuosité and the Prix Otto Barblan for Performance. Claire has held positions as Organist of Holy Trinity, Geneva, Assistant Organist at Bristol Cathedral and Organist at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol. Throughout her career she took lessons with François Delor in Geneva and Nicolas Kynaston here in the UK. As an organ teacher, Claire taught on many courses for young organists for the Incorporated Association of Organists and the Royal School of Church Music.
After many years of playing, which included recitals in the UK, Switzerland, South Africa and New Zealand, Claire retrained as a music therapist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Over the last 20 years, she has worked as a therapist in the NHS and education with a wide range of client groups, including mental health and learning disability. After many years in Cambridge, Claire is now based back in Bristol, maintaining a musical life as an ABRSM examiner, a piano teacher, on which she also holds the LRAM and ARCM diplomas and a music therapist with Musicspace.