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Spotlight on the UK's first female Oxbridge Director of Music

Making Music in the Fens: Sarah MacDonald talks about her career as DoM at Selwyn College, Cambridge and Director of the Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral

Sarah MacDonald

What was your training to become an organist?

I grew up in a musical family in Canada—both my parents were professional singers, and my three younger brothers were cathedral choristers and/or violinists. I trained as a pianist, accompanying singers and violinists at home from a young age, and then as a teenager, I moved away to study as a soloist in what’s now called the Glenn Gould Professional School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where my teachers were Marek Jablonski and Leon Fleisher. In my spare time I sang in a number of adult mixed choirs (as a child, I hadn’t been allowed to sing in a cathedral choir, of course, since I was a girl). During this time, I became really interested in choral conducting, so the conventional next stop—which is odd, if you think about it—was to learn the organ. After studying for a year in Toronto with John Tuttle, I made the rash decision to apply for a Cambridge organ scholarship. Rather improbably, I was successful, and I spent three very happy years as Organ Scholar of Robinson College, studying with David Sanger. Robinson was ideal for me, since not only did it have a wonderful instrument (a 1980 II/26 Frobenius), and modern, new-world-friendly accommodation facilities, but also there was no resident Director of Music at the college, so I was effectively in charge of the choir and college music-making throughout my time as an undergraduate. It was an amazing training, and I am very grateful to the academics who took a chance on me as an overseas student with a very different background from the average Cambridge organ scholar.

What did you have to do for the Cambridge organ scholarship?

For the audition, we were required to play a Bach Trio movement, and do tests in sight-reading and transposition. We also had to take a short choir practice, and undergo academic interviews and written tests. I was very confident with the trio, the interviews, and the academic tests, and I absolutely loved the choir practice. As a trained concert pianist, however, transposition was a complete mystery to me, and was definitely a bit of a disaster in the audition. As for the sight-reading—I remember more than one of the academic-gown-clad men who were auditioning me taking me to a piano and asking me to play something to find out if I had any potential at all. I was completely at home at a Steinway, and played everything they put in front of me absolutely accurately. At the organ, however, where feet and stop-changes were involved, it was quite a different matter!

Describe a typical week for you.

Well, like everyone, at the moment a typical week consists of way too much time on Zoom seated at my kitchen table. In normal times though, I have quite a busy and carefully-constructed jigsaw puzzle of a week, which looks as below. I live in Cambridge, so commute to Ely, about 15 miles away, either by train/bicycle or in the car, depending on the weather.

Sunday – Ely + Cambridge

am: conducting in Ely Cathedral, otherwise playing in Little St Mary’s, Cambridge when I can

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn College Choir

Monday — Ely

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong followed by some organ teaching

Tuesday – Ely + Cambridge

am: girls’ practice at 0755; return to Cambridge to do some university teaching

pm: rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir

Wednesday – Ely (+ Cambridge in some weeks)

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, ending with evensong and sometimes travelling back to Cambridge for rehearsal at compline with Selwyn Choir

Thursday – Cambridge

admin and university teaching day ending with rehearsal and evensong with Selwyn Choir

Friday – Ely + Cambridge

Ely day, starting with girls’ practice at 0755, some weeks ending with evensong, other weeks travelling back to Cambridge to do university teaching

Saturday – my “day off” which inevitably consists of work: catching up with email; composition or writing (I am series editor for a major choral music publisher in the States, and a monthly columnist for the Ameri

can Organist magazine); very occasionally the luxury of some practising.

Selwyn Choir

Why did you become a member of SWO?

Anne Marsden Thomas and Ghislaine Reece-Trapp, the co-chairs of SWO, invited me to come along to the very first meeting, and I have been involved since then, first as a committee member, and now as a Patron. It has been fantastic to be able to watch the Society find its feet through the public launch and subsequent events, and I am delighted to be able to continue my support for the group.

There are those who argue that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists? Do you agree?

At the most elite levels in the UK, yes there is definitely an imbalance. The cathedral and Oxbridge world is rather like Michelin-starred chefs and Savile Row tailors—there are so many more men than women in both of those professions that people have been heard to say that it appears that the only thing that men can do better than women is cook and sew! I think at the parish/school level (as opposed to cathedral/university) the numbers are probably more equitable, and certainly in Canada and the States there is nowhere near the same imbalance. In Oxbridge, there are four female Directors of Music (one of whom isn’t an organist) out of about 45 DoMs; in the cathedral world there are about nine women in permanent positions, out of about 150 permanent staff across the country.

How should we address it?

I think by encouraging girls to play, and aiming for the highest levels that they can. And for those of us who are working at those levels to persevere and to maintain a high profile so that we are seen.

Do you think female and male organists are treated differently?

Probably not intentionally, but possibly accidentally. I think, for example, that male organists get more opportunities than their female colleagues because they happen to be mates with the right people. For example, when I see a poster advertising an organ recital series which includes only male players, I wonder whether someone just put the series together “down the pub” rather than actually going out of their way to construct and book a more balanced and representative list of recitalists. But I also wonder whether those doing the glitzy promo schemes for that sort of recital series even actually notice that it is so one-sided? The latest one I noticed was just last month: nine white men—it was a virtual series too, for obvious reasons, so surely booking one woman, or one non-white organist, would not have been difficult, since everyone was submitting their recitals to YouTube in their own time!

Do you think your career would have developed differently if you had been male?

No, I don’t think so actually—I think I am rather fortunate in that my “otherness” here is that I’m Canadian, rather than that I’m female. I have always thought it was interesting that of the tiny handful of women organists in permanent positions in UK cathedrals, such a high proportion of us are migrant workers from the Commonwealth, including Katherine at Guildford, Rachel at Coventry, Hilary at Chelmsford, and me at Ely. There are also a couple of high-profile Americans in important roles, including Ann Elise at Oundle and Katharine in Oxford.

Do you notice any difference in ambition when comparing your young male and female students?

No—the ones who want to do it and do it well will end up doing that regardless of their sex.

Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What can we do to change this?

We need to be patient. Equality will happen, but not for a few generations yet. Already just in the past few years there are more of us in cathedrals than there used to be—five years ago there were only four or five women in permanent positions, now there are nearly twice that. For my first 15 years at Cambridge, I was the only woman DoM; there are now three of us.

Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for?

Well, if I’m honest, I do worry when it becomes too obvious—I’m not always sure that is the most effective way to make the point. I think quietly getting on and doing one’s job as well as one can, and for a long period of time, is the way to gain the respect we need and deserve. To be fair, men don’t necessarily have to do this, but I think women do need to aim quietly to be the best, and in the long run that will contribute towards equality better than if we were to chain ourselves to the pipes or burn our organ shoes (if that’s the organist’s equivalent of a feminist rebellion). I believe it was the great Madeleine Albright who said “True equality will have been achieved only once there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men.”

What do you value about SWO?

The comradeship, the collegiality, and (not sure if I’m allowed to say this!) the notable lack of patriarchy!

The Girl Choristers at Ely Cathedral

SARAH MACDONALD is a Canadian-born UK-based organist, conductor, and composer. She is Fellow and Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of Ely Cathedral’s Girl Choristers. She has been at Selwyn since 1999, and is the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge Chapel. Sarah studied at Toronto’s Glenn Gould School, and at Cambridge University, and her teachers were Leon Fleisher, Marek Jablonski, John Tuttle, and David Sanger. She has performed across the UK, North America, and mainland Europe, and is in demand as a conductor for international residential courses. She has made over 35 recordings, and her music is performed regularly throughout the world. She is a Fellow of the RCO, and writes a popular monthly column for ‘The American Organist’. Sarah recently received the honorary ARSCM in recognition of her work. She is a Patron of SWO, and an Honorary Patron of the Herbert Howells Society. In her spare time she is a keen photographer, and during 2020 she has also become an amateur film-maker.


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