Tom, do you come from a musical family? What was your training as an organist?
Music and organs have always been part of the background to my life, as my father is an organist. His Dad also played, and my Mum had lessons at one stage too! I had piano lessons and sang from a young age. My father acquired a digital practice instrument when I was about 10 and the rest is history! I was lucky that the organ in our local church was a good one, and I gravitated to that pretty quickly. I started having lessons at Liverpool Cathedral with Ian Wells; always on the small organ in the Lady Chapel, but also always immediately after Saturday evensong where I would hear Ian Tracey unleash the mighty Willis. Inspirational! As an aside, the point to note here is that I had easy access to an instrument/instruments. Access is a huge barrier to creating new organists.
My family moved to Kent when I was 12, and after having organ lessons at Canterbury Cathedral with Michael Harris I was awarded an organ scholarship to St Edmund’s School, where the Cathedral Choir go to school, so it has a strong musical tradition and a chapel with organ. Had it not been for this specific opportunity (i.e. a big scholarship) my parents would never have contemplated sending me to an independent school, yet it was a move which made a huge difference. There was lots of time to devote to music-making, tuition from Andrew Bryden and Ian Sutcliffe at school, and the opportunity to head to London sometimes for lessons with Ann Elise Smoot, every one of which I remember vividly! I could list the pieces I played to Ann Elise, and tell you what she said, and how I still draw on her musical wisdom to this day. Again, in writing all this down I find myself reflecting on how lucky I was to have access both to instruments and teachers of quality. I had so much support and encouragement …and fun!... I used to be able to knock on David Flood’s door in the Cathedral precincts, ask for the key to the Cathedral, let myself in, and let fly on the Cathedral organ.
At the prompting of Ian Sutcliffe, the Director of Music at my school, I attended a few Oundle courses, at one of which I met Kevin Bowyer. This fired an emerging interest in modern music. As I reached the end of my A’ levels I knew I wanted to play the organ professionally, but wasn’t sure what route to take. I happened to discover that Kevin taught at the RNCM. Bingo! So I went there, after a gap year Cathedral organ scholarship. I remember taking my audition repertoire for a lesson with Ann Elise at St Matthew’s Westminster and she transformed my playing of the classical French piece I had prepared. I probably owe her a drink.
Study with Kevin at the RNCM was supplemented by trips to Amsterdam or Haarlem to study with Jacques van Oortmerssen. I used to walk into the St. Bavo, note the hoards of tourists gawping in disbelief at the organ case, then stride west, opening the organ door with a flourish. I hope they all noticed.
Describe a typical week for you. What gives you the most satisfaction?
I have always been freelance, and I am not sure there has ever been a typical week. Playing the organ is absolutely central, and my patterns of work are dictated by what concerts I might have coming up, what projects I am working on etc. When I lived in London, I also did a fair bit of teaching, and had a wonderful church job. These days I live in the wilds of the Pennines – cities aren’t for us - and playing is still the central feature of my week. Ideally, I have a couple of days or more which are entirely days of practice and study, or almost entirely. This is especially enjoyable now I have a little Robin Jennings pipe organ in my home. The other regular features of the working week include my role as a Regional Director of the RCO (about a day a week) and organ consultancy. The latter ebbs and flows, and my most recent completed project was the relocation of the Susi Jeans organ to a girls’ school in Warwick.
I enjoy all of it, and especially the playing. Modern music still fires my imagination, but I like to explore the repertoire widely and try as far as I can to tailor programmes to instruments as opposed to repeating things. Sometimes this is easier than other times. On the music desk at the moment is a W. T. Best arrangement of a Handel concerto, some Frescobaldi, and a LOT of Messiaen. Variety is the spice of life!
Beyond work, I like doing a lot of things. I volunteer on the engineering team of a steam locomotive - a big, loud, fast, blue engine named Sir Nigel Gresley. I garden, cook, climb hills and am a trustee of (and volunteer at) a local community charity which via gardening, a café, and multiple other activities works with people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or who are recovering from addiction.
Above all I love hanging about with my wife Nikki, new son Rowan – who is busying himself in his baby bouncer as I write – and cat, Bucket (who at this moment is staring out of the window. Again).
Why did you become a member of SWO?
Technically, I didn’t join SWO! As the society was in the process of being founded I was invited to be one of the patrons, at which I was completely stunned and delighted. Before then, having heard that SWO was being created, I was at first worried because there are already far too many groups within the organ world. But the point of SWO is not to create another group per se, rather to raise an issue and encourage change. This is so important, and I would have joined anyway had I not been invited to become a patron first.
Many argue that there is a significant gender imbalance among organists. Do you agree or is this question becoming less and less relevant to ask? Where there is a noticeable imbalance, how might we address it?
There is no question that, at a professional level, there is a huge gender imbalance and the question is more relevant now than ever. The hope that Cathedral girls’ choirs would magically create a substantial generation of female professional organists has long since been dashed. It seems to me that there is a flaw in the way we – I include myself in this - recruit and teach young people; perhaps it is inevitable that I communicate in a way which is best suited to boys, so I need to find a way of addressing this. Via Pam Hulme, SWO is involved with a recruitment day planned in Newcastle later this year (we hope!); we will be at pains to structure the day in a way which encourages girls to play.
It isn’t just about the young people though. Of the many village organists I taught in Kent over several years, the men often were members of local organists’ associations, BIOS or the RCO. Rarely was this the case with the women. My feeling was that the number of female organists I was encountering was not markedly lower than the number of men. The number of female organists connected with the wider organ world was substantially lower though. This is a problem.
Do you have any frustrations about the ways in which gender equality is discussed or campaigned for? What is your advice to someone campaigning for gender equality?
The frustration is that this is an issue at all. I detect in recent times clear moves in a positive direction, and a genuine desire to do the right things. It’s pretty late coming, but it is encouraging.
I don’t think it is my place to give advice to those who campaign, except to say that I think the approach SWO takes – constructive, firm, articulate, respectful, gracious – is excellent and effective.
Do you notice any difference in ambition when comparing your young male and female students?
Many of my students over the years have been female, possibly as many as half, most of whom were adults playing for their own pleasure or at their local church. Amongst my younger students the balance was less even, and of those who have gone into the profession the number of female students is yet smaller. I have had a number of ambitious students, male and female, of all ages, and I hope I have served them well. The fact remains though that, if we are talking about young people who have then headed out into the professional musical world, the vast bulk of students I have encountered (my own students, or students on RCO or Oundle courses) have been male. Is that a difference in ambition or a failure in teaching?
Comparatively few women are in leadership roles in the organ world. What can we do to change this?
Better recruitment and – crucially - retention of young women at amateur and professional levels would bring about change; addressing the huge gender imbalance on the membership rolls of our various organisations would also make an impact. Very few IAO associations are led by women, for example, and the leaderships of the RCO, BIOS etc are largely male. Likewise the teaching teams in our Conservatoires and Universities are largely male. We need more female role models, more female voices. This is, in fact, a bewilderingly big problem.
As a Patron of SWO, what do you most value about the Society?
Lack of representation in our sector was something which was occasionally talked about quietly, accompanied either by hand-wringing or guffaws. No longer. SWO have contributed positively to an environment in which representation is considered regularly at the highest levels. There is open acknowledgement that we Must Do Better. It is a big hill to climb, but we are climbing.
Personally, I enjoy the presence of many long-standing friends, colleagues and students in the membership of SWO and – via these Spotlights for example – the opportunity to learn a little about people I do not know.
What can SWO do, and what can we all do, to further gender balance in the organ world in a positive, collaborative way?
I’d like to think that if the SWO-RCO-NDSO event in Newcastle works well, the concept can be used elsewhere. That alone would be a great thing.
We need to pay attention and learn from successes and failures. I remember directing a beginners’ course for Oundle where the gender balance of the students was 50/50. This was sufficiently unusual to elicit a lot of comment. But why did that happen? Was it a fluke? Was there a lesson to learn? Could that have been achieved again via targeted marketing? Were the girls present adequately catered for? Did a 50/50 gender balance of those students continue to play the organ in following years, or did more girls drop out than boys? I don’t have the answers. I fear that at the time I just thought “how lovely, more girls than usual!” and left it at that. What an idiot!
Taking great care to present female role models at every opportunity is also important – at the RCO we need to get better at that, for example. As Artistic Director of the London Organ Day I have tried to engage and promote female practitioners, though I am prepared to admit the average gender balance on that platform is not 50/50. Some years it is, and once it was better than this, so the average is climbing…
What would your advice be to girls and women learning the organ?
Stick at it! Join SWO! There might not be as many female role models as male ones – we must be honest about that – but they are there.
So finally, going back to your organ career, what have been the highlights so far?
So many! Playing Volumina on the Naumburg Hildebrandt – they asked for an unusual programme and got it. My assistants and I had an uproarious time. Performing with a beatboxer and a Hammond organist in the Radio 1 Live Lounge (albeit on Radio 3!) My on-going involvement with the wonderful, fascinating Orgelbüchlein Project, especially the huge performances in Amsterdam and Erfurt. The reopening of the RFH organ in 2014. I played twice, and the public and press attention the festival received was enormous. I actually turned down an interview on a major radio programme, in connection with one concert, because I had a rehearsal for the other! Seeing hundreds and hundreds of primary school children being enthralled by the organ on various education projects. Recording William Bolcom’s extraordinary Black Host for organ, percussion and tape, on the even more extraordinary organ at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook. It appears on a recording named Freak Out! to be released by Regent soon. Buy it! (Please). At the moment I am engaged with two projects which I am loving: exploring Victorian performance practice as embodied by the likes of W.T.Best, via traditional scholarly research – I am writing some journal articles at the moment – and via performance, including the creation of a sort of musicological steampunk mash-up called The Best Experience, where I perform in costume. This I hoped to launch in 2021 but the plague has delayed that. Similarly, my other project (Messiaen, Livre du Saint Sacrement, initially for performance in the Grand Organ Festival at Westminster Cathedral) has been delayed, but I am enjoying playing the music to myself for now, at least! I have a Messiaen Vlog on the RCO YouTube channel, which is an outlet for this too.
Thank you, Tom, for talking to Spotlight!
Tom Bell’s playing has been described as “invigorating” (Sunday Times), “compelling” (Organists’ Review) and “brilliant” (American Record Guide). He has built a vibrant international portfolio of work as performer and educator which has taken him across Europe, to Asia, the USA and Australia. Tom is known as an innovator having worked with beatboxers, visual artists, poets, folk musicians and dancers, and his work has been broadcast worldwide. Current projects involve music by Messiaen, and nineteenth century editions of Bach. His educational activities are centred on work with the Royal College of Organists; he is equally at ease leading workshops for children or teaching the next generation of professionals. His students have held prestigious scholarships in the UK. Tom is Artistic Director of the London Organ Day, studied with Kevin Bowyer, Jacques van Oortmerssen and Ann Elise Smoot, and lives in the north of England.