A woman in the organ maintenance business
Laura Johnson, tuner at Harrison and Harrison
How did you get into this business?
I used to want to be an organ builder when I was little. I would go into the workshop in Durham and play with the scraps in the metal shop or watch Alf, an ‘old hand’, at his bench, or sometimes I accompanied my father when he was fixing a fault on an organ. Aged seven, I came in handy one Saturday afternoon in Durham Cathedral when, shortly before a big service, I managed to fit into an awkward space to fix a cypher. That day the service's procession was accompanied up the nave by an organ improvisation on ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be?’. Then I became a teenager and had other ideas. I studied languages at Bristol University, before returning to plan A for what was intended to be a post-graduate ‘gap’ year. I went on to complete my organ building apprenticeship, moved into organ tuning and maintenance, and have now been working in the business for 18 years.
Do you play as well as tune?
My skills as a tuner are better than my skills as a player, but I do play the organ sometimes. I’m more of a pianist than an organist.
How many instruments are you responsible for?
The London tuning round is shared between three of us. I work part-time, and have a couple of dozen organs on my list, but we also swap about depending on availability, so I get to visit many more organs than that.
How many other women organ technicians/tuners do you know?
More now than when I started out. At the beginning I used to find that the organists would often talk to my assistant (usually older than me and male) rather than to me, but now it’s quite normal to be a woman in the trade. As part of my apprenticeship, I went to organ building school in Germany where 10 out of 60 of us were women.
Did you find it difficult being accepted?
Not really. When I started out colleagues were sometimes a bit polite around me, but that didn’t last!
What is the hardest thing about what you do?
Nowadays the main issue is getting the timing right so that the children aren’t left at the school gate at the end of the school day. I am over-reliant on London transport behaving itself.
What is the most rewarding thing about tuning?
I get to see some wonderful places – some of the really big London cathedrals, of course, but I also enjoy going to the smaller churches (and the biscuits are sometimes better there). I enjoy doing site-work, as it makes a nice change to work as part of a team, but I don’t do that so often these days. However, our take on the London tuning round can be fairly generous geographically-speaking, (for example stretching as far as Portsmouth amongst other places), so I do still get to travel a bit. Fixing faults keeps things interesting, as no two organs are the same, though some faults are definitely more satisfying than others to fix, and some can of course be downright infuriating. I like the work because, even on a tough day, I still find it immensely rewarding to be involved in the upkeep of such beautiful instruments. I also feel part of a continuous history of the organ: often inside an instrument one will come across a signature or bit of graffiti from a previous tuner, builder or chorister, or perhaps an idiosyncratic way of fixing a fault that was obviously only meant to be temporary but is still there and doing its job (or not) years later. Over the years I have had some organs to look after which have very much been on their last legs, meaning that every visit involves choosing to concentrate on either tuning or fault-fixing as there is no time for both. Seeing these organs going back to the workshop for restoration and then getting to know them again in full working order and sounding their best feels like a new lease of life for the tuner too.
What do you do in your spare time?
I am training as an upholsterer, and I also do some translating work. I enjoy playing the piano and spending time outdoors with my family. We have a house in Kent, where I tinker with various bits of minor DIY.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into organ maintenance?
Start out as a note-holder to get the flavour of it – we always have trouble in finding enough assistants, so you’d be doing us a great favour! Our boss at H&H started out as one of our note-holders.
Laura Johnson (née Venning) works as a London tuner for Harrison & Harrison. She started out at H&H, then spent several years working with Manders in London. As part of her three-year apprenticeship with them, she attended the Oscar-Walcker Organ building School in Ludwigsburg, Germany, for which she first had to learn German in a great hurry. She has also worked for organ builders in Strasbourg and Latvia. Major projects that she has been involved in include The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, and Stockholm City Hall. She graduated with a double first in French and Italian from Bristol University, and speaks five languages. Laura is married to Simon, whom she met when she was working at St Albans Abbey, and they have two children, aged 8 and 6.