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Where can he go to practise?

by
27 May 2009

There is a lack of organs available for student practice; so how are we going to train the young organists of the future, asks Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Organ practice: Charles at Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road

Organ practice: Charles at Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road

MOST children learning to play a musical instrument agree that one of the words they hate hearing the most is the word “practice”.

That word frequently kills any desire a child might have to go to the piano or undo the violin case. But, if the word is not uttered, the practice will not get done, and “all this precious talent will be wasted. . . These are the vital years. . . There are Korean pupils out there practising eight hours a day. . . You’ll be sorry when you don’t get a music scholar­ship, you’ll have only yourself to blame. . . It should be a habit, like brushing your teeth0. . . Just 20 minutes per day — it’s not much to ask, and if you plug away at it your technique will improve. . .”

As the mother of a musical 12-year-old, I rehearse these arguments in my head a hundred times a day, and find myself forced to utter them all too frequently. The one instru­ment my son, Charles, does yearn to practise, how­ever, is the organ — the one instru­ment it is almost impossible to get his hands on.

Charles enjoys lessons at St George’s, Campden Hill, in London, with Andrew Wells. And, each week, Mr Wells fills in the practice note­book with tasks such as “Hymn 272, transpose”. But where can he practise during term-time? Not at St George’s — which is open only weekday morn­ings until 12.30 p.m.

I have asked the Vicar whether we could borrow a key after school, but this is not possible: the church does not lend the key to “casual users”. If you wish to practise in the afternoon, the verger has to be present, at a cost of £20 per hour. The church has had bad experiences — casual users have left doors un­locked, and there are insurance im­plications.

What about the Oratory? Charles, although an Anglican, sings in the London Oratory junior choir. Could he practise on any of the organs there? Sadly not. There is a hard-and-fast rule that the Oratory organs are not available for student practice.

Phoning clergy to ask whether your child could practise on their church organ is an arduous task. Mostly, you speak to answering ma­chines, and it takes weeks, even months, to forge relationships with church secretaries and administrat­ors.

IT IS advisable to form friendly relationships with at least eight churches, in the hope that one might be available. Churches seem to pride themselves on being booked up: it is a mark of success, and it brings in money, too.

With eight occasional organs to practise on, you have to remember each one’s oddities: the grille opens from left to right; put the doors together before closing them; turn the handle up to switch on, to the right to switch off; leave swell box open; light behind curtain on right; light in vestry on left; put green-baize cover back on manuals.

And, in each organ loft, you discover a vignette of the resident organist’s life: a lucky mascot; a stubby pencil; the organist’s shoes.

Our church is St John’s, Walham Green, and Fr Mark Osborne is extremely friendly. His administrator lends us a key, in exchange for a deposit. The slot Charles has been allocated, however, is at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. Charles can scarcely move his legs at that time of the week because he does a ten-mile walk every Saturday as part of his “London Loop” project.

But St John’s is an extremely busy church, and there are no other slots available. And the admin­istrator was not pleased when we turned up one late afternoon, hoping to take pot-luck with the organ.

St Mary’s, Putney, has a lovely Dutch organ, and we are on good terms with the administrator. But to practise here you must book in advance, by email, and the church is often busy with children’s parties, during which the organ must not be played.

CHARLES has a younger brother, aged seven. Church guidelines dictate that a 12-year-old must be accompanied by an adult, at all times, while practising the organ. So I have to attend, too, with a reluctant seven-year-old.

At All Saints’, Fulham — open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so no good in term-time, but of possible use during school holidays — I left Charles practising his Rheinberger pedal-part to nip across Putney Bridge to collect my seven-year-old, whose school term had not yet ended. But the administrator for­bade even a ten-minute absence.

Is this organ-strictness a London thing? It does seem that organ-practice in small towns is easier. In my home town of Sandwich, Kent, the Rector, the Revd Mark Roberts, put me in touch with the organist, who showed us the secret place where the organ key is kept, and named the shop behind whose counter a church key hangs.

Mr Roberts is delighted with the arrangement, and likes to know that the organ is being used by a young student whom he once baptised.

The key-in-shop system makes organ practice easy. What is missing from the London practice scene is spontaneity. So, on the rare homework-free evening, there is nowhere to go.

Could we buy a small organ of our own? On eBay they cost a few thousand pounds. But it would fill a whole room of our small house, and might annoy the neighbours even more than the dog already does.

St Clement’s, Sandwich, is the church to which I covenant money each month, and that makes things easier: I do not feel I owe them extra money for organ practice.

In London churches, I feel a mixture of righteousness and guilt. Do they really expect me to pay for my son to practise? Surely the church is investing in the future by making its instrument available to a young organ student? But churches, I fear, are always keen to be paid, and I feel slightly mean not to bring the subject up.

IT IS his organ lesson tomorrow, and Charles has not practised all week. I have left a message on the administrator’s phone at St John’s, Walham Green, but have had no reply. It seems as if Charles will have to go to the lesson tomorrow and bluff his way through, playing as if he has practised. I suppose that is a useful skill to master.

Enforced lack of practice, perhaps, explains why organists are all such good sight-readers.

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