Young organist looks to future

15 March 2019

Questionnaire reveals rising trend of female representation

Anna Hallett, seated at the Harrison & Harrison organ at Edington Priory after playing her first full service on Sunday

Anna Hallett, seated at the Harrison & Harrison organ at Edington Priory after playing her first full service on Sunday

MORE needs to be done to inspire and encourage organists of the future, an investigation conducted by a young organist, Anna Hallett, concludes.

Miss Hallett is 14, and has been playing for four years. She initiated the research after the InHarmony report on the state of church music in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich revealed that only four per cent of its churches had organists under the age of 30, and that 28 per cent of congregations were singing to recorded music (News, 23 March 2018).

In an effort to find out where the organists of the future were to come from, she trawled a wealth of literature to compile a questionnaire sent to UK organists via their organisations, courses, and institutions. She received 279 responses — 119 of them from organists aged 29 and under, and 36 from career organists. A further 100 respondents provided additional comments. She used a facial-recognition sheet to ask a cross-section of the general public, “Who’s the organist?”

Most of those 542 respondents considered a typical organist to be a white male over 60, which did not surprise the first female director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Anna Lapwood. She told Miss Hallett: “If you ask most children what they imagine when they hear the word ‘organist’, they almost all say they imagine an old man.”

The recitalist and organ tutor Daniel Moult said that things were changing: applications for the summer course of the Royal College of Organists (RCO) stood at 65 per cent male and 35 per cent female. The director of the training organisation Oundle for Organists, Ann Elise Smoot, said: “People in the business are actively trying to change the public perception, but, as the Church is perceived as being male-dominated . . . so is the organ.”

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Miss Hallett’s findings confirmed a trend of increasing female representation. The ratio of male to female organists over the age of 60 was 68 to 32 per cent; among 30- to 60-year-olds, 66 to 34; among under-29s, 56 to 44. Because the chorister route is still predominant, the historical dominance of all-male cathedral choirs was considered a factor in the higher percentage of male organists.

Organ scholarships remained attractive, and 47 per cent of respondents in the under-29 category aspired to, or had attended, colleges at Oxford or Cambridge. Responses in the Education section showed that organs were largely to be found in the independent schools, leading Miss Hallett to comment: “More needs to be done to ensure students from all backgrounds are aware of and able to access the organ and lessons.”

Responding organists said that good teachers were the key to the future pool of well-trained organists. The report charts many initiatives to help young organists, including the RSCM’s Pipeline scholarship scheme, of which Miss Hallett is a recipient. “Encouragingly, the number of applicants for courses is growing, and the gender mix improving, but there is a long way to go to see a truly diverse mix,” she notes.

She was surprised to find that 68 per cent of under-29s in receipt of funding said that they could afford to have lessons without it. Access to an instrument was more of a problem: “I would walk down a dark lane after school and do an hour in the cold church,” one respondent said. Possessiveness could also be a barrier: one organist acknowledged, “The thing I’d like to see happen more often is for old biddy/old-codger organists like me to be less protective of their instruments.”

There will always be organists at the top of their field, the report concluded, but it identified the risk of losing the smaller parish church organist, as changes are made to liturgical practice, church teams, and music.

Miss Hallett took up the instrument after attending a Pipes and Pizza session for potential young players in the diocese of Salisbury. She learns with the organist and choirmaster at her home church, St John’s, Devizes, Chris Totney, and on Sunday she played her first full service, at Edington Priory.

Sitting at an organ is an experience very different from the piano, she says. “It’s the fact that you can use so many stops for different moods, and it makes you feel amazing, like you’re on top of everything. It’s the power of it.” At St John’s, she plays once or twice a month, and is expected to take an increasingly bigger part in services.

What started out as a response to the InHarmony report turned into a nine-month piece of research, aided by her parents, and tutors at Stonar School, where she will take her GCSEs in 2021. The response from the organ world has been affirming. She has had the chance to play some famous instruments, including those at Bath Abbey; King’s College, Cambridge; and Durham Cathedral; and she aspires to become a Director of Music in a cathedral.

Anna Hallett’s report can be found at: annamylifeinmusic.files.wordpress.com.

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