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Interview: Anna Lapwood, director of music, Pembroke College

23 December 2022

‘Organs and choral music are a great way to attract more young people. They might come for the music but then stay for the worship’

Tom Arber

At school, the music department was my safe space, and I used to spend every spare minute there. I started helping run the chamber choir when I was in Year 9, playing for rehearsals and taking sectionals; ran my own close-harmony group from Year 10; and conducted the orchestra in sixth form.

This was a great training ground for me to learn how to do these things, and I am so grateful to my school’s director of music, Roger Spikes, for giving me those opportunities.

When I arrived at Pembroke, there was still a huge amount I didn’t know and had to learn on the job, particularly liturgical things that I just hadn’t learnt about, not having been involved with regular choral worship in my school years. I still feel like I’m learning every day. Being a conductor is largely about reading people, and you have to constantly adapt to the group you are working with on that day; so I often feel like I’m learning from the singers while I’m conducting. It’s fun. Of course there’s a lot of admin. to do as well.

The organ was the instrument I found most difficult; so I was determined to tackle it. Going through that process made me fall in love with it — it’s so varied, and every concert feels like a journey of discovery as you get to know a new organ. I still play the piano and sing occasionally, but I haven’t touched my other instruments for several years. Every now and then I do sit down at the harp and have a little play, but it’s rare.

I can tell what I can’t do: I have really bad co-ordination, so I’m hopeless at sports. And geography.

I don’t play for that many services any more because I’m conducting. It always makes me laugh: you spend years training as an organist, and then you find yourself as a director of music and you’re doing something else. It needs different skills, but of course you pick up a lot of those along the way as you’re playing and helping with rehearsals.

You’re always learning, you’re never finished, and that’s the slightly scary thing with music. That’s why I like climbing hills: you know when you’ve finished, and then you can go home and have a hot toddy to celebrate. In music, you’ve never finished exploring the way you play a piece of music or conduct a piece, but I want to keep doing that and get as many people along for the ride. Make them enjoy what they can do.

I love the organ of the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a very comfortable instrument to play, and I love the variety of colours it has to offer. I also really enjoy that it’s possible to give people the experience of stumbling across the instrument there. They don’t necessarily go expecting to hear the organ, and it’s quite fun working it into gigs to surprise the audience.

I love playing at Pembroke, too —– it’s a much more intimate experience, but the organ is great for early music. I also love the fact that you really feel the history of the instrument while you are playing: the keys have grooves in the middle where years of players have worn them away.

When I was growing up, my favourite composer was Hans Zimmer. I used to listen to his music non-stop, particularly Pirates of the Caribbean. But I basically played all my favourite film soundtracks as a kid, just doing it by ear. Then I grew up, I suppose, and stopped doing that so much; but recently I was asked to play Interstellar for a memorial service, which felt a bit odd, but you go with what’s asked of you, and they really enjoyed it. Now, I’m falling in love with all that all over again, and I’d love to record them. They’re a great way for younger people to explore the organ.

It can feel like quite a lonely instrument sometimes. If you’re giving a solo recital, it is literally just you on the stage. Most other instrumentalists would at least have a pianist to work with. Confidence is something that builds with time, though, so I always say don’t let a lack of confidence put you off trying the instrument. As for physical reach: I’m five foot three!

There are adjustable benches in most places I play, but I have had some concerts where the bench was too high, and it’s impossible because you’re pitching forwards (News, 25 February). You have to rely on your core strength anyway to play the organ, and you can’t think about the music if there’s a real risk of falling off.

Sometimes, a neighbouring church can lend a bench, but I think people were just expected to be uncomfortable for a while and just grow. School organs probably all have adjustable benches, but if more young people can be encouraged to play — not just in public schools — then we need to make sure they physically can.

It’s no secret that society seems to be becoming increasingly secular, and occasionally I think people can be put off the organ because they feel like they don’t belong in the church. It’s so great to see so many churches working to combat this, though, and organs and choral music are actually such a great way to attract more young people. They might come for the music, but then stay for the worship.

There’s a whole host of fantastic female organists scattered throughout history: Jeanne Demessieux, Jennifer Bate, Gillian Weir — but, yes, it is a rather male-dominated profession. Many organists come to the instrument having been a chorister, and historically, choristerships have been for boys, not girls. It’s not the case now. In fact, girl choristers now outnumber boy choristers; so I think more women will come to the organ through that route.

It’s really important to make sure we don’t lose boy choristers on the way, but everyone’s offering equal opportunities now, and almost every cathedral trains girl choristers, even if not always in an equal way. Every child who wants to sing should be involved.

At Pembroke, we do have a girls’ choir as well as the chapel choir. I adore them. The girls are drawn from local schools, with a ratio of 60:40 state:private, and they’re an absolute joy to work with. Seeing how excited they are, and the joy they take from it is, a little refresher — sparkly happy and joyful — after a day of admin.

I’m trying to do my bit to make sure women feel like they belong in these historically male spaces: running organ days for girls as well, and giving them the chance to try out these wonderful instruments for the first time. I run an Organ Experience for girls every year: 50 girls taking over Cambridge chapels in groups, and getting to try lots of different instruments. Most of them have never played the organ before, so it’s always great fun.

We had an all-female team for our second Bach-a-thon, now in its seventh year, which was great in terms of giving visibility to female organists. It’s been so great to see all the work the Society of Women Organists have been doing along these lines, too — it’s very much a team effort.

There’s still a steady stream of talented musicians here, but the cuts make it even harder for young people from lower-income backgrounds. When funding disappears, the first thing to go tends to be the crucial community work which can be the spark that ignites a lifelong career in music. I find it frankly distressing that whether a child can have their talent nurtured is now a lottery.

Many state schools have fantastic music departments, but in some there’s literally no music-making going on. I can’t even imagine what that must be like, and how many talented children slip through the net as a result. Everyone who works in the music industry is doing what they can to provide opportunities to as many people as possible, but there’s a limit to what we can do.

I love Advent and Christmas carols, but Christmas carols win. The choir always tease me because I cry in the carol service when we sing the descants: there’s something so moving about a full chapel belting out “O come all ye faithful” with the descant soaring over the top. I enjoy watching the congregation respond as well, often looking round surprised to see where the noise is coming from.

It’s quite something having the chapel so full, everyone singing with full joy. I love those moments of collective music-making and emotion. They are probably what makes me happiest. People now are often not confident about singing hymns, but even the most Scrooge-like person will probably join in with “O come, all ye faithful”.

It’s the congregational carols I love most, but I also adore those moments of quiet musical reflection in the middle of the frivolity: a candlelit chapel completely still as the choir sing something like Eric Whitacre’s Lux.

I do have a rest over Christmas, yes. My last concert is on the 18th this year, and then I have a good week off to enjoy Christmas with my parents and family for Christmas. There are a couple of Christmas traditions I always look forward to: we have a Harry Potter marathon, and we also do quite a bit of singing round the piano. I’m also looking forward to going on some long chilly walks, which I don’t have time to do in university term-time.

My parents are both retired now, but my mum worked in paediatric palliative care, and my dad was a vicar. We lived in a vicarage in a little village, and later moved to live in a boarding school in Oxford — we always had music playing at home — and church played a huge role, too. I now live by myself, which I love. I’m a massive introvert and love my own space.

Gatekeeping makes me angry.

I love the sound of heavy rain on a roof when you are snug inside.

The young people that I work with give me hope for the future. They remind me that curiosity, awe, and wonder will always survive.

I pray for friends, family, and students who are going through a hard time.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Dumbledore. I’d love to teach him the organ. I loved the Harry Potter books. I’d queue up outside W. H. Smith to buy them the day they were released, and raced my brother to the end. Dumbledore, the headmaster at Hogwarts, is a model teacher, a model human being, with everything — kindness, compassion — in this weird fantasy land. I think he’d like it, and he’d be a cool guy to sit down and chat with.

Anna Lapwood was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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