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‘We just want to reach the pedals’: women organists begin campaign

25 February 2022

Society of Women Organists

Without a height-adjustable bench, shorter organists may be unable to reach the pedals

Without a height-adjustable bench, shorter organists may be unable to reach the pedals

THE Society of Women Organists (SWO) has launched a campaign to introduce adjustable organ benches at consoles in every public venue — a move that, it hopes, will increase numbers of women organists, free their technique, and give them increased opportunities to play.

Sixty-six per cent of the 486 respondents to a recent survey carried out by the SWO did not have an adjustable bench at their usual practice venue, and almost half said that their performance had been compromised by the lack of one. The average height for men in the UK is five feet nine inches: for women, five feet three inches. Women organists, as well as younger players and shorter men, are lucky if they can reach the pedals comfortably, the society says.

Access to an adjustable bench is crucial to the development of a confident technique, and can make all the difference between a good or bad performance experience for both player and listener, it says. An organist who cannot reach the pedals securely could slide across or off the bench, leading to possible errors in their playing, and health problems. One respondent had never encountered an adjustable bench in 60 years; another asked: “How many pianists would play with a non-adjustable stool?”

Men dominate the organ scene: they represent 90 per cent of permanent directors of music and organists in English and Welsh cathedrals. Women represent eight per cent of the organists listed on the main UK organ-recitals web page.

Those figures prompted the setting-up of the SWO in 2019. Its key objectives are to support female organists, to promote women’s activities in the organ world, and to recruit girls and women of all ages and backgrounds to study the organ.

A familiar experience for women organists, the society says, is turning up to play at a family wedding in a distant town, with no opportunity for rehearsal.

“I was as prepared as I could be under the circumstances,” one said. “But my heart sank on being led up to the console and seeing the bench — not only non-adjustable, but with wooden blocks fixed to its base. Clearly, the six-foot-plus resident organist had altered it to his ideal height, which made it impossible for a five-foot-three-inches body like mine to reach the pedals. Did this affect my performance? Yes, it did.”

Large churches and cathedrals with more resources at their disposal will usually have fully adjustable benches, but in many smaller churches and places of worship, organists are at the mercy of whatever fixed-height bench is at the console. A too-high bench is a disincentive for the amateur organist to learn and practise the pedals, the society says. It notes that a bench can be raised on blocks for those of above-average height.

Through its Adjustable Bench Campaign, the SWO is asking organ builders to recommend adjustable benches for all new organs. It suggests that every organist appointed at public venues such as churches and concert halls request one, and the Society is offering support with this.

A committee member, Marion Lees McPherson, who belongs to the Edinburgh Society of Organists, is five foot three, and has encountered the problem since her teens. She started her playing in small village churches, but gave up the organ in favour of the piano when she struggled continually to reach the pedals. She was tempted back when the Church of Scotland was offering a scholarship scheme, and bought herself a pair of Cuban-heeled dance shoes to give her a bit more height.

“It gave me an extra inch or so, and so I persevered, but I took my exams on benches that were far too high,” she remembers. “It was only when I took the ARCO [Associateship of the Royal College of Organists, a professional qualification] that I got to an adjustable bench. You’ve just got to hold on to your core inner strength to keep your balance, and sometimes you almost pitch forwards, which is quite dangerous.”

She recalls writing up an “organ crawl” in which she happened to say what a relief it had been to have an adjustable bench at one of the guest venues, and how much she felt that the general lack of these discriminated against women organists. “I had the article refused by the local organ magazine. They wouldn’t print it because they said it was sexual politics.”

An adjustable bench costs in the region of £2000, but, through its campaign, the society is also proposing what it regards as easy and affordable solutions for those seeking to replace a fixed bench. The campaign is backed by the director of the Royal College of Organists, Sir Andrew Parmley, who said that it sought “to ensure equal access to the organ, irrespective of a person’s height”.

The international concert organist Katelyn Emerson has also endorsed the campaign. “An adjustable bench is far more easily supplied than adjustable pedal or manual heights,” she said. “Many thanks for an important campaign that can help the organ become more accessible to — and help prevent injuries in — players of all heights.”

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