Page 51 - Church Music Quarterly June 2019
P. 51

  An interview with
 CMQ Helen, thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Could you tell us a little about how you got into music?
HS Thanks for having me! I joined a choir and started learning the piano when I was about five. At secondary school, I added saxophone, clarinet, violin and eventually organ to my instrumental study. I think my teachers thought I was spreading myself too thinly, but with hindsight I can see that my fascination with new instruments was an obvious step towards becoming a conductor.
Later, the head of music at my school mentioned the existence
of university organ scholarships.
I applied to Cambridge and, much
to almost everyone’s surprise, won
a place. I was a very late starter at the organ, and had no experience of choral evensong: I attended my first service at Cambridge! The learning curve was huge, but I was warmly encouraged
by those around me and loved every minute of it. I was lucky enough often to conduct the (very supportive) chapel choir , which I soon discovered was really the natural end-point for my all-rounder background and assertive personality. After that, I was advised to consider the Royal Academy of Music’s wonderful course in choral conducting, led by Patrick Russill.
CMQ As a woman, do you feel that you ran up against barriers when trying to break into your chosen profession?
HS It’s quite true that had I been
a cathedral chorister I would almost certainly have started the organ much earlier, and it was hard trying to catch up at 18. I’ve seen quite a few talented girls start the organ and give up in
the face of more experienced boys. Thankfully, there are now an increasing number of schemes and
organizations devoted to encouraging women and girls to play the organ. Even so, I’d like to see greater cooperation between schools, junior conservatoires, churches and hubs
to identify good keyboard players of all genders at a good age.
Personally, I’ve faced greater challenges as a conductor than as
an organist. I think there is still
a generation who are profoundly uncomfortable about being told what to do by a young woman. That sort
of barrier is common and usually invisible, so it can be hard to find allies who will take it seriously.
CMQ A disproportionate number of professional church musicians (male and female) are privately educated and went to an elite university. What is being done
in places such as your church (St Mary, Merton) to encourage children from a diversity of backgrounds to get involved
in church music?
HS At least one of those labels applies to almost every single one
of my colleagues. Realistically, young people looking to become professional musicians need a huge amount of expensive one-to-one tuition. If
their parents cannot afford it,
that’s potentially the end of their professional ambitions.
In general, I think choirs and church musicians need to make themselves much more visible. Interestingly, modest social media advertising at
St Mary, Merton has had a huge effect on the number and diversity
of prospective choristers – it reaches those who would not otherwise hear about our opportunities. Once they’re in the choir, they receive free vocal coaching, free theory tuition and the offer of heavily subsidized piano
and theory lessons.
Widening access to organ playing
is even harder, partly because the logistics of learning to play the organ: availability of practice instruments, shoes, expensive books, lessons – all these combine to make it difficult. If you don’t go to a school with an organ (and most people do not), you need local musicians to help nurture your development. At St Mary, our organ scholarship scheme supports two teenage players (and some younger students) with subsidized lessons, a lending library of organ music and almost unlimited practice time. It’s far from perfect, but I would encourage other parishes to think about what they can offer (local lessons? practice time? the occasional opportunity for young organists to contribute to a service?).
CMQ What advice do you have for other up-and-coming organists or would-be directors of music?
HS Never assume that you’re not good enough to contribute. At 18, I was so in awe of my ex-chorister, public school contemporaries that I nearly didn’t apply for an organ scholarship. Everyone has a unique set of gifts and talents – some musical, some not – and yours are important and valuable.
For conductors, absolutely do not underestimate the value of having lessons. Yes, you can work some of it out on your own, but it is so much quicker and less frustrating to learn some good technique early on – your singers and future self will thank you for it!
          PLEASE VISIT
 www.societyofwomenorganists., an exciting new initiative designed to promote and encourage girls and women into the organ world.

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