Jump to content


Photo

Cathedral organists


  • Please log in to reply
46 replies to this topic

#1 annet

annet

    Newbie

  • Members
  • Pip
  • 36 posts
  • Member: 7741
    Joined: 21-September 06

Posted 02 December 2018 - 18:12

Can you become a cathedral organist without having been to a conservatoire?   Our son has just been rejected  as "not being of the required standard".  It appears that all the other candidates were spending a Gap Year as an organ scholar in a cathedral and so someone straight from school (he's UVI) obviously does not have the same experience.  As he does not attend a Music school (or even a school with a track record of sending pupils to Conservatoires) this had not entered our minds.  Now he's applying to every cathedral he can think of to see if there's a chance of a place for September 2018.  Of course, a lot of them have already been filled as many closing dates were October/ November.   If he happens to find one and a job comes up for an Assistant organist at the end of his year, would it be worth applying for a job and just abandoning the whole Conservatoire idea? 

 

Any thoughts would be much appreciated.  We've learnt the hard way that "we look for potential" does not mean that and that "Grade 8 standard" means you realistically need to be of the standard expected at the end of the first year of study at a Conservatoire. (The transposition test was one of the Bach pieces set for the Grade 8 exam list - way above the transposition standard for Grade 8!)

 

Thanks


  • 0

#2 Lucid

Lucid

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 833 posts
  • Member: 23721
    Joined: 25-January 08
  • UK

Posted 02 December 2018 - 18:35

I used to work in a Cathedral and the organists were in the same department as me. As far as I know none of the organists I worked with had gone to a conservatoire and all had degrees from other universities, most popular seemed to be Durham, Oxford and Cambridge. The Assistant Organist in a Cathedral actually ends up doing most of the playing as the main Organist leads the choir - or that's certainly how I remember it working and I doubt it's changed that much over the last few years. With that in mind the jobs when they come up are extremely competitive so there would be people applying who have years of experience, probably already playing in other cathedrals, or well known churches etc, and people who are brilliant players.

 

The things my colleagues held in high regard when looking at organ scholar applications was experience and the ARCO qualification. We would have some organ scholars applying who had already achieved that qualification, but not all of them. There were some scholars who applied straight from school, and some who had done degrees already - one even had done a Masters, so quite a mix of ages. 

 

I'm sure you'll get much more informative replies from organists with direct experience, but I think if it's something your son really wants to do for a career then what I would do in his position would be to: 

 

*Study for the ARCO with a really good teacher - preferably a Cathedral organist if that's the field I wanted to go in to

*Figure out which universities offer organ scholar programmes and find out which of those have the best cathedral links (if any)

*Work hard on everything I'd be required to do for an organ scholar audition (uni and cathedral) - and yes transposing sounds ridiculously hard from what I remember but they do expect the organ scholars in a cathedral to be up to it at sight

*Then figure whether I'd prefer to do a degree now or go straight for a cathedral organ scholarship for the experience

 

Hopefully you'll get some proper advice through as well, but that might give you some ideas.

 

Lucid :)


  • 0

#3 Stephen Barber

Stephen Barber

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 386 posts
  • Member: 69976
    Joined: 08-July 09

Posted 02 December 2018 - 18:52

Can you become a cathedral organist without having been to a conservatoire?  

I think you need a professional musical training, usually a music degree from a university. I don't think he could expect to get a cathedral assistant organist's job on the basis of having been an organ scholar for a year.

 

The most usual route to a cathedral organist's post is via an organ scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge, though by no means the only way.

 

An organ scholarship for a year before university could be a good idea and then, these days, another after university!


  • 1

#4 HelenVJ

HelenVJ

    Virtuoso

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 2021 posts
  • Member: 1265
    Joined: 03-May 04
  • South-East London ( OK - Penge)

Posted 02 December 2018 - 19:01

I think the RCO and the RSCM still run holiday courses for potential organ scholars. Getting an organ scholar post is highly competitve, of course, but the holiday courses are excellent preparation for auditions.


  • 0

#5 Tenor Viol

Tenor Viol

    Virtuoso

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 6038 posts
  • Member: 343214
    Joined: 25-October 11
  • North Shropshire

Posted 02 December 2018 - 20:31

The usual route is whilst a student at a university to be the organ scholar at the local cathedral. You would probably be working towards ARCO. Not universal but in many CoE cathedrals the organist is the music director / master of the music, so the assistant is in fact the de facto organist. In catholic cathedrals, the organist and master of the music tend to be separate roles, but there is still an organ scholar / assistant  


  • 0

#6 Vox Humana

Vox Humana

    Prodigy

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1139 posts
  • Member: 58391
    Joined: 09-March 09

Posted 03 December 2018 - 02:15

All the posts above are excellent, especially Lucid's. All cathedral musicians are expected to perform at a professional level. Cathedral organ scholarships are a training position, but any mentions of Grade 8 should probably be taken to mean "at merit level", maybe higher. As Tenor Viol suggests, it may well be that something near ARCO standard is what is really desired, although I think most Directors of Music will to some extent tailor the job to suit the holder's ability. The fundamental question going through any interviewer's mind would be, "Does this candidate have the potential to become a professional cathedral musician and be useful to me?" At the top half dozen Oxbridge colleges the standard expected of the organ scholars is as high as it comes: fully professional already, studentship notwithstanding. I am open to correction, but as I understand it, in the less prestigious Oxbridge colleges the organ scholar is more or less wholly responsible for the running of the chapel music. This must be valuable experience, but I do wonder whether those posts can really equip you to cathedral standards in the way that working under the top choir directors can do. Working with children (as opposed to undergraduates) is a vital part of the skill set.

In a former era, when the organist and choirmaster were the same person, the late Sidney Campbell worked his way up the tree, from half a dozen parish churches, via Southwark, Ely and Canterbury Cathedrals to, finally, St George's Chapel, Windsor without ever having been an assistant to anyone. That was quite a remarkable achievement and extremely unusual, if not unique. Nowadays, as already noted above, the choral directing and organist roles are usually separated and in recent years there have been cases where a Director of Music is not an organist at all, but has been recruited from outside the cathedral orbit because of their proven experience with singing and choirs.

All this notwithstanding, the routine career path for most cathedral organists these days is Organ Scholar >>> Assistant Director of Music/Organist >>> Director of Music. For someone not brought up in a cathedral environment as a chorister (as many organists are) it may be that a cathedral organ scholarship is the best goal.  What counts is the ability, or at least the clear potential, to cope with playing for cathedral services to a fully competent standard. Going to a conservatoire is certainly not essential, although exposure to the sheer quality of future international celebrities and other awesomely talented musicians can be a stimulating (not to mention sobering) eye-opener to the standards one needs to be striving for.

My own organ scholarship was so long ago now that I can't remember my audition in detail, but some of the things I had to do were:

1. Transpose an Anglican chant at sight. (Sounds easy, but this one was full of chromatic elephant traps and I made a right pig's ear of it - I believe it had been an RCO transposition test in 1910 or thereabouts.)

2. Sight-read a piece of choral music in open score (i.e. on four staves).

3. Play the accompaniment of Herbert Howells's Like as the hart at sight (while the organist made some God-awful noise in my ear that approximated to singing).

4. Play the accompaniment to some Magnificat or other (Harwood in A flat?) while simultaneously incorporating the four vocal parts (again at sight).

5. Conduct the organist while he played an anthem.

6. Play a hymn at sight in a manner suitable for a congregation of 800.

7. Play an organ piece of my choice.

You will note that, although important, playing organ repertoire was only a tiny part of the audition. What was really being tested was my range of musical skills. However different today's auditions might be (and I suspect I had it quite easy), I'll bet that is still true.


  • 3

#7 Vox Humana

Vox Humana

    Prodigy

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1139 posts
  • Member: 58391
    Joined: 09-March 09

Posted 03 December 2018 - 08:29

I might add that, as for my conservatoire audition, which was even longer ago, I cannot recall being given any transposition test. If I was, it was certainly nothing remotely as complicated as a grade 8 piece of Bach. However, in the fifty years since I was a student, conservatoire courses have become more academic while the organ departments have shrunk, presumably in response to a decline in the supply of candidates. As always I stand to be corrected, but I would guess that with the chronic decline (if not near collapse) in parish church choirs and music across the country, a much larger proportion of conservatoire organists than hitherto now have a public school or cathedral background. If so, this might possibly have pushed entry standards up. I am still surprised by that transposition test though, which is FRCO level stuff.


  • 0

#8 annet

annet

    Newbie

  • Members
  • Pip
  • 36 posts
  • Member: 7741
    Joined: 21-September 06

Posted 03 December 2018 - 14:57

Thanks everyone. He does still have one Conservatoire audition left but the chances of him being offered a place are looking highly improbable.  To be honest, we hadn't realised that Conservatoires were such an elitist world - we realise now that we should have gone against his wishes and sent him to a Choir school at 8, but he was adamant he didn't want to board and after my husband's experience of boarding school in the 70s and 80s, we didn't push it.  I suppose we should also have realised that "we look for potential"  and "Grade 8 standard" didn't really mean that, but as not particularly musical people, we took the statements at face value.

 

I feel sad that teenagers from not-so-rich backgrounds are effectively excluded from the organ. It's pointless the organ world complaining that there's a shortage of organists when you need to attend either a specialist music school or obtain an organ scholarship from a leading public school at the age of 13, to access the best teachers and gain the inside knowledge needed to make a successful application.

 

I suspect that I sound bitter because he wasn't offered a place - I'm not, we knew it would be against the odds - it's just frustrating that Conservatoires don't say what they really mean. If people need to take a year's Organ Scholarship at a Cathedral to be of the required standard, then they should be upfront and say so.  Most Cathedral organ scholarships for 2019-2020 have already been filled so we'd be looking at 2020-21 before he even start as an organ scholar which means it will be 2021-22 before he could apply to a Conservatoire again.

 

He didn't really want to be an organ scholar at a University, because the Music degrees are much more theory-based (how does bar x in work y differ from bar z in work y) and he really wants the playing side of music.  His other A Levels are Biology and Chemistry, but the science degrees can't really be done in conjunction with an Organ scholar post because of the amount of time needed in laboratories.

 

I have a sad feeling that he'll just decide to give up on his dream and leave the organ playing to church services .  Unfortunately, he realises we can't afford to keep him for another seven years (which is what it would end up being) and that practicality will have to usurp a dream.  I was hoping that there might be a non-Conservatoire route into Cathedral playing, but from people's replies that doesn't seem likely.  (As I said, we're not a musical family - having a child with three Grade 8 distinctions at 17 has come as a bit of a surprise, so we are floundering about in the dark!)

 

 


  • 0

#9 musicalmalc

musicalmalc

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 346 posts
  • Member: 516127
    Joined: 06-September 12

Posted 03 December 2018 - 16:51

You don't even have to have a music degree - I know of one superb musician who had an organ scholarship at an Oxford college but actually studied Maths and after graduating landed a Cathedral organ scholar position and after a couple of short bounces ended as Assistant at a southern Cathedral. He did catch a break as organ scholar though as there was an period when he had to stand in when the assistant moved and there was a gap before recruiting a replacement.

 

As far as choir schools go, I would have loved to try to get into a choir boarding school (would have had to be a boarding one since there wasn't one near enough to do anything else) but my parents said "no" on the basis that they couldn't afford to send me to private school (even as a day pupil and there was one close enough) when my voice broke and they didn't fancy my chances surviving the jump back into state education. I would put a significant amount on money on the fact that they never bothered actually looking seriously into what scholarships and grants might have been available to make it happen. Yes, it stil makes me bitter as to what might have been


  • 0

#10 Lucid

Lucid

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 833 posts
  • Member: 23721
    Joined: 25-January 08
  • UK

Posted 03 December 2018 - 17:02

I feel sad that teenagers from not-so-rich backgrounds are effectively excluded from the organ. It's pointless the organ world complaining that there's a shortage of organists when you need to attend either a specialist music school or obtain an organ scholarship from a leading public school at the age of 13, to access the best teachers and gain the inside knowledge needed to make a successful application.

 

Hi annet. That's not necessarily the case. I know someone who has recently taken up an organ scholar position at a university with one of the prestigious chapel choirs (as Vox Humana put it earlier). He certainly didn't go to a specialist school or have any kind of organ scholarship before then. It's probably not so common but you certainly can get there without having attended a cathedral school etc - you just probably have to work extra hard. I guess being a Cathedral organist is the top of the professional field for organists with an interest in church music, and most of them don't get there straight out of an organ scholarship - it can take years. I'm sure there are many more organists who would like to work in a cathedral who don't. But if it's what your son is really passionate about then he should try. Can he apply for other unis this year and maybe audition on one of his other instruments? Then once he's there find a high level organist he could have at least occasional lessons with?

 

Lucid :)


  • 0

#11 jch48

jch48

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 535 posts
  • Member: 25823
    Joined: 26-February 08
  • East Midlands

Posted 03 December 2018 - 17:44

Wishing you well and hoping your son and you can find a way to get as far as his existing-proven-achievements and potential permit. If there are 30 (I guess) relevant oxbridge organ scholars graduating every year and the tenure of an organ playing position is 10 years that's 300 candidates. divide by 50 cathedrals and that's 6 applicants for one place. Even if my numbers are way out it's a highly-competitive field. it is sad (or downright unfair) that the best advice may not have been available to you and that your son appears to have been disadvantaged through non-relevant circumstances. I don't see how things can change given the state of schools, universities and the church. i am not an expert in either just someone who loves music and wants other too.

Could your son ask to give recitals at cathedrals or other churches with significant organs?


  • 0

#12 BadStrad

BadStrad

    Virtuoso

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 3854 posts
  • Member: 88756
    Joined: 28-January 10

Posted 03 December 2018 - 18:56

A friend of mine had played the organ prior to university. While studying an engineering degree he was permitted access to the uni's rather lovely organ and played for some services. He build up experience that way. I don't think the uni had organ scholars.

If he does go to study something other than the organ that might be something he could do.
  • 0

#13 Tenor Viol

Tenor Viol

    Virtuoso

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 6038 posts
  • Member: 343214
    Joined: 25-October 11
  • North Shropshire

Posted 03 December 2018 - 19:51

I know a number of cathedral organists - none of them went to boarding school


  • 0

#14 Vox Humana

Vox Humana

    Prodigy

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1139 posts
  • Member: 58391
    Joined: 09-March 09

Posted 04 December 2018 - 01:58

I feel sad that teenagers from not-so-rich backgrounds are effectively excluded from the organ.

So far as the conservatoires go, I find it hard to believe that they are.  They certainly weren't in my day.  My parents were not at all rich and I never had the benefit of prestigious music tuition.  My enforced early piano lessons were a catalogue of disasters (I had no interest in the instrument) and ceased after I reached the age of 12 or so, but they served to give me a basic keyboard technique.  When I was 10 (or maybe 11) the organist at the parish church where I was a choirboy suggested I try my hand at playing the organ and then basically left me to my own devices (though he did buy me a copy of Stainer's The Organ).  At the age of 14 I got an organist's position at a neighbouring church.  I taught myself the organ by reading books and listening to records, but most of all by doing a tremendous amount of practice (and sight-reading) that covered a wide range of repertoire (all of this bought with my organist's pay), coupled with a determination not to be beaten by the technical hurdles of difficult music.  I my later teens I formed a choir from some of my school friends to sing a capella Renaissance music; it was all useful experience.  I applied to three London conservatoires, the RCM, the RAM and Trinity and was accepted by all three (the RAM actually offered me a place on the spot).  I chose the RCM because, in those days, that was the top place for organists.  A very knowledgeable school music teacher had steered me through "O" and "A" level music, but otherwise I can truthfully say that I achieved all of this off my own bat.  Had the conservatoires been operating an elitist agenda I don't see how I could possibly have been accepted. I can't believe that that is any different today.


  • 0

#15 HelenVJ

HelenVJ

    Virtuoso

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 2021 posts
  • Member: 1265
    Joined: 03-May 04
  • South-East London ( OK - Penge)

Posted 04 December 2018 - 17:05

I don't think the Conservatoires are more elitist exactly, but things certainly are different these days. Entry standards are way higher and there is a lot more competition for each place. I got into the Guildhall with organ as a second study, and had 3 years with Nick Danby. I guess if you were at the College, VH, you had Richard Latham in Room 99? Nothing to do with boarding school or choral scholarships though.


  • 0