Organ scholar at a college without a director of music
As junior organ scholar in a college without a director of music, the senior organ scholar and I can ‘run the show’ ourselves – planning the music list for each term; playing and/or conducting for every service; arranging singing lessons and master classes; and organising annual choir tours abroad (this year to Hong Kong and Shanghai). During your three years here, you gain considerable experience in both accompanying and conducting the choir. We gain a huge amount of support and advice from our chaplain (who was once a choral scholar herself), with weekly meetings, which usually turn into general chats, always sustained by coffee and biscuits.
In addition to the weekly Evensongs, there are further services for feast days and special events - highlights of which include the annual Patron’s Day Evensong. The organ scholars are encouraged to play an important role within the musical life of the wider college community, organising chamber music events and choral concerts - this term we will be giving a performance of Fauré’s Requiem.
The organ scholarship at my college strikes a happy balance, allowing you to be fully immersed in chapel life, while also leaving you time for interests beyond your academic work and responsibilities as organ scholar – I enjoy playing the French horn in Oxford University Philharmonia Orchestra and Oxford University Wind Orchestra (for which I am also librarian), as well as playing the horn for other college events across the University, and participating in Turl Street Homeless Action and the college lacrosse team.
Organ scholar at a college with a director of music
At a college with a Director of Music, it is the job of the organ scholar(s) to assist by rehearsing the choir and accompanying or conducting during regular chapel services and other liturgical events. Generally, the Director of Music chooses the repertoire for the choir’s services, however, there are always opportunities to get involved in creating music lists and to put forward suggestions for repertoire. Organ scholars also give recitals in their chapels, which provide an opportunity to explore solo works and develop performance skills, crucial for any aspiring organist. For those organ scholars studying music, this is especially useful when preparing for performance modules. Being an organ scholar at a college with a Director of Music allows time to engage in other musical activities, with many organ scholars being part of university ensembles on second study instruments, for example, the Oxford University Orchestra.
Aside from the choir’s liturgical commitments, life as a member of the chapel community brings a wealth of further experiences. Many choirs tour together, giving concerts in a variety of international destinations. More locally, college choirs and orchestras may collaborate; recently, college choirs joined together to perform a varied programme including Parry’s ‘Blest Pair of Sirens’ in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Occasionally, more unusual opportunities arise for organ scholars, such as film for an episode of the ITV detective drama, Endeavour. Organ scholars play a crucial role in organising events such as choir dinners in college and social events with other choirs, including the annual inter-collegiate football tournament.
Personally, I feel that I have already gained so much from my organ scholarship. A Director of Music acts, somewhat, as a mentor who encourages you in so many ways to develop your musicianship. Holding an official position, during your time as a student within the college community, is an exceptional experience, equipping you with skills which will prove invaluable in life beyond Oxford, whatever your chosen path.
Organ scholar at a choral foundation
(Oxford has three choral foundations: Christ Church, Magdalen, and New College. Choral foundations maintain a busy schedule, encompassing daily services as well as occasional broadcasts, recordings and tours.)
I came up after a gap year as an organ scholar at a cathedral, and after a few years of playing experience whilst at school. In particular, having a gap year made life in a choral foundation easier to adjust to: I’d covered some of the accompaniments before, and had a bit of repertoire to draw on for voluntaries (much more than if I’d come straight from school). Plenty of people do manage going straight from school to a choral foundation with success, but for me, it was great to see another group of musicians at work in a different environment, whilst having the time to work on the skills I need here.
Perhaps more than other scholarships, the experience at a choral foundation has quite an impact on a student schedule. For me, this involves getting up for a rehearsal at 7.50 am, during which I take out a small group of the youngest choristers to cover the basics of singing technique and music theory. The choristers are engaging and alert, so it’s fun to work with them. The rest of the day is taken up with organ practice and academic commitments/work (though, sadly, not always in that order), and then Evensong – at which I’d typically play or assist the other organist. There’s one day off a week, and two services on a Sunday. Aside from the time taken up by playing, there’s a big workload of a different set of accompaniments for each service, as well as voluntaries etc. It’s all part of the job to make sure that you’re not overstretched, but also challenging yourself at times, and – often – the challenge turns out to be exciting. The schedule might appear to be demanding, but once you’ve been through a few weeks, it all settles down and becomes part of daily life – having commitments mark out your day is a great structure to have as an undergraduate, and I’ve valued it hugely.
At a choral foundation, the organ scholar works under the direction of a professional director of music, also an organist, with direct benefit from their immediate knowledge and advice. Not every service is the same: quite often, there are separate boys’ and adults' services, as well as full choir services. For me, each of these requires a different set of skills, such as learning to accompany plainchant. There are also opportunities to conduct services, often increasing as the scholarship progresses. At my college, fabulous organ, singing and improvisation lessons have been provided, and one of the best perks is having a better room than nearly any other undergraduate! Additionally, the positive atmosphere of the choral scholars and other organists has made the last two years extremely enjoyable – even when the clock strikes 11 pm and there’s still plenty more to practise.
If it’s what you want to do, there’s always time to make for outside activities, but you just have to be organised to make it all fit in. Maybe there’s a misconception that you need to be highly experienced in order to tackle a choral foundation organ scholarship, but a willingness to work hard and adapt quickly are really valuable. Likewise, though the scholarships are excellent preparations for cathedral music, former holders have become successful repetiteurs, conductors, pianists and continuo players, and the scholarship certainly opens up a wealth of opportunities which make every bit of work a worthwhile and enjoyable part of the university experience.
Reflections on the organ scholarship experience
Four former Oxford organ scholars reflect on their time at Oxford and what it has meant for them in their life and work after leaving.
Organist, Holy Trinity Church, Westbury on Trym (Oriel College, 1997-2001)
I took up the organ scholarship at Oriel in 1997. I had learned the organ at school and had experience as a church organist and choir director at my local church. The organ scholarship was initially a steep learning experience for me, as I was not familiar with the repertoire for evensong. At that time, the organ scholars at Oriel were responsible for recruiting the choir, choosing the music list, organising rehearsals, choir trips and other social events, as well as conducting and playing for the weekly services, so there was lots to do!
I combined the organ scholarship with a degree in Physics. It was challenging at times to fit everything in, but I found the two different disciplines complemented each other. I have sought to maintain this combination in my subsequent career. I am currently a patent attorney and partner in a leading European intellectual property law firm, which I combine with a busy schedule of musical activities, on both a freelance and amateur basis. The experience I gained as an organ scholar has helped me in particular in my current role as a church organist and as a répétiteur for a large city choir.
Director of Music, Pembroke College Cambridge (Magdalen College, 2013-16)
I took up my organ scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, having only played the organ for four years. To say it felt like being thrown in at the deep end is a bit of an understatement! Despite many years’ experience as a piano accompanist, I had never accompanied a Choir on the organ until I turned up at Magdalen. To go from nothing to accompanying eight services a week was certainly a steep learning curve. However, the Director of Music was incredibly helpful, tailoring the music list and accompaniments to gradually make me used to accompanying in a range of different styles. I also learnt a great deal through watching the Assistant Organist accompany whenever I wasn’t playing. I think the ‘total immersion’ required for an Organ Scholarship at a Choral Foundation such as Magdalen is one of the things that makes it so stimulating; with so much playing each week, organ scholars don’t really have much choice but to improve!
Similarly, alongside the daily services, the Organ Scholar helps train the choristers every morning, and then spends the rest of the time doing their music degree. With so much time devoted to music-making, one really does live and breathe music throughout the course of the three-year degree. I’m now working as Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be here were it not for my time at Magdalen. Working at Magdalen didn’t just teach me about organ playing and accompanying, but also about teaching, choir-training and conducting. One of the fantastic things about the Magdalen Organ Scholarship is that it offers frequent conducting opportunities. Standing up in a room full of peers, many of whom may actually be older than you, can be extremely daunting, but regular practice means that by the end of three years it becomes almost second nature. Now I’m running my own Choir, the skill of being able to stand up and lead a rehearsal, no matter how old, intimidating or experienced the Choir members, is invaluable.
If I had one piece of advice for those thinking of applying for Organ Scholarships, it would be not to be afraid of aiming high. If you’re interested in a Choral Foundation, there is no harm in applying. Directors of Music aren’t necessarily looking for the finished product, but someone with potential who is eager to learn. When I was looking at Scholarships, I was told by numerous teachers that I had no chance of a Choral Foundation because a) I had so little experience, and b) I was female. However, I took that risk, and whilst it meant three years of working harder than I had ever worked before, the rewards were worth it; I had the most incredible, inspirational three years, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Lucy Piercy (née Faulkner)
Music Teacher at Beacon School (Jesus College, 1989-92)
As Organ Scholar at Jesus College I was the only undergraduate in my year to be reading Music and consequently paired up for tutorials with the Organ Scholar at Keble, Hilary Norris, still my best friend today! As a first year, my duties were primarily to play, with the third year Organ Scholar conducting and leading rehearsals. You were on your own in the second year, and so it paid to befriend any fellow undergraduates who had keyboard skills. We had evensong on Thursdays - a very small affair - and Sundays - grander and attended by the Principal, amongst others. Sherry was served afterwards and the Organ Scholar was required to recite Latin grace at supper, so all very traditional. You were reliant on willing and able singers for the choir, and I certainly found that offering drinks before and / or afterwards in the pub made for significant numbers. Being Organ Scholar at Jesus was a more relaxed affair than at some other colleges, requiring social skills as much as musical, and I had time for playing real tennis and singing with Schola Cantorum and for other smaller concerts at New College.
After university, I lived abroad, spent a decade as a wine buyer and then became a mother, but 10 years ago, I was drafted in by a local prep school to play the organ and accompany the Chapel Choir for Friday evensong in their Chapel. I have been there ever since and, through playing the organ, have ended up with a full timetable, teaching class music to the older boys, running school choirs and starting up a parent and staff choir who come and accompany the boys for big concerts and services. In the last few years, the Chapel Choir has sung in St Peter's in Rome, St Mark's in Venice and Dubrovnik Cathedral. Of course, none of this would have been possible without having been an Organ Scholar, so I feel exceptionally lucky to have been offered the experience.
Director of Music, York Minster (Exeter College, 1991-4)
Being organ scholar at Exeter College was an experience I have much to be grateful for. One of the university’s friendliest colleges, a beautiful chapel with sensitive acoustic, the opportunity to train the choir and also the possibility of a new organ on the horizon all made it a very attractive choice. In those days, the Exeter choir had boy trebles from Christ Church Choir School, which the senior organ scholar was responsible for training. This allowed invaluable experience in training choristers and choosing repertoire, which has been the foundation of my career since. Similarly, the design and installation of the new organ working with consultant David Sanger was a great opportunity for me further to extend my knowledge and interest in organ design and building.
On leaving Oxford, my career has followed a pretty traditional cathedral organist route, moving first to Lichfield Cathedral as Assistant Organist and then to Truro Cathedral as Organist and Director of Music before moving to York Minster. My time as an organ scholar gave me lots of practical experience in running a choir and playing the organ, coupled with the opportunity to experience the differing styles and traditions of the great choirs of Oxford. Doing this alongside academic study for a degree in music in one of the country’s most beautiful cities make the Oxford organ scholarship experience something I would warmly recommend to aspiring organists.