Organ School in the United Kingdom
An Organ School in the UK
My career has always been underpinned by my wish to see a professionalization of organ teaching in the UK. I was involved in National Learn the Organ Year 1990, a major initiative involved all the organists’ bodies in the UK, which revealed a huge number of enthusiasts seeking organ tuition: 2,000 people of all ages sent for starter-packs. Clearly more organ teachers were needed so, after failing to interest any of the organists’ bodies in setting up a nationwide teaching programme, I decided to act alone. St. Giles Cripplegate Church in the City of London, where I was (and still am) Director of Music, had a first-class mechanical action organ and sympathetic clergy, so I established St. Giles International Organ School in 1992. The response was overwhelming, and within two years I had recruited over 100 students and additional teachers to meet the demand.
From the outset I decided to establish certain features which have remained important to the ethos of the Organ School:
· We accept all ages, demand no previous keyboard experience and design individual tuition programmes to address all levels of ambition.
· Tuition is year-round; we don’t work in terms.
· Students choose from a package of individual lessons, classes and a summer course. They are free to buy one ‘item’ (e.g. a lesson or a class) at a time and can cease study at any time.
· Lesson frequency is also under the control of the student and there is thus a very wide variety of lesson patterns, ranging from every day to once a year. Sometimes we arrange a short full-time study programme for students visiting from overseas.
· The teachers work as a supportive team. Students can change to another teacher within the team whenever they want, with no fear of causing offence. We positively encourage our students to play to other members of the team from time to time.
· The individual teaching is structured and personal. Students begin by stating their goals; teachers prepare each lesson with those goals in view; each lesson is written up on a carbonated report form; after ten lessons there are progress review forms for both teacher and student to complete and these usually give rise to a brief discussion which may result in a revision of the student’s previous goals.
· Classes are restricted to six players so that each has plenty of opportunity to play, as I have always found that a permanent improvement is only achieved through guided practical experience.
The Organ School has continued to grow: now there are 15 teachers and over 240 regular students in eight areas of the UK. Students often travel considerable distances for their lessons. We intend to continue spreading into new areas and to introduce distance teaching with the aid of videos plus Skype.
In 2000 members of the congregation and students of the Organ School joined me in a 8-year fundraising project whose successful outcome enabled us to clean the existing organ at St. Giles Cripplegate and build two new pipe organs, one of them exclusively for students’ practice.
Our summer course, established in1997, has always attracted a very large number (between 60 and 80) of students from all over the world whom we then stream into graded groups ranging from beginner to advanced/diploma. Here, too, we insist on a personal plan for each student. Each student receives a unique timetable based on their stated needs, experience and goals and each student returns home with a personal report supplied by the different teachers on the course. The course has access to over 20 pipe organs in the City of London and the programme includes private tuition, masterclasses, workshops, essential skills classes, visits, lectures, services and student concerts.
The style of the Organ School has not fundamentally changed over its 21-year life, but there was a major administrative change in 2012 when, at my instigation, it became part of the Royal College of Organists (RCO). I continue to direct activities as Head of RCO St. Giles Organ School. This change has been very successful: students notice almost no difference but I see a faster expansion of our work, a more professional edge to our presentation and, best of all, an assurance of continuity when the time comes (a long time hence, I hope) for me to retire.
Anne Marsden Thomas