Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My days vary quite a bit depending on whether I’m in University term or out of term.
In term time it’s pretty intense! I try to do four hours practice at the start of every day to get it done before emails and life admin take over – I tend to have that done by midday, and then on Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the day is filled with meetings and attempting to clear my email inbox …! Wednesdays are my busiest days – I get the train into college first thing and do my organ practice, then have a weekly meeting with our Chaplain before setting things up for the Girls’ Choir rehearsal. I rehearse the girls 4:15-6 and then conduct Evensong 6:15-7:15. I then wolf down some supper before our Chapel Choir rehearsal at 8pm, followed by Compline at 9:30.
It took me a while to get used to having such a long day, but actually I tend to find working with the choirs renews my energy and I often can’t sleep on a Wednesday evening because I’m so overexcited by all the music! I rehearse the girls on a Thursday too, and then run a virtual rehearsal for the NHS choir that I set up with a friend over lockdown. Fridays tend to be for practice, admin and meetings, and every couple of weeks I’ll be in London to give a concert or record something for radio. I try and keep Saturday as a full practice day, but will often do some individual work with members of the Chapel Choir ahead of our Sunday services. Sundays are then busy again – rehearsing at 9:15 and playing for Eucharist at 10:15, followed by the highlight of the week: the Pembroke College brunch (featuring the best hash browns in Cambridge)! I use the gap between services to blitz my emails (so many emails…) and prepare the music for Evensong. We rehearse from 4, and then sing Evensong 6:15-7:15. I try and keep Sunday evenings as my evening off and when I get home at about 9 I tend to curl up on the sofa with something mindless on Netflix. I recently moved out of Cambridge so I now have a 20 minute train journey with a 20 minute walk at each end – I actually really value this time to create some separation between work and home.
Outside of term my schedule can vary hugely! I tend to fill that time with concerts, presenting and leading courses. In the summer I travel quite a bit and lead music workshops all over the place – I’m not very good at sitting still! I do always have a couple of days after the end of term where I just let myself do absolutely nothing other than go on long walks, nap, and watch TV. I’m certainly at my happiest when I’m rushing around the place making music in lots of different contexts and getting to have musical dialogues with lots of different people. Admin isn’t my strong point, but it’s unavoidable – having 3 different careers (DoM, broadcaster, organist) means three times the number of emails and sometimes it drives me a little mad. But it’s always worth it by the time I get into the rehearsal room.
I think music is there in everything I’m doing. I’m one of those people who is singing to myself almost constantly – the Pembroke porters joke they can always hear me coming because I’ll always be singing as I walk! I tend to have music on when I’m doing admin, too – I have a special playlist (called ‘STOP PROCRASTINATING’) made up of film music which doesn’t demand my attention but helps me focus. If I’m doing the dishes I will always have Melody Gardot on, and will often sing along.
Having said that, I find it almost impossible to concentrate on a conversation if I can hear music at the same time – it feels as if someone is yelling in my ear!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I think working on my transcription of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes was definitely a bit of a breakthrough moment for me. It was a chance for me to fall in love with the organ in a totally different way, with music I knew and loved from my days as a harpist. I started working on it shortly before lockdown, thinking I might just transcribe the first movement, Dawn. When I realised how well Dawn worked as an organ piece I couldn’t resist trying the rest of it too, and it became a bit of a lockdown project. I think the whole transcription took over a year to finish – it’s one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on, and I really enjoyed the continual, intensive focus on one thing.
Given we were stuck in lockdown for much of the time I was working on it, it was relatively late in the day when I could finally take it to a full-size organ – most of the time I was just playing through bits on my little organ in my flat. I will never forget taking it to the organ of Ely Cathedral and feeling the transcription come to life for the first time! I had the biggest grin on my face, and I think it was at that moment that I decided I wanted to record it.
Fast forward another year and the recording is about to be released – it’s scary because it is such a personal project for me, but I’m just so excited to see what people make of it.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal over the past year or so. Lockdown made me much more aware of my own mental state and I found that it was becoming more and more difficult to achieve real focus. I think many people found this over lockdown – the combination of increased screen time and a complete change in schedule.
I started working with a performance coach who has been absolutely brilliant, and a lot of what we have been doing is talking about finding that ideal state of mind both in practice and in performance. In both situations, screens are the enemy, so I try and avoid using my phone before I practise (hence why I tend to practice first thing) and on the day of a big performance. Before a performance I will also set aside an hour just to lie on the floor and do some deep breathing and mindfulness exercises. Distractions are inevitable, but I think it’s about learning how to deal with them.
When I’m practising I have a post-it note on the organ desk and I write down any distractions that pop into my head so I can deal with them later. I think that helps encourage a more positive relationship with distractions as opposed to them being a source of anxiety and negativity. When I do achieve that ideal state of mind in performance it is an incredible feeling – a little bit like flying – and you’re free to just thoroughly enjoy the process of making music!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think we’ve all experienced both of these over the last year! At the beginning of lockdown I think many musicians found it really difficult to play their instruments as it was such a painful reminder of what we were missing.
More generally, I tend to turn to music at times of intense emotion. I remember when I was a teenager and my mum had a health scare – we thought she might have cancer, and I was finding it really difficult emotionally. So I went and played the Brahms A major Intermezzo over and over again. She turned out to be fine, but I still think back to that whenever I play or hear that piece. It’s amazing the emotional memory a piece of music can hold.
Similarly, I remember when my granddad died I went to the organ and played Ebarm Dich – it somehow seemed like the perfect piece for the emotions I was feeling. I’m fascinated by the role music can play in helping those suffering from brain problems, whether as the result of a traumatic injury or through an illness such as dementia. There are some extraordinary videos of Paul Harvey, a composer with dementia, playing pieces he had written 30 years before and improvising beautifully. Similarly, Rupert Johnston, brother of cellist Guy Johnston, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash in 1997 and yet can still play the French horn beautifully. It’s an area of music that I would love to know more about.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
This is something I actually think about quite a bit as an organist …! I find it fascinating to think about how differently we listen when we have a visual stimulus too, i.e. in any normal concert setting, vs when we have no visual stimulus, i.e. in most organ recitals. The analogy I tend to use is how back in the day when I used to watch The X Factor I would watch a performance and think it was brilliant, then would download the single later and notice all sorts of issues – tuning, tone etc – which I hadn’t noticed while my brain was distracted.
I think as organists we are constantly calling on our audience members to listen in this way which is one of the reasons the instrument can be thought of as quite remote and emotionless, when actually it has just as much capacity for emotion as any other instrument. Just as our sense of taste is inextricably linked to our sense of smell, I think our sense of hearing is tied to our sense of sight. A good friend of mine is a pianist with a visual impairment, and he has the best musical ears of anyone I know. As organists we also play with sound at its outermost borders quite regularly – some of our lowest pedal sounds are felt, not heard. Nothing quite beats the feeling of a 64’ rumbling away!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I try and think of music as a bit of an escape from real life. I often say that one of the great things about singing in a choir is that it’s quite hard to be worrying about other things at the same time – the same applies to playing the organ. So where possible I try and make it about the music and the music alone.
Having said that, as people with platforms I think we have a responsibility to use those platforms to speak out for social change, and this can sometimes cross over into our music too, e.g. trying to make our repertoire as diverse as possible.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
To me, language is clunky and imperfect whereas music has the ability to express emotions in their most nuanced forms without the barrier of speech. A piece of music mixes emotions as if they are paint colours until it achieves the perfect representation of that emotion.
It would be an interesting experiment to take a scene from a film and play it once without the music but with the speech, and once with the music but without the speech. I think I know which one would have more of an emotional impact.