Alex’s love of the organ began as a chorister in King’s College Choir, Cambridge, though he didn’t start learning the instrument until he was 14 years old, when he became the organist at St Lawrence Church, Seal Chart. Now an Associate of the Royal College of Organists, Alex is studying for his A-levels at Tonbridge School, where he is a music scholar in the Upper Sixth. Alex is also the founder and Director of Music of The Tudeley Singers, and has been awarded the position of Organ Scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, starting this September.
A cathedral organ scholarship is one of the best opportunities available to young organists. As a gap-year position, the scholarship presents a chance to work with expert organists and a fabulous choir, developing skills in accompanying, conducting and organisation, and learning new repertoire all the way. Several cathedrals and similar establishments offer such a position, with many gap year organ scholars going on to hold similar positions at top universities like Oxbridge, or continuing their musical studies at conservatoires. If you’re interested in applying for a cathedral organ scholarship, it’s a good idea to start researching them far in advance.
RESEARCHING THE OPTIONS
Websites: Several websites, such as the RSCM, offer a list of organ scholarship positions across the country, but these are not always accurate. Since the structure of cathedral music departments changes all the time, you’re better off looking at each establishment’s website individually to find the most up-to-date information. Many positions will also be advertised in The Church Times and similar publications.
Getting in touch: Sometimes you will find detailed information about organ scholarships on the websites, and sometimes you will find next to nothing. Either way, it’s worth getting in touch with the cathedral to find out some more information. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t receive a reply straight away – someone will have seen your message, but it sometimes takes them a while to get back to you.
Going to visit: It’s a very good idea to go and visit any places you are interested in. The best way to gain an impression of a place is to experience it for yourself, and this will give you the opportunity to meet the people you’d be working with and ask any questions you might have. Going to visit also makes a good impression of you – it shows you’re really interested in the scholarship, which could give you an advantage over other candidates.
Make sure you’re prepared for your application well in advance of the deadline – as soon as the cathedral publishes the organ scholar job description and application requirements, read through them and start preparing. Filling out an application form is fairly straight-forward, but that’s not an excuse to leave it until the last minute! I did mine for Windsor a couple of days before the deadline, but then couldn’t find my national insurance number anywhere so ended up submitting with about half an hour to go! You may also be asked to send a CV and covering letter, though its worth send these even if they’re not requested. There are plenty of people much more qualified than me to advise how best to write a CV and covering letter, but what I would say is this: they’re not expecting a decorated professional, but rather someone who shows potential and eagerness – there’s no need to scrape the barrel of your own achievements, just present yourself honestly and accurately. So, after you and several others have all proof-read your application materials thoroughly, send them off nice and early – punctuality makes a good impression!
Auditions will be different at each place, so make sure you’re well aware of what you need to play in advance. They’ll probably want a piece of Bach and something more modern. Whatever you pick, make sure they’re pieces which you know very well, and have performed several times already. You’ll have little or no time to practise on the organ there so something you can just sit down and play comfortably is ideal, preferably with quite simple registration. You may well be asked to play an accompaniment, possibly with someone conducting from downstairs. Again, just make sure you prepare this well in advance so you’re comfortable playing it by the time of the audition. Since this is an organ audition, there will of course be tests in sight-reading, transposition, score reading, improvisation, and possibly others too. The best way to prepare for this is, naturally, just to practise them over and over again, and to do so in stressful circumstances. Ask your teacher to test you on these, and force yourself to do them in services, even when it’s not necessary. If something goes wrong during your audition, like an obvious mistake, do your best not to stress about it – the ability to continue playing stably despite such problems is an important characteristic for an organist.
Your audition day will also include an interview. Again, there are so many people better equipped than me to offer interview advice, but be polite, and be yourself – demonstrate your enthusiasm for the organ and your eagerness to improve.
So, in summary, if you’re interested in gap year organ scholarships, do your research, get in touch, go to visit, and make sure you’re absolutely prepared for your auditions.
If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!