Ashley Valentine leads a SSLSO scheme to develop (young) organists

SSLSO and Education: Planning for the future

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Last year, the BBC World Service featured a report on the channel’s World Update Podcast entitled, ‘the decline of the church organist’. It began with a play-over of ‘Joy to the World’ before a 12-year-old student played J. S. Bach’s  ‘little’ Prelude and Fugue in F major, BWV 556 – very competently indeed – at one of the Oxford colleges. The announcer introduced the programme: ‘[…this is the] iconic sound of an English Sunday morning – even for those who never go inside a church. Well, now that sound is endangered. There are just not enough young organists learning how to play the hymns and anthems of traditional worship. Where churches are doing well, pulling in the crowds, guitars and drums are taking over…’

Musicologist Dr Simon Firth went on to list some of the possible reasons for this decline: changes in the style of worship, a 50% decline in church attendance over the last 50 years, fewer services to accompany, low wages and old organs falling into disrepair.

Many of us, even if you don’t play regularly as part of worship, will have heard about or experienced issues that stem from a lack of organists in churches. You may know a church down the road that has installed a hymn machine or read about a titanic battle between a PCC and a group of parishioners trying to prevent their organ being dismantled and taken away. Perhaps you’ve finally arranged access to try out an organ only to find it unplayable, unbeknownst to an overly enthusiastic churchwarden. Or perhaps, like I experienced last summer, you’ve been asked to play at a friend’s wedding in a country church and found on arrival that you had to move boxes of junk away to access the organ. And then discovered that the console was locked and no one knew who had the key!

But as long as organs draw air, there is hope. There’s still intense competition for organ scholarships at UK universities and ‘highflyers’ continue to pull in the crowds. Admittedly, reading about Cameron Carpenter’s touring organ can seem far removed from your instrument that the organ builder assures you is on life support. But on a local level, in our own organ society, members continue to strive to enthuse others to appreciate the organ. They plan recitals, learn exciting new pieces, organise repertoire evenings or my favourite recently – organise a wine tasting concert featuring wines from all over the world accompanied by appropriate organ pieces. Truly inspiring!

The SSLSO’s aim is to support the knowledge and practice of organ-playing in Southwark and South London. And as representatives of an amazing variety of organs – and to ensure that they continue to be heard in the 21st Century and beyond – we must do our bit towards encouraging new people to play the organ.

To do that, SSLSO is launching an experimental new scheme – designed around allowing people to ‘try out’ the organ. Whilst there’ll be a limited number of places available, initial lessons will be provided along with expert advice and support to participants. We would very much like you to support this scheme when it is launched – and you might want to start thinking about anyone you know that might be interested in advance.

The BBC report contained some interesting material and food for thought. But for me, the most important segment was how the young organist became interested in the organ in the first place: ‘someone at my church offered to let me play the organ’. Whilst our proposed scheme is of very modest means, even the smallest amount of encouragement and enthusiasm can alter the course of people’s musical lives. How exciting that is – and something that we can all be doing each time that we sit down at the organ.

Ashley Valentine

Ashley is on our Committee – see his details by going here