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International Musicians Interview – Anne Marsden Thomas MBE, Organist Extraordinaire

Organ Masterclass Ann Marsden Thomas

Anne Marsden Thomas has become internationally renowned in the organ world for her educational initiatives, publications and contribution to the world of organ music as a whole, for which she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Years Honours List 2015.

Beginner Organ Lessons

Anne talks about how her life-long love of music began, starting with piano lessons and then through her local church. She talks about how she was ‘hooked’ despite not initially having the best teacher or organ to learn on. Interestingly, she mentions a number of female organists around her during her initial musical journey despite the gender in-balance that currently exists. Anne didn’t immediately follow an organist professional journey after leaving school, which will surprise many, but at some point she realised that she absolutely had to follow a musical journey even if she only taught beginner pianists for the rest of her life.

St Giles International Organ School

Anne discussed how the Royal Academy of Music had noticed that there were not as many organists coming forward as there previously had been and she established National Learn the Organ Year in 1990, hoping to generate 500 new learners. In reality, she says that they sent out 2000 starter packs. Anne followed this up by contacting people locally and the St Giles International Organ School began with 30 students in 1992. This became part of the Royal College of Organists in 2012 as the “The Royal College of Organists Academy Organ School”. The International Summer School that she also founded, for which I have been honoured to be included as an annual teacher, is a wonderful residential event in London that is famous for including people of all ages, all standards, all stages of their learning journey, all nationalities and is completely all-inclusive in every possible way.

Organ Lesson Publications

Anne currently has been involved with 22 organ books/publications and I asked her how this all began. She discusses how the Royal College of Organists had a huge library, thought to be the largest organ library in the world, and that there was a desire to combine repertoire that would be suitable for organ students who needed a range that was less technically demanding. Cramer agreed to publish volumes and then Oxford University and a similar concept, leading to her series of Oxford University Press publications. I had the honour to be one of the proof-readers for Anne and Frederick Stocken’s Graded Keyboard Musicianship volumes which filled a huge void in the market. Traditionally, organists were expected to suddenly have the skills of realising figured bass, improvisation, harmonisation, extemporisation, score reading and transposition, as soon as they reached a certain level, but there were no ‘stepping stones’ in the lower grades. These superb books include clear, concise, step-by-step exercises. A summary of Anne’s publications can be viewed on her organ lessons website.

Society of Woman Organists

Anne, along with Ghislaine Reece-Trapp (who wrote a fantastic, although saddening, article about some of her experiences as an exceptional female advanced organist and how she has been treated), is co-chair of The Society of Woman Organists. Anne reveals, quite shockingly, that there is more of a gender imbalance for organists now than there was 100 years ago. She was fortunate in having a different experience as she grew up, but there is no doubt that, although there have been a handful of very successful woman organists ‘at the top’, this hasn’t particularly filtered down to the middle level. The society was founded in 2019, is open to men and women, and has the following values at its core:

We are inclusive, empowering, challenging and open-minded. While supporting a meritocracy, we believe in giving girls and women an equal chance to excel as organists and succeed in the profession.

The statistics on their website are shocking, especially considering the expectations we have of the world today:

10% of the permanent Directors of Music and Organists in English and Welsh Cathedrals are female

​8% of the organists listed on one of the main UK organ recitals page are women

​6% of recitalists at high-profile London venues in the first half of 2018 were female

The Organ Teaching World Looking Forward

​It is interesting that Anne says that she doesn’t actually look far forward and yet her projects and successes have very much moved the organ teaching and organ lessons’ world significantly forward at all levels. It seems that she has simply seen something that needs attention, applied herself methodically and with great dedication and that all results have without exception then reached a global connection. She is without a doubt a name that will be remembered for generations to come in the organ world and who it has been an absolute honour to be associated with.

Organ Lessons and Music Lessons for All Level Musicians

The interviewer, Dr Robin Harrison PhD BMus(Hons)/GradRNCM FNCM ARCO LTCL DipLCM PGCE(QTS) MISM, teaches organ lessons from beginners to Fellowship Diplomas alongside aural, theory, diploma paperwork and much besides, both online organ lessons and face-to-face organ lessons in Yarm, Teesside, UK. He is currently developing a ‘popular’ approach to organ from James Bond to We Will Rock You.

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