Attendees at the Cambridge Organ Experience for Girls

Play Like A Girl

Sarah MacDonald on this year's Cambridge Organ Experience for Girls

26 June 2023

Cambridge was hot and humid; thousands of camera-wielding sightseers clogged the narrow streets; impatient residents pushed through the throngs; undergraduates sped past on bicycles. Meanwhile, nearly 70 young people bravely negotiated the crowds, chatting nervously, and admiring the ancient architecture.  

It is not uncommon for visitors to tour this very small city (population 125,000) in very large groups. There are guided sight-seers, school-groups, potential students, visiting academics, choral-music lovers, and, not infrequently, groups of (usually elderly) Pipe Organ Enthusiasts exploring the extraordinary variety of instruments in the space of the city centre’s four-square miles.

The aforementioned young people fell into the latter category. Their assorted back-packs contained books ranging from “Piano Exam Pieces Grade 1” to battered Breitkopf editions of Bach’s organ works. Most tellingly of all, several of them clutched a pair of shoes in their hands. However, this was a group of Pipe Organ Enthusiasts with a difference – and their two leaders were unusual as well. Not only was every participant under the age of 18, but they were also all female.

At the time of writing, just 9% of Cathedral organists and 8% of Oxbridge DoMs are female.  The establishment of cathedral girls’ choirs over the past 25 years has begun to make a difference (the percentage of female Oxbridge organ scholars has risen from 5% in my undergraduate days, to about 25% now). Nonetheless, in the meantime, some active positive encouragement is required, and thus “The Cambridge Organ Experience for Girls” was set up to encourage young women to explore the Queen of Instruments. The annual one-day event is free to attend, and the standard in playing ranges from the 11-year-old beginner pianist who has never seen an organ console, to young teenagers already preparing for organ scholarship auditions. The itinerary included an introduction to the organ, small-group visits to play a selection of contrasting instruments, lunch, and a short recital. 

There are many taster days and residential courses available across the UK for young organists, and with one important exception (the Jennifer Bate Academy), inevitably, there are three times as many boys on those courses as there are girls. What Anna and I noted about our event was that even the shyest of girls was willing to “have a go”, since they were only surrounded by their peers. We have both seen those girls refuse to go anywhere near the console when in the company of teenage boys, no matter how encouraging the tutor may be. 

The day has been such a success that we are planning to set up an equivalent day for boys. Both will run annually, and both will be free. 

Sarah MacDonald and Anna Lapwood

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