18-year-old Rachel, who was a pupil at Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School in Wotton Under Edge, tells us about how she discovered a love for church music and now works as a church organist in her spare time.
“After I passed my grade 8 on the piano, at the age of 14, my teacher suggested that I would find the organ interesting and gave me a few lessons on it.
“Eventually I started filling in for him at a local church when he was away on holiday and really enjoyed it. When I was 16, I was awarded the Alison Parkhouse Organ Scholarship at Tetbury Church which paid for me to start having lessons on the organ.
“I started playing for other local churches too, including regularly for Lower Cam, Coaley and Avening. Wickwar and Kingswood churches have also been very supportive. Playing the organ is definitely different to the piano. There’s a different challenge with the addition of a pedal board and another keyboard. I like having all the stops out and using different combinations of stops. You can get a real range of sounds, quiet and loud. I think you can play lots of unusual pieces on the organ and it sounds good. Learning piano gave me a head start on the organ.”
Rachel’s friends are also musical, but play more mainstream instruments like the flute and clarinet.
“Everyone is so nice at church. They come up after the service and say ‘well done’. I didn’t really used to go to church before I started playing the organ, but I listen to the service and I find it interesting and really enjoy it. Getting really good at your instrument is incredibly rewarding.”
A survey in 2018 suggested that only 4% of church organists were under 30, with half of them being over 70. Encouraging young organists has become vital to the survival of traditional music in our churches.
Barbara Mitchard is one of the congregation members who has enjoyed Rachel’s playing. She said, “Watching her grow in confidence and skill since she first came to us has been such a blessing. She is a very talented young person.”
During lockdown, Rachel was unable to play the organ for a time, but she still joined the congregation on Zoom to play piano accompaniment from her home. She has recently achieved a distinction in her grade 7 organ exam.
Rachel added, “One of my passions is musical theatre – my dream is to become a musical director. I’d also like to play in a pit band or do general accompaniment for ensembles.”