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The value of attending organ courses and what to look for in one

Ann Elise Smoot writes for The Organ Manual this month. Ann Elise performs throughout the United States, Great Britain, and Europe, with a repertoire that ranges from the 14th century to the present day. After completing two degrees at Yale, where she won several major prizes for scholarship and for organ playing, she travelled to England, where she studied organ and harpsichord at the Royal Academy of Music, privately with Peter Hurford, and, latterly, with Dame Gillian Weir.

Ann Elise Smoot is also one of the most sought-after teachers in the UK, and is in frequent demand for master classes both there and in North America. Ann Elise is the Director of Oundle for Organists and Chair of Trustees for YOST.

First, I want to say how delighted I am to be contributing to the Organ Manual: a terrific resource for organists, and one which I am very pleased to support.

And second, in the interest of full disclosure: I am the director of Oundle for Organists, an organisation which provides residential courses for young organists! So it’s not surprising that I am a passionate believer in the value of courses.

I’ve been involved in teaching on organ courses, both here and in my native USA, for over 25 years now. Day courses, residential courses, master classes, courses for beginners, courses for professionals, courses for children, courses for adults – you name it, I’ve taught it! And I think it is true to say that every time I have been involved in a group educational event I have come away convinced of their intrinsic value – provided they are taught well and run well. Looking at those two criteria is probably a good place to start when trying to communicate what the best courses have to offer you, and why they can transform your life in ways small and large.

What makes a good course? There are many ephemeral things which can enhance a course, but at the core of a successful course there must be:

  1. A welcoming and friendly atmosphere where all students can thrive and learn, and where staff and tutors feel valued;
  2. Excellent tutors who can teach groups of students; tutors must also subscribe to the ethos set out in point 1; friendly and capable staff also contribute invaluably to a course’s success;
  3. Meticulous organization and attention to detail;
  4. A clear vision of what the course is trying to achieve.

The more ‘icing on the cake’ components of a good course include:

  1. An inspiring setting;
  2. Inspiring instruments; obviously, the better the instruments available the more enjoyable they are to play and the more they can inform performances;
  3. Opportunities for fun and socialising. NB for a residential course, this definitely falls into the core element category, above, For a short non-residential course, it’s still nice to have a chance for a cup of coffee and a chat.

I’ve not listed some practical elements, such as making sure a course venue is easily reached by public transport, for example, or not holding a class in an unheated church in January, although those considerations are all important, of course. Rather, I would like to write about the more intangible things I have learned during my years of experience teaching on and directing courses. In my current role of Director of Oundle for Organists I plan and run residential courses, rather than day courses, so I will start from that point of view.

There’s no doubt that a well-run residential course provides a unique opportunity for musical growth. Students are plunged into a whirlwind of activity: classes on repertoire and keyboard skills, opportunities for performance, both in secular and liturgical settings, chatting with tutors on the bus or at dinner and asking them questions, hearing others play, being exposed to new repertoire, new instruments, trying a hand at choral directing – all of these feature heavily on OfO courses, and on other fine residential courses offered in the UK. In fact, a residential course is usually such a whirlwind that some sort of follow-up afterwards can be desirable. Students emerge from the week buzzing with enthusiasm, but also tired and a bit dazed, having absorbed so many new ideas. At OfO’s Summer School, our tutors take notes during classes on each student, which are then passed to me, as Director, at the end of the week. Each student (and their regular tutor) then gets a copy of that report, which is detailed, encouraging, and points out suggested areas for development. It’s useful to have something in writing that helps draw everything together in a personal way, though of course these reports aren’t exhaustive and much of the learning on these courses happens outside classes, in conversations at meals and so forth. At our beginners’ course, Pulling Out the Stops, students receive a write-up covering the main points addressed on the course in terms of technique, repertoire, finding an organ teacher if the student doesn’t already have one, and so forth: less detailed, but still useful.

However, even with good follow-up at the end, the opportunities for musical growth on any course will be limited if those core values listed above are not adhered to. Looking at these in more depth:

  1. A warm and friendly atmosphere. This, above all else, is probably the one thing without which a course will fail in its objective. At the beginning of OfO’s courses, I make the point that we are all here to learn, not compete, and that we, the tutors, are looking forward to learning, too – because we always do. We encourage students to encourage each other, to look out for the student who is obviously feeling anxious, who may be reluctant to play, or who is feeling shy at meal times. Year after year, I am immensely proud of how much our OfO students take that to heart. When a course starts and I give my speech, I look out and see quite a few nervous young people, some of whom may not have been away from home before. By supper time that evening, the din of conversation is pretty deafening. Students have been through their first class together; they’ve been encouraged by carefully chosen tutors, and they’ve encouraged each other. By that first evening, firm friendships are usually being formed.

Playing the organ is, often, a very lonely thing to do. It’s not only lonely from a practical standpoint, i.e. hours spent at anti-social times in organ lofts practising, but also from a social standpoint. Sadly, some students who come on OfO courses know no other young organists – or worse yet, may be bullied at school for their rather niche musical interest. It is wonderful to watch these students blossom during a week with like-minded peers.

Staff and tutors also need to be looked after. People working on courses are generally not being paid enormous amounts of money and they are giving up their time. Make them feel appreciated and valued by trying not to over-work them, and by saying ‘thank you’ frequently! Be approachable, and be willing to listen.

  • Excellent tutors who can teach groups of students and who help provide the welcoming atmosphere. Obviously, a course lives or dies by the quality of instruction being given. Anyone running a course is well-advised not only to hire the best tutors, but also to make sure they are comfortable teaching group classes: this is a very different skill from teaching a one-on-one lesson. Tutors must be able to keep the group interested, by drawing together threads from different performances, for example. They must be prepared to ask questions, to talk to the group as a whole, and to be creative. A master class whereby students are merely eavesdropping on a one-to-one organ lesson can still bring benefits, but how much more can be accomplished if everyone feels involved in some way? Tutors must also be encouraging and friendly, of course, and be prepared to help nervous students who are struggling.
  • Meticulous organisation. This really speaks for itself: a course can be badly compromised by a lack of attention to organisational detail. Usually, the staff and tutors end up bearing the brunt of this, and there is no faster way to destroy the goodwill of your staff than by asking them continually to think on their feet because things have not been organised properly. Students, likewise, need to feel that all details have been attended to. They’ve paid to attend, after all. Things will occasionally go awry on even the best-planned courses, because we can’t control everything, but you will find that everyone will happily help solve unexpected issues that arise if they feel that you have put in the groundwork beforehand.
  • A clear vision: whether you are running a course that lasts for an afternoon, a day, or a week, make sure you know who your core students are. Note: they don’t all have to be at the same level in their studies, although for residential courses it can be a good idea to group students more or less in terms of their level of experience. Ask yourself what a course is trying to achieve, and how you will bring that about, if you are planning one. What will students learn? What do you want them to take away from the course?

Once you’ve found a course that looks like it ticks all those boxes, don’t let anything stop you from going! A course with the right ethos will know how to help you if you are feeling shy or unconfident – and never be afraid to ask for help from anyone on the staff. If you cannot afford the course fees, know that there are many ways to find help with this. The RCO is a wonderful supporter of students who need help with fees, and OfO has never turned away a student for financial reasons – we can help you find funding, and can often provide it ourselves. Most courses for musicians have the means to help you find financial support.

A good course can open your eyes to an enormous realm of possibilities. It will introduce you to new repertoire, new ways of practising, and new ways of thinking about your music-making. It will inspire you if you are feeling a bit stuck in a rut, or even if you aren’t. It will give you a good idea of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and it will give you the tools to tackle those weaknesses. And it will give you a new set of friends who share your interest – people who may well be your colleagues if you choose to go into the music profession.

Over the years, I’ve watched as courses I’ve been involved in have transformed the lives of students. Sometimes those transformations are small: a student discovers a new piece of repertoire played by another during a three-hour masterclass, and goes away determined to learn it. Sometimes, the transformations are much larger, and are, literally, life-changing: a student suddenly decides to make organ-playing a career, bolstered by the confidence that making friends with other young organists has provided.

I would urge everyone reading this to attend a course of some sort and experience a transformation for yourself!

Ann Elise Smoot – October 2020

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!

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