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26 September 2019, 18:00 | Updated: 26 September 2019, 18:02
We met trailblazing young organist and conductor Anna Lapwood at Queen’s College Chapel, Cambridge to talk about learning the organ, balancing her time and becoming a role model for women in music.
This rising star in classical music is fighting for more women to play an instrument which has long been considered a male occupation: the organ.
Anna Lapwood, 24, can play 15 instruments – most notably, the harp and the organ. She was the first female organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford in its 560-year history, and is the current Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
“When I took up the organ, I really had no idea what world I was getting in to,” Anna tells us. “I thought it was weird the organ existed, let alone that I was a woman playing it.
“[But now], I feel there’s a responsibility to help provide the opportunity for young girls to realise they could be an organist too. I think the reason they don’t take it up is because they don’t even think about it. They don’t see visible female role models playing the organ. It tends to be seen as either something for a certain kind of man or a little old lady, and that’s not something a little girl is going to aspire to be.”
Anna is on a mission to bring more women into the industry – and to break down the stereotypes associated with female organists. Her Twitter account, where she posts videos of herself and her pupils playing, is filled with the hashtag #PlayLikeAGirl – a response, she says, to the time she was told in an audition aged 19 to “play more like a man”.
“For me, it’s about making it as visible as possible,” Anna says.
“I run an event every year called the Cambridge Organ Experience for Girls, and it’s really exciting because on any normal organ day (this sounds really geeky, doesn’t it?!), you might have 40 people on the day and probably two girls. Which is a horrific ratio. But we have 45 people on the day and they’re all girls. It’s their chance to learn in a sort of ‘safe’ space.
“I did another big event that was televised a couple of weeks ago, and two days after, I had five new girls wanting to take up organ lessons. And to see that knock-on effect is quite moving.”
Anna also runs a wonderful event called the Bach-a-thon, which involves 24 straight hours of playing the Baroque composer’s complete organ works.
“It’s always completely mad,” she says. “I’m still recovering from the latest one.”
“But it’s a lovely chance for organists to actually come together, because the organ is quite a lonely instrument. You tend to be stuck up in a loft where no one can see you and you don’t really talk to anyone else. But the nicest thing as an organist is to share your experience with other organists and chat to them. It’s a chance for all the organists to come together and play the music that they love.
“And what was nice about this year, was we had half-and-half school kids and professionals, and organ scholars and they were page-turning for each other. It really started to build those cross-generational relationships, which I think are so important.”
With all the incredible work she’s doing, does Anna ever feel like she’s missing out on the life of a 24-year-old? Absolutely not, she says.
“I think I have spent such a long time not engaging in [social life]. When I was growing up, I spent hours in a practice room and I loved that. I loved the immediacy of it, and I love – it sounds so sad – that music will never go away. Music will never fight with you – well, sometimes it does – but music will never leave you. It’s much more reliable than friends in a way.
“But also, the more you do it, the more you meet like-minded people for whom music is their everything. And that’s a very unique experience.”