Pulling out all the stops
Richard Parkinson (Engineering, 2013) talks about life as an organ scholar at Pembroke.
What does it mean to be an organ scholar?
The most obvious bit is playing the organ, which everyone gets. Then there’s conducting, which becomes a big part of it. I’d done a little bit before I came but not much, so I took a few lessons to prepare. There’s also a lot more admin involved I the role than people realise. We have to make sure that the entire choir has their music every week. There are bigger things too. Organising a tour, for example, requires a lot to be done behind the scenes. This work is divided out between the Director of Music (currently Gregory Drott, 2005), the Senior Organ Scholar (currently Theodore Hill, 2012) and the Junior Organ Scholar. At the moment I probably have the least to do, but that will change once I take on the senior role next year.
How important is the relationship between the two organ scholars?
Pembroke always has two organ scholars at any one time. You definitely need two of you so that in a rehearsal one person can conduct and one can give the notes on the organ, for example. It is important that you get along and that you can have an open dialogue together. I phone Theodore every few days to talk about something or the other. We’ve never quarrelled, although if you turn pages for each other or do the stops during a high-pressure piece there can sometimes be some stress involved! There is something of a community between organ scholars in different colleges too, which is helpful if you are short of music or singers.
How much time do you spend practicing?
I spend quite a bit of time rehearsing – we have to learn about 36 pieces each year. I often play a piece through three or four times before I play it in a service. We then rehearse every Wednesday with the choir and on Sundays I don’t really work at all because I’m just preparing. The thing with music is, in reality, however much you practice you often have to adapt as you go along. As well as Sunday evensong, which the choir sings, we also play at the plainsong service on Friday and the Sunday morning communion service. Compared to many of the other Colleges, being an organ scholar or a member of the choir at Pembroke is fairly low commitment.
You often play in other venues – is that something you look forward to?
One of my favourite things about being the organ scholar is getting to play so many different organs. For example, on the massive organ in Gloucester Cathedral I just let rip. Actually, for the end of the service I had the organ slightly too loud and nearly deafened everyone! Different organs feel completely different from each other. The number of keyboards can differ, there can be an extra pedal on the board and they also sound very different. I find that really thrilling.
What are the best things about being an organ scholar?
I get a real buzz from playing the more difficult pieces. There’s a certain type of energy, when the adrenaline is flowing, especially when you’re not 100% confident with the piece – and that’s most of the time. Cambridge is full of extremely talented people and there are plenty of better musicians than me both technically and professionally. I do not fall into the category of child musical genius; I’m just some guy who can play the organ. So it is a nice feeling that we all get to have the same title. That’s something special.
How has being an organ scholar affected your experience at Pembroke?
Organ scholars get room that is associated with their position. I have a harpsichord and an upright piano in my set, which has a living room, bedroom and small kitchenette. The organ scholar rooms must be some of the largest student rooms in College. I use the space to have weekly tea parties, which is a really great way of catching up with people. It does mean I have to keep about 30 mugs in my room! I also use it to hold rehearsals for AcaPembroke, the a cappella group I have set up (above). And finally, after the Sunday evening service the organ scholars get to go for formal with the choir, which is really nice.
You might also be interested to read this interview with Dr Emma Gibbins (1997), a former Pembroke organ scholar who has recently been appointed Director of Music at Newport Cathedral.