Interview with David Sanger
by Clarabella, January 2002

David Sanger is well known and admired by the Cumbrian Society of Organists, especially for the annual 'Playing Day' he does for us. I'm sure also that many members own his CD's and organ tutor, and read his articles in the Organists Review. However, our Chairman Colin Rae evidently thought that we should know a bit more about him, when he asked me to do this interview.

David is remarkable in being at the forefront of his profession while remaining unusually humble and self-deprecating about his achievements. He has wide interests, and is spoken of in many countries, and by all kinds of people, with great affection. However, he is known to be quite outspoken at times, and does not toe the line when something falls outside of his exacting standards.

It was a rather wet and windy November day when I went along to David's Old Wesleyan Chapel home. He had been clearing leaves out of his gutters - apparently a regular job for him. George Harrison had just died, and David confessed that he was very much a Beatles fan. I had never done any sort of interview before, and was rather terrified at the prospect! But what were the vital questions?.....

What do you think have been the main influences in your life?

Well. Parents, teachers. Especially organ teachers. My parents saw from very early on that I needed specialist teaching. When I was 13, I had lessons with Douglas Hawkridge. I was with him for 6 years, and by the end of it we tended to argue. I would try to go to as many London organ recitals as I could, especially by foreign organists, and hear repertoire that I really wanted to learn. Frequently I would take along to him works he had never heard of. He would say: Play it if you like. He never went abroad, apart from the Channel Islands, and he was proud to say that he never touched an organ while he was on holiday. So he never knew any foreign organs or organists. However, he was a brilliant, natural organist/pianist, and he taught basic technique and musicianship very well. He could get you through exams, too.

I went to the Royal Academy young, at 16, and left at 19. I was meant to stay on a further 2 years to do my recital diploma, but I managed to do that in my third year. At the ripe old age of 19, I was out in the big wide world. I practised many hours a day by myself for a time, and got the odd recital here and there. But it was slow-going.

Then I studied with Susi Jeans. She was a true eccentric, but very kind to me. She used to get so nervous when playing in public....She was very good for early music, and I got the bug for musicology and editing from her. She introduced me to Marie-Claire Alain and then Anton Heiller. Marie-Claire was a very charming though quite dogmatic teacher. It was interesting to study the works of Jehan Alain with her, but I can't say I always followed what she said! Now she regards all her former students as one big family, of which she is grandmother!

Anton Heiller was also dogmatic, but I felt that what he was saying was right. Once, I took to him Bach's variations on Christ, der du bist der Helle Tag, which he admitted was quite new to him, although he had played the complete works of Bach. So he was working on this at the same time as I was. We were able to exchange ideas about it, and although we didn't always agree, I felt for the first time that here was someone who I could talk to about my ideas of playing and who would listen to me. He was great for Bach and Reger.

And what is your approach to teaching?

I try to bring out the best in each player. You need to vary your approach for each individual. For very advanced students, I tend more to suggest things, for example: Perhaps you could try it this way? Though I think there are certain basic techniques that everyone should have. For younger players, or not necessarily younger, but those at an earlier stage, I tend to be more strict, otherwise they may never make progress.

What advice would you give a young organist who wanted to become a professional musician?

Don't! [jokingly!] It really is an act of dedication. Get good lessons from the start. There is a lot of dreadful teaching of organ these days. Some of the young people who come to Oundle really have very little idea. But hopefully they go away better able to play things properly. Don't confine yourself to the church and its music, though you need to be familiar with it. But I'm not saying we should all become theatre organists!

What do you think is the main use of competitions and exams?

Oh that's easy! The most important thing about them is that they improve the personal standard for each participant. And then there are spin-offs at competitions, like making contacts for the future, socialising, and even getting recitals. Those who go in for competitions with the sole idea of winning first prize will come back disappointed. And exams have the same purpose, except that they are not so social.

Now you've obviously got a hefty performance calendar on top of a lot of other commitments; how do you make sure that you are always playing at your best?

Gradual and consistent preparation over months. Then I can go into a recital feeling confident that I know the pieces well. Of course, there are always things that can put you off or upset you, but the knowledge of thorough preparation behind you gives you confidence.

How do you keep yourself sane under intense pressure?

Some might say I don't! Seriously though, doing other contrasting things, like sport, gardening, cooking and housework. Or composing, which is a kind of sport.

What are you aiming to do when you compose, apart from using it as a sport?

To keep up the best of the tradition of writing church music and organ music, or to attempt to. Often I have written things because there has been a gap. For example, I have been looking for a suitable piece for a choir I have been training, and there hasn't been one. Or with organ music, there has been a church whose space I couldn't fill with any music I knew, so I have written one myself for it. Or sometimes I just set out to entertain, for example with my Christmas Rhapsody, exploring different organ colours.

And you have written some secular songs as well as liturgical music. What influences your choice of words to set to music?

I'm not very good at looking for words. People usually hand me a text to write for, and if I don't like the words, I politely decline.

What do you think of the showbiz organist?

I think they have their place. But it saddens me that there are those who would simply play fast and furiously, without any artistry, and that audiences will flock to hear such people. They often have very pushy agents! I would rather be less well known.

A lot of church organists are primarily pianists who have been pushed on to the organ stool, and who remain rather wary of the instrument. How would you encourage such people?

I think the dioceses need to do a lot more to help reluctant organists, in terms of financial support for lessons and purchase of music (I know Carlisle is good in this direction). The Church should value them more and make them realise that their work is an important contribution to the worship. Churches should also be more open to part-time posts and shared jobs, as many people are put off by the weekly commitment of playing for services. In Denmark, for example, organists are treated more like civil servants, get paid very well and have a pension, although some become lazy!

And what are your aims for the future?

No one's asked me that for a long time! To carry on, I suppose. Recording is becoming increasingly rare nowadays, because the market is flooded with CD's. But, luckily for me, audience numbers for live performances seem to be increasing. And there's teaching, of course. Keeping up the standard of performance, that's the difficulty as you get older, and it takes longer to learn new pieces. But I hope that there will be a maturity of interpretation, even if all the notes are wrong!