CSO Training Courses: History
by Colin Rae (Chairman of the CSO)

In the summer of 1991 the committee of the Cumbrian Society of Organists felt it should expand its activities from organising events for members to providing assistance to the many organists in Cumbria who were new to the demands of service accompaniment.

A sub-committee then prepared a scheme, the aim of which was to encourage organists to improve their standards by supplying suitable training together with a voluntary certificated examination, the standard somewhat below that of the Incorporated Association of Organists (IAO) certificate.

The scheme was launched in the spring of 1992 with a poster emblazoned with "Organists Wanted", containing a commendation from the Bishop of Carlisle, (then President of the Society), and further advertisements in the press and on the radio.

As a result, we were taken aback by the number of the applications: forty in all. From the forms we determined what would be the best evening for each area of the county and we realised that an examination was irrelevant to the needs of the applicants.

A professionally qualified tutor was appointed to each of four groups: Jeremy Suter (Master of Music, Carlisle Cathedral), Colin Dean (Ulverston), Colin Marston (Penrith) and John Morris (Keswick). Each course consisted of five lessons of one and a half hours each from October 1992 to March 1993.

Pupils paid £25 for the course at the first lesson, and there were no rebates for absences. These fees covered each tutor's fee of £100 and church expenses, mainly for heating of premises. Five pupils were therefore required if we were to cover costs. Due to the numbers involved, the groups contained up to ten pupils and a surplus of £120 accrued.

The groups were as different from one another as were the backgrounds and needs of the members in each group. The scheme provided assistance to those unable to arrange private lessons.

At the end of the first course a tutors' meeting was held in November 1993. A common observation was that the groups were too large, pupils being very diffident in exhibiting their frailties to an audience, preferring to seek advice on their individual problems. Nevertheless, our tutors did their best to overcome this basic problem by splitting into smaller groups on alternate weeks or by giving short individual lessons within each session.

As was to be expected, the abilities of pupils varied, many being press-ganged pianists, most of them women, of whom a few were grade seven or eight. Colin Dean used his different pupils' churches for each lesson; a policy which was further adopted in the second course.

The overall approach was to meet the needs of the pupils as far as possible rather than to expect them to conform to a structured syllabus. The topics covered were the mechanics of the organ, hymn playing, registration and technique. Few pupils were involved with choirs, and the use of the pedals was limited.

The courses were much enjoyed and the tutors agreed to repeat them with a maximum of six pupils per group to start after Easter 1994, with the offer of an advanced course with a maximum of three pupils. A suggested format for each lesson of the starters' course was group instruction at the beginning and end, with individual attention in the middle. Spacing between lessons should be three weeks for the starters' course and four to five weeks for the advanced course. The need for consistent practice was stressed to the pupils.

The second course, preceded by the same publicity, started in March 1994. There were twenty-seven applicants. A great advantage of a summer based course was that it removed the church heating charge and avoided Lakeland winter evening travel. The heavy administration of the first course was avoided by publishing a list of tutors and their starting dates and venues. Applicants then contacted their nearest tutor. There were five groups and the tutors were Jeremy Suter, John Morris, Colin Marston, Adrian Self (Cartmel Priory) and James Wishart Hodgson (Lancaster). One advanced course took place in Carlisle and the pupils opted for five individual one hour lessons at £12 a lesson.

A second review meeting took place in September 1994 at which tutors reported on their pupils' backgrounds, class organisation and levels of achievement.

As on the first course there were as many backgrounds as pupils. Jeremy Suter's group was typical of the varied composition of the groups; his group consisted of two women, one of whom was a grade eight pianist, two fifteen-year-old girls, one observer and one other who dropped out. Such mixed groups posed severe problems, including that of access to awkwardly placed consoles.

The class organisation varied among groups, although the topics covered were the same as on the first course, there being no time to include extra topics such as ear tests. In Colin Marston's group, all the pupils were taught together, whereas John Morris managed to give half-hour personal lessons to his pupils on their own local organs. There was a much greater willingness to use the pedals on this course.

All tutors remarked on how little pupils knew about the organ as an instrument; the first of the lessons having to be devoted to this topic so that pupils realised the many different effects available from even the most modest instrument. The achievements of the pupils depended on the amount of practice between sessions, but their main achievement from their course of seven and a half hours was an enthusiasm to consolidate the benefits they had received by further practice and a desire to improve their performance in accompanying services. Adrian Self summed up the tutors' views that the course acted as a catalyst enabling isolated rural organists to share problems and to expand repertoires. Some pupils have continued with private lessons from their tutors.

Jeremy Suter's advanced course was based on David Sanger's organ "Tutors" with other added elements to the repertoire. His pupils had the bonus of having their last lesson on the cathedral organ. Jeremy thought it possible to run this course as a master class if the three pupils were evenly matched.

Due to churches not charging for heating there was a further surplus for the second course, making a total surplus of £200 which the tutors thought would be best devoted to assisting organists to attend courses organised by the IAO National Organists Training Scheme (NOTES) and other similar training courses rather than buying "Tutors" to lend out, such stocks tending to evaporate rapidly.

I must pay tribute to the devotion of the tutors, who obviously generated enthusiasm and gratitude, and spent a great deal of extra time preparing information sheets and attending review meetings.

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