Organist interview: Ashley Grote

For the first in our series of interviews with organists who have played at the Moot Hall, we asked Ashley Grote about his musical connections with Colchester, thoughts about music at the Moot Hall, cathedral music and advice for young organists. Ashley is Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral, a Patron of Friends of the Moot Hall Organ, and gave a recital at the Moot Hall in May 2016.

What are your earliest musical memories of Colchester?

I grew up attending Eld Lane Baptist Church with my family. It was here that I was kindly allowed to try the organ – playing piano music and hymns with the manuals only, often whilst my mother and sister were at the Girls’ Brigade in the church hall on a Friday evening! I loved singing at church, both as a member of the congregation but also in the ‘Youth Choir’, doing the occasional solo as a young boy. I also attended the Saturday morning music school at Colchester Institute, playing the French Horn in their wind band. A family friend in Colchester then gave my parents an advert from the Essex County Standard, for chorister auditions at King’s College, Cambridge – and the rest, as they say, is history!

You’ve taken a close interest in the Moot Hall Organ restoration project; when did you first become interested in it?

My parents still live in Colchester, so when Councillor Nigel Chapman started work on the Moot Hall project along with Borough Organist Ian Ray, I got to hear about it very soon. I had in fact never been in the Moot Hall during all my time growing up in Colchester, but I feel like I owe a great deal to a number of people in Colchester who gave me support and opportunities as young musician – and so wanted to do what I could to support this project and give a little bit back to Colchester in the process. Ian Ray has always been a very kind supporter of mine, allowing me to practise at Lion Walk Church and inviting me to play with the Colchester Choral Society, and likewise Colin Nicholson at St Botolph’s Church – without the support of these distinguished local organists, I may not have got to where I am now.

Now that you’ve played the Moot Hall Organ post-restoration, how did you find it? Any surprises?

As I say, I had never been in the hall, let alone played the organ, prior to its restoration. When I walked in on the morning of my recent concert, I was taken aback by what a beautiful and elegant room it is. It was a joy to get to know the organ, with its unspoilt, original voice. Harrison and Harrison have, as always, done an outstanding job in restoring the instrument to how it was when Norman & Beard installed it. Playing it now, one has a strong feeling that this is really part of the town’s heritage and history, from a time when town hall organs were in their heyday. Part of the brilliance of it is that, as with all good pipe organs, the organ and the building are as one – fitting together both visually and musically like a hand in a glove. The Moot Hall organ, with all its beautiful English Romantic tones, fills but does not overpower the room, bringing the beautiful hall to life.

How would you like to see musical activities develop at the Moot Hall?

I was delighted to hear that the lunchtime organ concerts are becoming increasingly well attended. What I would like to see, along with all other supporters of the Moot Hall organ and indeed pipe organs in general, is for as many people from the town of Colchester and beyond to be able to hear and experience this hidden musical gem. Most people in Colchester almost certainly have no idea that there is such a magnificent instrument tucked away in the Town Hall, and more importantly that they are able to go and hear it! Children, particularly, are always fascinated by the organ – how loud it is, the array of sounds it makes, and all the stops, buttons and switches there are to pull and push. Any opportunities for Colchester’s school children to see and experience the organ are so important – one never knows what musical spark it could ignite in a young boy or girl.

We hear good things about how the music at Norwich Cathedral has developed under your direction. What would you say is the key to achieving the highest standards in cathedral music, and, of course, attracting and retaining the best church musicians – especially outside London?

That’s very kind; I’m glad that your impressions of the music at Norwich are good ones! Our boys and girl choristers, and my adult colleagues, all work tremendously hard to achieve the level of musical excellence that they do – and that is largely the key to it – hard work! With any music-making, the highest standards can only be reached through careful and dedicated practice. But in order to motivate people to do this, they also have to enjoy what they are doing. I try to generate and maintain a culture in which the choristers know that they are expected to work hard and give of their best, but in an environment that is fun and energetic. So much of the success of music is also in the planning and preparation: in order for projects to come to fruition, they need planning months, if not years ahead, and need to be well organised – being chaotic or last-minute is not conducive to good music-making.

When it comes to attracting and retaining musicians, the key I think is making them feel valued, as with any employee. I am enormously fortunate in Norwich that the Dean & Chapter recognise the valuable part that music plays in the life of the Cathedral, not only in the worship, but in engaging people of all ages through all the different musical events that take place. Church Musicians can never expect to be highly paid, but if they are working in an environment in which music is valued and appreciated, they can at least get on unhindered with what they enjoy and do best – making music.

What advice would you give to a young organist interested in following in your footsteps?

There are now, fortunately, a number of excellent organisations and initiatives which support young organists. Start close to home, and by contacting your local organists’ association. Go online and get in touch with the Royal College of Organists, who have information, resources, events and courses throughout the UK for young organists. The Royal School of Church Music also runs courses for young organists, as does Oundle for Organists. For more advanced young organists, you might consider attending one of the Eton Choral courses specifically aimed at organists.

If you can, find a good teacher locally. As I did in Colchester, you should get in touch with the organists at your local churches to ask if they can help, either by offering some tuition themselves or simply by allowing you to practise on their church organ or to observe them when they are playing themselves. If you have no luck with this, then all is not lost – the Royal College of Organists may be able to put you in touch with teacher close to you.

There is sadly no substitute for a lot of practice, starting with learning the basics very carefully. It is tempting to pass away the time experimenting with all the different stops, or playing your favourite bits loudly; you should enjoy doing this some of the time, but also need to put the hard graft in learning all the necessary technique.

Once you are confident enough to do so, get as much experience as you can performing – even playing hymns with the manuals only in a village church is good experience, and in many cases they will be grateful to have an organist at all!

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