Anna Lapwood MBE on becoming a trailblazing organist


9th Apr 2024 Music

8 min read

Anna Lapwood MBE on becoming a trailblazing organist
Trailblazing organist, conductor and broadcaster Anna Lapwood MBE talks to us about her upcoming tour and why she’s moving away from just playing classical
Anna Lapwood MBE is an organist, conductor and broadcaster. After being the first woman in the 560-year history of Oxford University’s Magdalen College to be awarded an organ scholarship, she became the youngest ever Director of Music at Cambridge’s Pembroke College when she was just 21. Her organ-playing skills have allowed her to build a huge social media presence, with over 710,000 followers and 22 million likes on TikTok alone, and she was awarded an MBE for services to music in this year’s New Year’s Honours List.
Anna plays the organ all over the world and performs regularly at the Royal Albert Hall, including with electronic artist Bonobo and the six-time BRIT award-winner Raye. She will undertake her first UK tour in June and July, performing in some of the UK’s most beautiful venues. We chat to her about the origins of her passion for music and playing the organ, the rewards and challenges of her work, and what she’s looking forward to about her tour.

Where does your passion for music come from?

I started playing the piano when I was about four, and I had this lovely piano teacher called Christine Wild. She was the old lady in the village who taught everyone in the village the piano; I remember toddling down the road [to my lesson]. That was where I first started.
I was really lucky that I had a whole run of inspirational music teachers at school. I moved to the harp—I had a teacher called Steven Dunstan, who wrote all of his own arrangements and got half the school playing the harp. He made it so fun.
"If you have the right teachers, it creates a safe space and love of music"
And then, when I was at senior school, my director of music Mr Spikes put me in front of choirs and orchestras, and he made me conduct and fall in love with it all and just gave me so many opportunities. I think it's all down to the teachers you have, isn't it? If you have the right people who are going to give you the right opportunities, it just creates this safe space and this love of music, which never goes away.

How did you fall in love with the organ?

That's actually a funny story, because I was basically set on being a harpist when I was a teenager; I sort of had my career path mapped out. Then, my mum turned around to me one day and said, “Have you ever thought about trying the organ?” And I was like, “Don't be ridiculous, Mum, the organ’s the worst instrument, it’s boring! I hate it!” I was a bit of a typical teenager, I think.
Then she said, “But, did you know that organ scholars at Oxford and Cambridge get grand pianos in their rooms at university?” And I was like, “OK, I'll give it a go!” And it was literally because I was a pianist and loved playing the piano, and because the idea of having a grand piano was very exciting, that I said yes.
Anna Lapwood sits at an organ and smiles at the camera
I really, really did not enjoy it at first—I found it so hard. I was so stuck compared to my other instruments; with my other instruments, it felt like they were my most natural form of communication, and then with the organ, I was stuck on Grade 3. I just couldn't figure out how to use my feet and hands together. But I think the fact that I found it so hard made me really determined to figure out how to do it.

What are the most challenging and most rewarding elements of your job as Director of Music?

The rewarding part is every day, whenever I go into a choir practice, with the Girls’ Choir or the chapel choir. Whatever happens in the day, that is a sacred time for me. And the whole thing of taking a group of people who aren't necessarily music students—who are leading busy lives doing other things, studying medicine, or law, or whatever it is—and bringing them together to form a really exciting musical sound, is just such a brilliant thing.
And the girls are constantly pushing me to be the best version of myself. They're constantly showing me what young people can do. There are 20 of them, and they are now singing in eight parts, which is something I never thought that they would be doing! But they just keep proving to me, day in day out, that they can take on any challenge, and there's something really inspiring about that.
What's the hardest thing about it? Emails. Why are there so many emails? I feel as if you could fill every hour of every day with emails and still not get through them all.

You’ve achieved all this success in an industry that’s dominated by older men. Do you feel the weight of being a trailblazer?

I think one of the big things is if you are trailblazing or just trying to do things a little bit differently, a lot of people are going to tell you that you're doing it wrong. That's something I really struggled with, because I've always had a lot of respect for authority figures, and I don't like going against what I'm told to do, and I'm a people-pleaser.
So, when people started saying to me, “No, no, you're doing this all wrong”, “social media is embarrassing”, “that's not how you market yourself as a classical musician”, “you’re playing the wrong music”—all of that kind of thing, I found it really hard not to listen.
Anna sits on a bench outside a yellow-brick building and smiles at the camera
But I've got an amazing team: my manager, Claire, who I really, really trust and whose opinion I value; my parents; my family. I think over time you learn to surround yourself with a good team who will give you good advice and be honest with you when they think you're doing something stupid. Then you’re prepared to experiment and follow what feels right for you, because ultimately being a musician is such a personal thing.
I think there's a liberation that comes from making that decision to stop caring what a small group of people think, and instead follow what does the best thing for the instrument and the music. If you're trailblazing—and maybe, I think, if you're a woman in music—you receive more of that criticism of “you don't know what you're doing”, when actually, you do.
"If you're trailblazing, you receive more of that criticism of 'you don't know what you're doing'"
I guess I just hope that I might be able to clear the path a little bit for the next generation so that people will go, “oh cool, you’re using social media”, as opposed to “you don't know what you're doing.”

You mentioned your social media presence: do people reach out saying you’ve inspired them to start playing the organ?

Yeah, I get loads of messages like that! There's always going to be not nice criticism on social media—trolls and things like that—so I try not to look at the comments too much because of that. But I would say that I don't care about having 100 trolls if I get one message from a young person saying, “I've taken up the organ because of you”, and I'm getting that quite a lot now.
And people come into concerts saying the same thing! Or older people saying they've come back to music because of me; they had played the piano as a university student and given it up when they went into the real world, and now they've taken it up again. I think all of those experiences are equally important and valid, and just reminding people that music can be a safe space for them, whether they take it on as a professional thing or not, is a huge privilege.

What are you looking forward to about your tour?

So many things! Firstly, playing all the different organs in all the incredible spaces because every organ has a different kind of personality—almost like a different accent—so seeing how the music feels different in each space is going to be really exciting. We're also having quite a lot of fun thinking about the lighting and how we can make each show feel like a real event (not just a concert!) and all sorts of ideas with glitter and things like that. So, we'll see what happens there.
But one of the really big things for me is getting to meet all these people who I've been interacting with online, who are like these imaginary people at the moment, and having conversations with them. I find that so inspiring. And, in the same way that I talked about trolls before, if I have one person coming up to me and being like, “I've never been to an organ concert before, this is my first one”, that makes all the bad stuff just vanish and disappear.

Are there any pieces you’re particularly looking forward to playing?

I've written a new arrangement of “Time” from Inception, which is going to be getting its first performances—very exciting! Interstellar and The DaVinci Code are obviously on there. There's some amazing minimalist music by some young female composers that I love working with.
"I play what I think of as good music; that crosses all different genres"
Then there's the classics like Bach and Debussy: the music that you come back to time and time again that feels like sinking into a warm bath. So, it's going to be a bit of mix, but it feels like it's kind of my personality in music form. And there might be a couple of little surprises along the way, too.

Which are your favourite organs to play?

I refer to playing the Royal Albert Hall organ as being like getting into your car. I mean, I say this—I don't drive! But I gather that if you drive other people's cars, it always feels a bit uncomfortable, then when you get in your car, you know what to do to make it work as well as possible. It's the same with the Royal Albert Hall organ because it's the organ where I've spent most of my time practicing and writing arrangements, specifically for that instrument. So, that’s definitely one of my favourites.
The Royal Albert Hall organ, underlit
Then my other favourite is the Boardwalk Hall organ in Atlantic City in America, which is the biggest in the world. There's this amazing team working to restore it at the moment because it was massively damaged in a big hurricane. It is vast—which is kind of terrifying, because it's so big—but it is just like being a child in a toy shop.

Your repertoire is now so expansive, from classical to playing with Raye at the Royal Albert Hall. Are there any genres in particular that you gravitate towards?

I used to have a very closed idea of genre and just thought of myself as a classical musician, but now I don't really think about it in those terms. I play what I think of as good music; that crosses all different genres, and I'm constantly being pushed to discover new things.
I mean, up until a couple of years ago, I never would have thought I would be playing with someone like Raye or Bonobo. But, you just have to go into it with an open mind and see how you can use what you know to enhance the music, and how you can take what they know to enhance your music. It very much feels like a reciprocal thing.
So, I feel like I take a lot from that kind of concert, to inspire me into thinking how I can make my concerts more appealing to a wider audience. Raye is such a phenomenal performer—her stage presence is like nothing else—but it's a whole spectacle: it’s lights, it's a big band, it’s how she talks to the audience, it's the experience before and after. I feel like we can learn so much from that, in the “classical world”, about how to make the audience experience as exciting as possible.
Anna Lapwood’s debut UK tour runs throughout June and July, tickets available at axs.com/uk
Banner photo: Trailblazing organist, conductor and broadcaster Anna Lapwood MBE talks to us about her upcoming tour and why she’s moving away from just playing classical (credit: Andy Paradise)
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