A Week in the Life of the Organ Scholar
Organ Scholar: 2005-2008
Course: BA Music (undergraduate three-year course)
From: West Sussex - Seaford College
Living in: Main College
Monday: Today demands a relatively early start (c.9.00 am) to finish, proof-read, and print off an essay due in at 10.00 am. I would normally spend the evening before a deadline poring over books and articles long into the small hours of the morning (the time when I usually work best), but choir practice, evensong, free Formal Hall (the second sitting of dinner - a three-course meal served in the Dining Hall) and a very sociable visit to the College Bar help to distract me from such a routine. At about 10.45 am, I walk down to the Music Faculty on St Aldate's for a Choral Conducting seminar (one of the course options for Finals). Today we talk about the various issues in conducting Renaissance polyphony, and then take it in turn to conduct the rest of the group in chorus. Lunch in College is at 12.30 pm, and is always a good chance to catch up with friends. The next couple of hours are commitment free, so we decamp to the JCR for tea, chatting and a leisurely read of the day's papers. At 4pm I am in the Chapel for my organ lesson with Welly (John Wellingham - teaches organ to Jesus College Organ Scholars). Despite being 'old enough to know better', Welly has infectious enthusiasm - leaping on to the organ bench to demonstrate something - and the lessons are rarely dull! Welly is particularly hot on making the most of what the College's fine Drake Organ has to offer, and he always manages to provide me with new insight into pieces, affectionately referred to as giving a piece 'more Welly'. With a list of things to work on for the next lesson, I wander back to my rooms (Organ Scholars are provided with extremely good rooms in College for the whole of their course) to check emails and procrastinate until supper time (6.15 pm). After supper, I turn my attention to work for the rest of the week, including a German lied in the style of Brahms for a tutorial tomorrow.
Tuesday: The singing teacher is in today, so I meet him in the Chapel to make sure everything is set for the day and alert him to any changes in the timetable because of illness, ill-placed 'tutes' (tutorials), labs etc. At 11.00 am I have the tutorial on my Brahms lied; it's not particularly like Brahms, but has some good moments! Lunch-time social activities cut short by a two-hour 'tute' at 2.00 pm on Sacred Polyphony: my essay is given back covered in pen and prompts much discussion. I meet with the singing teacher after his last pupil to check there were no problems and that everyone who should have turned up did. The rest of the day is spent on organ practice and, after supper, reading for the next essay.
Wednesday: No lectures or tutorials today, so a chance to get the bulk of the essay reading done, with plenty of JCR (Junior Common Room) and tea breaks. I also use the morning to make sure we've got enough copies of music for choir practice tomorrow afternoon. This often results in a few phone calls to organ scholar colleagues asking to borrow copies! Last term I was alerted to an excellent student access scheme with English National Opera, which gives 'young people' huge discounts to opera performed in London by ENO. Today a group of us are going to London to see the Minghella production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. The reviews have been fantastic and I cannot wait. We get the Oxford Tube into London, play around with the Underground and eventually get to The Coliseum. A quick bite to eat, and then in to our discounted seats in the Upper Circle. It is a truly magical production and by the end I'm an emotional wreck. If you don't know the story or music of Madame Butterfly, find a recording - it's wonderful. We get back to Oxford by about 1.00 am and, despite a 9.00 am lecture tomorrow morning, time is still found to play around on Facebook...
Thursday: 8.00 am comes far too soon this morning, but after a quick coffee I'm ready to go. The 9.00-11.00 am 'The Origins of the Motet' lecture proves very interesting and extremely useful, so it is time well spent, and is immediately followed by a 'Beyond Modernism - Beethoven to Boulez' lecture. Quite a contrast. After lunch I look through the music for choir practice, make sure that I know what I want to focus on, and then meet with my fellow Organ Scholar. Choir practice from 4.45-6.00 pm goes well, with a nice relaxed atmosphere and a good turnout. I'm conducting evensong this week, so I lead the rehearsal. A quick debrief at the end of the rehearsal, reminding the choir that our St David's Day service is next week (this is an evensong sung entirely in Welsh) so attendance next Thursday is strongly recommended!
Friday: David Briggs, a well-known concert organist and expert improviser, is taking a master-class at Pembroke this morning, and I pick up some good tips to improve my pre-service waffling. More organ practice after lunch, and a bit more reading before Formal Hall at 7.15 pm. (Scholars are entitled to free Formal Hall on Wednesdays and Fridays, and choir members and Organ Scholars also get free Formal on Sundays). Formal is always a jolly affair: a free three-course meal with friends, and a bottle or two of wine. When High Table (Principal, Fellows, etc) is present, a scholar has to read a Latin grace, and there's usually friendly competition to see who can read it the fastest without losing any clarity. After Formal, the Waynflete Clerks - an a capella group of choral scholars from Magdalen - are performing in a concert. Tonight they treat us to a mix of sacred a capella (works by Byrd, Biebl and Grieg), spirituals, and then arrangements of songs by Flanders and Swann, Ronan Keating and others.
Saturday: A welcome lie-in, and some admin tasks before lunch - emailing the choir to remind them of tomorrow's rehearsal time, etc. The rest of the day is spent finishing the reading for my essay, and trying to make a start on the essay itself, while being distracted by a rather large pile of laundry. There is no food provided in College on Saturday evenings, so I spend a great evening with friends at Stevens Close (College accommodation in North Oxford).
Sunday: Only having evening Sunday commitments at College gives you the freedom to worship elsewhere in the morning, if you wish to! There are, of course, plenty of non-church ways to spend your Sunday morning... Although the Oxford week technically starts on Sunday, each week has the feel of building up to Choral Evensong. We start the rehearsal at 4.15 pm. Most of the music is familiar so we can focus on fine-tuning a few verses in the psalm and getting inside a less-familiar setting of the Mag and Nunc (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis). The choir is provided with free tea and cakes in the JCR between rehearsal and evensong, and we then start evensong at 5.45 pm. At this stage towards the end of term, everyone is starting to get tired and feel slightly worn down, but some rousing hymns and excellent singing from the choir helps to perk everyone up. We all drink sherry in the Mansell Room afterwards before descending to hall for Formal - Peter (my fellow organ scholar) says grace this week, and beats my time. After Formal, we make our usual visit to the College Bar. After this, a quick email to the choir to thank them for evensong, alert them to any upcoming events and relevant times etc for the week ahead, then the last task of the day is to get as much of the essay done as possible, and then I'm ready to face the rest of the week.