Interview with Anna Lapwood

For the fifth interview in our Rising Stars series, and to celebrate our launch in Oxford, we grabbed a coffee with Anna Lapwood, the first ever female organ scholar at Magdalen College and a member of Gareth Malone's Voices choir.

How did you get involved in music?

My older brother enjoyed music, and I was quite competitive, so whenever he’d take up an instrument, I’d think “that’s quite cool”, and I’d take it up as well. I was a little more self-motivated when it came to practice, so I’d start to get better than him, and he’d give it up. This happened with about six instruments, so my parents very quickly banned me from learning any instruments he was learning!

Six!? That’s crazy

At one point, I was doing about fifteen. I wanted to take up everything. I started with piano, and then violin, and then recorder, obviously! Everyone has to learn the recorder. I also taught myself clarinet, and had lessons on viola, harp, and flute.

How did you settle on your main instruments?

I still haven’t really settled. I was at Junior Academy for six years with harp as my first study, then violin, viola, piano and composition were my joint “second” studies.

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You must be in high demand as a harpist?

Yes, but it’s very hard to travel with! My Dad is my chauffeur, and he actually had to get a new car.

I’m one of the only harpists in Oxford at the moment, so once a term I’ll suddenly get about ten emails in one week asking me to do various gigs the following week, which is tricky. I haven’t played the harp properly since I arrived because the organ scholarship is like a full time job on top of my degree, which often just goes into the background!

I’m always having to find replacement harpists, so Encore should make my life a lot easier!

So, you’re the first female organ scholar at Magdalen College? That’s a pretty big deal, right?

Everyone makes a big deal about it, and it shouldn’t be. It was two years ago and everyone still goes on about it! I often forget how significant it is...

It was certainly very odd going into all-male environment from an all-girls school, and I definitely had to change the way I interacted with people. During school, If you spent any time with a guy, you were obviously going to get married, and I very quickly had to accept that I wasn’t going to marry every member of the choir.

How did you get involved with Gareth Malone’s Voices choir? He’s one of the most influential people in the UK choral scene right now.

A BBC producer wanted to do a documentary about being an organ scholar in Oxford, but it didn’t happen in the end because of various obstacles. Magdalen wanted me to settle in and get used to life in Oxford before allowing a camera crew to follow me around, and looking back, it would have been fairly hectic, so I’m glad I didn’t do that.

Ah, shame. Definitely a documentary I would have watched. There are so few of you - 12000 undergraduates at Oxford, and only around 20 organ scholars.

It’s a perspective people don’t see, and especially somewhere like Magdalen, where it’s essentially a full time job.

So, what’s an average day like for you?

6.30

  • wake up. I just got a coffee machine in the organ loft, which really helps a lot.

7.10

  • get to the song school to get my brain in gear. The choristers are so intelligent, so if you’re not on the ball, they’ll pick up on it straight away.

7.45

  • rehearsal starts. My job is to teach the youngest ones the basics, so at first teaching them how to sing (they all have an innate musicality because of auditions testing pitching etc)

They’re adorable and come out with the funniest comments. The early morning can be soul-destroying, especially if you’re ill or really sleep-deprived, but one of the boys came up to me the other day and said:

“Miss Lapwood, I really like the way you teach”

and suddenly it was all worthwhile.

9.00

  • Take them to school, then I’m left to my own devices until about 4.45. I tend to work in the mornings, then practice all afternoon. I really like to practice right up until I’m playing.

4.45

  • rehearse until 5.45, then play for a service at 6. I’ll be finished by 7, and then I’ll do a little more practice. I try to do five hours practice every day

Five hours is a lot! I don’t think I even did five hours of practice during my entire university career.

It does vary. We didn’t have an assistant organist last term, so I was doing everything myself and having to do eight services a week. There were days when I was in the organ loft for ten hours in a single day, which was horrible, but it did wonders for my playing. I’ve improved so much since getting here.

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So the BBC organ documentary was put on hold…?

Yeah, but one of the producers had seen a video of me singing some close harmony on YouTube and sent me an email inviting me to audition for a new project with Gareth Malone... the next day! I didn’t take it particularly seriously, as I don’t see myself as a singer. I had some lessons when I was little, and I’ve done choirs all my life, but I think I’m one of those singers who gets put on the alto part because they can sight read.

I found out later that day that I’d been given a place in the choir, and that we were recording the next week in London, the week before my A-levels! We had 12-hour recording days, and a few of us had to study during the breaks. It was tough, but still a lot of fun.

We did a lot of really cool gigs through that, with highlights being the Royal Variety Show and the Classical Brits, where I got to watch Lang Lang and Nicola Benedetti (who is so, so lovely!) perform together, as well as seeing Hans Zimmer, who is my idol.

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That all sounds incredible. What’s Gareth like?

He’s so nice, and so genuine. He’s making choral music more accessible, which I think is really important, and he’s done so well. He was always very keen to help us all with our individual musical pursuits, and during the recording would constantly check we weren't neglecting our revision!

What did you get up to last Summer?

I went to Zambia and helped at a music academy, teaching guitar, music theory, and helping the teachers, who are only about grade 5, structure lessons.

I loved it so much, and really didn’t want to leave! Everyone is so relaxed, and nothing is rushed. In Oxford, lunch lasts about five minutes before you have to rush somewhere else. It was so refreshing just to dawdle down the street when we went for lunch with the teachers, and not having internet access was nice. That said, it was a sad sight whenever we found a WiFi hotspot and instantly went for a “coffee break”.

I was also invited back to play with NYO as an orchestral pianist last Summer, which was so much fun. The first rehearsal of the course is always so incredible; it's easy to forget how massive the orchestra is - 5 harps, 14 double basses, etc. - and the floor shakes a little when things get loud. NYO has also given me some amazing opportunities, such as performing at the Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace, and that's something I'm really grateful for.

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The energy onstage is incredible with NYO. Everyone's working so hard together and it's very spontaneous, and I don’t think you get that to the same extent in choirs, which is something I really miss from my orchestral days.

Everything's a lot more mathematical when you're playing the organ. You have to constantly be thinking along the lines of "I need to play a quaver ahead so I that don’t get behind", and it's much harder to have a purely musical experience.

Do you think singers would agree with you?

I've had a lot of arguments with the lay clerks about this, actually. Some of them agree, such as one guy who studied at Chethams, who said “I really miss the fire of orchestral playing” - he didn’t say ‘fire’, by the way! - and he misses that. Then again, another guy says you can’t get closer to raw human emotion than through singing because of the combination of music and text. I disagree with that.

Occasionally, with really epic choir pieces, you get those “Oh wow” moments, but I've had far more with orchestras. Those spine tingling moments really make it worthwhile.

If you had to pick one highlight from your musical career so far, what would it be?

Ooh, that’s difficult.

I think playing Stravinsky's Petrushka at the Proms was a real highlight.

The piano part has a lot of cadenzas and very exposed solos, and I've never been so scared in my life. It's a really, really difficult part, and I wouldn't call myself a concert pianist, so it was probably just beyond my abilities.

Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and I really love when something comes together like that. Whenever I play a tricky passage without any mistakes during a service at Magdalen, I do a little victory dance in the loft.

I didn’t realise until very recently, however, that the lighting means the congregation can see my shadow! Ever so slightly embarrassing.

I'm not sure this is a highlight, as such, but the sense of achievement at the end of last term was euphoric. The assistant organist was offered a job elsewhere, which he took, and I honestly didn’t think I’d manage all by myself for a term.

I didn't crash and burn, thankfully, and I really see that as my transition into becoming an organist. I don't usually touch the organ when I get home and avoid practicing until I have to, but after about five days of being home at Christmas, I really just wanted to be back in Magdalen practicing.

You've said a few times now, "I'm not really a singer", or "I'm not really a pianist". What are you?

Ah, that's simple - I’m a musician.

You can catch Anna playing the organ in Magdalen Chapel most days of the week, and if you'd like to hear her performing a recital of works by Hindemith and Phillip Moore, you can do so at 8pm on Thursday the 12th of February in Magdalen Chapel.