Cool job: Organist
Playing the 320-year old grand organ at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the United Kingdom’s most treasured spiritual and cultural institutions, is a dreamy prospect for most organists — but that dream is coming true for Rachel Mahon (BMusP, 2013). When the 24-year-old starts her one-year term as an organ scholar this September, she will help direct choir rehearsals, perform in church services, play in recitals, and be the assistant choir librarian. But Mahon will do much more than make music — she’ll also make history as the iconic church’s first female organist.
How did it feel to learn you got the organ scholar job at St. Paul’s Cathedral?
I was obviously over the moon, very, very excited. Most of the cathedrals in England have organ scholarships, but to be at St. Paul’s, which is one of the biggest and most well-known cathedrals, is definitely a dream job. It’s a really neat experience to play in a building that is such a beautiful and historic structure.
Of all the instruments you could specialize in, why did you choose the organ?
The organ has such a wide variety of repertoire that spans, like, 500 years. So, you can play all sorts of different styles and dynamics. The organ is like an orchestra, because you can produce and re-create so many different sounds on it. So there is lots to do on it, and your imagination can run wild on the organ. I think it’s a really expressive instrument.
You have been an organ scholar at U of T’s Trinity College and at St. James Cathedral in Toronto, and are currently at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall, England. You have also performed with several choirs, including the esteemed Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. How have you been able to succeed in such a niche field?
Because Toronto is such a big city, there were several opportunities to fill in for organists who were away in the summer, and that’s how you get your foot in the door…The other factor is that this is not a very popular field. You may not meet any organists in your lifetime, and for that reason, a lot of places are looking for organists. Young organists, especially, are kind of a novelty since there are so few of them, so I guess places jump at the chance to hire them.
In addition to playing professionally, you are also a member of Organized Crime, an organ entertainment duo you started three years ago with your friend Sarah Svendsen. How are those gigs going?
Although Sarah is at university in the United States and I live in England, Toronto is a home base for both of us and we still perform together, although not as frequently as we would wish, and plan on doing so for years to come. We actually have a show next week in Truro.
What does it mean to you that you’ll be the cathedral’s first female organist?
It’s exciting, but I don’t really think it’s all that relevant. I mean, yeah, I guess I’ll be making history as the first woman. I think I’ll be the first of many. Really, it doesn’t matter when it comes to playing the organ. It’s how well you play, and I think men and women play equally as well as one another.
How do you feel when you are playing the organ?
It makes me happy. I was playing a concert last night, and in the middle of the concert, I was just thinking to myself as I was playing, you know, a lot of work goes into this, but just sitting here and being able to actually do this for a living is pretty awesome.