My Organ Project: to ARCO and beyond


It's never too late to be what you might have been (George Eliot) - a display at the Careers Centre, University of Huddersfield

Yesterday I took the practical part of my ARCO exam in St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, having taken the written papers in Edinburgh a week earlier.

I played three pieces:

  • JS Bach: Der Tag, der ist der freudenreich BWV 605
  • Matthew Locke: Voluntary in A minor (from Melothesia)
  • Max Reger: Melodia in Bb

and did four keyboard tests:

  • Transposition
  • Score-reading
  • Hymn harmonisation
  • Sight reading

(I get the results in mid-February.)

About ARCO

Associateship of the Royal College of Organists is the second of three RCO diplomas and “indicates a standard of professional competency in organ playing technique, essential keyboard skills and interpretative understanding. It also indicates accuracy in aural perception and fluency in those written disciplines (standard stylistic techniques and analysis of performance and historical issues in relation to organ repertoire) which support practical musicianship.”

That’s quite a challenge!

My journey to ARCO

I first took the ARCO exam in 1992, whilst Organist of Worth Abbey, nearly passing it at the first attempt (however, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the keyboard tests) and I failed to complete the whole exam within the four years allowed.

Over the years, despondency set in, for a number of reasons, and I gave up any attempt at playing seriously. My technique was good enough to get by playing for services and I became lazy. Before long, I was playing fairly badly.

After moving to Dunblane, I had some lessons with Matthew Beetschen, then Organist of the Cathedral, and although this helped, I didn’t do any systematic practice so, naturally, I didn’t really improve that much.

I subsequently failed to maintain momentum and, due to lack of direction and practice, my playing and confidence took another hit.

A new hope

In 2013, I was appointed Director of Music at Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church in Stirling, probably on the basis of my liturgical and pastoral music awareness and soon realised that I needed to up my game. I met up with soprano Kathleen Ferguson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for a chat about whom I might approach for lessons. She strongly recommended Philip Sawyer, retired head of music at Edinburgh Napier University.

Meanwhile, I had downloaded the ARCO syllabus to remind myself of what it entailed, not that I thought I would ever reach that standard again.

I began lessons with Philip in February 2014 and thus resumed my journey: my Organ Project.

(I’ll write more about this journey in due course.)

To cut to the chase, Philip’s wise counsel, combined with RCO events and courses and encouragement from many people, especially Elaine, Ulrike and Christoph, my Rector at Holy Trinity, led me to decide to go for the Colleague (CRCO) diploma as a stepping-stone to ARCO. (I couldn’t bear the thought of taking ARCO again and failing it yet again!)

As I wrote in November 2018, “Adults can get very worried about taking exams. Children usually take them in their stride. Perhaps that’s because children are so used to them. Or maybe, as adults, we feel we have too much to lose.”

The Organ Strikes Back

In June 2018, I performed my first solo recital in about 30 years. A month later, I achieved the CRCO and, to my shock, won two prizes.

September 2019 saw my second solo recital in this new journey, which included a number of ARCO set pieces from over the years. I’ve also played in many other concerts, accompanying choirs and audiences and playing solo pieces.

I won’t know the result of this latest assault on ARCO for five weeks but, regardless of the result, I’m celebrating, having reached this stage. (If I’ve not yet reached the required standard I’ll go for it again.)

I was going to say “having reached this stage again” but that would be incorrect as I’ve developed so much since 1992, despite the fallow years. (Or perhaps, as Christoph said, because of the fallow years when, even though there’s no flowering, growth still continues at the roots.)

Here’s to the continued journey

Mendelssohn 2 and several movements from Vierne 1 are my next challenges, along with other pieces from various ARCO syllabuses, which are all worth learning and playing.

I’m loving the journey!


I’m very, very grateful to everyone who has encouraged and assisted me on this journey so far.

You are too numerous to mention individually but you know who you are.

Thanks also to those who’ve supported me without realising it!