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!

Love blooms bright


Enjoying reading the posts at Love Blooms Bright, a blog for the Advent season.

Set up by wonderfulexchange, with guest writers, Love Blooms Bright offers words, images and quotations to help us enjoy and prepare for God’s coming among us.

The contributors are drawn mostly from among the clergy and laity of the Scottish Episcopal Church, with a few friends from further afield.

The blog’s title takes its cue from

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been full of reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

— Madeline L’Engle

I especially love the freshness of Now is the acceptable time – very encouraging for what is, at least in terms of the weather and annual cycle, a gloomy time of year.

And I love the idea of the angels getting back to singing “a tricky Sanctus that Jophiel had been teaching them”.

Do read it. And then continue throughout Advent.

Young Voices



At the RSCM Scotland Young Voices Festival in Haddington yesterday. 32 young people – the same number who were in Glasgow last year – singing their hearts out.

The singers came from Queensferry (Parish Church), Haddington (St Mary’s), Edinburgh (St Peter’s, Lutton Place), Bridge of Allan (St Saviour’s) and Dunblane (Cathedral & St Mary’s), and for many this was their first time singing at this event or with other singers.

Excellent warm-ups from Susan Hamilton, director of the Dunedin Consort, with inspirational direction by her and Matthew Beetschen, who doubled as organist. Alex Beetschen was the very capable accompanist.

The theme of the Festival was Water of Life, with a wide range of musical styles. I expect we’ll see some of it used in Harvest Festivals over the next few weeks.

It’s all very promising for the launch of the new RSCM Young Scottish Voices. More anon.

Where to start?


“The End.”
“The End.”

So much opportunity. So many good things.
But it wasn’t to be.

Although in some ways it’s back where it was before, in other ways, it’s quite different.

We are changed. And that’s good. And some of the good things will continue, and develop further.

But it will take some time (in fact quite a long time) for issues to be resolved.

Part of one of the Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation (Roman Rite) keeps flooding my mind:

In the midst of conflict and division,
we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.

Your Spirit changes our hearts:
enemies begin to speak to one another,
those who were estranged join hands in friendship,
and nations seek the way of peace together.

Your Spirit is at work
when understanding puts an end to strife,
when hatred is quenched by mercy,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.

For this we should never cease to thank and praise you…

“Towards a New Narrative”: Symposium on Scottish Sacred Music


Well, I’m now preparing for the forthcoming Symposium on Scottish Sacred Music at Pluscarden Abbey, near Inverness, Scotland.

Over 150 people are expected to come to this Benedictine Abbey for the three-day event, which will include talks and recitals of sacred music from Scotland.
Day 1: Tuesday 1 September 2009: Mediaeval & Renaissance Scottish Sacred Music up to 1560
My own paper will be on other renaissance polyphony from 16th-century Scotland (i.e. not music by Robert Carvor/Carver, whose work will be dealt with by Jamie Reid-Baxter), especially music from the Wode Partbooks and the Dunkeld Music Book , including music by David Peebles. Some of this will draw on my MMus dissertation (University of Surrey, 1998) and my article “Musick fyne” (first appeared in Church Music Quarterly, June 2005).

Other papers that day will be given by Warwick Edwards (“Mediaeval Chant Manuscripts from St. Andrews Cathedral and Inchcolm Priory”) and John Harper (“The Bridge between Chant and Polyphony”).

The evening concert will feature some of the music from these manuscripts.

Day 2: Wednesday 2 September 2009: the period from 1560 to the early 20th century
Speakers include Douglas Galbraith, Elmslie Nimmo and Frances Wilkins

Day 3: Thursday 3 September 2009: the Modern Era
Speakers include John Bell, Graeme Hair and James MacMillan.

Further information
More details about the Symposium can be found on the Pluscarden Abbey website.

In case you can’t get to the Symposium (or wish to read up a bit about the music first), a very readable account of Scotland’s Music can be found in this excellent book by John Purser, offering a very readable history of the traditional and classical music of Scotland from early times to the present day.

As usual, your comments are welcome!

Psalm refrains for use with a common chant


Refrain for Psalm 24

This is the second of a group of psalm responses I’ve been writing for use with a common chant for use over the summer period while the choir are away. Based on the RCL (Revised Common Lectionary), although they could easily be used with the Roman Lectionary or the Common Worship Lectionary.

The refrain above is for the responsorial psalm for this coming Sunday (5 after Pentecost (B)).

The psalm chant can either be plainsong (usually Mode VIII) or a traditional simple chant whose melody is identical to the first half of that by Dom Gregory Murray OSB. The notes of the simple chant ( G | E G | A : A | G E | G || ) are suitably vague as to work in a number of different modes, so as to reflect the nature of the psalm text: joyful, neutral, or sad.

The first refrain for Ps 48 was “We have waited for your loving kindness, O God, in the midst of your temple”.

Texts from Common Worship: Services and Prayer for the Church of England are copyright (c) 2000 The Archbishops’ Council.
Music is copyright (c) 2009 The Art of Music. However, you are welcome to use it if you find it useful.

The music is typeset with SCORE, naturally!

Your comments are very welcome!