A start of term interview with an organ scholar

Welcome back to the Worcester Chapel Choir blog. After a long break over Christmas, we are now at the end of our first week of Hilary Term. The term began with a choral workshop and rehearsal to get us back into gear and now we are preparing for the Epiphany Carol Service next week.

To begin the new term, we caught up with second year organ scholar, Alex Palotai in the college bar after rehearsal to hear about the term ahead and about what it is like to be an organ scholar at Worcester.

So Alex, you are now in your second year at Worcester College. Where were you at school before Oxford? Where did you learn the organ and become interested in choral and church music? 

Well, I grew up in Chelmsford in Essex where I was a chorister in the cathedral choir. I learned the piano there before moving onto the organ not long afterwards (I was always very interested in its sound). For my sixth form, I was an organ scholar at Clifton College in Bristol and I also played at the Cathedral. I guess that it was this combination of places and experiences that started my love of choral and church music.

You had done lots of church music before coming to University. Do you think that it would be possible for people with less experience in cathedral music to become an organ scholar at Worcester College or elsewhere in the University? 

Certainly! Yes! Everyone has a different story to tell and people are from all sorts of different places and have learned in different contexts. An example of someone with a different range of experience before University is our senior organ scholar, Dan. His organ playing before university was in his church and school, where many people learn. Next year he is heading to Salisbury Cathedral to be the organ scholar there. Worcester has a fine tradition of organ scholars heading to prestigious Cathedrals and Abbeys in fact!

We really are a team here, and our Director of Music is very passionate about nurturing everyone’s different skills and using people’s previous experiences to help them develop. So, yes, it is perfectly possible for people with different experiences to confidently apply for organ scholarships. The first year is a year of learning and bringing everyone to the same level, both academically and in chapel. Anyone with the determination can certainly aspire to be fantastic in the role!

How does it work if you would like to put on a specific project or do something different?

It works pretty easily! At the start of each term we meet to discuss what everyone will be doing, and whether anyone would like to develop a specific project or focus. For example this term I am working on conducting, and have several services to conduct throughout the term. Tonight I conducted Haydn’s Little Organ mass with the mixed choir. Sometimes we like to develop organ repertoire projects, or setting up smaller consorts to do larger pieces of music. This term Dan is taking a group through Tallis’s Lamentations for performance with the College music society. Any project is possible if you have the initiative to set it up.

So how do the duties of the scholars differ through the three years? 

In the first year it is a real learning experience. In my first year I did lots of playing and slightly less conducting as I learned the ropes. I found that there was lots to learn in terms of teaching and mentoring the boy choristers, and in particular the probationer or junior choristers. In my second year I have a more equal balance between playing and conducting. In the third year, there is a similar mix but perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility to be in charge in larger services.

Worcester College’s choral setup is busy, with there being two choirs singing four services per week between them. How do you find the schedule as an organ scholar? How do you fit everything in alongside your academic work? 

It is busy! But rewarding too… The terms are eight weeks long but we often come back a week earlier to begin rehearsals with the choristers. That time of preparation is very helpful indeed. I always like to get a head start on the term’s music. Preparation for services makes up a large part of our lives but, yes, equally, our academic work is rigorous too and the tutorial system is hard and rewarding. I would say that as long as you prepare everything in good time, and keep thinking ahead, it is perfectly manageable. In choir rehearsals before services, we always look ahead to music for concerts and future services too.

I am also the organ scholar for the Frideswide Voices girls’ choir this year too so that gives me another service a week to prepare for, and another set of people to work with.

What is the term ahead looking like for you? Do you have any specific projects on? 

I do! I am embarking on learning all of the Bach ‘Allein Gott’ preludes, over this term and next term. As I say, conducting is my real focus this term and I am having lessons with Tom, our Director of Music, and also with Jeremy Summerly from St. Peter’s College.

How do you find working with the two choirs of boys and mixed voices? 

Again—challenging and rewarding. In a way each choir requires different things of us and slightly different skills. With our boy choristers we are teaching them in their school and, especially with the younger ones, really giving them their first steps in musical training. The mixed choir involves working with undergraduate students which feels very different and requires a different approach. Developing this range of skills is very exciting and helpful for the future.

What do you aspire to do after university? 

I would like to continue a career in church music of some sort. Worcester had been a good place to develop the skills required. I hope to go on to an organ scholarship or similar type of position next year.

What advice would you give to prospective organ scholars? 

I would say to keep an open mind and do your homework when looking to apply to colleges. All colleges offer something slightly different. Worcester has been a great environment for me to work in, especially as a place to develop my former skills, but each College has its unique range of opportunities.

Later in term we are holding an open day on which people can find out more about the application process and sing with the choir.

What has been your favourite moment at Worcester so far? 

It would have to be a tie actually! We did a very successful recording with the boys’ choir last year (that was a completely new experience for me as I hadn’t been involved with anything like that before. I played a Bach solo chorale prelude on there and it was a fantastic experience for me to really get to know the whole process of recording). Our next recording will feature Howells in G, one of my favourite canticle settings!

My other favourite thing would have to be trips. In my first year we went to the Italian Riviera on tour and performed in some incredible buildings, and enjoyed some great meals and sightseeing at the same time.

What makes Worcester College different from other colleges as an organ scholar? 

Well, as I have already mentioned, we have lots of scope and support to do different projects. Our link with Christ Church Cathedral School has given me an insight into the school environment. We are all very proud of the opportunity we are offering to the boy choristers and we are looking forward to a reunion of the boys’ choir in the summer. We are a good team here, led by Tom and Matthew and the breadth of different events and music here is unique. I’ve been able to expand all of my skill sets and more, and I feel lucky to be able do different things within our chapel schedule. There is a certainly a lot on here with the chapel and choirs but there is enough space to be able to do things outside of the chapel and put on our own ideas with support. As organ scholars at Worcester, I guess that we also have a good deal of responsibility in working with the boys and students.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us, Alex. Good luck with your Bach this term and we look forward to seeing you conduct in services in the coming weeks.

For more information, visit the pages on our chapel website www.worcesterchapel.co.uk




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