I was probably born to be an organist, though it took a lot of my life to find this out. Some seven years ago, discovering I could play the piano, a local Vicar pushed me towards the vacant organ bench and wouldn't take no for an answer. I managed to bluff my way through the subsequent service and from then on was hooked, probably because few instruments engage you on so many levels as the organ – historical, mechanical and architectural as well as musical. The rewards of being an organist are gratifying highs; the lows with our instrument are correspondingly dreadful, often including some form of public embarrassment, as getting it wrong on the organ isn’t difficult.

The lows:

After the initial joy in my new obsession came the trial of finding out how to play the thing properly, a process which continues, as all musical journeys do. Learning to transfer the bass line to my feet on the pedalboard and read it off a third stave of music was a painful feat of mind-expansion which took months.

Playing the organ tests your resilience and strength of character: how many instrumentalists have to cope with, firstly, that they have to ask, beg, or bribe their way to access to their instrument for practice, and secondly, that every single instrument is different? Not just a bit different, but often completely different – in sound, size, complexity and layout. It's not just the obvious variations in numbers of keyboards, pipes, stops, but the more subtle one of the relationship of your body to the bench, the console and the pedalboard beneath. Everything your muscle memory has stored from playing a particular piece on one organ has to be adapted and rebuilt for another organ. Sometimes these changes are subtle, other times mind-bendingly difficult – such as an historic pedalboard where the note positions are transposed a fifth away from the modern normal. Then the music has to be re-registered on the new organ – re-orchestrated, in effect: deciding which of the manuals and stops to use at any one point. This is relatively straightforward through Baroque to the early Classical, but planning and marking up registration for Romantic repertoire on a large organ can take many hours longer than the performance itself.

The Grand Temple organ at Freemasons' Hall was built by Henry Willis & Sons in 1933 © Morwenna Campbell-Smith
The Grand Temple organ at Freemasons' Hall was built by Henry Willis & Sons in 1933
© Morwenna Campbell-Smith

An essential life skill for organists therefore is developing a survival technique for even the crankiest organ they might encounter – how to get by, at least, and sound adequately professional when asked to play on an unfamiliar instrument with inadequate practice time.

Although I bless my mother who made me practice my scales, I discovered that childhood piano skills will only get you so far on the organ, as the organ is categorically not a piano. It’s more akin to a harpsichord, in that you can’t modify the sound via the weight of hands and arms. There's no sustain pedal to moderate any infelicities in your legato either – the organ is, effectively, a rather cruel box of on/off switches, with nowhere to hide. Self-consciousness in an organist is most unhelpful: “learn to play loud” was one of my first injunctions to self.

The highs:

All these technical issues can be overwhelming and stop you thinking about the music – but what music! Nearly a thousand years of repertoire, from both Old World and New: austere early music, the glories of the Baroque, great symphonic Romantic suites, forceful and innovative 20th century music. The pile of music “to learn next” beside the organ bench is always over-ambitious, but once your pedal technique is just about good enough to make a start on Bach's oeuvre of over 280 toccatas, fugues, preludes, chorales, sonatas and fantasias for the organ, then you're happy: organists will always be privately wrestling with some Bach organ piece or another, if only in the spirit of travelling hopefully rather than arriving.

Although there is an etiquette around organ playing – you can't just stroll up and ask to play – being given the privilege of navigating the dusty and dangerous backstage of some large church or cathedral in the dark, setting full organ and letting the sound of a massive chorale prelude go flying out into the shadows, is a spine-tingling experience. And you are touching the same keys as Bach, Mendelssohn or Mozart – or Avison, or Whitlock, or Wesley, or whichever half-forgotten composer you currently hold a torch for (and there are plenty of those in the organ world). Much organists' discussion and time (extending to organ crawls around obscure parts of Europe) are devoted to matching up composer, repertoire and instrument, for that light bulb moment when the genre of music fits perfectly the age and disposition of the organ and suddenly, it all makes sense.

There is as much pleasure discovering a tiny, chirpy organ in a dark Cornish parish church as being given the keys to some intimidating Edwardian beast of an instrument, all trumpets and tubas and pomp, or sitting down at a brand-new blonde wood and shiny metal creation which has just cost a six-figure sum in builders' craftsmanship.

The Organ at St Bavokerk Haarlem was built by Christan Müller between 1735 and 1738 © Morwenna Campbell-Smith
The Organ at St Bavokerk Haarlem was built by Christan Müller between 1735 and 1738
© Morwenna Campbell-Smith

Although the days of the Victorian celebrity organist have gone (Edwin Lemare featured on a cigarette card) the instrument itself oozes a certain glamour – particularly if it is smothered in gold leaf and angels – and a bit of this still transfers to the organist. “You can’t expect the audience to love everything you play, but at least they have a lovely case to look at,” commented a tutor on a workshop I attended on the huge and extravagantly Baroque organ at the St Bavokerk in Haarlem.

Like the instruments, organists themselves come in all types and capabilities. The elite fast-track from Oxbridge organ scholarships, via the Royal College of Organists' demanding Diploma examinations, to the Cathedral and Chapel world. Parish organists range from the supremely-qualified to the reluctant pianist, though no less valued for that. Not every organist has to have a church job, but a church position forces you to improve your musicianship skills of sight-reading, improvisation, arranging and choir training and provides the rhythm of preparation, practice and performance which you miss if it goes.

In most cases, organists' remuneration is laughably small. But we punch above our weight, we organists, we know there are moments when only our knowledge and skills will do. We provide the soundtrack of our lives when it really matters: at funerals, weddings and memorials, when marking national moments of triumph or tragedy and at the great festivals of the year.

Learning the organ:

What happens to an instrument and its players when its “traditional” use, the support of religious ceremonial, is dwindling? What happens to an instrument that is primarily found in churches, when churches are closing?

Organisations such as the Royal College of Organists and the Education and Outreach departments of our cathedrals and parish churches are finding ways, in an increasingly secular society, to introduce young people of all backgrounds to the organ and its music and create access to instruments and lessons. For the usual tedious historical reasons, women and girls have been under-represented in the organist profession, but this is rapidly changing and no longer is a young woman descending from the organ loft after a recital assumed to be the page-turner, as happened to a colleague of mine.

Many organists like myself take the pianist-to-organist route as an adult and, like learning to drive a car, just a few lessons at the outset will kickstart your progress and stop you embedding some really bad habits. Find a teacher via a national organists’ association (such as the Royal College of Organists in the UK or the American Guild of Organists in the US), and do come and talk to us, once we’ve finished playing. Organists are by nature solitary animals and not necessarily great conversationalists, but we love it if people take an interest in our instrument, our music and the challenges of combining the two.

Click here to visit the Bachtrack Organ portal.