Monday 26 August 2019

Waking hours: James McVinnie, royal wedding organist

James McVinnie, 31, is an organist. He played at Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding in Westminster Abbey. He was born in Kent and still lives there

James McVinnie
James McVinnie

Ciara Dwyer

I find it quite difficult to get up in the mornings. I drink a lot of coffee to get me going and I usually have cereal. If I'm feeling indulgent, I'll have a cooked breakfast. There is never anything like a normal day for me, and my work is really varied.

I'm an organist. I've just played Irene Buckley's live score to the film, The Fall of the House of Usher, as part of the Cork French Film Festival in St Fin Barre's Cathedral. That doesn't happen very often and it's very interesting for me.

Some days, I have nothing on in my schedule and that's time for me to practise and learn music. I try to do six or seven hours at the keyboard – either at the organ or the piano – every day.

First thing in the morning, I deal with emails – I do a half hour – and then I sit down at the piano and warm up for half an hour, doing technical exercises. I live with other people, but the house is basically empty most of the day, so I don't disturb anyone with my playing.

Then I go to an organ that I use to practise, which is in a nearby school chapel. I also teach there. It's the age-old thing of a musician having to 'learn' a living and also having time to practise for recitals. It's a juggling act.

Not having your own instrument is an interesting thing. Most organs are in churches, but, obviously, they are for religious prayer and worship, and they are not at your disposal.

That's another complicated issue. You have to plan your time around the various different things that happen around where the organs are. When I worked in Westminster Abbey, organists had to go in at night to practise because, during the day, the building was open to tour guides. That made working in a place like that very special because you had access to it after hours.

I was one of two organists at William and Kate's wedding in Westminster Abbey. It was an incredible experience for everyone involved. We didn't get to meet them. We had our own fun party at the Abbey and they went to their reception. That day was a snapshot into the kind of thing that we do all the time.

Obviously, it was very nerve-racking, but we were so well-prepared we tried to enjoy it and let the service proceed as we'd rehearsed it. All the cameras were there and it was being broadcast, so, of course, it felt different. But, sitting at the organ in the Abbey, I was reminded that this is the instrument that I play every day and, in a way, nothing has changed. That was a very comforting moment.

I was eight years of age when I was drawn to the organ. There is something inexplicable about how children find their instrument. The organ really grabbed my attention.

It's a very impressive instrument, and then, when you hear it in the church, there's nothing quite like it. I was lucky that my piano teacher was also an organist, but I had to wait until I was physically able to reach the pedals before I started to play. I was 12.

The way I work depends on how much I have to learn, but I try to be as disciplined as I can be and spend as much time as I can on the organ. I find it difficult sticking to my own schedule. I have to be really strict with myself. When I have periods of time when I don't have to do anything immediate, no one is forcing me to be anywhere. I've come to realise that the best work that I do is slowly and often. You layer it. You bite off small amounts, and you don't bite off more than you can chew.

If I'm practising for recitals, there's always that pressure and the fear element of performing as well. I don't ever get so nervous that I can't play, but there is that sense of anxiety, knowing that you've got to perform something in three months time, and you haven't learned it yet, and you need to be at the top of your game, so you just get on with it.

We organists are a rare breed. There aren't very many of us, and we all know each other very well. I think there's a cliched idea of the grey-haired, fuzzy organist in a cobweb-ridden church, a Phantom of the Opera thing with all that Gothic theatricality about it. That's fun and it has a place, but, really, being an organist involves a huge amount of work. It's like being any kind of musician – if you take it seriously and you're at the top of your game, it requires you to be on it all of the time.

I'm lucky in that I choose which music I play. There isn't a huge amount of music written for the organ in comparison to the violin or the piano, so you're a little bit limited. But Bach is the composer I come back to again and again. He wrote such a lot of organ music and I find it a constant source of inspiration.

There are physical stresses of sitting at an instrument for hours on end. I have to watch that, and make sure that I take frequent breaks. I try to do six hours a day, but there comes a point where you realise that nothing else is going in.

When you're on your own practising, you're kind of isolated and it's a very solitary thing. I love it, but I also love human interaction. Seeing my friends is really important to me. Most of them are musicians – organists, obviously, and I have a lot of singer friends, too, just because singing church music and the organ go hand-in-hand. It's a really nice community of friends. I love going to the theatre and cinema with them in the evening.

If I am performing, you think about the hard slog of the rehearsals, and then there's that moment when you think there is nothing more that you can do; you've just got to commit to doing it and, in many ways, it's a relief as well as being exciting.

When you are performing, it's like real life has stopped for an hour. If all goes to plan and you give a really good performance, it feels like riding a wave. I often feel disappointed that it's over. Then I go to the pub and have fun. You get a great post-concert buzz. It's really nice if you're performing with friends and then you're able to socialise with them afterwards. When I go to bed at night, I can't say my dreams are any different from anyone else's, but I always think, 'Yes, this is what I'm supposed to be doing.' I think being an organist is a vocation. With this lifelong commitment, there is a lot of hard work, but, I think, rather than shutting yourself off, it's important to have an open and active window into the real world. If you do that, you'll be better at music.

 

IN CONVERSATION WITH CIARA DWYER

THE CORK FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL ENDS TODAY, MARCH 9, SEE WWW.CORKFRENCHFILMFESTIVAL.COM

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