St James's Church, Hampton Hill

Let music speak where words fail - 2016 February

Mark Blackwell

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It is hard to believe that Mark Blackwell has been a church organist for 40 years. As he prepares to celebrate that milestone, he looks back to where it all began and the journey he made to his new home here at St James’s.

My interest in playing the organ started when I was a very young choirboy at St Augustine’s, Whitton, and used to watch the organist play after the service. He suggested to my parents I should have organ lessons (I was 11 at the time and had been playing the piano since I was six). My first organ tutor left the area after I was with her for a year or so. I was then recommended to see Geoff Bowyer, pictured right, who, as some of you will know, was organist at St James’s for a number of years. His enthusiasm for teaching the organ and his amazing musical talent (the only organist who never plays a hymn in the original key, and his interpretation of hymns with the registration of the organ for different lines) was inspirational.

It all began at Twickenham URC

It does not seem 40 years since I first started at Twickenham United Reformed Church in 1976; a church which had a warm welcome for someone who was only 14 at the time, and their support was invaluable and so encouraging. My first performance there was as organist for Stainer’s Crucifixion and it was an insight into the world of accompanying choirs. In 1980 I moved to St Philip and St James in Whitton, giving me my first experience of running a choir and playing for weddings. It would seem hard to believe to younger people now, but in my first year there I played for over 30 weddings, sometimes four in a day; including one occasion with three weddings wanting Widor’s Toccata for the exit of the bride. Anyone who has played this piece will know why I mention this!

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Mark Blackwell accompanying the choir

Organist at other denominations

I left St Philip and St James in 1984 and spent a number of years playing in different churches in the area which gave me experience of different denominations. I soon realised that there were very few differences between the Christian denominations.

During this time I also played for the Wednesday evening service at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Richmond, a post I held for nearly 20 years.

Back to Anglican roots at St James’s

Since 2007 I have been based at St Edmunds RC Church in Whitton as organist, but I had felt for a while that I wanted to return to my Anglican roots (being a confirmed Anglican) and I was ready to take on a post conducting a choir again (I had put this on hold whilst establishing my accountancy practice).

I was playing occasionally at St James’s after an earlier curate, Debbie Oades, asked to me to help out one Sunday. When I played at St James’s in January 2015, I was surrounded by a number of your choir members who persuaded me to make it my new home (it did not take much persuasion). The warmth of welcome I have received from everyone at St James’s has been wonderful and this has been echoed following the recent Choral Evensong by a large number of the visiting choir.

Apart from playing at St James’s I have a keen interest in youth music having been, for the past 13 years, a trustee of a youth choir in Staines called Spelthorne Young Voices (SYV), under the direction of another very talented musician and friend, Joanne Gardner, pictured. The choir numbers over 100 young people at present across three choirs, and they attract large and enthusiastic audiences whenever they perform together. I also have Joanne to thank for encouraging me in a new genre of show and contemporary music which, for some reason, always seems to have multiple key changes, much to Jo’s amusement.

I was also musical director of the Spelthorne Gang Show for six shows, with 35 to 100 young people for each show (made all the more enjoyable as my daughters joined me in running these shows, along with Scout and Guide leaders).

Mark Blackwell

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My cathedrals choir

I am also kept busy twice a year organising a choir to sing at cathedrals for normal services when the cathedral choir are on holiday. We have so far visited Bristol, Winchester (twice) and Gloucester. We have also been accepted at Rochester and St Albans in 2016 and Ely and Norwich in 2017. This choir is made up of anyone who wants to join us for the eight to ten rehearsals beforehand. No audition is required, just an enthusiasm to sing.

A celebration concert at St James’s

As I mentioned earlier, this year marks my 40 years as a parish organist, and to mark the occasion I plan to put on a concert at St James’s in 2016 or early 2017; the concert is intended to involve anyone who has worked with me over the last 40 years in the music world and will also reflect the different types of music, hopefully featuring SYV. Any funds raised will be split equally between SYV and another youth charity, continuing my firm belief that the future of choral music lies in the hands of these young people.

I mentioned very briefly at the beginning that the organist at St Augustine’s suggested to my parents I should have organ lessons. My Mum (sadly no longer with us) and Dad, have always been there for me, encouraging, cajoling (‘you need to practice!’).

Without their support and encouragement I would not have met some amazing people, a lot of whom I now have the privilege to call friends, as well as the moving experiences of singing in cathedrals, playing for Sunday services and the shows. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Mum and Dad.

Source: Mark Blackwell, The Spire Magazine - 2016 February

St James's Church
The Parish Church of St James, Hampton Hill, TW12 1DQ
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