For our Ministructures series, artist Lucy Sparrow sews us a mini version of a famous London landmark each week. For each one she makes, we interview a person with an interesting story to tell about it. Today we meet James McVinnie, 30, organist.
How do you know this magnificent church?
‘I was assistant organist at Westminster Abbey for four years. It was my job to play the organ for daily evensong and the liturgies. From time to time I had responsibility for conducting the choir – rehearsing with the choristers, preparing them for the services. An honour, because I think that the choir of Westminster Abbey is one of the great treasures of English music.’
How on earth did you get into playing the organ?
‘When I was young I was a chorister, and the organ just captured my imagination. I started having piano lessons, and then it seemed obvious to have a go at the organ. Well, obvious to me as a nine-year-old.’
Is it difficult to master? Looks trickier than the recorder…
‘It is – you have to use your feet as well as your hands.’
You must have played at some pretty significant occasions.
‘I played at the passing of the WWI generation, which was a big Remembrance Sunday service to mark the passing of the last veterans in 2009. It was an incredible, historical event. I also played when the Pope made his first ever visit to the Abbey. Oh, and at the Royal Wedding…’
How do you hold your nerve playing at an event like that?
‘It’s difficult to explain. It’s not nervousness that you feel – because you’re always incredibly well prepared. It’s the preparation and run-throughs that are stressful – you’re full of anticipation and adrenaline. But when the time comes there’s almost a sense of relief that there’s no more waiting. All you can do is do it. But though I loved the big events, one of the most touching things for me was the daily round and rhythm of prayer and worship in the Abbey, in its role as a normal church. It has a cumulative effect – it comes to mean something to you, regardless of your personal faith. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of.’
It’s a huge responsibility…
‘It is, because the Abbey is such an important part of our culture. It’s the burial place of so many of our kings, queens, statesmen, poets, heroes and villains. Our monarchs have been crowned here since William the Conqueror in 1066.
People identify with the building in a specific way regardless of how patriotic they are – it’s an emotive place. It’s incredible being part of its fabric. When you have keys to the Abbey you feel a sense of ownership.’
Wait – you had keys?
‘I had a key fob, so I could go in whenever I wanted. I would spend a lot of my evenings in there practicing. When you’re standing alone in this incredible building late at night, listening to buses going by outside – it’s an amazing thing. Coming here today I still feel a really strong pull to the place.’
What do you think of baby Westminster Abbey?
‘I love it – I want one.’
Read more from the Ministructures series.
James’ album Cycles is out now.