A week with… James McVinnie, organist, keyboard player and composer

James McVinnie. Photo © Graham Lacadao


I live down in Devon these days which is a huge change for me after 18 years of living in Zone 1 in London. Despite living in the centre of Exeter right next to the Cathedral, the open countryside is only a few minutes away and I like to try to get out each day on my road bike or a run. I try to keep my home routine simple which is a nice change to the craziness of the city when I’m back up in London. I’ve recently bought a beautiful Grotrian Steinweg piano which has revolutionised my home practise regime and, even when I’m preparing organ music on it, it’s a joy to play and spend focused time on. Being an organist means that I always have to travel to an instrument and often practise at unsociable hours. You can work really effectively in this context as you always need to be mindful of time and efficiency, but, working at home on the piano it’s much easier to get into that sweet “flow state” of work. So, this year I’m considering commissioning a custom-made organ console for the home to use.

I’m up each day around 7.30am and start the day with 20 mins of yoga to try to counteract long stretches of sitting at the keyboard! Breakfast is porridge during the winter with an assortment of seeds and berries. I drink one cup of very good coffee made with a V60 and get outside for morning sunlight for at least 20 minutes each day, although this can be tricky in the winter when it’s cold and wet! I take a brief look at my emails and reply to anything that needs a quick reply and then by 9.30am I make sure I’m at the piano. I do one hour of playing for pleasure – usually Bach, either playing music I already know or a bit of learning. Then I’ll move on to music that I have coming up in concerts, trying to be as efficient as I can and working to a timetable. By 1pm I find that my brain can’t take in anything else, and I break for lunch, followed by a trip to the gym in the middle of the afternoon for some strength training and, if the weather is good, I’ll head out for a bike ride down the Exe estuary. You can go down either side; one takes you to an ice cream on the beach at Exmouth, the other takes you past a nature reserve. These are both spectacular rides through the Devon countryside. Right now, spring is rearing its head and it’s great to see nature slowly emerge from winter hibernation.


Same routine as Monday at home for the morning but today I cut my rehearsal a little short to make a dent into my inbox. I’m currently planning my next solo album which will be half piano, half organ of contemporary American music. This record feels very personal, as most of the music is written by composer friends Gabriella Smith, Timo Andres, Nico Muhly, inti figgis vizueta, Marcos Balter and Bryce Dessner who are all very much at the centre of my close musical family. I’m also recording the wonderful Riff Raff by Giles Swayne who taught me at university, which happened to have been written in the year I was born. In the afternoon I’m continuing to make plans for the recording sessions which will be taking place in May and then will spend a little more time practising the piano works for the recording. One particularly fiendish piece is Imaginary Pancake by the wonderful Gabriella Smith – her music is something else and worth investigating. The work was partly inspired by an early memory of Gabriella’s, watching a fellow child pianist reaching for the top and bottom of the keyboard in a pancake pose. I’m not riding the bike today but go for a walk along the river path by the quayside to clear my head and be ready for an early start on Wednesday morning.


Since 2006, the year I graduated and came to London, I’ve been Director of Music at St Andrew’s Church in Holborn which I combined with my main position as Organ Scholar at St Paul’s Cathedral. The jobs were compatible as St Andrew’s never has services at the weekend. Currently I’m required to provide music for feast days in the church calendar, once a month on average, which gives me my church music fix. I also get to use the organ at the church for my practise when I’m in London – it’s a fine instrument by Mander from 1989 and with casework designed by G F Handel. Today is Ash Wednesday, and there is a service with choir which I will direct and play for at lunchtime, so I was on the 06:52 train from Exeter St David’s to Paddington. After church, I’m stealing a couple of hours on the organ of the Royal Festival Hall (RFH), preparing for two concerts I have on 23 March as part of the 70th anniversary of the RFH organ which will be the start of a year-long residency at Southbank Centre. The 2pm concert is a deep dive into the German baroque era with music by Sweelinck, Buxtehude, Böhm, Pachelbel and Bach. This is the kind of music Ralph Downes had in his ears when he designed the RFH organ, so the programme is designed to show off the organ with repertoire ideal to its conception. Later that day at 8pm I’m giving the UK premiere of Infinity Gradient by Tristan Perich, New York composer and visual artist. Much of Tristan’s work involves electronics which sound in primitive low-definition audio. Infinity Gradient was written for me in 2021 and is an hour-long symphonic tour de force for organ and 100 custom-made speakers sounding in 1-bit resolution – an astonishing piece of music and I’m very excited to be finally bringing it to London. The RFH organ is in many ways an ideal vehicle for contemporary music so there is nowhere better for it to be played in town. We are also delighted to be recording the work on the RFH organ for record release later this year. I’m catching up with some friends in the evening who I’ve not seen for a month or two over dinner and drinks in town at St John Bread & Wine which is one of my favourite places to eat in the whole world.


I’m still up in London today as tonight, Bryce Dessner has the UK premiere of his new piano concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. Written for and performed by magical pianist Alice Sara Ott with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Elim Chan, the work is co-dedicated to Bryce’s sister Jessica. The Dessner family are close friends of mine and are in town for the performance, so this is a special occasion all round. During the day I will be practising the organ at St Andrew’s for the March RFH concerts and will be making a start on revising some of the organ music I’ll record later in the year.


Back to Devon late on Thursday night and I’ll start the day as I usually do. Sometimes I have to force myself to sit down at the piano and today is definitely one of those days which tends to happen when I’ve had two whirlwind days in the city. Within 15 mins though I’m glad I’m playing and making music. Later in the morning I’ll work on some electronic music projects I have on the back burner. I’ve never thought of myself as a composer but lately I’ve been enjoying some writing projects using Ableton Live (a Digital Audio Workstation and an amazing creative tool). As an organist I’ve learnt so much about sound and sound in a space, and through that an appreciation for the aesthetics of recorded sound and the incredible artistic possibilities that presents, so it’s good to be experimenting with this material.


The weekend is definitely a moment for downtime. In the morning I’ll sit down at the piano as usual though and play for an hour or so, definitely for pleasure, and almost always Bach like I start my weekdays with. But then I’ll enjoy a late breakfast and coffee with new friends here in Devon. If the weather is good, I’ll head out on my bike and try to go a bit further afield than I get during the week. The ride over to Budleigh Salterton is a great one and mostly on the flat. A more challenging ride is to go across to Totnes – you realise on this route that Devon has lots of hills…


It’s over a decade now that I left working in church music at Westminster Abbey, so I’ve got very used to having Sundays to myself. Today I am going to head to the gym in the morning. The afternoon I must spend doing some music typesetting for my March RFH concert – I mostly play from an iPad and prefer to use my own editions of the music I’m playing. Despite typesetting being time consuming I confess to actually quite enjoying doing it. In the evening I am off to the cinema with some friends to see The Holdovers (which turned out to be great – can recommend).

Royal Festival Hall organ at London’s Southbank Centre. Photo © Magnús Andersen

Six in Sixty

Early bird or night owl? 

I turn into a pumpkin in the late evenings but also am not great in the early morning, so I guess I’m neither!

One routine you swear by? 

20 mins morning sunlight all year round followed by 20 minutes of yoga.

Can’t travel without…?

Obviously my hand coffee grinder and V60 pour-over kit.

Who or what has influenced you most in your career? 

The wonderful extended family community of like-minded musicians and composers.

Favourite city and why? 

Los Angeles – Walt Disney Concert Hall is truly the most spectacular venue ever to perform.

Guilty pleasure/indulgence?

Dark chocolate, or sometimes an emergency Snickers Duo if things are going badly.

James McVinnie is an organist, keyboard player and composer. This month he is preparing for his upcoming concerts on 23 March as part of his year-long artist residency at London’s Southbank Centre celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall organ. For more information, visit the Southbank Centre