Today we’re speaking with Ben Parry, the Artistic Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain – but as you’ll hear that’s just one of many musical roles he has, including formerly being a singer and arranger with the world-famous a cappella group The Swingle Singers, and directing the London Voices choir which has performed on many of the Hollywood film soundtracks that we all know and love.
We recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop Ben presented at the London A Cappella Festival and he had such a great way of getting people of all ability levels quickly singing some quite complex music, we knew we had to invite him onto the show to share his ideas with you.
In this conversation we discuss:
- His own journey from classical church music to cabaret and a cappella, and how it’s all informed the way he helps people sing now.
- Why having a choir get their tuning from a piano can be a really bad idea.
- The pros and cons of using intervals versus using scale degrees (such as solfa or note numbers)
Ben is clearly a man who has thought deeply about singing in all forms and brings his unique experience and perspective to all his roles to the benefit of his singers. We loved having the opportunity to pick his brains, and whatever kind of singer you might be – whether you’re a vocal pro or just do karaoke at the pub, or you sing with your local choir or in a barbershop group, or you’re only willing to sing in the shower but you wish you could do more – we know you’re going to really enjoy this episode.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Ben. Thank you for joining us today.
Ben: I’m delighted to talk to you.
Christopher: So you have had an incredible career over the years, a real range of roles and projects and types of music. It was hard for me to know where to start but I suppose one easy option is to start at the beginning. And I’d love to know, you’ve become this incredible musician and artistic director and nurterer of young singers in particular but what was it like for you growing up? Was music always a part of your life? Was it a late discovery? Did it all come easily? Tell me what that was like.
Ben: I come from a very musical family. My dad was a music teacher and church organist all of his life and my mom was a keen amateur singer and in fact I guess I’ve been surrounded by music ever since birth, actually. Interesting — I’m asked this question a lot, you know, what was sort of my first musical memories and there are many of them and there are some of them which are really quite sort of pivotal to my career or my wish to be a professional musician, not least because dad was a church organist. I and my three sibling all sang in the church choirs in Ipswich where I now live and I remember at a very early age I was too young to sing in the choir so my three siblings were in the choir and I would sit next to Dad on the organ bench while he played.
One of the most abiding memories was them singing in a choral evensong, and this will be for sort of choral evensong nerds, if you like. But there is a Magnificat & Nunc dimittus by Stanford, Stanford in C Major, which starts with a huge, great organ chord and the choir come in and I was age four and I turned to my dad and said, “Oh, Daddy, what lovely music!” and clearly it had a real effect on me. Sorry, that is terribly nerdy, isn’t it? But it’s a really important thing because I think at really quite a young age I realized that music was going to be a massive part of my life and fast forward a few years, just when I was seven or eight years old we were very involved in music at Snape Maltings, which is up in Suffolk where Benjamin Britten lived and worked and ran his wonderful Aldeburgh Festival that still goes on to this day and Mom used to sing in the Aldeburgh Festival Singers. She sang with Benjamin Britten conducting many times and I remember her coming back from concerts and telling me all about it. And we went to Snape one day to this amazing concert hall that that Benjamin Britten built and he was there and I met him. A lot of other contemporary colleagues of mine are really sort of quite jealous of the fact that I actually met Benjamin Britten which was amazing and I remember him talking and I remember going into the hall and we sang some of his music. It was an opera that he’d written called The Little Sweep and the audience has these audience songs and I remember singing this song all about birds singing in the night and I thought, “I want to do this,” you know,” as a grownup. I want to be a musician.” So that was really sort of quite pivotal. So music was always around in the family. We used to sing, we used to play, we all played instruments so yeah I was surrounded by it.
Christopher: Wonderful. And so given that musical beginning I have to jump quickly to one of the big questions I wanted to ask you, which relates a bit, I think, to your work with the National Youth Choir. Given that you were immersed in music from the beginning and you also came from a family who were themselves musical, what’s your opinion on talent, you know, if someone’s gonna become an incredible inspiring musician and composer and arranger like yourself, or one of the leading singers in the great choirs of the country, do you think it takes talent? Is it a natural thing or is it more nurture than nature?
Ben: Well, I was just about to say, nurture or nature and it is one of those things. I mean, if you’re surrounded by it, obviously, you know, you’re going to engender a sense of what’s around you but there is such a notion as a gift, isn’t there? There is, you know, talent. It has to be a natural thing as well but that doesn’t preclude people from doing it. Say, for example, you know, you wanted to sing in a choir but you felt that you hadn’t had a background in it. Well, join a choir, you know, it’s not — it’s as simple as that, actually, and actually with singing — this is a big thing, I have constant arguments with my wife, who is a professional violinist and she will say, you know, the thousands of hours of work that she’s had to put into practicing and she gets so frustrated because singing is such a natural thing. We can all do it, and this notion — I remember my dad talking to me many times about the notion of tone deafness, and actually he didn’t believe that tone deafness existed. Anybody can sing. If anybody can talk, anybody can sing and in fact, we all have voice boxes, so, you know, that ability to be able to just make that leap from talking to vocalizing to understanding, you know, how it works is a really interesting thing. Actually it’s — just leading on from that, one of my nephews is an amazing percussionist and he found it really difficult to sing simply because he hadn’t exercised these muscles that we have in here so he talked very quietly, very slowly, and it’s all down here and I gave him some exercises in how to sing and I could see it, actually, it was a visible thing, that he simply didn’t know how to use that muscle and how to hear in his ear how this was working out as an aural example of sound and it took, what, five minutes for him to work out and — a note like, “laaa” and he would sing, “laaa” and it would be well over an octave below but once he worked out the notion of what was going on in here and how to hear it we’d beaten it. We’d cracked the code and I think it’s possible for everybody to do that. Of course, you know, musicians, if you’re going to do it at a professional level or at a pretty high level then talent’s going to help but it’s nature and nurture in equal degrees, I would say.
Christopher: That’s really interesting to hear and we’ve had a lot of that same experience at Musical U with reluctant singers that it’s partly emotional or psychological and it’s partly physical. You know, if someone hasn’t moved their voice through their possible pitch range they simply have no chance of hitting a note.
Christopher: But some very simple exercises can give them that freedom.
Christopher: So coming back for a minute to your own journey, you were clearly diving into the world of what I would consider kind of classical church music in England growing up. Where did things go from there for you?
Ben: I studied music at Cambridge University. I was very lucky. I would say that I was a reluctant student, nay, perhaps a bit lazy and I say that simply because I’m not — I wouldn’t have classed myself as an academic. I’d been much more a practical musician.
I think if I could go back and do it all again now, I would find it so brilliantly fascinating but unfortunately I think I’m a bit too old to do that. But at university of course I was put together with all these amazing other people who were keen musicians and not just that. The thing about university in particular for me was that, you know, you’d be making music with chemists and lawyers and scientists and all these other people and linguists which, again, you know, from a singing point of view, it’s amazing if you’ve got a singer in a choir who’s studying Italian or German or whatever, you know, that’s golden, really, isn’t it. So at university I wasn’t a model academic student but there I found my love of a whole raft of other things that I hadn’t been exposed to before. Like you say, I grew up with church music and I grew up with my parents singing and there was lots of music in the house.
I was not a bad violinist, actually. When you line me up with my wife then I’m hopeless but I remember turning up to university in fact where I met my wife and I thought, “Yes, I’m going to be a violinist now,” and of course there millions of brilliant instrumentalists, so singing was the thing that I then began to get really interested in and possibly most importantly actually — I haven’t thought about this for a long time but in my first year I was asked to do a cabaret. Now, I’d never really done any light music so here I was singing some sort of cabaret songs and close harmony and I thought, “Wow, this is amazing,” because I’d never done this stuff before. Now the really important part of that was a group who some of your listeners if they’re as old as me might have heard of which is called Harvey and the Wall Bangers. Now, Harvey and the Wall Bangers were a group in the 1980’s who were ex-Cambridge choral scholars and they got together and they formed a close harmony group and then they got really kind of funky and they started learning instruments and it was a kind of jazz-pop-rock and roll combo and a friend of mine who was at university said, “You’ve got to come and hear this group Harvey and the Wall Bangers,” and I went to this theater and sat down and this thing started and it was close harmony and it was rock and roll and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This was just amazing and I thought, “This is the sort of music that I want to get into.” Years later — we’re fast-forwarding a huge amount — actually a couple of the group, Chris Purves, who is now a major opera singer and Harvey Brough, who started the group, a brilliant composer and very good friends of mine and I would not have imagined in a million years that those guys would have been friends. I worshipped them from afar in the audience while they were onstage.
So, you know, that whole kind of melting pot of being at university and meeting different people and different musical styles was something that was very, very important to me.
Christopher: Hm. And it’s funny that we had kind of the same choral blend as it were in that I grew up in the chapel choir singing a lot in my school days and went on to barbershop and a cappella and really loved that and I found it stretched me in a very different way as a singer and one of the things I was excited to talk to you about was just how you found it transitioning form that world of classical choral music that can be quite formal and precise to a cappella which is precise in its own way, you know, it’s precise in a very expressive, stylistic way and obviously a capella can be any genre, anything from classical to jazz to pop to rock to anything you imagine, so how did you develop as a singer through exploring that different direction?
Ben: That’s a really interesting thing to talk about because basically, you know, one informs the other and vice versa. I mean, what I do now is very much sort of akin to what I was doing at university so one day I’d be singing in King’s Choir and singing in — and just getting off of the fact that I was in this amazing beautiful building singing the most fantastic music. The next day I’d be writing a music essay on, I don’t know, Mahler symphonies or whatever and listening to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. In fact, a friend of mine had to listen to it on 45, you know, when we used to have records? He ran out of time and ran to the library and had to listen to it on 45 instead of 33 to try and get through it all. And then the next day I’d be doing a cabaret and singing jazz songs or, you know, singing in a close harmony group. It’s basically what I do now, actually, is, you know, from one day to the other I have this — for me, I’m so lucky because I have this interesting, eclectic career where I’ll be touching on all these different sorts of music, but like you say, you know, the discipline that is required to sing in a choir like King’s College Choir is obviously going to inform you in a way you might rehearse an a capella piece, you know, the kind of — all of the attributes that are there, the style, the blend, the precision, the way that you rehearse it, the tuning listening out for different parts, how the balance might work and all those sorts of things so I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to have that and as a student but then that’s informed totally the way that I’ve worked as a professional musician as well.
Christopher: And on paper my impression is your career kind of went deep into the a capella world with your time with The Swingle Singers before circling back into that world of choral music and — is that right?
Ben: Yeah, very much so. I mean, the year after I left university — so I was doing some cabaret as a sort of young freelancer and earning absolutely no money whatsoever and then a job came up in The Swingle Singers and I thought, “This is something that I should be throwing my hat into the ring for.” I was only 22, but I did get the job. They were really mean to me, actually. Do you know, they gave me five auditions, which was just — they kept bringing me back and saying, ‘Well, can you sing this song? Can you sing that song in a particular style?” and in the end I think — which is sort of quite unlike me because I’m sort of quiet and unconfrontational, but I said to them, actually, “Could you just stop doing this and if you want me to do the job, just give it to me, or if not, just tell me to leave?” but I did get it and I spent five brilliant years in the Swingles.
Interestingly and ironically the one thing which I didn’t really enjoy was touring and being away from home and I have to say probably nine, ten months of the year wewere away from home but it was, again, an amazing kind of training ground for me even though I was doing it professionally, you know, from the likes of arranging for an eight-part a capella group doing some albums, recording techniques, producing, rehearsing, arranging a piece of music and then rehearsing it with the group so you had to be the leader. I really cut my teeth on how one does that in a very effective, proactive way. Having said that, during that time I was in the Swingles I still actually was singing church so I had a job with the Tower of London. They have a brilliant choir there in the chapel within the tower and this was in the days when you could actually drive your car right into the Tower of London and you could park outside the chapel. You can’t do that anymore. So I kept that job open and so if there was a Sunday where I was free I would go and sing some wonderful church music. I mean, church music has been, you know, the love of my life for as long as I can remember, you know, back in the days when — Stanford in C and sitting on my dad’s stool on the organ, you know? So I’ve always shared that love in tandem with everything else that I do, but yeah, it was a really interesting five years of real total discipline and understanding of that particular art.
Christopher: Yeah. It sounds like it could be a real trial-by-fire. You know, we come back again and again on this show to the importance of your ear and your brain’s awareness of music as being critical to everything you do in music and, you know, to go so quickly to being part of one of the top groups in the world of all time in a capella music and not only performing but arranging and composing, that must have really pushed you to your limit in terms of your aural understanding of music.
Ben: Yeah, I think possibly, you know, there’s a degree of just thinking, “Well, that’s what I did. That’s what I’m good at.” It’s typical sometimes as a musician to say, “Actually, you know, I’m quite good at that,” but I think that’s where my metier was, you know, and I was given the opportunity to do that. It was an interesting time actually to join the group because they hadn’t sort of really made their mark, particularly in the U.K. and the American market had dried up and so we were sort of slightly at the lower end and we took it upon ourselves to pay for a flight out to New York and do a showcase in New York for Columbia Artists, who are a massive concert agency and we set our store up, basically, the eight of us. We were all quite young, you know, and we thought, “Right, okay, this is an opportunity for us,” and we did exactly that. We thought, “Right, what are we good at? Let’s show the Americans what we’re good at,” and we put together, I think it was 20 minute, half hour little showcase of our best arrangements. We rehearsed it and rehearsed it. We flew ourselves out to New York, put ourselves up in a cheap hotel went and did the showcase and that really was the making of the group from the time I was in it because Columbia Artists thought we were best thing ever since sliced bread and from that we then toured the States four times a year regularly doing twenty, thirty concerts, I mean, we were there four or five weeks at a time. Absolutely saved our bacon and from that we then increased our repertoire massively of course but we then got a recording contract with Virgin Classics and on it went. So, you know, that was a really good for me but it was interesting being part of that so actually taking it upon ourselves to be proactive as a musician and like you’re saying, you know, just that whole idea of rehearsing and really listening to each other and understanding how our voices were going to work most effectively as an eight-part a capella group. Often, you know, we’d rehearse or record something and we just did it in intuitively because we’d worked together so much. We were just naturals at tuning, you know. I remember we were a bit singing in unison and two of the altos had to sing sort of the same note at one point and one sang a bit sharp and one sang a bit flat and the two of them within a split second — there’s a recording of it. It’s a bit of Debussy that they sang and they sang this note and within about a nanosecond they’d each found the tuning exactly because they were both wrong and they righted themselves within less than a second. It was extraordinary and I thought, “Wow,” you know, “that’s real, kind of, aural discipline,” and that’s something that only comes obviously with really hard work and a lot of regular singing but it’s something that, you know, if you join a choir, I mean, I find this with choirs that I’ve worked with all over the place, you know, if they do that regular thing singing week after week, you’re gonna get better individually but also as a team and that’s one of the joys of singing in a choir, isn’t it?
Christopher: Absolutely and I love that you highlighted that because that, to me, you know, I sang barbershop and a capella to an amateur level but one of the abiding memories is how unique that situation is. You know, you can sing as a soloist. You can sing in a choir as a part of a large number but it’s only really a capella when you’re one of maybe four people and you can all look at each other in the eye and you can be so in the moment, all performing with the same instrument essentially and it requires so much of you to be present and react to one another in a way that I think performing in an instrument ensemble or a large choir just, it doesn’t, it’s not quite the same.
Ben: We did that little exercise at the end of the workshop where I met you the other day where we were tuning. This is something that I’ve really become interested in, this whole idea of what’s called just intonation and so if you play the piano, the piano is tuned with what’s called equal temperament, so the distance between every single note is the same. Now if you play a chord — we’re quite used to hearing it nowadays, when you play it on the piano and we say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a nice chord,” well actually it’s not in tune because it’s false to have the gap between each semitone exactly the same. It means that if you play a certain interval and we’re talking about a third, so you go, (sings) 1,3 on a piano if it’s tuned, and I think I talked about this in the workshop, actually the third is always really sharp (sings) 1,3 and everybody kind of likes sharp thirds because they sound really good. It’s only because our ears have been tuned to what’s holding the temperament.
Actually if you sing in a choir and you tune a chord and actually you make the third lower than it would be on a piano and the fifth (sings) 1,5 nice and bright which on an equal temperament piano is flat the chord sounds like much more in tune. It’s got the natural harmonics within it and that to me is something really interesting and I think what you were talking about just then with singing in an a capella group, particularly when you’ve got one part per voice, spending a lot of time doing that sort of thing can be really, really rewarding. We’re so used to hearing equal temperament. The piano is my least favorite instrument (laughs) you know, it’s — but do you know what I mean?
Ben: When it comes to tuning, I think that’s a really, really important thing and particularly when you’re — you can do it in choirs, as well. We do it with the National Youth Choir all the time in fact in my choir at King’s College, the mixed choir that sings on Mondays, even though we have very limited rehearsal time we often just balance and tune some chords so we’ll sit on a chords. We’ll take the people who are out singing the key note, like, if it’s in C major, people singing C, just make sure that’s in tune. Then we’ll put a nice, bright G in which is the fifth and then we’ll have a nice centered third and you can really tell the difference and I don’t think there are many choirs who spend much time doing that but I would encourage all choral conductors to work much harder at that because I think that’s a whole minefield of wonderful stuff we can research.
Christopher: Yeah. What a beautiful example of how you’ve drawn on your a capella experience to inform how you direct your choirs now because, like you say, we take for granted that the piano is the correct answer, you know, you play the piano chord, that’s what you’re aiming for but of course if you’re just four people in a room and it’s up to you to make the major chord you find the tuning, you trust your ear and you adjust as needed.
Ben: Yeah, and there is one professional choir that shall remain nameless who I guest-conducted and they were, we were rehearsing a piece and the pianist was playing along and, you know, just helping them to find the notes and I asked him to stop playing, actually, and the choir were really offended that I’d — they said, “But we,” you know, “but we’re sightreading this,” and I said, “Well, yeah, you’re a a professional choir. Come on, sight read it and don’t rely on the piano.”
It’s actually one thing that’s really, really interesting, a really interesting exercise and of course, we didn’t — in that workshop where I met you we didn’t use any piano, you know? We just did it all with the voices and I think that’s a really good discipline for some choirs, actually. Just part with the piano. Close the lid, just get on with the singing. Listen and hear what’s going on and use your voices to create the sound rather than relying on not only the tuning of the piano but of course it’s also, it’s the percussive effect. So the rhythm of the chord goes down and you hear it and you go, “Oh, that’s where we need to sing.” Actually if you watch the conductor or you watch each other you should be able to internalize the rhythm as well.
Ben: And we’re getting deep, we keep getting deep into the semantics of my approach to choral direction now. (Laughs)
Christopher: I hope so. You mentioned sight reading there and that’s something else that I think causes a lot of people angst when it comes to singing and particularly singing in a church choir where you may be handed a thick wad of manuscript paper and be expecated to somehow magic up the notes and you know at Musical U we focus a lot on relative pitch and helping people to understand the relationship between the notes in the scale and you had a really elegant exercise at that workshop which, I say elegant because I think it’s something you could explain in a few moments but someone could go away and practice every day and develop a really valuable skill withn I was wondering if you could just share the singing of scale degree numbers and then starting to take them out and remix them in different combinations.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely, and before I do that I should say that when I was really young my dad tried to teach me the piano. He failed dismally like all parents do trying to teach their children instruments but he started me at an early age, right about five and I did everything by ear so I can still play by ear but I could not sight read when I was five and my dad didn’t realize this. He started the first two weeks and he’d say, “Right then, here’s a little tune written down. Would you like to play that to me?” and I’d go, “Will you play it to me first and then I’ll do it?” and he literally played me the tune or the piece and I would play it back note perfect but I was doing it by ear. I wasn’t reading the music. And he, after after a few weeks he caught on and he said, “No you do it first,” and I said, “Well, I can’t really do it,” and he used to make me — this is really horrible and I love my dad, really, but he used to play piano duets with me where I’d have to keep going and he said, “Come on, keep going, keep going,” and I remember being in tears. So, you know, I could not sight read and I had to learn how to do that because my ear was very keen and I could just pick things up all the time. I’m still not the greatest sight reader on the piano. I can sight read, I can sight sing really well and it’s an easy thing to pick up. I mean, obviously there’s the whole solfa system which is fantastic. It’s not something I’ve ever done so I’ve never used it although I do understand how it works, but what we have done — I’ve picked this up more recently with the national youth choir, is using the number system. So you take your do, if you like, your one, and you use that and you can tune and you can think about the degrees of the scale very easily in whatever key it might be so if one is there, and you can literally do a little pattern, just going 1-2-1-3-2-1- 4-3-2-1, you can carry on going 5-4-3-2-1 but you can actually go, 5-6-7-1-6-7-1-7-1-1-1.
Then if you want to do a little exercise, which I think we did, take out 3 and go 1-2-1, clap on 3, 2-1 then you goto find 4. 4 (clap) 2-1. Perhaps 5 is a click 4-2-1-6 and you’re taking out various notes. You’ve got to find where 4 is but you always relate it to 1 and that’s basically what I do if I’m reading as well. So you’re sight reading and you know where C is if you can understand that. So C is the one that hangs down below the line and it’s got a ledger line through it. If that’s middle C, that’s always going to be your 1 so you can work out 3 or 6 or 4 and 7 and 2. It’s really as simple as that and if you change key it’s suddenly G becomes 1 and A’s gonna be 2 and B’s gonna be 3 and so on. So that little exercise I think is really helpful.
The other thing that we did was just call out four numbers between 1 and 7 so you go 1-5-7-2 and you just got to work out 1-5-7-2 or whatever else and just give yourself this little exercise and you’ll very, very quickly attune to where you are in the degree of the scale.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well for any listener —
Ben: Lesson over.
Christopher: Well, it’s a beautiful lesson. It’s something that I think any listeners can start to experiment with, you know, even if you just start with 1, 2, and 3, whether you’ve ever sung before or not you probably know the sound of 1-2-3-2-1…
Ben: Or 3-1-5-7.
Christopher: …just play around with that for a day.
Ben: 3-5-9’s, exactly.
Christopher: Mm-hm. 3-5-9’s, exactly.
Ben: Or go 1-3-2 or 2-3-1 or 3-1-2. You just, you know, combination locks. That’s all it is. Unlock them.
Christopher: Absolutely, and it’s the kind of instinctive understanding of the scale that I so wish someone had explained to me when I was growing up singing because I was immersed in singing all day, every day trying to sight read from sheet music using intervals and using reference songs and it was such hard, intellectual work trying to figure out what the music should sound like from the sheet.
Ben: I would love to talk to you about intervals because intervals is a really interesting thing because, yes, intervals are useful if you want to read from music but there is a slight misnomer I feel about trying to work out what intervals are so you go, “1-2-3-4-5-1, that must be a fifth,” and try to count it up. Now, it is a way of doing it. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m very much of the opinion, and we’ve been talking about, you know, our aural perception but actually intervals and interval recognition is much easier if you can use sonic recall. I once had the most fascinating conversation with someone who was writing a film script about a child who had sonic recall. Now this wasn’t a musician, it was something else. It was a spy film, some kind of crazy stuff but he’d heard that I went on about sonic recall a lot and I had a chat with this guy who was writing this fascinating script and he understood where I was coming from with this because of course all intervals sound the same. Now, the one that you can really hear is the minor second descending sound, so (sings) bah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah dum. If you play those together you can hear the beats because b-r-r-r-r-r-r-bah-bah. If you played a major second you could almost hear them. It goes really fast because obviously there is a wave sign that’s going really fast and you can actually hear it but if you can work out — stay with me, go with me on this — if you can work out what a fifth sounds like, not the two notes separately but actually walk the actual sound of what an interval is then it’s easy. So you could actually do worse than to actually sit at day in front of the piano and play major thirds and go, “Oh, that’s what a major third sounds like,” and sometimes — of course the famous French composer Messineau believed that all music was just colors so you could assign yourself a color.
If you thought that a major third sounded, yellow, you know, yellow then that’s yellow. It’s gonna sound the same wherever you play it or wherever two people sing it. If you thought that a perfect fifth, a note, two notes, five notes apart sounded grey then listen to greys all the time. You know, major sixth, minor sixth and all those sorts of things, I think that’s really helpful and I would maintain that that’s an even better way than counting up intervals. I hope that kind of makes sense. It’s always been something that I’ve really latched onto and that’s how my three children, if you play them intervals, they’ll just go, “Yeah, that’s a major sixth,” because they know the color of it, they know the sound of it. They’re recalling the sound.
Christopher: Hm. We’ve definitely seen that with ourmembers at Musical U going between what we would call the melodic form where it’s one note and then the other note and then the harmonic form where it’s both notes together can definitely help people tune in, you know, if you get the sound of that blend of the two notes into your ear it becomes much easier when you hear them.
Christopher: I think for us the limiting factor in intervals just tends to be putting them to use, you know, and naming them in isolation is one thing and you can get very good at that but we’ve found people really then have a gulf when it comes to using them to play by ear or recognize chords. It takes a lot of work to bridge that gap and for usd, with our members, anyway it just seems like the solfa approach or numbering the scale degrees like we’ve been talking about, it gives you a much faster route to understanding the melodies and the chords.
Ben: Absolutely. But I think the sonic recall leads on from that you see, so…
Ben: ..once you’re learned where a third is, then if you start playing thirds and you go, “Oh, yeah. That sounds the same as that third,” it’s always going to. But no, absolutely, I agree that the numbering system or the solfa is definitely the best approach to that.
Christopher: Hm. So you’re one of those fascinating music educators who has the kind of top-level experience in terms of expertise and, you know, being a world-leading performer but actually works with some of the most beginner-stage musicians. You know, you work with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Obviously, those are very high-level choirs but you’re taking very young singers who don’t have that expertise or experience yet. I’d love to hear how you approach that, you know, what’s your attitude when you’re directing one of these choirs and welcoming new singers in? Do you find it’s a challenge to get them up to scratch? Do you have particular approaches you use to get them into the choral setting rapidly, or…?
Ben: Well that’s really interesting because one of the things we haven’t mentioned, the choral courses that, one of which I run in the summer. These are run by — they’re called the Eton Choral Courses simply because they were founded by Ralph Allwood who was the director of music at Eton College. There are five courses each year and the interesting thing about these courses are, in the past these were sensibly designed to offer experience to people who wanted to do choral scholarships and particularly at Cambridge and Oxford. Now we know, of course, the landscape with choral singing has changed completely now in a very, very positive way and so what we’re finding now with the Eton Choral Courses is that, you know, you have a much broader range of abilities and people, young people wanting to go into different areas so, you know, there will be other universities. There will be some who don’t necessarily want to go to university. They might want to go to music conservatoire they might want to go on and do some vocational training or whatever but they share a lot of singing. The fascinating thing about the Eton Choral Courses is that they are on auditions so a group of fifty young singers between the ages of 16 and 18 will turn up, never having sung together before and our challenge is that by the end of the week they’re going to be doing a concert or an even song in somewhere like Eton College Chapel or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge or St. Paul’s Cathedral and some of them do actually a live broadcast even song on BBC Radio 3. It’s got to be that good and so their trajectory, it’s fascinating to watch over the years. This is actually, this year is the 20th year I’ve been directing courses and watching that trajectory from a young group of singers, who’ve, they start there and there are some who’ve actually never sung in a choir. They’ve been signed up by their school because they loved their singing and they may have had some singing lessons but they’ve never sung in a chapel choir, if you like, and getting them to sing Anglican songs to the degree to where they sing it live on Radio 3 is some challenge, I can tell you, but, you know, invariably they go with the flow because their minds are so open to adaptation and development and inquiry. There’s a wonderful sense of cohesion as you go through the week and they do get terribly tired. I remember the first time I did it, the first couple of years, by about day five of a eight-day course they were on their knees and I thought, “Oh, no, they’ve lost interest. Cmon, stay with me,” but I realized that it was just that they were tired and they were loving it but, you know, their level of concentration was waning through fatigue.
Then as we know with all young singers, you know, they pull it out the back at the last minute, as well, so there’s an element of that but just going back to what you were saying about, you know,working with people who are at the very beginnings of their journey with music, that’s a challenge, as well. That’s where the workshopping for me has been so interesting because, you know, there are no barriers there, you know, you’re standing. There’s no piano, there’s no music stand, there’s no music, there’s no sense of a language barrier, you know, we’re doing exercises that don’t require that. We sang some African chants where you don’t learn the syllables, you know, it’s not a language that we speak so there’s no barrier there, either and particularly the round that we did — we did a six-part round and suddenly you’re singing in six-part harmony but actually you’ve only just learned one tune by ear and suddenly you’re creating six-part harmony. I think it’s a really interesting way of just engendering an enthusiasm and a response from young people. I remember doing a workshop years ago in Scotland where we used to live in Edinburgh and I’d chosen this song. It was a Christmas concert and it was with primary children and it was in 5-8 and it kind of went, “Christmas time is party time a deedle a deedle dum. Doodle do…
And I thought, “Oh, no, why have I chosen to do something in 5-8?” you know, “It would be much easier to go 1-2-3-4.” These kids had obviously had no perception of what 5-8’s was. It didn’t matter and they just did it completely naturally. They just understood the rhythm of the words and they just latched on to it straightaway and I remember coming out of that thinking, “Oh my God, that would test some professional adult choirs,” but for the young kids, you know, for the young kids, they are amazingly adaptable and malleable in their approach to their music-making so we needn’t be frightened of that.
Christopher: Fascinating. Why is there not a contradiction there, you know? You have studied classical choral music in the very rigid, formal traditional sense where there is a way of doing things step by step. People are taught very carefully and perform in a very polished way and at the same time you’re talking about, you know, any group of 50 people coming into a room and performing six-part harmony. You’re talking about a group of young singers coming together for a week and performing on Radio 3 but how is there no contradiction there? How have you managed to reconcile those two, the very careful, structured traditional approach to singing and teaching singing and this much more inclusive, encouraging and effective way of getting a group of people singing together?
Ben: Simple answer? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve always latched onto that notion and I mentioned earlier of one informing the other. This whole thing of, you know, the discipline of singing in a professional choir or conducting a professional choir informing the way I might work with a bunch of young primary children and I’ve talked about this before, actually, where, you know, sometimes it surprises me. I could be doing [Unintelligible [00:39:16] with my London Voices Choir, which is a group of professional singers who is mainly a recording choir so we do a lot of film sound tracks, and you will have heard London Voices, you know. Anybody who is interested in film will invariably have heard London Voices doing singing on film, so, you know, I mean, the likes of Harry Potter and the Hobbit and even the latest Bond film, you know, we were singing on that. There you have the sheer discipline of being in a recording studio in London, the light going on. There is no rehearsal, they’re sight reading and it’s got to be perfect the first time to the opposite end where, like we say, you know, you’ve got a group of primary kids who just want to come in because their teachers told them and you’ve got to infuse them for forty minutes and they come out absolutely buzzing. Both groups come out buzzing. That’s great and sometimes I’m really interested by that notion of sometimes you’ll get a better sense of application from the young singers than you would from the professional singers because they do it as a job, some of them, and then sometimes, you know, you’ll get the more enthusiastic approach from the professional singers rather than the kids. It’s kind of topsy-turvy and that’s what fascinates me with the work that I do because there are always those challenges. It’s never, it’s never the same one day to the next and I guess like you say it is a bit of a contradiction, because, you know, how can you stack up singing an African chant with a bunch of schoolchildren just singing choral even song at King’s College Cambridge? Well, they do because singing in a way it’s just a natural thing. It’s part of us, always has been for thousands and thousands of years and in that sense, you know, I think that’s a really wonderful thing that it’s actually, you know, one sharing the other, I think.
For me personally I don’t know why I haven’t really reconciled within myself why I do the both and the two inform the other, but, hey, I’m lucky, I guess. As long as I do, I think the thing is with being a musician, one of the most important things is, you know, a lot of people say as an actor, you know, “Oh, well it’s down to luck and who you know.” Well, yeah, okay, it might not be but there’s also having a natural talent. There is also being in the right place at the right time. There’s also doing a very good job and making people feel good about themselves. So when you turn up — I remember asking a Hollywood composer this once for one of the soundtracks that we were doing. I said, you know, “How do you end up writing for Harry Potter when it used to be John Williams?” and he said, “Well, it’s because I do a really good job,” and people can rely on that composer to deliver the goods and I think as musicians, you know, whether we’re amateur or professional, that’s the thing, you know, you’ve got to engender a sense of enjoyment and inclusivity and understanding and empathy, particularly if you’re singing in a choir. Soloists is a different thing, but if you’re playing in a choir or playing in an orchestra, have an understanding with your fellow musicians and just find that sense of enjoyment as well because enjoyment has to be part of it.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well I had a final question which was how can listeners know that they’re good enough to go and join a choir but I feel like it’s somewhat redundant to ask it given our conversation.
Ben: I think anybody’s good enough and I mean, of course the thing is that singing is, it’s always been a cool thing to sing but it’s becoming increasingly cool with the likes of, you know, the T.V. series and the things that happen on the radio and the a capella competitions and choirs, office choirs, you know, what a brilliant thing that is as well. So there are opportunities there for anybody at whatever level. I mean, just a really sobering thought was a conference I went to the other day where I heard about The Choir with No Name, which is the choir for homeless people and, you know, we had a presentation from the woman who runs the organization and she was saying, you know, that in any one night there are 3,000 homeless people on the streets of London. That’s just in London, I mean, and then you’ve got Birmingham and Liverpool and all these other places. You know, there may be, they don’t know, but there may be, you know, up to 2 million people homeless but they’ve got this thing called The Choir with No Name. I would urge your listeners to go and look them up online and it was so sobering and empowering and thought-provoking that, you know, here are people who are at the rock bottom with life in general, you know, whether through money problems, family problems, mental problems, but The Choir with No Name, they don’t purport to be able to put people back off the streets and get them into work and all this sorts of things, it’s just an empowering thing that people come to sing together and that’s all it’s about. Some people actually they say they have the success of them actually turning up to the rehearsal whether or not they sing, you know, that is a challenge in themselves. When they do sing, and they showed this video of these people and they were saying, you know, “This is the highlight of my week,” you know, “This is the thing which makes me feel happiest,” and they sing together, they’re given a hot meal and they talk to each other and there’s that sharing of just this love of singing and that to me — we kind of all sat back on our chairs and went, “Wow,” you know, “there but by the grace of God go I,” you know? Extraordinary. So I just mentioned that because at any level you can find the opportunity to make music together and we all know how good music is for us and the making of it and how it stimulates our brains, so, yeah, there’s opportunity for everyone there and particularly with singing, because the instrument’s within you.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Ben: Not at all.
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