Ben Parry studied at Cambridge University, where he was a member of The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, before he became the musical director of, and singer with, the Swingle Singers. Today, Ben has a busy career as a conductor, arranger, singer and producer in both classical and light music fields; directing choirs as varied as the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and the professional choir London Voices, to the King’s College Cambridge mixed choir – King’s voices, and Aldeburgh voices. We caught up with Ben to ask him about his progression from singer to director, his conducting experiences, and his advice for directors wishing to set up their own choirs.
With the amount of conducting work you do, you must have to move around a lot! Could you tell us what a typical week in your life looks like?
Any week can be crazy but very rewarding! A typical week might include a choral evensong in King’s (as director of King’s Voices), a film session at Abbey Road or Air Studios with my professional choir – London Voices, a meeting for National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, a rehearsal at Snape Maltings with Aldeburgh Voices, and, sometimes, composing or arranging choral music at home.
Although you started out as a singer, much of your work now revolves around directing. How did you make the progression from singer to director?
I got really interested in choral conducting just before I moved to Edinburgh with my family in 1995. In Edinburgh, I quickly became Chorus Director of the Scottish Chamber Chorus and I also started my own group, Dunedin Consort, which is now one of Scotland’s leading ensembles.
How did you learn to conduct?
My approach with choirs has been informed by observing the many conductors I have worked for – for example, Andrew Parrott’s natural and empathetic approach to music-making has been particularly influential. I’ve never had a conducting lesson, but have learnt my craft through retaining the good things and jettisoning the bad things from other conductors.
The groups that you conduct range from amateur to professional choirs. Do your rehearsal and performance expectations differ between these?
One of the most satisfying things about conducting a range of choirs with differing abilities is how each approach informs the other. I expect the same enthusiasm, application, discipline, and attention to detail from whatever choir I’m working with. You’d expect that London Voices would deliver the goods almost without thinking about it, and that the commitment and enthusiasm of a choir like the National Youth Choir would be greater. However, sometimes it’s the other way round! It’s true to say that the more I put into a rehearsal or performance, the more I and the singers get out of it.
What do you look for when you’re recruiting new singers for the choirs you direct?
For younger choirs (National Youth Choir and Eton Choral Courses) you’re always looking for passion and potential, whereas London Voices relies on professional experience and reputation. With King’s Voices and Aldeburgh Voices, a shared love of singing is very important. But all singers should really share all of these qualities. I’d hate it if any of the singers I worked with weren’t happy singing. What I love is that sometimes the learning curve of a young singer on an Eton Choral Course is so much greater than the satisfaction of a job well done by one of the professionals.
What advice would you give to someone preparing for an audition to become a choir director?
It’s important to build up a good reputation through your work so people respect you and are confident in your abilities. I was offered co-direction of London Voices because Terry Edwards (founder and co-director) had heard I was good at running choirs. Stepping into someone else’s shoes can be hard, but it’s important to remain genuine.
Do you have any advice to offer to directors who are trying to set up their own choir?
The choral market is niche and definitely saturated with myriad choirs, so you need to be able to offer something unique and innovative – don’t just set up a choir because you want to. Ask yourself what the need is; it may be that you’d like to explore some undiscovered repertoire, or that the region you’re in doesn’t offer enough opportunities for keen singers. The journey through a music career can throw many challenges along the way, and isn’t always easy. But, if one does a good job, is enthusiastic, efficient, and polite you’ll go far and have a rewarding time!
Featured image credit: music notes sheet music bookeh and folder by David Beale. Public domain via Unsplash.