BENJAMIN GOODSON is by anybody’s reckoning a very talented musician. He has sung as a choral scholar with the Choir of St Peter’s College, Oxford and is now a professional chorister at St Albans Cathedral. But despite his pedigree he is convinced that everybody can — and should — sing.
He is now also, at the grand old age of 23, the new musical director of Henley Choral Society — he took over from Will Dawes last autumn — and it’s his mission to not only improve a choir that he says is already “extraordinary” but to recruit lots of new singers, particularly men and young people.
“Absolutely anyone can sing,” says the conductor who took up the baton for Henley last autumn.
“I auditioned a lady the other day — not for Henley but for another group — and she was told she had a horrible voice at school and couldn’t sing. In fact, she was brilliant.
“She had a beautiful voice, yet she had gone through most of her life thinking she couldn’t sing because of what some teacher had told her at school. Now I think that’s a travesty.
“I come across people all the time who really believe they can’t sing, particularly people who work in the City or something like that.
“Often, what we have to tackle is people not being able to listen properly. If they can’t pitch a note it’s usually because they can’t hear the note properly. As soon as they realise that they need to listen more carefully the whole thing becomes less debilitating.”
By the way, for any reader at this point who thinks they might want to have a go at singing but can’t bear the thought of an audition, Ben is quick to point out that there are no auditions for Henley Choral Society. You just turn up to a rehearsal and have a go.
Persuading reluctant people to sing is one of his passions.
Among the many strings to his bow he runs workshops, or team-building singalongs, for professional people in a Gareth Malone sing-in-the-workplace style, and has had some great result. He recently spent four days teaching businessmen to sing in Trieste, and at the end of it they realised not only how much they enjoyed it, they also recorded a CD of three numbers and gave a live performance.
“Singing is extremely healthy,” he says. “Physically, because it gets you more in touch with your breath and how you feel in your body. But also it gives you a connection with people you sing with that’s extraordinary. It’s absolutely life-affirming.
“You see people who come to choir rehearsals who’ve had a bad day at work or something, and they trudge into the choir. By the time they leave they are a completely different person.”
When Ben took up the baton of Henley Choral Society last September he said he was “delighted” to be working with such a talented amateur choir. Since then, he has been building on the choral society’s technique and he also hopes to improve the balance of voices (partly by recruiting more men) and also to make a more “holistic” sound.
“We want to improve the singing,” he says. “One of the things that’s really important to everyone in the choral society is the fact that although they are an amateur group they want to sing as well as they possibly can.
“They are an entirely non-auditioning group, but it’s a real testament to what you can do when you apply high standards and training to amateur music-making — you can produce something extraordinary.
“The amateur level of music making the UK is higher than anywhere else in the world. It has its foundation in the fact that cathedrals have professional choirs and that filters down to amateur music-making.
“In Henley in particular, we have a particularly hard-working and talented group of people. And even at our Christmas concert in December I could hear an improvement.”
Ben started making music early in life, and played piano and conducted the choir at school. But at that time he did not realise choral music was going to be such a big part of his life. It was only when he went to Oxford University to read music that he discovered where his career would take him.
He won the university conducting competition with the student orchestra, the Oxford Philharmonia. Having now graduated and moved into the world of work, he will go back to Oxford later this year to conduct the professional ensemble, the Oxford University Orchestra, in a programme which includes Siblius’ Symphony No. 5. The step forward, he says, is gratifying as it proves he has moved on in his work.
As well as leading the choral society in their next concert — the programme includes Fauré’s Requiem and Poulenc’s Gloria — he will be running a series of workshops at Gillotts, Shiplake College and The Henley College in March and taking the teenagers on to a performance at the Kenton Theatre on Saturday, March 15 as part of the Henley Youth Festival. The programme has not yet been confirmed, but will include a variety of musical genres, including choral, gospel and maybe folk. And for those doubters who think that choral music is only for the religious, Ben confounds us yet again — as he himself is a non-believer.
“I spend most of my life in religious buildings and singing religious music,” he says. “I sit in these churches and think, ‘This is an extremely beautiful building’. The music is also very beautiful, and the words are beautiful. It’s a beautiful experience, and for me it’s an artistic experience. I daresay a person with religious conviction would feel the same things as I do, they would just call it something else.”
He added that there is also a lot of choral work that is secular — and he is planning to do some of that with Henley Choral Society next term.
Rehearsals are on Mondays at 7.30pm at d:two, Market Place. Call Wendy Hawkins (01491) 576929 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to contact Benjamin Goodson