Music in lockdown - Benedict Lewis-Smith
Ben studied music at the University of Oxford from 2007 to 2010 and, prior to this, was awarded a place as a specialist musician at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset. He is now Director of Music at St. Columba's Church in Knightsbridge, and combines this with a substantial freelance career in London, including vocal coaching, accompanying, and conducting.
Ben has established choirs for a number of City firms and founded his own group, the Iona Consort, in 2018. He has broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and has recorded on the digital labels “Resonus Classics” and “Regent Records”. There have been performances at the Victoria International Arts Festival in Gozo, and a concert tour of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2019, he was invited to deliver a choral workshop at St. Paul's School in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
- Please would you let me have your thoughts regarding your own experience of providing enjoyment for your friends, colleagues, and supporters through the Global Singing Project/Music With Ben?
It has been a rather enjoyable project. I initially assumed it would last for a few months or so, but I am pleased to say that I have a core group of singers, around 10 or so, dialling in each week. I think the music itself has become just one small element of proceedings—people join in for the social interaction, which everybody seems to crave in these uncertain and isolated times.
- How has it helped the people who join in with the online choir rehearsals?
I think the rehearsals have kept people in some semblance of vocal health. Singing, as exercise, benefits the mind as well as the body, and it has been important to offer people a vocal workout even while in isolation.
- What sorts of people have joined and benefited from your project?
All sorts! Generally, people have joined from the choirs with which I currently work (choral societies/office choirs/church choirs).
- And, indeed, how might the project have helped yourself?
I have found it important to have a sense of structure to the week. With no concerts in the diary, the silence has been a little deafening. The opportunity to log on and make music (even if in a different way) has been very uplifting for me.
- And what about giving online piano lessons in lockdown? How has that worked for you and your students?
There are quite a few benefits to online piano lessons that have emerged! The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the practical consideration that you can teach people wherever they are in the world.
It has been marvellous logging on and teaching students from all over the world: Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Scotland, Switzerland. Younger students benefit because they need to be more self-reliant in their practice—one can’t just show them how to find notes on the keyboard. These skills need to be developed more deeply and, therefore, I think the progression can actually be more impressive.
- What do you think about things gradually moving back to operating in-person and face-to-face? Have you started this already?
Things are slowly opening up. I think there is a sense of fear around singing in public again—the thought of choirs standing very close together is still quite a few months off, I fear! I am still working wholly online, but there seem to be some choirs discussing a return in the next month or so.
- There is another different point of view that I have read about, expressed by some musicians and actors, suggesting that online music lessons, concerts, recitals, and performances in general merely mask the problem of not being able to work/perform in person. As a consequence, people might have become complacent in regards to concert halls and theatres reopening, in turn affecting how well concert halls and theatres can work in the future—how easily and profitably. What do you think?
I think nothing will ever replace live concert performances. The atmosphere, splendour, and reality of live performance can never truly be imitated online. What this year has shown is that online technology can be a very useful and productive tool for rehearsing and keeping musicians engaged in the build-up to performances. If we were to find a technology that allowed for live performance (virtually) with no time delays, then that would certainly be ground-breaking for choirs!
A hybrid of Zoom, in-person rehearsals, and live performance may well become the new norm, and I would like to think that, going forward, we will continue to utilise these technologies to involve people more widely in music-making opportunities.
By Rebecca Mary Haslam
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