Outfluence: Conducting with Ben Johns

Manskören Chantileer från San Fransico sjunger i Ockelbo kyrka

What is your instrument of choice?
I would say definitely the human voice and being a choral director. Just like an organist play the keys on their organ, as a choral director, your singers are your instrument. But rather than playing them, the task is to get them to sound the best that they can sound. It is quite complex.

What are your first memories of music?
As an infant, my mother sang to me, as mothers do, and my parents would play Mozart and other instrumental music. No one on either side of my family was musical which was very strange. My mother worked for a childhood developer named Bev Bos. Bev would produce a folk album every couple of years and the children that she worked with would sing and play on it That was one of my earliest singing memories. It was my first singing gig in a recording studio and I got paid about 5 cents each cassette tape. From there, I went onto children choirs. The first time I really got into classical music was in high school. At one point somebody asked me what kind of music I listened to and, at that time, it was whatever my parents listened to. They would always have the oldies station on in the car, then it would have been called “classic rock.” So, I accidentally told people I was into classical and later on realized it meant something else. It was then that I started to discover what classical really was. I started purchasing CDs with Strauss’s Waltzes and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. That’s how I first became interested in classical music.

Did you know that music was going to be a big focus in your life?
Music was not something that I expected to become my career. Going into college, I declared as a dance and chemistry major. I had a voice teacher in high school that encouraged me to keep singing throughout college though, so I joined the choir at Irvine as a way to keep singing. Shortly after that, I discovered it was something that made me really happy and that I was good at. It didn’t seem like it would overlap with the classes I had already, so the next year I added voice on as third major. Even then, I was not thinking of music as a career, I just knew that I loved it and it was something that I wanted to keep developing.

Ben JOhns with LAB choir

Were you in any bands or groups growing up?
I was never in a band or orchestra or anything like that. The only extra group I was a part of is called Galena Street East. We were a choreographed choral group, kind of like a show choir. I was in a couple of men’s a cappella groups and such, but never any rock bands. The closest thing that came to a band was when some of the Chanticleer guys and I played at a Harry Potter-themed Halloween event. I was able to play simple bass lines on the electric bass, and we changed the lyrics to some pop songs [to fit the theme]. For example, for “Eye of the Tiger” we changed it to “Eye of the Hippogriff.” It was pretty nerdy. For the most part, I did choirs, musical theatre, and operas, and not really any kind of rock bands. My pop music phase was pretty short, and I only really listened to it because my friends listened to it. There are some things in pop music that interest me, but the interest is quite temporary, mostly because classical music is more dense and is deeper. There are various pop artists from the ‘60s that I would go back to, and I have found their music to be quite complex. But most pop music today, I get bored of after a couple listens.

Do you write or compose your own music?
I’m not really great at composing my own music because there are too many possibilities. I’m not good at setting up all the rules on my own and confining it. I can create music that is given to me with an assigned set of boundaries and requirements, but the freedom of composing whatever I want overwhelms me. On rare occasion an idea hits me fully formed, and it’s just a matter of putting it on the page, that is an amazing experience.

When you work on a piece of music with a choir, how do you make it sound the way you want it? How do you make it Ben’s Choir?
There are a couple of answers to that question. The most correct answer is being familiar with the style of the time period and composer of the piece. Knowing the style of the time period as well as the the location where the piece originates will help you understand how the composer was influenced and how the piece was intended to sound. As the conductor/director, you are supposed to make all those decisions before you go into the rehearsal. I also like to turn it around and allow the choir to experience it for themselves and have them develop a sense of how they feel it should go. When we have a good combination of both, we can make music that is personal, meaningful, and engaging for the singers as well as the audience that we perform for. The worst answer to this question, which is inevitably a little bit true, is trying to recreate past experience with a piece. A certain lesson that I’ve had to learn several times, and I still keep learning, is when I encounter a piece and I remember how amazing a certain performance of that piece was, I then try to recreate it with a different group of singers. I’ve come to realize that this is a really dissatisfying way to make music because that moment is gone and it is impossible to recreate again. Sure, the piece can be performed again, but you will have to accept that it will be different. If you go into the piece with a certain expectation, the people you are working with now do not have the same connection as you did. And I guess the end goal is to find the purpose of why you are performing the piece, and let that guide you.

Ben JOhns with Musae

What are you working on now?
I have two main jobs. I am currently the director of education for Chanticleer. That job includes going around to Bay Area schools doing workshops and directing the LAB choir. Much of my work with Chanticleer is planning and organizing-administrative. Most of the artistic work that I get to do is during LAB rehearsals on the weekends. I also direct the all-women choir Musae. The ladies in Musae are mostly singers who were once involved in music but decided on another career path. They also perform mostly without a conductor.

Are you happy with where you are musically at the moment? Where do you see yourself in five or six years?
For the most part, I am happy with where I am musically, but I am always haunted by the idea that I can be better. That causes me to never settle with the level I am at and to always push myself. In five to six years, I would like to already be enrolled in a doctorate program. I would also hope to still be directing at least two choral groups, and it would be great if I could still be involved with the LAB choir. Ultimately, I would like to be teaching at a university as a director of choral activities. That has been my vision for a while. When I transitioned from being in the Chanticleer ensemble to education, that is where I really saw myself.

Interview by Sarah Ma

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