Roderick Williams and English Song
"People have asked me in the past 'What was your big break?', and I don’t think I had one. I just worked slowly and incrementally in a way really satisfying for me."
Ex-Magdalen College choral scholar, and now widely acclaimed baritone, Roderick Williams should need little introduction to those with even a passing interest in soaring choral performance.
Ahead of his concert at Birmingham Town Hall, conducted by the outstanding Patrycja Pieczara, Jack Rayner spoke to Roderick about pre-show rituals, career progression, and death metal…
Hi Roderick. Could you tell us how your life led you into being a professional singer?
It was partly down to my parents and my brother. My parents brought us up on classical music, but are not musicians themselves, and they actually now live in Oxford, as I did when I was younger – they now live up in Headington. The reason why we relocated from London is that my elder brother was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral. Naturally, my parents were regularly in Oxford visiting him, including at Christmas because of the festive services the children have to sing, and so on. When I was about seven years old, I joined my brother there, and although I never joined the Cathedral choir, I was a chorister at Exeter College. Even at that age, you are almost treated like a professional singer – you have to be prepared, do rehearsals, and get on with it in the same way.
What is it like to be under that sort of expectation at that age? Do you just get used to it, and is that why all the choral scholars are so good?
Yes, that’s exactly what happens. Most of the choral scholars that I knew at the time would have been trebles at some point, so let’s say between the ages of seven and 13, if you’re used to that kind of life and routine, it doesn’t strike you as being odd. Then what usually happens is when your voice breaks and you go back to singing as a young adult – I was a choral scholar at Magdalen College – you snap straight back into a routine which you already recognise. I’ll also say this: the duties you’re given really give you a pattern whilst being a student. When you leave school for the first time you can go to university and there are no rules, particularly in an arts degree like mine. There’s very little pressure for you to get up in the morning. At all! So, as a choral scholar, I was expected to be at a certain place at a certain time and to be prepared and treated as a professional. That gave me a sense of self-discipline which I suppose I still carry to this day.
Was it quite a linear progression from choral scholar to professional baritone?
No, it wasn’t a linear progression because I was so gauche that I didn’t realise that singing existed as a career. I went to university expressly with the idea of becoming a music teacher – that’s why I went to a university that could give me a very broad musical education. I spent the first few years of my professional life teaching at a boys’ school in Kingston-upon-Thames, and it was only after some of my old choral scholar friends went into singing and I watched their example that I realised that singing was possible as a career. You know as well as I that being a musician is not exactly promoted as a career choice at most schools. It was only after I’d taught for three years or so that it occurred to me that I might like to try this out, initially as a choral singer, and I was almost 30 by the time I retrained at the Guildhall School of Music, almost on a whim because it looked like a fun course. There, I discovered that I really quite enjoyed singing opera, and prancing around in other people’s clothes.
Was there a watershed performance, if you will, where you thought “This is going to work out for me”?
No, there wasn’t. People have asked me in the past “What was your big break?”, and I don’t think I had one. I just worked slowly and incrementally in a way that has been really satisfying for me. I’ve had enormous fun with this career, doing wonderful concerts in wonderful places, but it’s very difficult to pick out a single concert as ‘the moment of recognition’.
You’re about to play Birmingham Town Hall. How much does the performance space itself affect your performance?
There are a lot of things that affect the performance in the moment, and the space is certainly one of them – the acoustics, the ambience, and so on – but the audience also has an effect: whether anyone’s turned up, for example, and whether they appear to be enjoying themselves. As a singer, you tend to face the audience, as opposed to being an orchestral musician where you tend to face inwards towards your music stand and the conductor, so for me, singing is a much more presentational thing, and the audience’s reactions to my singing has an immediate effect. If they all sit there with their arms folded looking grumpy, then I often assume that they’re not enjoying themselves – but I’ve come to realise that a lot of people have a ‘classical music listening face’, and that face can sometimes be something of a scowl. I’ve had experiences in the past where someone who seems to be having a really bad time has come up to me at the end of a concert and said, “That was a beautiful evening, thanks very much.” So I’ve had to work out that sometimes when it looks like people are having a bad time, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are!
So as a man of your standing that does look into these occasionally scowling faces, how do you feel before a show?
I try not to have too many rituals, because I feel that if, for whatever reason, you don’t get the chance to through that ritual, then you find yourself mentally unprepared. Before a performance, I will try and sing a little, and I prefer to have a little quiet and space by myself – but then again, if I’m sharing a dressing room with performers then I may be laughing and joking in the wings almost just before I go straight on stage. I certainly don’t have my dressing room table covered with pots of manuka honey or whatever it is.
Outside of the classic realm, is there any popular music you enjoy? Are you a big death metal fan, or particularly into industrial techno?
I like a wide range of music – I’d call myself a classic Radio 2 listener. The thing about listening to the radio is that I suffer dreadfully from earworms, so it’s often nice to be distracted by something else. What I sometimes find difficult is actively deciding to put on a particular song, so what’s great for me is to have a radio station, for example, where someone else decides what it is I’m listening to. One issue with being a self-employed singer is that it’s possible to be working at any moment in the day, going through things in my mind and committing things to memory, and so on. I feel a little guilty if I’m not spending a certain amount of time on learning music or looking at scores, so I had to learn how to switch off and relax, otherwise my brain will just keep ticking over. In terms of pop music, if it has some good harmonies and rhythms and it’s done well, then it appeals to me greatly. If it’s done in a slapdash way and it’s uninteresting, I find that irritating – but I don’t mind what style of music it is, to an extent. You asked if I was a death metal fan – when I hear the aggressive vocal style employed there, I find it difficult to listen to because I feel for the singers’ throats. How they do that three nights in a row... it has to be catastrophic for the voice.
The reason I specified death metal is that I’ve previously spoken to musicians who have drawn comparisons between the sheer musical technicality of many ends of the spectrum – whether it’s classical, jazz, or death metal.
I’ll tell you one thing I do recognise: it’s now my intention to be singing for at least the next ten – and if I’m lucky, 20 – years, and in the heavy metal area of the spectrum or even singer-songwriters like Adele, I would also wish lengthy careers on them. So, if I can hear that when they sing they are doing something to their throats that may cause problems, then I feel certain sadness for them. It’s all about a career, rather than ‘the job in hand’. Do it in a way that means you can keep doing it.
That makes perfect sense. As my final question, where do you go from here?
Well, gosh, that’s a very interesting question because at this ripe old age, I’m not quite sure what the answer is. There are various, slightly heavy operatic roles that I could be looking at, but I’m not sure if I should be looking at them; it’s just a choice of repertoire, really. I know, as I said to you just now, that I’ve got a decade or two of singing left, and then it may well be that writing music takes over, or coaching younger singers. I know, at least, that I’ve enjoyed my career immensely and profoundly, and I just hope that I can enjoy the next 20 years just as much.
Roderick Williams performs at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday 14 February.
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