Profile – Ben Lathbury, choral conductor, concert pianist and lecturer

Who or what were the main influences on your decision to pursue a career in music?

Right from a young age I was good at the piano, though at one stage I did fancy becoming a paramedic or a doctor. My uncle Tony was (and still is) a paramedic and I think I wanted to be one ever since I could say it! I read for an Undergraduate and subsequently a Master’s degree in Music Performance at the University of Chichester, followed by a PGCE and four years teaching Performing Arts at the Chichester Free School.

Whilst I was studying at Chichester, I was most fortunate in having mentors for piano in Duncan Honeybourne and Jonathan Plowright. Why were they so good? Going to university, I think I’d suffered something of a setback after initially being rejected from Music College. Duncan did a tremendous job building my confidence back up, and then when I started with Jonathan in my 3rd year and Masters year, he balanced me back in the other direction, myself having possibly become a little too over-confident and cocky! They’re also both superb pianists who were very generous with their time. I’d also like to mention the excellent input from my academic advisor Arthur Robson who has helped me to make inspiring choices of repertoire and who has guided me on conducting skills.

So how did it all develop from here?

In 2015 I was appointed Director of Music at Holy Trinity Church, Bosham. One thing led to another, and I have steadily built up my portfolio of musical activities, as described in my bio below. It’s all very varied and enjoyable.

How would you describe your musical language?

Stephen Hough once said, “the notes are the language, but as a performer, you must speak your own words.” I am always looking to bring something new to the table, and to take risks, especially if the work is well-known.

I’ve adopted this approach recently when I conducted Messiah with Portsmouth Festival Choir in March. I listened to many recordings of it, which made me make innovative choices over things like grace notes, tempi, dynamics and general musical colourings.

And what about your latest repertoire?

I’ve enjoyed making my daily music videos, as described below. Listen to #31 Hello (The Book of Mormon) which bears out my love of musical theatre, all 10 voices! Or listen to #42 Kiss the Bairns, which I have been rehearsing with two of my choirs recently. I’m thrilled that Eric Whitacre loved my rendering of his piece This Marriage (#22).

Pulling this all together every day has been a challenge technically and vocally – there’s only so long one can sing falsetto! But on occasion I have enlisted the support from friends, such as music student Kiera in #29 and #45.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Rachmaninov has been a huge influence on me since the age of 15. I was thrilled to have performed his Piano Concerto No.2 in Bosham church to a packed audience last year.

I also regularly perform in the Chichester Chamber Ensemble with Natalia Corolscaia (violin) and Laura Ritchie (cello), which is a great pleasure. As a pianist, I didn’t have a huge amount of opportunities when I was growing up to play in an ensemble setting, so being able to work with other really high calibre musicians in my professional life is a real pleasure. One of our biggest challenges has probably been Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio, which we have performed three times together and is always a joy.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

Don’t be afraid to take on other work to subsidise what you love to do, especially when you are starting out. You’ve got to try many different things and put yourself out there widely, so perseverance is a virtue. There are so many different things one can do as a musician, be it performing, teaching, conducting, composing; the list goes on. One of the things I love about my particular work pattern is that it’s very rare for two days to be the same in any given week. As somebody who occasionally has a short attention span, this works well for me!

I used to think that doing gigs for free was something that should never ever be done under any circumstances. The reality is it’s far more complicated than that. The key thing to keep in mind, though, is not to undersell yourself, and to value your time accordingly. I might agree to do a gig for free if it is going to be “professionally valuable” – an opportunity to play an exceptional piano, for example, or to ingratiate myself with a colleague or employer.

But I would warn people against falling into the trap of a generic “working for exposure”; I haven’t tried it myself, but I have it on good authority that exposure won’t pay your mortgage. Professional musicians should be paid, and regularly accepting work that doesn’t pay undermines our industry – one that is generally quite poorly paid anyway.

How would you define success as a musician?

I’m a strong advocate of the philosophy that success is categorically not defined by how much money one earns. If I did think that, I wouldn’t have become a musician. There’s an almost moronically simplistic notion that so much of our capitalist society seems to live by that is “whoever gets out with the most money at the end is the winner”.

For me, success is being able to pick and choose what one does and still be comfortable. I probably spend 20-30 hours a week (depending on the time of year) actively “working” as a musician in some capacity or other, and manage quite comfortably. This gives me time to pursue other interests I have, such as magic, computer programming and writing (some of which doubles up as work from time to time insofar as they generate income), as well as giving me the time to give clear focus and dedication to my personal relationships, especially with my wife and stepson.

Music for Lockdown

During the lockdown, I have pledged to produce one music video on YouTube each day.
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They comprise solo piano works, choral classics and even some musical theatre favourites.

These are mainly as a way of maintaining some semblance of normality and also to give me something to do. As the lockdown has gone on, the videos have gradually become more complex, starting out with solo piano pieces, moving onto solo singing pieces and now even 4-part choral harmony and one-man polyphony.

The choral videos, in particular, have proven to be very popular, and it’s really pleasing to see them bringing joy to so many people at this very challenging time, especially given that so many people are cut off from making music in whatever capacity they are used to.

Since my performing and conducting work has taken a substantial hit since the lockdown, I have set up a Patreon page in the hope that some people may be willing and able to help support me through this challenging time.

Ben Lathbury is an award-winning musician, originally from the Midlands. Following early success in numerous competitions, Ben moved to Sussex in 2006 to study at the University of Chichester, where he established himself as a pianist of considerable talent.

In 2009, Ben received a scholarship to fund his Master’s degree in Music Performance, studying with international pianist Jonathan Plowright. Since its completion, Ben has won a number of competitions, given dozens of solo recitals and has appeared as a special guest soloist with orchestras across the UK. He has been recognized as a champion of 20th century American repertoire; his interpretation of Leroy Anderson’s Concerto in C garnered critical acclaim and his performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue earned him a nomination for “Best Classical Act” in the 2017 Guide Awards and have been hailed as “magnificent”.

In addition to his talent as a pianist, Ben is widely respected as a choral conductor, organist, and singer. Recent engagements have included performances of Handel’s Messiah, Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, Fauré’s & Rutter’s Requiems, Stainer’s Crucifixion and Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise. He is Director of Music at Holy Trinity Church in Bosham and Musical Director for a number of local choral groups. In 2016, Ben founded the Music in Bosham recital series and in May 2018 he was appointed to the post of Musical Director for Portsmouth Festival Choir. In 2019 he became an Associate Lecturer in Piano at the University of Chichester.

Today, Ben lives in Rose Green with his wife Megan, stepson Dylan, their dog Hermione and their two cats, Persephone & Ozymandias. In his spare time, Ben enjoys theatre, chess, writing and computer programming. He has a particular passion for choral and piano music featured in video games and often incorporates such works into his programmes.

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