Clare Hall Choir pictured at Robinson College in November 2019

“I got the bug, and the accordion was the path I followed…”

Ben de Souza shares how he got into music professionally, and reveals what our all-welcome, come-and-sing Choir is up to in 2021

Ben de Souza

I was born and brought up in Reading.
My parents are both professional musicians and my childhood was more or less wall to wall music, so it was no surprise that my brother and I both studied Music and pursued performing careers. As a child I sang in choirs, played violin in orchestras at the local music centre, and was always involved in musical goings-on at school. At the age of eight I was given an accordion and I haven’t looked back since: I got the bug, and the accordion was the path I followed.

I completed my undergraduate in Classical Accordion Performance at the Royal Academy of Music, where I studied with Owen Murray.
He founded the accordion department there in the 1980s and it is still the only music conservatoire in England to offer the classical accordion as a course. I owe Owen a great deal.

The choral scene in Cambridge is very special and a chorister’s dream

While I was in London I continued to sing in a number of choirs, and ended up trying my hand at choral conducting.
I applied for the conducting pathway on the MMus in Choral Studies course here at Cambridge, and started my studies at Clare Hall in 2018. The year-long course gave me the opportunity to study with some of the world’s finest choral musicians and to immerse myself in the unique choral tradition in Cambridge. I was singing four or five times a week in all sorts of capacities: rehearsals, chapel services, student concerts, choral masterclasses…the choral scene in Cambridge is very special and a chorister’s dream! I was a member of King’s Voices and Magdalene Chapel Choir, and was fortunate to conduct both choirs in services in their respective chapels throughout the year. While in Cambridge I also appeared live on Italian National Radio with King’s Voices, and recorded with the Choir of King’s College and Robinson College Chapel Choir.

Today, I’m a freelance accordionist and choral conductor.
As an accordionist, my work includes giving solo and chamber recitals, teaching, orchestral playing and collaborating with composers. I also run the Cumberland Ceilidh Band and play with several other bands in the south of England. Besides studying at the Academy, my accordion playing highlight has to be being part of a 5-piece accordion section with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Royal Festival Hall and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. The programme featured music by Prokofiev, and we were right in the centre of the orchestra…the sound was incredible!
I’m currently Choir Director at Clare Hall and Musical Director of Farnham & Bourne Choral Society, while I also work with choirs at the John Lewis Partnership, Finchley Children’s Music Group and Taplow Youth Choir.

Choir rehearsals as we know them don’t work on Zoom, but I think it’s so important to keep the interaction and singing going

Since its foundation in 2018, the Choir as it is today has grown in size each year.
We’ve sung at several college feasts and formals; sung an annual joint Evensong with Robinson College Chapel Choir, performed at Sing! (a Cambridge choir showcase at Magdalene); collaborated with the choir at Darwin College and, in March 2020, our choir hosted a Clare Hall Music Showcase in Clare College Chapel.

The pandemic has put the kaibosh on choral music worldwide, and Clare Hall is no exception.
We haven’t been able to meet in person since March 2020, but we’ve found alternative ways to interact. In July we produced a virtual choir recording of Standing in the Need of Prayer by Alexander L’Estrange (below), which was a piece we’d been singing for a while. At Christmas I wrote a short carol, Good-night!, for the Choir, which we again produced in virtual choir form.

The Choir is open to anyone and everyone affiliated with Clare Hall.
It’s an all-welcome, come-and-sing choir, meaning there is no requirement or expectation that any members will have previous musical or choral experience. We don’t audition our members, which takes the pressure off! Our current choir ranges from those who have done some choral singing before, to those who can’t read music and had never sung before coming to Clare Hall. All that matters is that you enjoy singing and want to have fun!

There isn’t the commitment and pressure that comes with chapel choirs — we can perform a broad range of music and get to sing at some exciting events

We’re running weekly sessions via Zoom this term.
Each week is a different musical activity — social, music Q&A, music theory session, quizzes, etc — finishing with some fun, easy singing. Choir rehearsals as we know them don’t work on Zoom, but I think it’s so important to keep the interaction and singing going, which is what these sessions allow us to do. Fatigue and boredom are definitely setting in during this third lockdown, so being able to socialise and make music in this way is a lovely thing.

What I love about our Choir is that it is very different to most choirs at Cambridge.
The majority of colleges have chapels and chapel choirs and a choral tradition that is ingrained in the college DNA. Clare Hall doesn’t have that, but that’s very exciting. There isn’t the commitment and pressure that comes with chapel choirs — we can perform a broad range of music and get to sing at some exciting events. We might sing sacred Anglican repertoire in a joint Evensong one week, and a set of folk songs the next.

Interested in joining the Choir of Clare Hall? Email Ben on bd402@cam.ac.uk

Find more of Ben’s accordion work on his Facebook page

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For media enquiries or to share your own story, please contact Clare Hall Blog’s editor, Katherine Selby, Communications & Marketing Manager

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