Tackling stage fright and set lists with The King’s Singers’ Jonathan Howard

Since their legendary formation at King’s College, Cambridge in 1968, internationally-adored a cappella ensemble The King’s Singers have been known for their unwavering commitment to musical diversity through their popular coupling of contemporary and classical arrangements. Equally at home with renaissance church repertoire as they are with jazz, pop and folk songs from contemporary culture (think the Beatles, George Gershwin and Billy Joel), the beloved British group have played a monumental role in keeping choral music alive and relevant to audiences across the world.

Now in their fourth and fifth generation of members, The King’s Singers will be bringing their whistle-stop 50th anniversary world tour, Gold, to Robert Blackwood Hall in an exclusive one-event-only performance that will chart and celebrate the musical development of the group to date. Inspired by the ensemble’s past albums and concerts, the performance will include new commissions from Bob Chilcott and John Rutter alongside cherished renditions of Joanna and Alexander L’Estrange and Camille Saint-Saëns as well as arrangements of popular material by artists such as Lennon—McCartney and Nico Muhly.

With the group only weeks away from landing on Australian shores, we had a chat with the ensemble’s bass vocalist Jonathan Howard to talk about his foray into singing, the ensemble’s 50th anniversary and his techniques for handling stage fright.

MLIVE: When did you first start singing, and what influenced you to sing a capella music?
Jonathan Howard: All the other King’s Singers started singing in cathedrals as choristers when they were just six or seven years old. I was a bit different, though. After years of singing along to all kinds of cassettes on family car journeys, I finally joined a local community children’s choir when I was eight years old. I remember we all wore very brightly coloured T-shirts and sang songs, mainly from musicals, but I was in heaven. When I loved about a cappella music – and what compelled me to start singing a cappella music when I was at university – was the fact that you have musical control as singers in the group. We never used a conductor, and all the musical decisions came from us. That was the most rewarding thing.

MLIVE: Was it something that you were always good at?
Jonathan Howard: I’d like to think I’ve always been a reasonably good singer and musician, but I’m probably not the best person to ask! Audiences and other singers have always seemed to respond well to me, but maybe they were just being nice…

MLIVE: Tell us more about Gold, how did the compilation of pieces come together?
Jonathan Howard: Putting together our 50th Anniversary album Gold was such a fun project because it deliberately wanted to reflect the past and present, as well as giving a flavour of what’s to come in the future. There’s music from the last 500 years, and King’s Singers arrangements and commissions from all the way across the last 50, sitting alongside brand new material that’s never been heard elsewhere. With so much music to choose between, we wanted to create three CDs that were each beautiful and musical journeys in their own right, rather than just a compilation of music that’s been flung together. As a consequence, there’s likely to be music that even our most loyal fans won’t have known in there – which is absolutely what we wanted!

‘…we wanted to create three CDs that were each beautiful and musical journeys in their own right, rather than just a compilation of music that’s been flung together.’

MLIVE: How do The King’s Singers decide on a set list, does it differ from country to country?
Jonathan Howard: Set lists for concerts absolutely differ from country to country. Not only do we have music in lots of languages – which we can tailor to audiences across the world – but we also see that different audiences respond to music in different ways. It takes a while to understand a country and know what fits best in each concert. In terms of then building a set list, the important thing is to work out how you want the audience to feel at every point during your concert. You then choose the order of your pieces to heighten that emotional journey.

MLIVE: If you could choose any song to arrange and perform, what would it be?
Jonathan Howard: That’s a really, really hard question. I’d love to work with James Blake in the future, as I think he has such a phenomenal understanding of harmony, but choosing the song right now would be an impossible ask.

MLIVE: What are your warm up and rehearsal processes like?
Jonathan Howard: Because we do so many concerts every year, everyone has their own rituals for keeping their voices in good health and getting them ready for a concert. In terms of rehearsing, people who come to sit in on our rehearsals are always astounded by how little singing takes place versus how much talking there is. As there’s no leader in The King’s Singers – we’re an equal partnership – we listen to what everyone has to say about how we perform a piece and then try to work out what the best option is. It can take quite a lot of time, but it’s essential.

MLIVE: Do you still get nervous before concerts, if so, how do you handle stage fright?
Jonathan Howard: If you’re someone like me who loves being on stage, then the thrill of giving a concert never goes away. I’m always excited and have butterflies, although I’m not sure I’m ever really nervous any more. If you’re really well prepared and you’ve looked after your voice, then there’s no reason to be nervous. And the good kind of butterflies give you the adrenalin you need to give a really meaningful performance. So the whole thing comes down to being able to handle your emotions in the right way.

The King’s Singers: Gold 50th Anniversary
Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University
4 March 2018