We spoke to Ben England BEM (BA 1998), recipient of the 2022 Alumni Award for Community Engagement and Impact, to hear about his time at Bristol, his desert island disc and how he used music to keep people connected during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
On growing up
I’m originally from Romford, which is just east of London. My father was a carpenter and the first thing he would do when he got into his workshop was turn his enormous stereo on. He loved music and would listen to a lot of rock music: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and singer songwriters like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. My mum was more interested in classical music. She played the piano and loved listening to Edvard Grieg and Vivaldi. One of my earliest memories is sitting at her feet as a toddler, looking up at her while she played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It was one of the first things I taught myself to play.
Arriving in Bristol
Going to the University of Bristol was a dream come true. Until that point, most of the music I learnt was self-taught. When I got to Bristol, there was music and opportunity everywhere. I arrived on the Monday of Fresher’s Week, in September 1995, and two days later I was singing on stage at St George’s with the Church Choir. As a student I sang with the Chamber Choir and the University Choral Society and I was in the University Singers. I also conducted the Chamber Choir and three Opera Society shows. It was essential to me that wherever I went to university, there had to be a good singing community.
I was offered a full grant to go to Bristol, which was amazing as I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go otherwise. As a student from a very poor working-class background, I had to work very hard to overcome my feelings of imposter syndrome. But I was absolutely in love with the idea of leading music and I came to the University determined to become a conductor.
I wouldn’t have met my wife Ana-Marie were it not for music! We met as choristers in the University Singers and she also conducted in my third year of the University Madrigal Ensemble. She has spent the last 20 years as a medic, but she is also a concert pianist and we’ve put on many concerts together with me conducting and her playing. Our children love music too. There’s no doubt that our lives would be completely different were it not for music at Bristol.
Before Covid, I was a freelance conductor in the southwest. In early March 2020, I was leading a choir rehearsal in Thornbury and was approached by a lady who I hadn’t seen for some weeks because her husband had recently died. She grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘I nearly didn’t come today but I am so glad I did. This choir is my lifeline.’ A week later, I got a call to say all the choirs were shutting down ahead of a national lockdown. My first thought was of this lady and all the other people who rely on the choirs. I could sit down and watch Netflix and finally sort out the garage, I thought, or I could do something to change the world.
I started out by recording myself on a camera phone teaching a simple song called I’m going to Sing, Sing, Sing which I put on YouTube. Within three days I had a couple of hundred subscribers and within a week I had the best part of one thousand. By the end of the first fortnight, I’d put together a piece sung by people from all over the world, for the Today programme on Radio 4. Homechoir has just had its second anniversary with nearly 3000 subscribers. Those first few weeks were so exciting and so terrifying but I think we hit on something really special.
On Handel’s Messiah with Choir of the Earth
Quarantine Choir was designed to generate a sense of community and make people laugh. It became clear, though, that people wanted to sing the classics as well.
I was approached by chorister Mark Strachan BEM, who wanted to record a lockdown choir singing Handel’s Messiah. I listened to the first lines of the piece – ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’ – and the realisation hit me like a bolt of lightning: this is what the world needs. Three thousand people signed up to rehearsals on the first day. I taught myself how to live stream on YouTube over the weekend, and rehearsals began every night of the week, Monday to Friday. It was my job to turn up, regular as clockwork, be lovely and inspire everyone and assure them that everything was going to be alright.
People all over the world were getting up in the middle of the night to join the live rehearsals. They would send messages on the live chat while we were singing – ‘thank goodness for this project, I’m on my own and I haven’t seen another soul for months’ or ‘this is so beautiful, I’m crying’. It took a lot of soul searching before I went out onto the internet because I’m not naturally the centre of attention, but to get these messages was such a confidence boost because I could see how meaningful the work was. It became a virtuous circle between me and the choirs; they have changed my life.
Music and community
Music is a really powerful creative act. It generates community because everyone loves music; it’s a universal language and it is fundamentally collaborative. I put these choirs out into the world and a community arose around them. They all look out for each other and they are immensely supportive.
Music has always been a big part of what I do, but the focus for me as a conductor is about empowering people. If they are feeling powerful and happy, then together we can create a lovely atmosphere which I hope they and the audience can keep with them forever.
Desert Island Discs
If I was stranded on a desert island and only able to take one piece of music with me, I would take Choir of the Earth’s performance of Patrick Hawes’ Quanta Qualia, with Sophie Burrows playing saxophone. It represents to me everything that the human spirit is capable of when the chips are down. The opening lyrics translate to mean ‘oh my soul, wait. How great and wonderful the joys of the meeting will be’ which had special resonance during lockdown.
What does the Alumni Award mean to you?
It is a huge honour to be the recipient of this year’s Alumni Award for Community Impact and Engagement. Throughout my life I’ve tried to share what I learned in Bristol with the people I teach. Until I met my wife and we built our family, nothing else had really built me up in the way those opportunities at the University had. Going to Bristol was a hugely significant turning point in my life and this award acknowledges what Bristol has given me more than anything else.
For more information and to listen and subscribe to Homechoir, click here. To follow Choir of the Earth, click here. To hear Dame Louise Casey’s Desert Island Discs, one of which was Choir of the Earth’s performance of Quanta Qualia, click here.
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. From highly successful tech entrepreneurs to an award-winning journalist, the 2022 winners are all inspirational leaders in their fields. You can see the full list of our 2022 winners on our website.