iSing profiles Gregory Batsleer, a young choir conductor on a mission to bring the joys of singing and the beauty of choral music to a wider audience.
Gregory Batsleer’s list of achievements is impressive – and he’s not yet turned 30. Batsleer joined Manchester Boys’ Choir at the age of eight, and later the Royal Northern College of Music’s Junior Department and the Hallé Youth Choir. Seduced by the English choral tradition, he began conducting while in sixth form and won a scholarship to Princeton where he conducted the prestigious university’s Chapel Choir. Upon his return to England at age 20, he took up the post of conductor of the Hallé Youth Choir. At 21, he began conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) Chorus. At 23, he became the Director of Choirs at Manchester University. At 24, he took up the coveted mantle of Artistic Director of the Choir in Residence at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and, at 25, he added the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) Chorus to his remarkable list of creative endeavours. In 2016 he became the Choral Director of the Huddersfield Choral Society. Batsleer has also collaborated with many pop acts including Elbow, Clean Bandit, James, New Order and Tim Burgess.
What drives your passion for singing?
Gregory Batsleer: There are so many things about singing that you can bring into the everyday. You can’t do music without listening. By its very nature, music requires people to listen and appreciate other people. Even as a soloist, you have to appreciate other people because you’re doing it for someone else.
People often make their greatest friends through music. Sharing a creative endeavour with someone requires you to drop your barriers and, in essence, become naked, particularly through singing because you have no instrument to hide behind. You are saying, ‘Look, this is who I am’.
Has your age ever been an issue when working with older singers?
GB: You must have complete respect for the people you are working for, and then a mutual respect for what you are aiming to achieve together. Offer constructive thoughts and create an environment where everyone can contribute equally, then age becomes irrelevant. The problem comes with dictating to someone who has been singing a piece for longer than you’ve been alive.
How can choral singers bring personality to a performance?
GB: It’s less to do with the sound and more to do with the thought process. Do they mean it? Are they committed to the words? Are they being artists and conjuring something up? If you think like that, your singing will have more immediacy. You want people to take individual responsibility for what they’re singing and not wait for someone else to do the communication. You don’t ever want the music to sound mannered. It must always sound live. A danger of classical performance is that it has all the blend and precision without communication and therefore it’s meaningless. Sometimes art needs to be risky and dangerous.
What can the “worlds” of classical and contemporary singing can learn from each other?
GB: The classical world has to work against tradition, which includes a tradition of not having vocal coaches for choirs. The contemporary world is much more open to sharing and developing itself, which requires self-confidence, and I would love to see more of that in the classical world.
Do you find singers are reluctant to have vocal coaching out of fear tuition will alter their sound?
GB: A lot of singers try and sing repertoire that is too big for them without guidance. For example, Verdi requires much more weight in the voice than Mozart. Someone might take on that role, seeing it as some kind of promotion, and force their way through it. To sing Verdi by trying to replicate the way you sing Mozart, instead of training with a coach, means you’ll land yourself in vocal trouble. There is an understanding in the classical world that a ‘natural gift’ is the start of a journey, but if you don’t train – and soon – the gift will run out. If you get the right coach, you can turn that into a gift for life. In the amateur choral world, which is dominant in the UK, it’s very similar to what you’ve described, but in the professional world we’re not afraid of it at all. Really, the gift is in expressing yourself and your soul and you don’t lose that.