A musician with a passion for psalms speaks to Chai Brady about the idea behind his initiative
A London-based composer and music teacher has taken to the online world to bring sacred music and hope to people in isolation during the coronavirus emergency by posting a cleverly edited video each day of himself, and sometimes others, singing a psalm.
Ben Vonberg-Clark, a choral conductor in his parish and a professional tenor, started putting the videos online in the early days of the lockdown. So far, he has posted dozens of them and plans to keep the ‘psalmathon’ going until the lockdown is lifted.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic he says: “I’ve been quite surprised, in a nice way, about the response. I was experimenting away and I thought, what shall I do? The psalms came to mind as the obvious thing, because you know they give so much hope to people.
“There’s so much variety in the 150, and there’s so much substance in them and it speaks to people in their own way, they can interpret them in their own way, it seems to have connected with something.”
He creates the videos by making several clips of himself singing and editing them together to create a sound similar to that of a small choir.
Ben has invited others to join him and so far some of his musical friends have featured in the videos.
“I’m fairly up to date with the technological things you can do, but I hadn’t really done anything like this before. I was sort of experimenting around it in the early days of the lockdown with some Apps and things,” Ben says.
“I’m quite lucky…I’ve got quite a big range as a singer so I can sing quite a lot of the parts.”
This isn’t the first time Ben has done a psalmathon. Last year, when his childhood teacher who originally taught him how to sing the psalms developed oesophageal cancer, they decided a charity psalmathon would be an appropriate way to support him.
“He is obviously obsessed with psalms like a lot of people are, and a lot of musicians would say the benchmark of a good church choir is how they sing their psalms and how together they are,” he says.
“It was a very bad diagnosis and it didn’t look good so we thought a way of raising money potentially for him, was to sing through 150 in a row. We did that, it took 12 and half hours and it was incredibly tiring but it was a wonderful experience actually.”
The idea came to him to do a psalmathon once again on March 20, St Cuthbert’s Day – a saint that Ben is very familiar with.
“I went to Durham University and we spent quite a lot of time up by Lindisfarne were St Cuthbert did all his teaching and preaching and I just remember then that he used to walk around with his students and they’d recite the psalms together,” he says.
“He was in isolation a lot on an island off the island of Lisdisfarne and I just got the idea that him singing the psalms is giving him a sort of ritual and routine to help him through this and it seems to connect immediately to this [lockdown].
“I was thinking about him and the psalms and suddenly it seemed that this is the time for the psalms, obviously they’re read and chanted throughout the world every day, but the internet is so full of malicious content and unhelpful stuff, in a small way this can be something positive.”
From the age of seven until he was 18, Ben was in a parish choir where attendance was free. It was run by a retired schoolteacher who taught them how to sing and read music on a Friday evening.
Ben says the parish church tradition is “amazing” in the UK, but that choirs have been having trouble to keep going due to financial problems and a lot of people don’t want to do it for free.
“So I was really lucky, in the right place, in my little parish church in Essex we did all this and they sent us on this wonderful summer camp to the lake district every year in a village near Penrith and you know we connected with people in parish churches all over the country and sung Evensong every year in Carlisle Cathedral, I think that really is how I got the bug,” he says.
Being part of a choir is not an “elitist” activity, Ben insists, saying that idea “really annoys me”.
“The parish church stuff has been part of this country for hundreds of years and almost always it’s free,” he says.
He runs the choir in his parish in south London, St John the Divine in Kennington. “We’ve got eight new kids coming every week and it’s completely free to do and we don’t really select, we do auditions, but not to check quality just for commitment reasons. I just wish it was celebrated more,” Ben says.
Apart from his work conducting and teaching music and singing, he has his own singing career as a tenor performing mostly 20th-Century English music.
Ben has a choral society in south London and is hoping to organise another in Colchester in September, but that depends on when the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted.
Nowadays he is doing his best to continue engaging in the music world in a digital way; adapting to the times.
“Some choirs have the appetite to sing still so we’ve been meeting every week on the Zoom conference thing and we do a full rehearsal via that medium and I teach it in the same way I would,” he says.
“Unfortunately, because of the latency problems on the connections I have to mute them so I’m essentially doing the rehearsal on my own in a room. You can see everyone joining in. There’s quite a lot of creative ways you can sort of get people involved, it can be done, but obviously it’s no replacement of all being in the same room together. I’ve done quite a lot of singing and teachings lessons in the same way.”
“Weirdly there’s quite a lot more interest because I think a lot of people are quite nervous of singing and if you have to go to someone’s house and sing – to them it can be quite a barrier.”
Ben says the current pandemic can be an opportunity for many musicians, particularly those that teach, to use the online world to their advantage. However, like many other industries, musicians face huge obstacles and a drop – sometimes even a complete loss – of income. However, Ben does see the bright side as well.
“For me as a musician, the most tiring thing is actually just travelling around the country all the time, you’re often not in your house, you don’t see your wife for a couple of weeks at a time and being able to do quite a lot of work from home has its upsides,” he says.
“Because I’m teaching as well it makes it easier to do that. I’ve had a few people make contact; they can do it from their own house. I think this will have lasting effects on the industry, in a good way maybe, because it’ll make people realise that you can do stuff online.
“If you were purely an operatic tenor and the opera houses are closed you’ve got real problems, so I feel for them all.”
Regarding the move to online services in churches, Ben says there has been conversations about it in his parish. Parishes across the UK and Ireland have made huge strides to improve how they reach out to their congregation digitally, with many updating their websites more frequently or even getting webcams for their church.
Ben says that it can be a problem for some more elderly parishioners who don’t use the internet, “so we’re very aware of that, how we keep serving people via post and via phone calls and stuff like that”.
“But actually, there’s been a huge following of our services all over the world,” he adds.
Part of the online outreach he says are his daily psalms. Some of the discussions have also been about how they can keep their work online going even after the lockdown, not as a replacement to the church building and physical ceremonies, but how they can incorporate their increased work online on a weekly basis.
Ben says: “We had quite a poor online presence preceding this because we were doing so much work in the community. A lot of the big churches, they have very slick production teams so obviously they’re doing really quite well out of this so I think investment will have to be made by a lot of churches.
“But I think we can all help each other out, some churches don’t have the resources to do this and they’ve just been pointing other people into links and I’ve been having conversations with other choir directors as to how they can do stuff online if they want to or if not how those of us who do know how to do it can help them out in a way. We all need to muck in together.”
The work of a church musician must continue despite the lockdown, he adds.
Currently many countries in Europe and the world are faced with strict guidelines regarding the coronavirus in an effort to manage its spread. People are staying at home, socially isolating and practicing the hygiene requirements set out by the various governments in order to protect from infection. The coronavirus has certainly been affecting many who are concerned about their loved ones, with Ben saying it has been taking a toll on him as he fears for his wife’s safety. She is working with some of the most vulnerable in society.
“It’s been really hard,” he says, “my wife works around the homeless shelter, she goes into the hotels, a lot of them have guests who are homeless, so she goes in there three days a week to give them their food and give them a bit of company.
“It’s a very heart-breaking time. I’m very worried about her because she doesn’t really have the protection that they have in hospitals but they have a lot of Covid-19 positive people in the hotels. It’s been generally a very worrying time for us in the household so I’ve been doing my best as a husband – to support her really is my primary aim.”
Ben says that he feels lucky he is also able to assist people in a very practical way. He has been volunteering in his local hospice, St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, for quite a while.
“I’ve been doing the shopping for the people and giving them phone calls and stuff like that. You want to be of help as actively as possible. I find it difficult, music is a lovely thing, it’s very important but it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re actually literally helping people,” Ben says.
“I’ve found this routine, this ritual, of the psalms really quite therapeutic just for me in its own way. Obviously, I need to say the same words quite a lot of times if I’m doing four parts and you really get into the depths of it. Normally in a church you’d sing it once and it’s done, the rehearsal is very quick, whereas I’m able to spend time on stuff. However, he adds: “I’ve had some pretty low moments I tell you, I’m sure we all have.”
Despite the challenges of living through a pandemic, which has infected more than millions of people and led to the death of almost 400,000 at the time this paper went to print, Ben has hopes that there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.
“If people can slow down, if it’s possible within the remits of their work and their personal lives. Just that we all remember that you don’t quite need to charge around to the degree that we did before. I think that’s what the music and these psalms can offer, some stillness and some reflection,” he says.
“It’s about just finding that extra element in life somehow.”