Be a Chorister Afternoon - for children P3 to P5.

Find out what it's like to be a chorister and part of the award-winning Choir of St Mary's Cathedral. 

Friday 15th November, 2pm to 6pm. Free. Booking essential. 

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Friday 6 September 2019

Pupil Ben makes debut in West Side Story

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In August this year, St Mary’s Music School pupil Ben Giblin performed in West Side Story, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardner, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2019. 

Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardner, for whom Bernstein was a formative influence in his early career, the production featured the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and an augmented Broadway theatre scoring as Bernstein originally intended, with a young, hand-picked cast from Scotland and America and special guest instrumentalists drawn from the worlds of jazz and musical theatre. Puerto Rican-American soprano Sophia Burgos took the role of Maria, and lyric tenor Alek Shrader played Tony. 

In this interview we asked Ben (shown in the photo above third on the left from Sir John Eliot Gardner) about his experience. 

How did you come to be involved in this production? 

I auditioned for the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) in December 2018 and in June they got in touch to ask if I was free to sing in West Side Story. It was obviously an incredible opportunity so I went to meet Sir John Eliot Gardner in the summer along with 14 others from NYCOS and we were all selected. 

Tell us about the rehearsal process? 

We had 11 days to rehearse prior to the performance. There 34 singers in total including professional opera singers and we had to learn a full set of dance moves as well as sing which I hadn’t expected. It was a bit like a scaled down full theatrical production but the orchestra was on stage throughout and a few of us had to play a number of different roles. I was a Jet for some songs and a Shark for others so I needed to make sure I was in the right place at the right time. 

We started working on choreography about nine days before the concert in the Usher Hall and began working with the SCO four days before. Each day ran from 10am to 5pm so it was really tiring. On some evenings I just collapsed when I got home.

Was it difficult swopping between roles? 

It meant I had a lot of costume changes. One of the quickest changes was between ‘Somewhere’when we had to turn around to see the dead souls of the two characters Bernardo and Riff - I had about twenty seconds to change before the next song ‘Gee, Officer Krupky’so it really kept me on my toes. Another time I had to walk off stage left and my next entrance was stage right, so I had to change costume while I was running backstage from one side to the other. A third time I had to run on stage in the fight sequence between Tony and Bernardo -  I had to sprint off stage, head all the way down the stairs and around the back and then I had to appear behind the audience and run down through them which was pretty exhausting!

Were you nervous when it came to the actual performances? 

I was expecting to be so nervous but you can’t see the audience because it’s just black, so in some ways the performances felt like any other rehearsal. It only really struck me when I ran through the audience for one of the scenes and that’s when I saw people. I saw there was no seat left unfilled, out of 2500, and it was just phenomenal. 

It’s amazing how, from one point you feel you should be nervous but on the other hand you have so much adrenaline, and you’re with your friends because we’ve been hanging out for 11 days, so there is this big feeling of camaraderie even though you didn’t know people before – so it all comes together and gets you through it. Coming out at end, the applause is ear-deafening, it’s all you can hear. It’s just an amazing feeling. 

The funny thing was I had actually bought a ticket for the concert when they first came out because it was something I really wanted to see and the next thing I know I am performing, which really astounded me. I had to give my ticket to my Mum! 

What did you take from the experience? 

It was a brilliant insight into life as a professional musician. I remember when I was on the train on the way to the first day of rehearsal, I was coming back from a flute course in Wales and trying to learn the songs and it was all a bit hectic, and it just struck me how, if you are a professional musician, you always need to do things ‘on the go’ because of pressures of time. 

I loved meeting singers from different countries. The average age of all the singers was about 22 and there were Americans from the East and West coast, Texas and California, as well as others from Scotland. I was the youngest at 16, around half were professional and the others were studying music or musical theatre. We were able to swop cultures and learn from each other and it was fun for me to have voice training in how to sing in an American accent. 

I couldn’t believe I got paid! You could say it was a professional debut and the fact I was given the opportunity to do that was amazing. A big thank you to St Mary’s Music School for my great teacher Mrs Aronson and to NYCOS for making it happen, especially Artistic Director, Christopher Bell. 

What did you learn?

How important it is to get along with your fellow musicians – you need to remember names and talk to everyone. It’s really important to be nice and get to know people, because that sets you up for future interactions and makes such a difference for the performance itself because you know and trust the people you are working with. Once you get that chemistry going and that friendship and camaraderie, it’s really special, and I’ve been able to create network of contacts for work and for my future career. 

How fun it is to be a musician – I thought it would be so much work and hassle, and it is so much work, but once all that work pays off, you get that feeling of melancholy because, on the one hand you are so happy it worked, and on the other hand you feel a bit empty because it’s over now. Being paid to do what you love is great! 

What about the next steps with NYCOS? 

Well not long after West Side Story, I was singing with NYCOS at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and we premiered a piece by Sir James MacMillan. Then we did a concert in Glasgow and sung another MacMillan piece as well as Rachmaninov’sVesperswhich is a huge choir piece which we had to sing in Russian, so the experience is great. I’ve just turned 16 so I’m hoping to stay with NYCOS as long as I can. I’d love to perform in the Carnegie Hall where NYCOS have sung before and my dream would be to sing in the Sydney Opera House. 

Has your experience changed the way you’re think about your future? 

I still don’t know what I want to do next. My first study at St Mary’s Music School is flute and singing is my second study, but it has made me consider a career in opera and singing and musical theatre because it’s so much fun. I know that school will support me whichever way I want to go so I’ve still got a bit of time to decide!


 

Ben started at St Mary’s Music School in the third term of S2 (age 13) and he is now in S5. His first study instrument is flute and he took up singing as a second study when he arrived at school. He studies singing with Margaret Aronson. 

Ben’s mother Helen Ella and his aunt Carol Ella both went to St Mary’s Music School. Helen Ella teaches music and plays flute in France and Carol Ella plays viola with the London Symphony Orchestra. 

 

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St Mary’s Music School is one of the nine specialist Music and Dance Schools the UK (and the only one in Scotland)  funded by the UK Government and providing the finest training in Britain. It is a co-educational, non-denominational specialist music school, offering a world class standard of music and academic education to musically gifted children aged 9-19 years. It is also the Choir School of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. It attracts day and boarding pupils from across Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe and internationally. 

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