Gramophone guest blog

A life in music is a continuous process of discovery

Willard WhiteWed 15th June 2016

One of Britain’s best-loved baritones, Sir Willard White, explains why he’s taken on the role of Guest Curator to help celebrate Harrogate International Festivals’ 50 year legacy

It isn’t easy. Making it. But many have said I did. However for me it is a continuous process of discovery and reappraisal. I was a boy living in Jamaica, where, in my mind, singing classical music was considered a bit sissy for a young man. I felt my path was to be a financially secure contributor to my family and community. It was fine as a pleasure exercise to sing along to American songs, calypso and ska heard on the radio.

When I was 13, I remember feeling down at heart and wanted to be in a different state of mind but had no idea what to do in order to effect this change. In this state I was inspired to sing. From my deep doldrums came a voice in my head saying 'sing'. It felt strange to sing in the heavy-hearted state. However, I explored one of the songs I used to hear on the radio. I started singing from a place which seemed lifeless and heavy, Nat King Cole's version of 'Smile'. I had the most extraordinary feeling of a psychological transformation. With hindsight this gave me a taste of a source within me which makes and has made an enormous difference to all aspects of my being. A sense of a lifting and erasing the weight of the doldrums.

At the time, I therefore thought to set my course to become an economist, I could imagine being qualified and eventually have my name emblazoned on an office door. Whilst working in an office to prepare financially for my studies, I ended up consoling myself many times by singing, in order to be relieved from the frustration of an ill-fitting office life. I remember leaving work one day and looking forward to going to a rehearsal taking place that evening. I had such a good feeling at the prospect of the rehearsal that I acknowledged the contrasting pleasure to being in the office, that I decided to explore the possibility of a singing career.

Of course, talent is the bedrock to succeeding, but so is a positive attitude and self-image. I was fortunate to have the encouragement of teachers and friends. People believed in me and encouraged me in my potential. Words of encouragement are important even at times when all that is said is not purely complimentary but constructive observations.

The hand of fate allowed me an important meeting with Lady Barbirolli, wife of the conductor, whom I met and sang for during a concert tour with her husband visiting Jamaica. She wrote me a strong letter of recommendation for starting a singing career.

We all need heroes who help us bring the stars within our reach, down to earth. Guiding influences.

Now with over 40 years’ experience and a career that has taken me to stages all over the world, it brings me tremendous pleasure to be given the opportunity of offering words which may encourage others. 

Harrogate International Festivals has, for half a century, nurtured young musicians. When I was asked to pick an artist for their 2016 Young Musician Series as Guest Curator, I chose Benedict Nelson, an exciting young British baritone who is already on a path to success. I hope being singled out will be an added source of encouragement for Ben, but also for audiences, to go and see why I picked him.

I’ll also be leading a masterclass during my time in Harrogate with three young singers, all at different stages in their career. Why? Because in the complex life of a performer if I can assist by guidance, help others brighten their light, the experience is truly profound.

Sir Willard White will be performing highlights from his appearances in Opera Houses of the world alongside hit songs from musical theatre at Harrogate’s Royal Hall on Thursday 21 July, 8pm.

He will lead a Masterclass on Friday, July 22, at Wesley Chapel at 3pm.

Sir White’s chosen Young Musician, Benedict Nelson, will perform on Saturday, July 23, at Wesley Chapel at 12pm.

For more information about the Harrogate Music Festival, visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com.

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