"There is something in our human DNA which rewards us for singing"
What Steven asked John Mountford, Director of Music at the Rochester Choral Society.
The Rochester Choral Society are a registered charity that recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. They have performed regularly in Rochester Cathedral since 1922. Steven sat down with the Director of Music, John Mountford, and asked him about the Society’s longevity, ‘Regards to Rochester’, and about the future of the organ.
Where were you born? What brought you to the Medway Towns?
I was born in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. After university, my career took me into music, firstly into the world of cathedral music as an organist, and then I chose to become a music teacher. As a cathedral musician at heart, I have a strong passion for introducing young people to that musical world. Teaching at schools with strong choral traditions has been my greatest joy. In September 2017, I took up the post of Director of Music at King’s School, Rochester. It was this that brought me to the Medway Towns.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My Dad was an engineer, and my Mum was a town planner before having children, at which point she stopped work to care for me and my sisters. When we were all a bit older, she actually retrained as a primary school teacher. Both my parents are musical. My Dad plays the piano and my Mum used to play the cello but now enjoys singing in various choirs instead.
How did you find school and university?
I really loved my school. I was lucky to attend a brilliant comprehensive school in Hemel Hempstead, the same one my dad went to 30 years earlier. The school had an amazing music department. It had its own building which made it feel like a special place. I got involved in county music too, playing with the county brass group. Being at a school that valued music gave me lots of opportunities that began to shape my future trajectory in life. That experience led me to study Music at the University of Bristol. I had a brilliant time at university, both socially and academically. I was lucky enough to be involved in yet another wonderful music department and also held the post of Organ Scholar whilst there. Bristol was a really exciting place to be a student and I believe it still is!
Apart from teaching at King’s School, what other roles do you have?
I direct the Rochester Choral Society, which is the reason why we are chatting today, and I play the organ at Higham Church. I’m also daddy to my two wonderful children.
What does an average day entail for you?
Oh gosh, well I don’t think I really have an average day as each day is different, but I suppose lots of my days have many similarities. On a school day, each morning starts as a whole school, either in the cathedral for a chapel service, or an assembly or ‘Congo’ (hymn practice) together in school hall. There is usually a musical element to the start of each day which is always uplifting. Then the rest of the day involves a mix of teaching academic music lessons, ensemble rehearsals, meetings and the daily nuts and bolts of running a music department. My evening commitments vary day to day depending on what concerts and events we have coming up, but Tuesday evenings are always a constant as it is the time when I get to stand up in front of a wonderful group of people to conduct and rehearse Rochester Choral Society. The best thing about my various roles is that no two weeks are the same. I’ve been here now for six and a half years, and I am still waiting for a quiet week!
What instruments do you play?
Well, as a child my first instrument was the trumpet and then I also took up the piano before eventually taking up the organ. I was lucky enough to have a very talented vicar at our parish church when growing up who happened to be a fabulous organist from whom I learned so much. He was a brilliant organ teacher and it was with his encouragement that I applied for the organ scholarship at university. All three instruments are a big part of my musical life, but I also enjoy singing and have been seen popping up in the Cathedral Choir on occasion. I’m also a conductor.
The organ is a very traditional instrument. Are there new things happening with the organ?
That’s a really interesting question and a hard one to answer in just a few words. The instrument itself has fundamentally remained the same since the first organ was built back in the third century BC, but to put it simply, yes, there are lots of new things happening in the organ world. Recently there has been a lot of new music composed for the organ, including jazz, lots of which really stretches the instrument and player to their limits in terms of the different sounds and music created. Popular players like Anna Lapwood have been included in all sorts of musical events, including a Bonobo rave! It’s a really versatile instrument - a bit like having an orchestra under your fingers and feet. The Royal College of Organists does a lot of work to promote the organ to the next generation of players who themselves will bring new ideas and change to the organ world.
You are also a conductor. What does a conductor actually do?
I think a lot of people look at what a conductor does and think that the conductor’s role is to keep the pulse, keeping people playing together. That is certainly one of the jobs of a conductor but there is much more to it than that. The conductor decides the interpretation of the piece being performed and inspires everyone to perform it in that particular way. A conductor also needs to have the vision and the organisational skills to bring together a concert and decide the repertoire to be performed, making sure it is suited to the choir or ensemble, plan and rehearse the repertoire before you get anywhere near to a performance. On concert day, the conductor provides the energy for a performance to happen, and yes, keeps everyone singing and playing together at the right time and in the right musical spirit.
Do you remember the first time you performed at Rochester Cathedral?
Yes! I remember being pretty daunted. It’s a very welcoming venue, but it’s also pretty imposing the very first time you come to perform in that space. I always feel a weight of responsibility, thinking of the hundreds of musicians who have performed in the space before me over the centuries. It’s impossible to be there without reflecting on that. The other thing that went flooding through my mind was ‘how lucky I am to be in this position.’
What is the Rochester Choral Society?
Rochester Choral Society is a very friendly choir, currently around 80 people strong who love coming together to sing. It has an amazing history, not least that it’s been going since 1873! We meet up to rehearse every Tuesday night and work towards a concert at the end of the term. New singers are always very welcome! It is a strong group, and like all choirs we have faced some challenging times over the last few years to keep the choir performing and alive. Everyone pulled together and it survived the pandemic remarkably well. During the periods of lockdown the choir worked on a number of online concert projects, involving people sending in individual videos of them singing their voice part for a piece of music which I then brought together on a computer to create some super concerts. We even rehearsed online! Our lockdown concerts of Mozart Requiem and Vivaldi Gloria are both still online to be enjoyed. Our next concert coming up in February is a monumental project as we are taking on the Bach Matthew Passion, details of which you will find on our website. It is going to be a once in a lifetime experience for many of us in the choir, performing such a special piece of music.
How can people join?
We rehearse on Tuesday evenings during term-time, including half-term, from 7.30pm to 9.30pm at the Vines Church. You are welcome to come for a couple of weeks to see if you would like to sing in the choir. After that, speak to the Membership Secretary and they will arrange for you to have a simple voice assessment with me, either during the break or after a rehearsal. This is partly to see which voice part you should sing and the best place to seat you. Members are expected to attend at least 75% of rehearsals if they intend to sing in a concert.