“Take any opportunity to learn”: Q&A with Richard Hills

Richard Hills is Vivamus’ accompanist and associate director of music. A Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and widely praised for his mastery across genres, Richard has been acclaimed for his performances and recordings both in the UK and overseas.

Vivamus is delighted and proud to work with Richard, and we couldn’t pass up the chance to find out more about him. Here, Richard talks to us about his music career, his thoughts on learning and developing – and his opinions on stationery.

How did your journey into music begin?

Growing up I lived with my grandparents, who had an upright piano keyboard in their house. They weren’t musicians themselves, but it was the kind of time and place where everyone had a piano in their house by default. By the time I was two, I was picking out all the melodies I’d heard, from hymns at the local church to Beatles songs on the radio. A few years later, when I was around five or six, it was clear music was a serious thing for me.

I don’t know whether there’s such a thing as a musical “gene”; however I do know my great-grandfather was a natural musician. I never met him, but I’ve heard about how he’d play the accordion and sing in the evenings, despite being a farmer who never had the chance for any formal musical training. If I inherited my skill from anywhere, then it’s probably from him. We all knew, though, that simply having a natural affinity wouldn’t be enough for me – I was keen to learn properly, and develop my technique. Our church organist was also the local piano teacher, and I began lessons.

For secondary school I was at the local comprehensive, but towards the end of Year 8, the school told my family that they couldn’t give me what I needed to thrive musically. They encouraged me to apply for a scholarship at the Rochester private school. Luckily I got a place, and could continue learning music in an optimised environment.

You could argue there were differences between my background and those of others at school, but I’m glad to say that in my experience, it never mattered. We always focused on making music, and our skills and enjoyment in doing so. Being good at something, and dedicated to it, brings people together.

You juggle so many different roles and responsibilities – how do you maintain such a demanding schedule?

It can be hard. During the pandemic, when opportunities to record and perform music dwindled, I took on teaching work. I absolutely love it – but now I have that to consider, alongside everything else.

These days, I rely heavily on my diary. I write down absolutely everything I need to do, from concerts to meetings – and even slots for personal reflection time. With everything else I have to do, I sometimes forget to simply make music, and enjoy it. So it’s helpful to have periodic reminders to make the time for that.

Being organised in this way didn’t come naturally to me – it took a lot of learning. I’d say it was about five years before I finally felt comfortable with all the schedules and planning. But it helps immensely. Plus, I love stationery, so it’s nice to have a good reason to pick out new notebooks and pens!

All that being said, I’m only human. Naturally, sometimes, a plate will get dropped here and there. I hate letting people down, but I find that being honest about my limitations really helps. People are very understanding, and don’t expect perfection from you at all times. It’s okay to not always achieve everything you intended to. As long as you’re open about it, and equally accepting when someone else is struggling, then things tend to work out well regardless.

Are you affected by nerves before a big performance, and if so, how do you handle them?

I’ve had many lucky breaks. My solo Prom was a definite highlight, as have been other Proms with orchestras. I’ve been fortunate to be in the presence of such great conductors and musicians, and every time I am, I consider it a career highlight. But music can be a bit like swimming – you can be so focused, you wind up lost in your own world. That can lead to a lot of pressure, and the idea that the higher up you get, the further you have to fall.

I believe bad nerves come from not being sufficiently prepared, and so I ensure to prepare as much as I can. That being said, I still get apprehensive – it’s normal not to be totally calm right before a big performance.

Through my teaching and coaching work, I’ve learned so much about how people’s brains are wired differently. From stepping back and developing that insight into other people, I’ve also gotten to know myself a lot better.

Now, because I know how my body and brain react, I can plan ahead. For example, sometimes my fingers can go cold at the beginning of a performance – as an organist, it’s extremely frustrating! But I ensure to put more fiddly pieces later in the programme, so I’ll be warmed up by the time I reach them. I think it takes a couple of movements before anyone’s truly settled in a performance, but by the third movement, you’re much more relaxed.

Do you have any advice for current or aspiring musicians?

First of all: take any opportunity to learn. There’s always something more you can learn, and with so many resources online, it’s never been easier. Listen to recordings of pieces you’re preparing. Look up instructive YouTube videos – like I did when I needed to learn Logic Pro, Sibelius, and even a bit of ukelele for my Year 2 class! Even the most accomplished musicians can always find something to learn, something to improve. When teaching piano, I always devote time to scales, arpeggios and sight reading, because even the most talented natural musicians will always be held back if they don’t have a good grasp of technique. Any skill, such as sight singing, will always have room for improvement – but the more you practise, the more it will improve.

Secondly, don’t be afraid. Don’t hold yourself back, whether it’s deciding to join a choir or singing loudly in rehearsal. The point of rehearsals is to make mistakes. It’s not a performance – you’re supposed to get it wrong, and learn from it. Be brave, and go for it. That’s what music is for.

Finally: have fun! Music is meant to be enjoyed. As a teacher, I know no one’s learning anything in a boring lesson or rehearsal. Teaching is a performance, and I make sure to engage people as much as possible.

I listened to an excellent episode of the podcast “In the Psychiatrist’s Chair”, where they spoke to the conductor Sir Colin Davis. I found it such an insightful session. There’s a stereotype that to be great musically, you have to be ferocious, and often cruel. Colin Davis completely rejected that idea, saying instead that it’s important to teach, to encourage, and to engage – all while having fun. Of course you have to work hard to be a successful musician, but you can do it without being combative or debilitating. I believe the best musicians are happy people.

What do you enjoy about working with Vivamus?

The people, of course. It’s so great to work with such a dedicated group of singers. I’ve been involved with Vivamus since 2008, and many of the same people are still there, and still enthusiastic about it. On the other hand, Vivamus has welcomed so many new singers recently too, and I know that push to reach out to young members will always be there. It’s wonderful to watch the choir evolve and grow, while never abandoning its roots. It also helps that Vivamus is such a sociable choir, and everyone enjoys spending time with each other outside of rehearsals.

Another brilliant thing about Vivamus is getting to watch Rufus lead and conduct. I met Rufus in 2006, when I accompanied a youth choir he was working with. He’s such a supportive and encouraging person, and I’m glad to call him a friend – I’m even a proud godfather to one of his children!

Under Rufus’ direction, Vivamus has established itself as a keenly ambitious choir, with everyone wanting to do a good job. The breadth of repertoire is a real benefit. Rufus knows so much about different types of music, and Vivamus gets to learn from trying them all. I believe many distinctions between music genres are artificial. People talk about “classical” as though it’s one thing, distinct from other genres like pop and jazz – yet you’d never play Brahms like you’d play Bach. It doesn’t make sense to try and split music by eras or location. Compare Ravel and jazz music, for example: a lot of music which came about in largely the same time and place, yet is totally different. I believe every single style of music has something unique to offer, yet at the core, there aren’t as many differences as people might believe. Vivamus understand this, which makes them one of the best kinds of choirs anyone could work with.

What are you looking forward to next?

In many ways, the summer holiday! I’m looking forward to getting some proper thinking time in. I want to have the space to develop my own repertoire and plans, which is difficult to do during term time. I’m really looking forward to having some of that reflection time back.

In addition to that, since the pandemic the music world hasn’t yet fully recovered. I read about how, after the 1918 flu pandemic, it took roughly four years for things to feel truly normal again. I’d say that feels about right, and we’ve got some time before we’re finally settled after all the disruption. But we’re definitely getting there. I’m hugely looking forward to my first American concert trip since the pandemic – I’ll be in Chicago and Seattle in July.

I cherish chances for creative thought, whether it’s in a group or by myself. I often ask myself what I want to learn, and where I want to go in my career. There’s no way to answer those questions without thinking, but also doing. So above everything, I always look forward to making more music.

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