John answers 10 questions he’s asked regularly.
Do you come from a musical family?
Neither of my parents were musicians – my father was fond of music and played the piano a bit by ear, but he had no musical training, he was a scientist by profession. My mother was tuned in to the world of literature and drama, happy to see me make my way in music.
Who has inspired you musically?
In my early years, the music teachers who nurtured me at school, chiefly Edward Chapman (in whose memory I wrote The Lord bless you and keep you), a gifted composer and organist who always believed in my talent and encouraged me to make music my way of life. Then at Cambridge I met Sir David Willcocks, legendary director of King’s College Choir, who invited me to co-edit Carols for Choirs 2 and the later volumes of the series and who became a lifelong mentor and champion.
You are famed for your training days. Which composer’s training day would you love to attend (time travel is allowed)?
They’re not really training days, they’re called just ‘singing days’ – open to all who love to sing and want to enjoy a day’s choral singing without a concert to worry about. But if I were to attend one led by a great figure of the past, it would have to be J. S. Bach – mainly so I could find out for sure exactly how he wanted his music performed.
What do you do when you are seeking inspiration to write?
Get on with the job. Nothing romantic about it, just sit down with the empty manuscript paper and keep plugging on till it’s filled.
When you are writing which comes first, the words or the music?
If I’m setting a pre-existing text, then obviously the words have come first because they are already there. If I am forced to write my own words because I can’t find any suitable ones, often the words and the music evolve together in a way I can’t quite explain even to myself.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Write the music that’s in your heart.
If you had a day where you were banned from writing, listening to, or playing music, what would you do instead?
Depends whether I was feeling sociable or solitary. If I was feeling sociable, throw a party for all the friends I
neglect because I’m so often away or busy. If I was feeling solitary, wander round some ancient cathedrals when they’re not open to the public.
If you could pick three pieces of music to take to a desert island what would they be?
My Desert Island Disc choices are on the BBC website. I leave it to others to whittle them down to three.
How do you relax?
I don’t like relaxing, that’s not how professional musicians live. Stress, anxiety and overwork are natural to us, I’ve got used to them and would miss them if they weren’t there. I’m as relaxed as I want to be already.
What advice would you give to budding composers?
Be prepared for short nights of sleep, lots of disappointments, hurtful reviews, setbacks and economic insecurity. But if you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else, be a composer, and above all be prepared to work very, very hard. Never stop seeking to improve your technique. Enjoy the moments of appreciation, they may be very few.