First professional work singing.

2. I started with my new teacher, Florence Taylor, in 1977, and had a lesson per week. Eggs Benedict was going strong, and I was given quite a bit of extra work with the opera company, so I was busy with playing guitar, acting, and doing singing practice. Late in that year I was asked by Charles Colman to audition for the Leonine Consort, an 8 voice ensemble that he was starting in 1978. Charlie knew my parents, so I guess he took a punt that I would have inherited a bit of musical skill from them. My audition was ordinary, but he gave me the job anyway. That put me in the position of having to decide whether I wanted to pursue either singing or guitar playing. I was aware I couldn't do both because of the demands of both professions, so I chose to sing.

As the Commendatore extra in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

As the Commendatore extra in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

I was quite a good musician already from learning various instruments and dabbling with composition, but nothing prepared me for the shock I received on the first day of rehearsals with the Leonines. After introductions and a bit of a chat, we all sat in a semi-circle and Charlie handed out a pile of music that we would start rehearsing. I was completely at a loss as my sight singing was not good, and I was in an area of music that I knew nothing about. Talk about being embarrassed! I felt like a complete dolt and just wanted to hide somewhere fast. I don't think the other group members were very impressed either. They had all been singing choral music for years and could sight read easily, were familiar with most of the repertoire that Charlie had chosen, and knew each other fairly well. Oh yes, it was a real baptism by fire.

An  ad hoc  barbershop quartet.

An ad hoc barbershop quartet.

At the end of that first day I headed home with my tail between my legs and then sat up half the night trying to learn the music I had been given. I worked very hard over the next few months, and by the middle of the year I could sight-sing anything that was put in front of me. Naturally this skill engenders great confidence and has stood me in good stead ever since. One of the regular comments that reviewers and critics have made of me over the years is that "Stephen Bennett was his usual reliable self". Not flattering, but much better then being considered unreliable I suppose.

In the Philippines touring for Musica Viva, and on the concert stage.

In the Philippines touring for Musica Viva, and on the concert stage.

The Leonine Consort were booked by Musica Viva on a regular basis to do school concerts all over the country, and also organised a tour of South East Asia for us. We made a number of recordings and gave concert recitals. I loved the work and was fascinated by the range of music written over the centuries for a capella vocal ensembles. We were on the road a lot, which was fun at my age, and paid very little for the job. I thought of it as an apprenticeship, and bided my time. After a couple of years of this I was invited to sing solos in oratorios for various choirs and orchestras, and so began my career as a soloist. I found the demands very different to singing with a group, and became aware that if I wanted to continue as a soloist, I would have to stop singing choral music. There is a large difference in vocal technique between blending your voice in an ensemble, and projecting your voice as a soloist. After 4 years with the Consort I'd had enough, so I left the group and went to study at the NSW Conservatorium of Music with Valerie Collins-Varga as my new teacher.

 

How and why I ended up being a singer.

1. It has occurred to me that the whys and wherefores of how I became a singer may be of interest to some students who hope to join the profession themselves. Obviously everybody's journey is different and unique, but sharing the story of the uncertainty and struggle can be of interest, and hopefully of help. I'm always curious to read about other's life paths and how they ended up doing what they do, so this is the first installment of mine.

Me performing with the band Eggs Benedict in 1977.   

Me performing with the band Eggs Benedict in 1977.

 

My parents are both musicians. Dad is a violinist and mum is a cellist. I grew up surrounded by musicians and music in the classical genre, so I unwittingly absorbed an enormous amount of first rate string music, from Bach's Sonatas for solo violin, to the string quartets of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and so on. My parents were always practicing, teaching, rehearsing, or listening to great music. I was lucky in retrospect to be surrounded by such an amazing auditory experience, even though I ignored it most of the time, but it must have sunk in to my subconscious  and helped me develop the all important musician's ear and innate understanding of the musical language.

As a kid I tried the piano, cello, double bass, and very briefly the bassoon, but I gravitated to the guitar, becoming obsessed by the age of 15. I practiced for hours every day, playing scales and exercises in the hope that I would develop a phenomenal technique. Strangely, by then, I was mad about Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I'd moved on from classical music and wanted to be a rock star. A friend and I formed a band and started doing gigs around Sydney's North Shore. We played covers of the above groups and some of our own compositions. I enjoyed this thoroughly, but was quietly worried about how I'd make a living from music. The gig payments to the band barely covered the cost of the equipment we had to hire so that we could perform, and I was realizing that I would never be good enough on the guitar to satisfy my longing to be a guitar hero. I thought I might try my hand at acting, so I started having lessons and tried to get an agent. I went to an appointment with an agent who told me that the Australian Opera Company was looking for extras for a forthcoming production of Verdi's Aida. I duly presented myself at the Sydney Opera House and was chosen as one of many spear carriers. I'd inadvertently stumbled upon my life's path. I found myself standing on stage in the middle of the most amazingly powerful and emotional music, next to these singers who were deafeningly loud without a microphone and P.A. system! I started trying to sing some of the music that I had heard and wondered if my voice was any good. I was 19 years old at this stage and had never really tried singing before in a serious way.

My parents were very supportive of this new endeavor and asked around to find me a singing teacher. Unfortunately the guy they picked was a  bad teacher, although he was a good singer himself. He did harm to the top of my voice that I never recovered from in the 3 months I studied with him. He thought I was a high baritone, when in fact I'm a lyric bass, so he had me screeching out top notes in a very dangerous and damaging manner. I would have a sore throat after every lesson, so when I expressed concern to my parents, they pulled the plug on those lessons and found me another, safe teacher, but the damage was done psychologically in those 3 months and a fear of high notes stayed with me for the next 35 years of singing.