Creative Conversations … with Jonathan Rea

I know that many of you were inspired by the first Creative Conversation featured here on Writing Home, when I had the opportunity to introduce my friend, Northern Irish artist Pauline Gribben. It was great to talk with Pauline about her creative work as an architect and painter, her life in Northern Ireland, her sources of inspiration, and how her Christian faith relates to her work.

I’m now delighted to bring to you the second conversation in the series. It’s a particular pleasure for me to introduce my next guest, Jonathan Rea, as he and I have been friends for a long time now; longer, perhaps, than either one of us cares to remember! In fact, our friendship was kindled about 30 years ago, over many cups of Earl Grey tea in the cloistered corridors of Girton College, Cambridge. It has been a real joy, over the years that have passed since those halcyon days at university, to see Jonathan’s creative life flourish, especially his work in talent development among young people.

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These days, Jonathan is Creative Director of New Irish Arts. He is also a freelance musician, producer and broadcaster, who features regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day. We share in common a passion for education, and Jonathan was previously Director of Music in a grammar school. He continues to maintain an active interest in the holistic education of young people, particularly in contexts where spiritual and artistic development are interwoven.

It was great to chat with Jonathan again recently and ask him a few questions about life, the universe, and everything. But especially I enjoyed finding out more about the development of creative work and faith in his own life, and in the lives of others. I hope you enjoy our conversation too.

Writing Home: Jonathan, you have been involved in music since you were very young. Was a career in music something you grew into?

Jonathan Rea: When I was very small, my parents got a Bontempi toy electronic organ, and my interest was awakened. I don’t quite know how this happened, but one day somewhere around my third birthday, I discovered that if I knew a tune in my head, I was able just to sit down and play it. So I learned the language of music the same way as I learned to speak English. Turning the sounds in my head into tunes on a piano was as natural a process as learning to talk had been.  

So I think others imagined that I would probably do something related to music some day. My parents were interested in what I was doing, though it wouldn’t have occurred to them to consider music lessons a financial priority, had I not demonstrated such interest and ability so soon in life. But my fixation on music was so strong that they wanted to see it develop. So with the help of some wonderful family friends, a few inspiring primary and post-primary teachers, and support from my parents, I began to see music as more than a hobby, even though my social background wouldn’t necessarily have pointed me in that direction.

And there were some wonderful influencers in my life at just the right time. A primary school teacher started a classical music listening club every Friday lunchtime, where we could borrow records and cassettes of works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, having been told the stories behind the pieces. This was treasure for a boy like me, because there was none of this music in our house. Then there was a church organist who bought and personally restored an old piano because he wanted to help me learn to play in our church services. I’ll never forget the fact that he put so much of himself  – elbow grease and everything – into providing me with a place where I could develop alongside him. That story still makes me emotional. When I was 12, a teacher wrote a bespoke arrangement for me to play a showpiece in a school concert, and looking back I really appreciated the people who used their own creativity to foster mine. Without them I don’t think I’d be a musician now.

WH: You are a Christian. How does your musicianship relate to your faith?

JR: My Christian faith is not a private thing. It is the very core of my identity, sitting above musicianship in the priority list. My father was a minister, and our family life was very much centred around the activities of the church. So that was my first outlet for music-making. Even now, in my personal and public worship of God, music plays a huge role. As a Christian who happens to be a musician, I feel hugely privileged to be able to connect those two very important aspects of my life together, in a context where the majority of the music I’m involved in is explicitly designed to encourage people to worship God. So I believe music has been given to me as a gift from God – it is part of His creativity in making me, and part of my gratitude towards Him.

WH: Is there a particular style or period of music that you prefer? Has this changed over the years?

JR: It changes all the time! This morning I listened to several songs by Doris Day, in awe at the quality of wonderful sentimental melodies, delivered with her creamy old-fashioned vocal. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of country music recently – Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood and above all, Johnny Cash. I love the way he communicates a story – half-spoken, half-sung. And I think his live performances show a level of audience rapport that is truly exceptional. Tomorrow I may wake up wanting to hear Carole King, whose use of harmony in her songwriting is always a joy – or it might be Norah Jones’s exquisite piano playing, or the French jazz singer, Madeleine Peyroux whose vocal communicates so effortlessly that I can’t fail to feel more relaxed after hearing her sing!

But for the majority of my life, classical music that has been my go-to, especially choral music. I love the music of Fauré, whose serenity and craft of melody always makes the tension in my shoulders a little bit easier. I love almost anything sung by the choir Tenebrae, whose sound is so consistently bright and clear. And I could listen all day to a well-played cello, especially in the classic recordings by the late Jacqueline du Pré. A lot of the time I find myself as excited by the qualities of the performer as I am about the music itself.

WH: How would you describe the current musical scene in Northern Ireland?

JR: Without reference to the pandemic, Northern Ireland has a vibrant musical scene, helped along by a super music education service providing good tuition and performance opportunities for the young. Groups like the Ulster Youth Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Northern Ireland provide excellent experience of top-quality music making for the young. I’m proud to be the director of New Irish Arts, and our own youth choir and orchestra provide inspiration and encouragement for many young talented singers and players.  Alongside this there’s a thriving culture of young people starting bands in the popular music scene, following the influence and investment from successful bands like Snow Patrol. I think there are tonnes of good opportunities here for people who wish to pursue music.

WH: You are, among other things, a pianist, a performer, a musical educator and a conductor. Which aspects of your musical life do you enjoy most?

JR: The thing I really enjoy is the variety! The downside is that one can be reasonably good at a number of things, but not uniquely brilliant at anything! But in more recent years I’ve worked out that my happiest place in music involves creating connection with people.

To develop that point, I have always found solo classical piano recitals to be the most nerve-wracking thing imaginable. It’s so lonely! But piano accompanying is one of the most rewarding processes one can be involved in, because it’s all based on human connection. As an accompanist, you’re trying to get inside someone else’s mind, and support them in delivering their vision of a piece of music. And to achieve that, you must invest yourself fully into that vision.

Choral conducting is psychologically similar, except that instead of following the vision, you have to create it. But that involves building meaningful connection with your singers, so that they will co-operate fully and work together towards a shared musical goal. It’s about inspiring an agenda and then bringing it about with the talent and goodwill of others. Creating that sort of musical goal and sharing the evolving process with others is very exciting.

To give a much punchier answer – I think I might be able to live happily in a job where I still got to connect with people even if there were no music in it. But I think I’d be very unhappy if my life in music didn’t ever involve working with others.

WH: Can you tell us about your most precious musical memories?

JR: As a student I sang in the back row of the Cambridge University Chamber Choir in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in Westminster Abbey. It was certainly the most high-quality classical music experience I’ve ever been part of.

In 2019 I got to conduct choirs of 1000 singers in large arena concerts in Belfast and Nashville as part of a Christian conference called “Sing!”. In both events the choir was leading singing by a huge congregation. If you can imagine an arena, it kind of felt like I was standing at the bottom of an enormous bucket of singers waving my arms. The sound was hugely exciting.

But actually, I am privileged to enjoy doing most of what I get to do, so my life is full of wonderful memories with different groups of people. And sometimes it’s the simplest things that bring the most pleasure. During the pandemic, my 3 sons and I did over 60 weekly livestream broadcasts of hymns from our home. I know that those occasions are going to go down as some of my most precious musical memories, even though what we’ve been doing isn’t necessarily of a professional standard. It’s music at its most raw and honest, expressed in tight community – and I’ve loved it.

WH: Is there any particular instrument that you prefer to write or arrange for, or a musical form?

JR: I love writing for choir. When so much of society is dominated by a selfie culture of individual advancement, there’s something special about voices blending as a group. Given my particular interest in music for the worship of God, I find choral music an excellent vehicle for expressing the things I want to say. When I look back at the music I’m most proud of creating, a lot of it is choral arrangements of the hymns I love. Creating those arrangements is a joint effort between the musicality in one’s head and the devotion of a worshipping heart.

WH: You have been involved in several collaborative projects with other artists.  For you, how important is working creatively with other people?

JR: Every new collaborator brings an opportunity to broaden one’s own understanding. My passion for leading groups of people hasn’t always been matched by a desire to collaborate creatively with others, but this has been changing over the last few years. I’m increasingly seeing the value of allowing others into the creative space. Seeing the perspective of others lifts the limits of one’s imagination.

WH: What about Covid-19? Have you found it challenging as a musician or has it taken you in new creative directions?

JR: The music industry will continue for some time to find the impact of Covid19 challenging. And there is no doubt that for many performers and creators, Covid19 has been hugely problematic. Fear of financial ruin isn’t the best context for creativity. For me, there have been opportunities to learn new skills in audio and video production, and to create a little bit of community among my livestream audience. But actually, I think the process of emerging from the pandemic is going to continue to present many new challenges. We will have to take stock and try to work out which of the benefits of internet-based performances can be useful in the post-Covid19 world.  I’d be bluffing if I claimed to know the answer!

WH: Many of us turn to music for relaxation. When music is your profession, is it hard to do this or can it still be therapeutic?

JR: I can still listen just for pure enjoyment. When I want to relax, I tend to listen to different styles of music from what I’m working on. Hence, the love of Johnny Cash, Carole King and Doris Day! But I do think it’s important to have other outlets for relaxation too. These days I am trying to begin to enjoy taking regular exercise…

WH: As an educator, tell us what you think about music and the school curriculum?

JR: Schools need an accessible curriculum which brings musical enlightenment to as many people as possible. It should broaden the horizons and increase appreciation of music which has stood the test of time, as well as fostering the creativity of new music. But schools also need to provide meaningful opportunities for young people to develop high-level musicianship outside the formal curriculum. High aspirations are essential for the survival of music in our culture. So the hours spent in creating showcase concerts and musicals are likely to be way more formative than a curriculum which teaches kids to play Yankee Doodle Dandy on a keyboard, or asks them to compose their own tunes without exposing them to high-level musical vocabulary. When we look back at our education, many of us recall with fondness the cultural events which happened outside our timetabled classes. This value of these experiences needs to be recognised and accepted by those who resource schools.

WH: What are your thoughts about developing talent in other people?

JR: We must be intentional about this. It won’t happen by accident. I go back to the guy who restored the old piano when I was a child, so that I could play alongside him in church. He was proactive when he saw potential in me and that’s why he gave his time and energy. So in small ways, I’m trying to pay that sort of thing forward to a new generation, giving time and energy to create experiences of music-making and of community that they will remember for life. Thinking again as a Christian, I believe it’s important that we take on the responsibility to carry our faith to the next generation. For me, music is a very obvious vehicle for me to do that. 

WH: Are there any Scripture passages that you find particularly helpful or inspiring?

JR: The Psalms are incredibly helpful, compiled as a song book for God’s people, and representing the full gamut of human emotion: the joys and sorrows of life, articulated from the heart of the Biblical poets.

But if it has to be one specific verse, for me it will be Zephaniah 3 v 17:

The Lord your God is with you
He is mighty to save 
He will take delight in you
He will quiet you with His love 
He will rejoice over you with singing

I love this notion of God singing over His people – a lullaby of love showing His delight in us, and reassuring us of His presence. How wonderful that God uses music to express some of His joy in us!

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