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Performing a brilliant balancing act: alumna Helen Charlston on carving out a career in music

Helen Charlston was a choral scholar at Trinity, 2011-2015, while studying Music. Here the mezzo-soprano talks about her career, offers advice to aspiring singers and reflects on what she has learnt since her starring role in the Choir’s performance of ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing.’ 

Helen Charlston. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

As a choral scholar at Trinity, did you have any idea your singing career would take off so quickly?

As a student I was hopeful about my career and had high ambitions, but it did feel like a gamble! I benefited from the musical connections I made at Trinity, both with older generations of choral scholars who helped to guide me to the right auditions, and through Trinity’s Director of Music, Stephen Layton, who has been a great supporter of my singing since I graduated, inviting me to join him on projects with orchestras all over the world.

What are you most proud of?

I became a City Music Foundation Artist in 2018. As part of their support, CMF is helping me commissioning new compositions. As part of the Barbican Sound Unbound Festival in 2019, I began a project inspired by the life and work of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) which sought to create a modern response to music for voice and Lute, the combination she wrote prolifically for in seventeenth century Italy. This started with a single piece, which I premiered with my duo partner Toby Carr in May last year and is currently being expanded to a full song cycle which will be premiered in Autumn 2020. Barbara Strozzi wrote her music collaboratively with poets in the artistic elite in Venice, so I have chosen to commission both new music and new texts for this set of songs. In fact, it is a rather special example of the friendships I treasure from my time at Trinity: the words are by Trinity alumna Georgia Way, currently completing her MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester University, and the music written by Trinity alumnus and composer Owain Park. It is a work in progress, but I am so proud of what we have created so far and cannot wait for the premiere.

What has been most challenging thus far?

A performing career is always a balancing act, and I think learning how to carve out down time in a busy diary, and ensure there is enough time for learning music as well as performing it is one of the more challenging aspects of what I do. The irony is that I am writing this in a time in which all my work has been cancelled for the foreseeable future so all I have now is time at home. The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest challenge that the music industry has faced for a long time. As performers we are having to reassess the building blocks of our lives – how are we going to keep the music playing? There are endless questions and I am excited to see and be a part of the way performers across the world will adapt to the ‘new normal’.

You have a wide repertoire, what are your favourites?

I have a particular affinity with music of the Baroque (written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). I spend a lot of my time singing the music of composers such as Bach, Strozzi and Vivaldi with orchestras including the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I won the 2018 Handel Singing Competition, which has seen my diary fill up with lots of recitals, concerts and operas of music by Handel. On a smaller scale I love working with just an accompanist in recital – this year I have been working on programmes of music by Robert and Clara Schumann, Elgar, Haydn, Mahler and Brahms. Many of these performances have been cancelled, apart from a wonderful immersive day of Schumann at York University in February in which two singers (including another Trinity alumnus, Gwilym Bowen) and I explored Schumann’s songs cycles, accompanied by fortepiano rather than the typical modern grand piano. That day will no doubt end up being a highlight of 2020!

The 2015 recording of the Legrand’s ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ in Trinity’s Chapel

It’s a while since ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ and must bring back memories…

What is the single most important thing you took away from your time at Trinity?

The people. I met my soon-to-be husband at Trinity (in fact, we were due to get married in the Chapel in April, but COVID-19 put a stop to that for now!) and some of my best friends stem from that time, and from the Choir specifically. Trinity is a wonderful family to be a part of and the sense of striving for excellence as a large community will always stay with me.

Looking back at your younger self, what advice would you give aspiring professional singers?

Always take the time to prepare what you are doing. Practice and development are slow, have patience with what you are doing and the direction your career is taking. There are some things you can control, so focus on what you can: getting as good and reliable at what you do as possible. Secondly immerse yourself in music generally. Listen to things outside your comfort zone, get to know what people from all bits of the music world are doing and sound like – there is SO much music out there, and I think it’s really important to keep in touch with as much of it as you can, not just your bubble.

What did you learn from the training and performance of the Legrand piece?

We all learnt so much from the weekly commitments of the Choir, but it was when recording CDs (I appear on nine from my time at Trinity) in the holidays that we were really challenged and learnt to take risks in performance. Recording is hard work, and to be exposed to it at such a high level as an undergraduate has been an invaluable piece of training for my career. I continue to record CDs regularly and have several solo recordings coming up. My ability to prepare for and feel comfortable in high-pressure recordings no doubt comes from the training and familiarity of sessions such as this one. or via Rayfield Allied

Watch the Choir’s performance of ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’.

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