Tim Reader, conductor

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

A singular influence would have to be Gillian Dibden, conductor of Berkshire Youth Choir (and later Taplow Youth Choir), which she founded. I had the most joyous musical and social experiences – tours, competitions, youth operas. I know now how much the success of such a group comes down to the graft and vision of one individual.

Special mention to the conductors of my church choir as well – that sowed the seeds for what I’m doing now and also provided tremendous inspiration.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?

I was mainly a pianist as far as music studies were concerned; when I first heard Rachmaninov, something clicked. All the practice was worth it to be able to play even one of his Preludes! I also loved jazz but that did not click at all – I really couldn’t learn to play it – until my early 30s when I took a series of excellent courses at Morley College.

BYC (mentioned above), Wells Cathedral Choir and Exultate Singers formed the template for Epiphoni Consort, the choir that I came to set up. You hear a lot of adult musicians say that they never quite recapture the magic of their musical experiences in youth choirs/orchestras or at university.  I wanted to change that with a brilliant, friendly, elite adult chamber choir.What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?

As someone said to me when I set Epiphoni up in 2014, “you can expect it to be 80% admin, 20% music” and he wasn’t wrong. I’ve also learned more about people than I thought possible. It’s been a rollercoaster ride at times but what I’ve learned has opened doors, redirected my career, and made me a better person by far.

It’s always fulfilling when we pull off something a bit unlikely – a highly demanding piece, winning a competition, receiving a prestigious booking (such as singing Spem in Alium for Terry Pratchett’s memorial at the Barbican). And on the social side, I derive immense joy from the personal connections created within the choir – one wedding so far, and (from a different relationship) one choir baby, and countless friendships.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the choir? 

With as few words as possible, ideally. Show, don’t tell. But I struggle with this and talk too much despite that being my mantra! We know that our musicians would rather receive their direction through actual playing or singing – not being talked at – so the approach is win-win if you get it right, but as conductors we all need reminding of it.

How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

The “role” is several roles – 10 or more – some complementary, some not. Supported by a paid admin person and a wonderful voluntary committee, I still find myself wearing many hats – in constant rotation – and it would be lovely sometimes just to be the music guy. But that’s not the job – and often it feels like my main role is Chief Cajoler (whether it be about preparation, attending rehearsals, replying to emails, helping promote our work). It’s not that people don’t want to do that stuff but our demographic is high achievers with young families and demanding jobs. Compounding this is that they could all come in and do a satisfactory job on minimal preparation – many were almost trained that way – my job is to persuade them that we can aim so much higher.

The psychology of it all is probably the most fascinating part.

Is there one work which you would love to conduct?

At the time of writing, we’re days away from a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast (by William Walton) which I have prepared the chorus for and now handed over to Russell Keable, the conductor of Kensington Symphony Orchestra. I’m half relieved not to be the man on the podium on the night, and half green with envy. Perhaps I should aspire to conduct it myself next time – but I’m not an orchestral conductor and it’s a challenging piece, so I shall be careful what I wish for!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Not especially – I always love to be in a cathedral – such inspirational spaces – and for a choir like ours, typically performing in churches, it’s a treat to be in a real concert hall as we will be for Belshazzar (Fairfield Halls in Croydon) – walking on and off-stage from a proper backstage lends the experience a bit more thrill.

The most attractive acoustic I’ve sung in for many years was a church in Galway – St Nicholas I think.What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I have a totally separate day job which helps keep music-making a novelty and me appreciative of opportunities. Along with several members of the choir, I participate in races and train constantly for that. Doing parkrun on a Saturday morning connects me with the innocent childhood joy of “Saturday morning football”, a weekly appointment that I kept religiously, until a love of music took me away from nearly all sport for over a decade!What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

I think the non-professional music world could be observing the professional world in its efforts to reach wider audiences, experiment with new formats and so on. There are still too many ‘park and bark’ over-long oratorio etc performances, performed dead behind the eyes with heads in copies – and we wonder why we struggle to get audiences. Controversial of me to say but musicians tend not to be great at attending one another’s concerts – which is a shame in itself – we generally enjoy the endeavour of participating more than spectating I think – but it also means we don’t learn from such performances.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Enjoying the ride. I’ve arranged my life in such a way that there isn’t much music-making that I have to do.

Also, moving people – whether audiences or performers – perhaps connecting them with emotions they otherwise find hard to tap. What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?

Generalise. Master at least one other endeavour to a professional level. You won’t be any less of a musician, it will almost certainly feed into your music-making, and it gives you an alternative if (God forbid) there is a repeat of 2020, or if you just change your mind as you get older. It’s harder to retrain later in life.What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?

At the non professional level we’re being slower to explore what might attract bigger and more diverse audiences. We need to ask ourselves the difficult questions like – who would actually be here if they weren’t supporting a performer? Because it’s not very sustainable or scaleable for ensembles relying on friends of performers. And for audiences – the ones who aren’t coming – until we’re more imaginative about enticing them into concerts, we’re depriving them of what might be inspirational, transformative experiences.

At Epiphoni’s CD launch concert in June we’re experimenting with projected text, informal ‘cabaret’-style seating, a bar that’s open throughout and maybe serving light food. Plus a drinks reception outdoors after – it being June, that might even happen!

Precious Things: Choral Music by Bernard Hughes, performed by The Epiphoni Consort and conducted by Tim Reader, is released on 27 May 2022. Find out more

The Epiphoni Consort was founded in 2014 by Tim Reader to fill a gap between the amateur and professional tiers of London’s choral circuit. Its members comprise a number of people who sing to a professional standard but have other full­-time careers.

Tim Reader studied singing, accompanying and conducting at the University of Exeter, graduating in 2000. He returned to academia in 2018 for the Master’s programme in Solo Voice Ensemble Singing with Robert Hollingworth at the University of York, graduating the following year with a merit.

Tim deftly balances dual careers, one in website consultancy for charities and arts organisations, and the other as a singer and choral director in London and surrounding areas.

He has conducted The Epiphoni Consort in performances at Westminster Abbey, St Martin-in-the-Fields, St Paul’s Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, The Barbican, The QEH and St John’s Smith Square, and for the BBC. He conducts as a regular deputy for the professional choir of St John’s Wood church, and numerous choirs and choral societies in the capital.

He is a member of the Sunday morning choir, comprising eight professional singers, at St John’s Wood church.

Read more