At 7 years old Joe Paxton took piano and saxophone lessons, encouraged by his DJ dad and oboeist mother and his jazz musician grandparents. But it started shakily: “ I was sacked by my first piano teacher for not practising’”, but he was soon in the school’s choirs and orchestra, and playing the viola and the trumpet.
” At 12 I joined a church choir and at 15 stepped into the gap when the director left. My parents were delighted I could practise at the church and not at home”, he tells me, as he prepares Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus for their December concert at Brighton Dome. But we are way ahead of ourselves in his musical journey.
Joe studied piano, voice and conducting at Coventry University, and with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s head of music Guy Wolfenden, and got deeply involved in student politics, working for the NUS running the Students’ Union.
His music studies then took him to Southampton University, where he gained a Masters in Musicology, specialising in Early Music, and musical structures, which in medieval times were much more improvised and unwritten than today. “ There’s no overall score so you just guess where the words go. You can bend the rules”. He also studied the power of music therapy, particularly for Parkinsons’ patients.
At the Univrsty of Sussex he began a PhD about how communications lead to performance. He graduated this September so now I’m talking to Dr Paxton. ”It helped me reflect on what I actually do as a conductor, not being authoritarian, but listening to others’ ideas”. In 2016 Joe became assistant director of the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus, and then Chorus Director, one year before lockdown. His role also includes the script for a show, stage directions, lighting, all the technical aspects that surround his directing of the chorus, working with a team.”The themes for our concerts come from me, working with a creative committee, looking forward the next two years. Ideas appear like our Fringe show about divas and Gay icons like Cher and Kylie”.
Asked about performing in the Brighton Dome rather than their usual church venue, Joe told me: “ the choir needs to be nervous. It’s not an easy space to do choral work in. It almost feels like you’re singing on your own- there’ a very distant feeling, but the Chorus have appeared there 4 times so we know about it, and fold-back can make it easier “
Ask about his “coming out story”, Joe said he was to some people but not at his first uni.”I told my sister so she told my mother. I told my dad on his birthday, but I knew it would be fine. You have to sort yourself out before you tell anyone else”.
So, asked to give advice to his teenage self, Joe said:” have more confidence in what you’re doing. Take more risks on ambitious opportunities. I kind of thought I didn’t know enough, but I did. Have a passion about what you do”.
In 2019 Joe lost his fiancée Richard who died suddenly, having been misdiagnosed at a hospital in the North of England while on a business trip. A long period ensued with some closure this year after a full inquest, which tragically concluded his death was avoidable. Joe said:’ I want to thank the Chorus for supporting me through a rough journey of bereavement. Richard died on a Thursday, and I was back in the rehearsal room the following Tuesday, back in front of the singers. They’ve been continually supportive – they are my chosen family – 80 uncles and cousins extra to my family support”.
Joe also runs the Arun Choral Society, where the general age range is 60-80.” They are good sight-readers and we are doing Verdi’s Requiem next April”. Joe also now teaches musical theatre at Chichester University, and stresses that he wants to be in Brighton with the Chorus for at least the next 5-10 years. But he also has an ambition to run one of the big Gay choirs in the USA. He told me:” I’m nowhere near wanting to hand over”. Great news for Brighton’s singers and its audiences.