Let it go: remembering Dr Ben Leske

Dr Ben Leske. Image supplied.
Dr Ben Leske. Image supplied.

A colleague and friend pays tribute to one of Melbourne Conservatorium’s brightest and most-loved researchers, who died this week aged 37.  

By Dr Katrina Skewes McFerran

Dr Ben Leske passed away yesterday, 7 March, after a long journey with brain cancer that spanned the duration of his PhD at the University of Melbourne.

Ben transferred to the Melbourne Conservatorium’s National Music Therapy Research Unit  (NaMTRU) in 2014 after beginning his PhD studies in German Policy in 2013. His first experience of cancer the previous year inspired him to re-orient and follow his passion, which was choir leadership, and he had a particular interest in the wellbeing of members of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Youth Chorus.

Dr Ben Leske leads staff and research students of the National Music Therapy Research Unit in a cover-version of Titanium, by David Guetta featuring Sia, in 2015.

His qualitative investigation found that choir members valued the opportunities and safety to make music within a community where being queer is the norm, rather than the exception. They described how the youth chorus provided a musical and para-musical platform from which members could test out, rehearse and publicly perform different individual and collective identities as young same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse people.

Ben’s leadership was frequently noted in the interviews that were generously conducted by other graduate researchers in the NaMTRU group back in 2015, since Ben became unwell and was unable to collect his own data at that time.

“Ben Leske has been a really big part of my enjoyment of the choir,” said one participant; “Ben is like a big brother to us,” said another.

After treatment, he recovered sufficiently to do a thorough analysis of the data and to offer a critical contextualisation of the findings, with particular emphasis on queer theory, musicking and musical asylum.

Ben’s determination to complete his PhD, awarded in December 2017, and make an important contribution to scholarship on music, wellbeing and choir leadership was outstanding, and he was motivated to continue because of his belief in the value of sharing the voices of Same Sex Attracted and Gender Diverse (SAGD) young people, both through singing and by honouring their perspectives on choir participation at an academic level. His findings should inform choir leadership in a range of settings around the globe.

Ben was a gentle, insightful and piercingly intelligent graduate researcher. He was an integral part of our graduate research group and frequently inspired us to sing together as well as share about our research developments.

He was much loved by many people from his work in the community and was closely accompanied through his final weeks by his loving family and partner.

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with him on Sunday night, singing and talking about all the things I remembered from our time together – he wasn’t able to talk, but maybe he could hear. It was a beautiful, peaceful experience. I sang the choir version of cartoonist Michael Leunig’s Let It Go – one of Ben’s favourite pieces in the last few years.

Dr Ben Leske leads a choral group through Michael Leunig’s Let It Go.

Perhaps there’s no greater testament to the effect Ben had on others than the advice of his partner, who informed Ben’s many friends of his passing:

“To honour Ben’s legacy, I request that you do one selfless and good thing for the next person you meet.”

A service will be held to celebrate Ben’s life on Friday, 16 March at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. The service will commence promptly at 10.30am.

All who knew Ben are welcome to attend.

Dr Katrina Skewes McFerran is Chair of the Melbourne Conservatorium’s National Music Therapy Research Unit.