Author: Scott Timberg
Years of immersion have shown Paul Smith that music is more than just sound waves moving through space. Rather, he’s seen the process of making music in groups – especially singing – exert a profound and tangible effect on people. “The synchronicity of the heartbeat,” he says, “and the release of various endorphins lift our spirits and give us a positive hormone injection.”
It’s all that, and more, that Smith tries to stir up with Voces8, the London-based vocal octet he helped found. The group is unusual in that it performs concerts around the world but puts in even more time singing Renaissance polyphony or Bach or James Bond themes for students, who range in age from kindergarten to their late 80s.
For a classical music group to do some work in schools has become de rigueur in the 21st century. But Voces8 – which travels the world but is rooted in the Gresham Centre, part of a Sir Christopher Wren church in central London – makes its educational push absolutely central to its mission. “We don’t just see ourselves as singers,” Smith says. “We try to inspire people with our singing. So we also have to be world-class teachers as well.” By now, Voces8 has worked with something like 150,000 students around the world.
The octet typically performs without sheet music – which allows it to engage audiences and students more directly. It also sings all of its repertoire a capella, even when the group is singing music typically accompanied by harpsichord or electric guitar. All kinds of music appeals to school children and conservatory students, but singing – perhaps humanity’s original art form, practiced even before bone flutes or other primitive instruments were carved and strung – has special advantages.
“Singing is this universal language,” Smith says. “It’s something everyone can do. And best of all, it’s free. Some of these schools can’t afford to have a wide range of music – but if we can give teachers this simple toolkit, they can open the minds of students.”
Voces8 started, appropriately enough, as what Smith calls “a group of friends.” Some of them knew each other as Westminster Abbey choristers as early as 10 years old, and they stayed in touch through school and university.
Smith himself went from university to helping manage two orchestras in London and Dublin. During this period, he witnessed some things that encouraged him – “seeing how the orchestra connects to different communities through outreach” – and some that were discouraging. Among these were orchestral musicians who indifferently moonlighted as teachers. “They’d turn up to work with students and did not want to be there,” he says, recalling “all those negative impacts.”
“I was trying to form a new kind of group that would be brilliant, uplifting and inspiring.”
Smith began to see that the old model had broken. And in 2008, he and his brother, Barnaby, a fellow former choir boy, realized the octet that they’d been singing with for fun could become a professional group with more-or-less permanent members, which is unusual in Britain.
“I was trying to form a new kind of group that would be brilliant, uplifting and inspiring,” he says. “We decided to become a professional group but also a charity” – what in the States we’d call a nonprofit – “and a group that did outreach.”
Despite the passion all the singers – a range of men and women adding up to two sopranos, two counter-tenors, two tenors, a baritone and a bass – felt for the vocal repertoire going back to the 15th century, their musical tastes varied. Some loved electronica alongside their requiems and fugues, others jazz or newer pop.
“We were inspired by people like the King’s Singers,” a group formed at King’s College, Cambridge, that later appeared on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was hosting, as well as the more pop-based Swingle Singers, whose songs have shown up in television and movies. “We wanted to take a really serious look at classical and sacred vocal music, and the fun stuff we loved, too.”
For all their differences, the members of Voces8 shared an abiding passion for the power of singing to shake souls. “It builds community,” says Smith. “It expresses self-confidence and develops leadership and teamwork.”
A few years back, Ann Wright, director of music at Bradfield College, a boarding school west of London, invited Voces8 to do a series of workshops. She knew their music from their album From Gibbons to Gershwin, but she was still startled by the group’s ability to move an audience of jaded teenagers as well as much younger children from the local primary school. “Their enthusiasm and professionalism together with their wonderful ensemble singing was also very impressive,” says Wright. She has since joined the group as its education projects manager.
“What we do varies completely,” says Smith. “But it’s always oriented to the group we’re working with. Every section is bespoke. We work with everyone, at every age and every ability.”
Sometimes they’re running master classes for music students who are on their way to careers as singers. Other times, they’re working with long-retired professionals or those who never made it past amateur status. More than occasionally, they’re trying to interest “kids who’ve never made music in their lives.” Voces8 often works by building layers, adding elements one at a time – some clapping, vocal harmony, bits of lead singing – to add up to a full arrangement.
“We want to train young learners for subjects that go beyond music, like literacy and numeracy.”
Smith is driven by a wide range of education research but is especially interested in the work of Susan Hallam of the University of London’s Institute of Education. Hallam’s research, especially her influential paper “The Power of Music,” concentrates on the transferable benefits of music training: the way reading, mathematics and overall intellectual development all improve when students rewire their brains with music.
“We want to train young learners for subjects that go beyond music,” Smith says, “like literacy and numeracy.” Even a math class, he says, could benefit from a few minutes of music, “to wake up the brain and bring in a whole new means of learning.”
Smith emphasizes that some of the most important effects go beyond what can be measured or slipped into a CV. “It’s about you as a human being, as a person.”
Part of what’s most fulfilling, he says, is starting at the beginning with children who haven’t yet developed reflexes of cool or social class that resist music’s pull. “You stand in front of kids who’ve never heard classical or choral music,” he says, “and they’re captivated. They appreciate the quality and beauty of the sound.”
Smith sees himself as an ambassador not simply for his group, or for the centuries-old choral tradition, but for music itself. This kind of education and advocacy, says Mark McCoy of DePauw University’s school of music, is the way to make sure this music survives.
“I’m personally passionate about this kind of thing,” Smith says, “because music in the U.K. is at a very dangerous point at the moment, with budgets falling and music disappearing in schools. And the people I speak to in the U.S. tell me the problem I’m describing is not unique to the U.K.”
So it’s not enough for him and his group to spread the word one classroom at a time. The group has released a book in Britain, The Voces8 Method, which gives teachers or other leaders a sense of how to apply the research on music’s impact to a classroom or group. Based on rhythm and melody exercises, the book links to online videos and an app. Voces8 has taken the book’s show on the road across Britain. Earlier this year, the group brought the book and its methods to the American Choral Directors Association conference in Salt Lake City with the hope that those who attended would spread the word. “Our aim is to prove to the senior management of the schools that music can have a positive impact on the other subjects, on the curriculum,” he says.
Smith and the other seven members of Voces8, then, are hoping that the music-induced endorphin rush he described is not just reshaping individuals but whole societies, too.
Scott Timberg is a longtime arts journalist and the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. He recently became a staff writer at Salon.com.