The magnificent British vocal ensemble VOCES8 will soon embark on their first Australian tour and we’re delighted to share the stage with them at Melbourne Recital Centre on 21 June to perform Bach’s inspiring masterpiece, his B minor Mass. Below, Sam Dressel, one of the tenors in VOCES8, reflects on the group’s educational values. We look forward to welcoming the ensemble to ANAM and rehearsing with them soon!
It’s thirty minutes before our concert in Philadelphia is due to start, and the green room is buzzing. Normally I’d be thinking about getting into concert gear with the other members of VOCES8, but today is a bit different. This afternoon will be the culmination of what must be the most inclusive and accessible project we have ever taken part in. Four choirs from the city have spent the last months creating text and movement with local artists for a new work, A Song Everyone Can Sing.
The process began in the autumn of 2017 with workshops on The VOCES8 Method, an interactive concert we gave in the spring of last year, and rehearsals with composer Jay Fluellen and Paul Smith, co-founder of VOCES8. Many of the participating singers have intellectual or physical disabilities, and the lyrics created for the project draw on the experiences, challenges and passions expressed by members of each choir. On stage, accessibility is at the heart of the event, with the lyrics sign-interpreted throughout, audio description of the movement, and live graphics representing the sounds of our voices.
I catch up with three students from Overbrook School for the Blind to hear their thoughts: Breanna Allen, Angela Carr and Ethan Ruddell, who each pick out different elements of the project which they’ve enjoyed. Ethan singles out the movement created to accompany the choral piece, Breanna feels happy and proud of what their group had achieved–“even though we’re the smallest choir taking part!"
“I feel like the project has helped us show people who we are,” says Angela. “We’ve learned that there’s more than one way to make music: it can be just with rhythms, with your body, or by creating your own sounds."
Education and outreach have always gone hand-in-hand with our concert work. VOCES8 is a part of the VCM Foundation, a vocal music education charity that brings the power of singing to over 40,000 people around the world every year, in partnership with schools, communities and Music Hubs (the organisations who coordinate local music education in the UK).
My six years in the group have seen us working with inner-city school kids, top university students, keen adult amateurs and prisoners (my third ever concert was in a French detention centre). Most of our concerts on tour include an outreach element. Our work ranges from community singing events and school workshops, to a Scholars Program for young professional singers, and work as Associate Ensemble on Cambridge University’s Masters Program in Choral Studies.
At the time of writing, we are about to finish a major collaboration between VCM and local partners in Cambridge. This has included one of our Young Leaders programs, where local secondary school students are trained to lead singing workshops for younger pupils in their area.
“The education side of what we do really took off from 2007 after an appearance at a big music teachers conference in the UK,” explains Paul, who left VOCES8 in 2016 to continue as CEO of our foundation, as well as expanding our education program. “I’d been working in music education roles before, so I already knew about some of the challenges faced by schools and teachers. We were all conscious of having grown up with the benefits of a great musical education — we hoped we could give something of that back to others."
Another important step came in 2011 when Paul gathered together the practices and techniques the group had developed in their work and published them as The VOCES8 Method, a set of group activities based on simple rhythms and melodies for use in the classroom and beyond.
“I’d recently read an incredible paper by Sue Hallam called The Power of Music,” says Paul. “It really showed the impact of engagement with music on the all-round development of children and young people. We’d been in a lot of schools by this point, we knew it could be tough. I thought: If we write this down, maybe we can create something that helps."
It’s now something which we use in almost all of our outreach work, often as the opening part of a session. On joining VOCES8 in 2013, I was struck by the range of rhythm-based activities we would use in education warm-ups — I didn’t feel I had come across this elsewhere in my (admittedly narrow) classical background.
Paul agrees: “It first evolved from some early workshop collaborations using graphic scores and building sounds from visuals. At the same time, I found working with rhythms was useful in settings where the participants had no musical background, as it’s something anyone can do. Then you can use those simple beginnings to create more and more complex layers of music."
Crucially, all of this has been written down without using musical notation, meaning that teachers or school leaders without musical training can still use the resource.
This will be my last season with VOCES8, so I’ve been reflecting on my time in the group and the things that will stay with me as I move on. There have been some clear musical highlights — and I hope our tour to Australia will be another! But perhaps inevitably it’s the people I have met along the way who I will remember more than any one exceptional concert or perfectly-tuned chord. I don’t know if I would have known that when I joined the group soon after university. And I believe it’s true that we learn and grow as artists from the experiences we share with others, so this aspect of our work has shaped all of us as much, or more, than those we have worked with.
Back in Philadelphia, there’s just time to hear from the students of Overbrook after the concert and get their reaction to the world premiere: “Incredible! It was awesome! Amazing!"
I agree — another experience shared, and a moment to remember that will stay with us long after the music has ended.
– Article orignally published in ANAM's Music Makers vol 31
BACH B MINOR MASS BACH
Friday 21 June 7.30PM
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Melbourne Recital centre
FIND OUT MORE
VOCES8 is passionate about music education and is the flagship ensemble of the music charity VCM Foundation. Engaging in a broad range of outreach work that reaches up to 40,000 people a year, the group runs an annual program of workshops and masterclasses at the Foundation’s home in London, the Gresham Centre at St Anne and St Agnes Church. Dedicated to supporting promising young singers, the group awards eight annual choral scholarships through the VOCES8 Scholars initiative. These scholarships are linked to the annual Milton Abbey Summer School at which amateur singers of all ages are invited to work and perform with VOCES8. The ensemble is proud to be the Associate Ensemble for Cambridge University and delivers a Masters program in choral studies.
As official Ambassadors for Edition Peters, the ensemble publishes educational material including the ‘VOCES8 Method’. Developed by Paul Smith, co-founder of VOCES8, this renowned and unique teaching tool is available in four languages and adopts music to enhance development in numeracy, literacy and linguistics. Also available are two anthologies of its arrangements, and an ever-expanding ‘VOCES8 Singles’ range. This season the ensemble becomes Ambassador for the Tido App, an inspirational resource and learning tool created by Edition Peters. The VOCES8 Method and music arrangements will be made available via Tido during the 2018/19 season.
With an on-going program of recordings, videos and live broadcasts, VOCES8 is heard regularly on international television and radio. The ensemble is a Decca Classics artist and has released acclaimed recordings that have all reached the top of the classical charts. A new album is planned for 2019. VOCES8 has premiered commissions from Roxanna Panufnik, Alexander Levine, Alec Roth, Ben Parry, Ola Gjeilo, Philip Stopford, Graham Lack, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Owain Park. 2019 will see the premiere of a commission by Jonathan Dove to mark the culmination of his period as the group’s Composer in Residence.
"The singing of VOCES8 is impeccable in its quality of tone and balance. They bring a new dimension to the word 'ensemble' with meticulous timing and tuning." - Gramophone
Photo by Andy Staples