Well I first started leading choirs at school, when I was 15. There was a singing competition and all the people in my “house” were forced to compete against all the other houses. My group won the competition against 12 other entrants singing a version of “the Two Grenadiers” by Schumann. This was the first time I had tried to teach “non- music readers” to sing and it was quite a profound beginning. That then lead to teaching people rounds on the backs of busses at school too, I guess. Subsequently, I went to Cameroon and studied xylophones, as a post-grad, and then when I ended up living in Jerusalem for three years, one of the ways I made a living, was by running African music workshops in Schools and Kibbutzim. This again involved me in teaching all-comers, with a wide variety of musical ability. However it was not till I returned to UK and started running singing workshops and teaching group singing at my children’s school that things started to come together professionally in this area. Then a close colleague (the famous Community Choir director, Nick Prater), who ran the New Forest Community Choir, asked me if I could succeed him when he decided to move on. He had such a positive and engaging way of teaching that I found the whole experience truly uplifting and was convinced that I wanted to do this as a regular part of my work, and to emulate him.
We asked our inspirational Musical Director, Jeremy Avis, who has been leading Earthly Voices since 2013, a few questions.
Q - How and when did you first get into leading community choirs and what do you enjoy about it?
Q - What in particular, do you enjoy about leading Earthly Voices?
I enjoy the positivity of the membership, their smiles and their openheartedness. Their wicked sense of humour also keeps me going!
Q - You provide us with a wide variety of songs. What is your have a favourite musical genre?
Absolutely do not have a favourite musical genre…there are so many to enjoy. BUT I love, Congolese Soukous, Stravinsky, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Pedro Luis Ferrer, Richard Bona, Haydn, Gershwin, Elvis Costello and Laura Mvula oh and Josquin des Prez, Blind Boys of Alabama, the Baka Pygmies of the Cameroon….God I could go on for ever: so many genres I like: opera, viol consorts, Eric Whitacre, Dead can Dance , Chris Wood. ☺
Q - What makes a good community choir song?
It must have meaning for the group, it should not be too complicated or have too many sections…it should be authentic in a way that group can connect with: ‘Something Inside So Strong’ by Labi Siffre is a good one: but then again I do really like a good Southern African Song like the South African National Anthem ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ or the protest song ‘Senzenina’
Q – Leading EV fits in with your portfolio career; what other professional projects have you been involved in recently and in the near future?
Last summer, I was performing in, and musical director for ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at the Globe theatre and I am about to go on a tour of the production of the USA, China and Italy singing, playing the harpsichord and conducting! I have recently been in Sofia Bulgaria arranging music and singing solo on the forthcoming re-launch album of Bulgarian group :’ La Mystere des Voix Bulgares’ and I am currently involved in a performance art project called ‘The Arms of Sleep’ for the Norwich-based Voice Project Choir ….where the audience comes into a large gymnasium and is sung to sleep by the choir each in their own bed. Sleepers are then awoken during the night for a mix of dreams, nightmares, 3AM myths projections and dance.
Earlier this year I was leading the chorus and singing and making forest sounds while being flown around in a chair on the Oliver Stage at the National Theatre in production of ‘As you Like It’.
Q - How does EV benefit from these activities?
I think a strong positive is the breadth and depth of the musical performance types I get involved in… I might be singing in Arabic or in early English one minute, acting the next in a Shakepeare play or singing backing vox on a blur album. I think the fact that I work in a wide musical context puts me in touch with a breadth of material that I would not meet if I was simply ploughing a purely teaching furrow.
I want to bring what I have learned through performing, to Earthly Voices….particularly with regard to expressing intention, maintaining focus and improving communication of a piece so the choir makes a really good connection with the audience during a performance.
Hopefully these experiences I have get communicated in various ways to the choir when I teach, and is what makes being part of Earthly Voices an exciting and interesting challenge! And I know from the feedback we get, that our audiences do appreciates the variety of our repertoire and the sincerity of our performance.
I try also to work in a nurturing and humorous style, which I know brings out the best in people and encourages us all to have fun, to not be fearful of making mistakes and therefore to improve.
Q - Who are your musical heroes?
Wow: so many! My first choir director Dr. Allan Wicks was a formative hero who allowed me to be happy and expressed as a singer and to not be afraid of being both vulnerable in front of an audience and also to really “go for it”.
Peter Gabriel of course, I was obsessed with him in my teens and what he did was to broaden my experience of music, which led me into travelling widely to meet and embrace other musical cultures.
Jeff Buckley is simply one of the greatest pop singers and I would be his disciple any day …if of course he were still alive.
Baaba Maal: Seneglalese Singer and ‘griot’ – that’s a praise singer, by the way! Brazillian Singer Gilberto Gil, and Early Music Soprano Emma Kikby (I told you I was a broad church!)
Q - What do you expect from choir members?
Only a willingness to have a go; to have fun and to be occasionally stretched and pushed a bit out of their comfort zones.
And also to put in a little bit of time in between rehearsals, to listening to their individual musical parts in order to save time on Thursday nights, with the note bashing, so we get on with the fun! Oh and I expect to be supplied with a good supply of tea and great biscuits during the break.
Thank you Jeremy!