Inner Voices : 'We can have a choir as good as Eton's'

Inner Voices brings together musically gifted singers from inner-city London schools to perform in some of the country's top venues. Alice Jones learns how the ambitious project came about – and hears the remarkable results.

It's a sunny April Saturday and Inner Voices have just opened the Mayor of London's St George's Day Festival on Trafalgar Square. Dressed in black with turquoise ties, the choir of 43 teenagers from 11 inner London state schools entertains the crowds with an eclectic 20-minute set ranging from John Bennet's 1599 madrigal "Weep, O Mine Eyes" to an acapella version of Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar".

It's a remarkable performance – they make a lovely, well-rounded sound – but especially if you consider that a little over six months ago the pupils had never met. They have been brought together by two teachers from different school worlds – Edward Watkins, director of music at the new West London Free School, who previously taught music at Bishop Thomas Grant School, a comprehensive in Streatham, South London, and Ralph Allwood, director of music at Eton College for the past 26 years. When Allwood left Eton last summer, Watkins, one of his former pupils, proposed a new venture.

"I've always wanted to create something for the children I teach that would be as good for them as the choir at Eton was for me," says Watkins, 29. "I became a teacher because I loved being part of the music department at school. The choir was where I made my first meaningful friendships, found my social identity. I saw a possibility for Ralph to do in the state sector what he'd done for pupils at Eton. I see no reason why we shouldn't have a choir that is as good as those at Eton."

Of course Eton has a head start. Annual fees of £30,000 bring unrivalled facilities, including a new three-storey music block housing a state-of-the-art recording studio, a library, some 60 pianos, six pipe organs and a harpsichord. There are numerous choirs, chamber groups, jazz bands, brass bands and orchestras. In contrast, several members of Inner Voices have never sung in a choir before. But this is more than a patronising hand-out from the private sector. The aim is to create a first-class choir under the baton of Allwood, an MBE and honorary associate of the Royal Academy of Music, one of the finest trainers in the country.

At the same time, it will provide musically gifted children from some of the capital's most deprived areas with opportunities they may not enjoy in their own schools – whether that is singing in four parts, trying out the classical repertoire or performing in prestigious locations. Since their first rehearsal in September the choir has sung at the Merchant Taylor's Hall and Westminster Cathedral Hall; in the Easter holidays they spent three days singing in Oxford University's college chapels.

Watkins approached 14 inner London state schools – 11, including Lambeth Academy, The London Oratory and The Norwood School, signed up. Music teachers then put forward four pupils, at least one on free school meals. The choir – 21 boys and 22 girls, aged between 11 and 18 – rehearses one evening a week at the Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster. It is voluntary – "If they didn't want to turn up," says Watkins, "they wouldn't" – but attendance is uniformly good.

Training is rigorous with an emphasis on learning new musical skills and the positive, energising power of singing. There are no compromises on the repertoire. "Some teachers say, 'If you don't do pop music, they won't be interested,'" says Allwood. "That's wrong. I say, you do good music with them and they recognise that it is good music. I'll always remember starting 'Weep, O mine eyes', a very sombre, beautiful piece. Not one looked up at me with anything other than enjoyment."

Xanthus Ingram-Peters, 16, from The Norwood School, a performing and visual arts college in South London, is already reaping the benefits from a different approach. "Ralph has taught us how to learn music without needing to be spoonfed and to look out and acknowledge our audience. It's opened my eyes to different types of music."

On 7 May the choir will take part in the Southbank Centre's Chorus Festival singing Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium. For the choral work in 40 parts, each child will be paired up with a semi-professional adult singer. Future engagements include Mozart's Spatzenmesse with the London chamber choir Voce and a Christmas concert at King's College, Cambridge.

Such opportunities do not come cheap. The annual running cost is £20,000. A £5,000 donation by the parent of one of Allwood's former pupils and £4,500 from the Walcot Foundation gave them their initial boost. A launch concert at Westminster Cathedral Hall raised £8,000. Schools are asked to provide £150 per pupil per year and parents £100 (pupils on free school meals are exempt).

For the schools it's a worthwhile investment in a neglected area. The proportion of students taking GCSE music is the lowest of all optional National Curriculum foundation subjects at just 7 per cent (art, by comparison, draws in 25 per cent). In 2011, 9,000 students took A Level music, 1 per cent of all entries in England. In March Ofsted published a report, "Music in schools; wider still, and wider". It states: "One of the inspectors' biggest concerns was about the paucity of singing observed in secondary schools. Singing was inadequate – or simply not happening at all – in 41 of the 90 schools inspected." Pupils eligible for free school meals, meanwhile, were "considerably less likely" to be involved in musical activities.

Yet, as Glee and Gareth Malone have shown, singing is one of the most inclusive, not to mention life-enhancing, activities there is – you only need a voice to get involved. The Department for Education has now cottoned on to its potential, publishing the first National Plan for Music Education. It highlights the link between music tuition and improved reading ability, vocabulary and memory skills in children. Outside of the classroom, it highlights, "increased self-reliance, confidence, self-esteem, sense of achievement and ability to relate to others." It's good fun, too. "There are a lot of schools where they have no idea what children are capable of musically and the fantastic things teenagers can do," says Watkins. "A lot of people miss out on that because they don't see that music has a worth outside of the GCSE statistics".

The proof of that worth is in the performance. Melodies and rhythms can be taught by any good teacher but the happiness and pride that Inner Voices radiates is something far rarer. "The choir has matured a lot of people musically," says Ashley Lewis, 15, a pupil at The Norwood School. "Music has always been a passion but it's stimulated my musical flair. We've come a long way since we began and I feel proud."

Inner Voices perform "Spem in Alium" on 7 May at Southbank Centre, London SE1 and with Voce Chamber Choir on 30 June, St Luke's Church, London SW3 (innervoices.co.uk)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders