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.
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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 (