Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Two-thirds of his life Jeff Smith has been involved with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, but he could have never predicted it when, as an eight year old on his way to his audition, he sat crying in the car, scared he wouldn't get in. When the then choral director offered him a place on the spot, he was ecstatic. 

Seven years in the choir cemented his desire to make a career in music and, having graduated in composition, he got a job playing piano in Off Broadway shows. It was here that the Boys choir conductor made contact with him to offer him a temporary job as piano accompanist on their tour to China and Korea. His return to the choir had begun.

Jeff challenges his choir in the projects he creates both ‘in normal times’ and during the pandemic. Writer and composer James McBride, whose son was at that time part of the choir, was persuaded to jointly create a performance about William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad – an extensive network of Quaker safe houses in Philadelphia which helped fleeing slaves. The year was 2017 and Trump had just become president. “The racial issue in our country always resonated with me,” Jeff told me. “I also tend to get frustrated with politics in general, how divisive both sides can be and how closed minded people can be. But I said, when we do this, I want to be sure that we don't turn off people. I said, let's just present something to them, the history in our country, and what people have gone through.” The project brought together African American composers and arrangers to bring the monologues and interwoven spirituals into a narrative. The following year, alongside another composer, Jeff took a small group of his boys into the local juvenile delinquent centre, again not to preach (this is a feature with him) but to listen and to faithfully report their stories within music in another new programme. 

Kids join the choir at eight or nine, usually without any training, so Jeff has to teach them the basics of reading music, sight reading with solfeggio syllables and proper vocal technique with breath support. What they gain is an unparalleled music education from his team, with professional tuition in acting, vocal training and pronunciation. 

The annual tour is usually a highlight, as it takes the boys to a new and exciting destination each year, and Jeff credits this experience with making the boys more responsible and teaching them respect for other cultures. He doesn’t shy away from the negative attitudes boys display, but talks openly about the issues of race and culture, explaining “this is the way they live. We're the visitors so we need to do things the way that they [the host country] expect. Otherwise, we come across looking like ignorant Americans.” 

Unlike church choirs, boys get a rounded musical education since they perform with the Opera, with the Philly Pops Orchestra and, usually at this time of year, with the Pennsylvania ballet for The Nutcracker. And here's the rub:– right now they should be gearing up for their busiest month in the year. “December's insane. Each kid has to probably do at least 20 performances in that month alone. Now we have none, no live performances.”

But Jeff was quick onto Zoom in March, got to grips with his team's equipment challenges and kitted out with good microphones. Sadly the virus in the spring thwarted their annual recruitment drive but that has benefited the boys who did come as he can allocate more one-to-one time to teach them. Jeff’s mission during the pandemic is to teach a new song a week, which is a big ask both for the children and for him. Theoretically the new streamlined timetable should use up less time than their previous choir practices, since there is no travel involved. But perhaps travel was the relaxing part of it, with parents car pooling and meeting friends. On his digital audio workstation he prepares backing material for each new song, making a click track, then recording the keyboard accompaniment. Next he sings and records each voice part (yes, from his falsetto soprano down to bass), layers the click tape, keyboard and relevant voice part together and checks his timing is precise for each. He then videos himself conducting each part, adding that to the track. And every week each boy in his choir gets this perfect track he can use for practise. Since Jeff realises he is asking a lot from the boys, he has relaxed his expectation and allows them to sing along to their voice part when they record their weekly song. 

Making interesting arrangements for the choir is an imperative. Jeff usually splits the choir into sections, in addition to by voice type, allocating each section a verse and bringing them together for the grand finale. After the 80 boys send in their recording of the song he edits them together to make as professional a track as he can, and these will be used in a special virtual Christmas performance for 2020. His workload doesn't end there. The choir meets twice a week and Saturday is the longer, two-hour session where he brings in voice experts and works in smaller sections, so he has to make a rehearsal video too, sending one section into a Google classroom for their rehearsal video. Keen to keep the boys engaged, he loved a great Zoom feature which enabled him to unmute the boys, one by one, to hear them singing. Most of them really enjoyed that as a chance to be able to show off or to hear the other kids singing, but Zoom deemed it unsafe for a host to be able to unmute without first asking permission. Jeff understood but told me ruefully “As a choral director I really need that feature!”

When I press gently to find out how the boys are coping mentally with the strain of the pandemic he admits, it's not all going smoothly. Some boys dropped out of the choir near the start, unable to make the recordings he requested. He is in touch with some of their parents and recognises others are suffering from Zoom fatigue. As we speak, many schools are virtual and the boys are expected to spend long days online, often without parental supervision. During early summer he brought in a child psychologist to advise his team. Jeff's main concern was making sure he was allowed to insist the children had their cameras on during his rehearsals. “I needed to know they were actually there. They were participating. They were engaged. They were singing, you know, most of the rehearsal is me saying, OK, let's sing...If I see them moving their mouth, they're giving some kind of effort.” He also believes that making sure the kids can see each other gives them a much needed connection.  He realised that some of the boys might be embarrassed about their home circumstances so he came up with the bright alternative of a Zoom background showing their usual rehearsal hall and this has created a little dose of normality. But in general he feels that if they suffered from embarrassment they wouldn't have chosen to be part of a choir singing on a stage with everyone staring at them. Thankfully the psychologist agreed.

Best known laureate Lawrence Zazzo remembers his time in the choir fondly: “The Philadelphia Boys Choir instilled in me a lifelong passion for making music with others and for the hard work necessary to flourish in life.” “When you hear all the parts together, ” Jeff adds, “how everything weaves in and out, it's an incredible feeling. And then there's the camaraderie too. I'm always focusing on the music aspect, but I know some of the boys, that's what it's about to them.” Choral music isn't respected as much in America as it is in Europe and boys usually make up maybe just 25% of school choirs against girls’ 75% contribution. Boys may feel that it's not something boys do, but when they see other boys really enjoying it, that gives them a common bond which can last a lifetime. They may feel “uncomfortable at school, maybe they're picked on or teased because they're into music and not sports. But they come here, and they can share that and feel safe.”

The Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale is taking part in Bachtrack's Christmas charity project, Closer with a Carol: click here to send their socially distanced rendition of O little town of Bethlehem as a special musical greeting card to your loved ones.