David & Gillian Victor-Smith - founders of Farnham Youth Choir
In 1984, David and Gillian Victor-Smith founded what would go on to be one of the most exciting and reputable youth choirs in the world. Retiring in the Summer of 2016, David's 32-year tenure established a legacy that underpins the core of our choirs today. Having brought Joanna Tomlinson to the choir initially as FYC vocal coach and latterly as Assistant Musical Director, David reflects below on his time with FYC:
David Victor-Smith MBE has been directing choirs since he was 18 - a very long time ago! He is an organist by training (a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and a Graduate of the Royal College of Music), but his passion has always been choral music. David devoted the best years of his life to school teaching. Forming Farnham Youth Choir was a joint venture with his wife Gillian and it has grown over 30+ years to be a thriving organisation, with the mission of offering to musical youngsters the opportunity to pursue a high standard of performance with a broad repertoire of music. He was appointed MBE in 1997 for his work with FYC. David’s other passions include sport (he is a keen, if occasionally desperate, supporter of Wolves football team and English cricket) and fine wine (when he can get it) - oh, and his family of three children and five grandchildren, for whom he has just made more time!
David's reflections in his own words...
"I was once told by a singer that, in his opinion, there is a natural span for choirs such as ours. “I give it 10 years”, he said. What he had forgotten was that, by the end of 10 years, we would have a completely different set of people in the choir organisation. A youth choir, unlike many adult groups, is constantly changing in both its raw material and its supporting team of adults. We re-invented ourselves each September!
Our raw material (the singers themselves) came in as young children aged 11 or 12 and left as young adults. What a challenge! Similarly, the constantly changing parent volunteers brought fresh ideas, aptitudes and abilities that all helped to shape the organisation.
In the first ten years we were establishing our credentials, setting our objectives, testing our limits and learning, always learning!
The game-changer for FYC was undoubtedly 1992 and winning the televised BBC Choir of the Year competition. Not only did it bring fan-mail from a wider public but it brought the invitation to compete internationally. It was that that awakened me to just how far UK choirs had to go to reach the standard of artistry and competence of, for instance, the Scandinavian and Eastern Bloc youth choirs. So we raised our game and within a short time had been successful in this wider world.
And we continued to learn. Naturally, successive generations entering the choir wanted as rich an experience as had the previous one. Pressure was always there to go one better...Europe was good but how about Australia? Long haul was good so how about China next? We haven't yet been to the US, let's go there! And so on.
Having satisfied the wider public who were requesting a CD of the choir in 1993, the precedent had been set and the next generation also wanted their repertoire recorded....as did I! I was discovering the joys (and agonies) of commissioning and it was a benefit to other directors to hear the new music recorded too.
More youth choirs were being formed, so the value of recording upper voice repertoire became apparent. (It is a great joy to me, now, to look back on so many CDs, each one giving a typically-varied FYC concert programme.)
By travelling, we not only helped cement each successive group of singers, but also rubbed shoulders with foreign choirs and exchanged repertoire and organisational tips. And we were still learning.
So having begun ‘domestically’ we branched out internationally and, in our final decade, found success on the world stage. Not bad for little old Farnham, eh?
Yet these are the ‘easy to measure’ successes. Yes, we may have an impressive list of achievements in many competitions, but to my mind it is rather like counting GCSE grades - it only tells part of the story. The real education is the young person’s week-on-week commitment to the group and response to the many challenges that come with performing.
Competitions have been just one of the tools we have used to enhance that experience. It has all helped them to develop the important life-skills of self-assurance, teamwork, responsibility, attention to detail and leadership: skills that are not so easy to measure, perhaps.
However, the alumni that returned to take part in our celebratory concert at the Anvil pay testament to their effect. By my calculations, the next member that joins FYC will be the 485th.
Journeying alongside the first 484 as they gradually developed those skills is what has sustained and excited me all these years.
So, mission accomplished? Never! But the time is right to hand this, our ‘baby’, over to another to take forward. Jo is the age I was when we began this amazing project. She has energy, enthusiasm, drive and vision and youth! I wish her the very best and hope that she finds her journey with FYC as stimulating as mine has been."
Gillian's reflections on supporting FYC behind the scenes:
When people ask us “Where next?” we answer truthfully: We really don’t know!
I always knew that David’s first love was music. When we married in 1970, he was considering a
career as an organist, having excelled at the RCM. And then he caught the teaching bug - big time!
By 1983, I was looking after our three children, two girls and a boy, and teaching part-time. David was working all hours during the week as a class teacher with responsibility for a primary school choir that was gaining national acclaim.
Every weekend he was working as organist and choirmaster at a large parish church. The family weren’t seeing much of him. Something had to give - and it couldn’t be the teaching salary that paid the mortgage.
The obvious solution was to create a vehicle that would satisfy both David’s musical energy and the needs of the family. And thus, in 1984, Farnham Youth Choir was born.
Apart from the benefits that FYC brought for our own family, I could see very clearly that a world wider than the local community should be the platform for David’s proven expertise. I could also see that our choir project was long-term. Working with a constantly changing group of young people and their families kept it fresh and the challenges kept on coming.
As our own children grew up and left home, our ‘choir family’ began to absorb much of our waking moments. As opportunities presented themselves, we took them. Together we learnt a great deal from attending Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) conventions and courses and we absorbed an incredible amount from meeting other choir directors when we toured with FYC.
David and I brought to the FYC project different things: he had the exceptional musical talent and I was a devoted supporting volunteer. But, ‘the show must go on’, regardless of the parochial problems of the moment as parent volunteers came and then left.
I found myself dabbling in fund-raising, publicity, committee chairing, newsletter editing on the one hand for example, and musical programming, repertoire planning, CD production on the other hand - and always page turning for Julia!
Suddenly we found that FYC was leading the field. It all happened in the blink of an eye!”
Julia Freeman - FYC's LONG-STANDING accompanist
Julia Freeman studied on The Performers’ Course at the Royal Academy of Music under Max Pirani, winning several prizes for solo performance and aural training. After spending ten years in America as a professional accompanist, Julia returned to the UK and almost immediately came into contact with Farnham Youth Choir. She and David discovered a shared passion for music-making of the highest-possible standard, and she became the choir’s accompanist, a position she holds to this day. For many years she was Director of Music at a local independent girls’ school. Piano pupils both past and current have won numerous competitions and prizes, including the Sheila Mossman Award for the highest Grade 8 piano result in the country. When she has any spare time Julia is a keen but frustrated gardener; she also enjoys art and fell-walking.
David Victor-Smith reflects on FYC's 'choral companion'
"Some thirty years ago, Julia came into the music studio at Farnham College one Wednesday to collect her daughter from choir. She casually mentioned that she was by profession a pianist who had done a lot of accompanying during her years in America. Would she be of any use?
And that’s how this amazing artistic adventure started. Since then, Julia has accompanied almost every FYC rehearsal and played for every concert bar three (she had to miss a couple of Royal Albert Hall performances because of clashes with her school teaching but only one through ill-health, although she has been known to rise from her sick-bed to accompany the choir in competition!).
She has accompanied every CD repertoire recording and has come on every one of our 27 concert tours. She has been instrumental in bringing commissions ‘off the page’ - including extraordinary challenges such as those posed by James MacMillan in his New-made for a King!
She has brought many of her piano pupils into the FYC fold. She has supported young soloists, just starting out on their singing careers, through their nerve-wracking first performances, catching them when they flounder and covering their mistakes with great sensitivity.
Julia has also managed to cope with every sort of piano all over the world, always making it sound in concert a better instrument than it actually was. Her piano-playing has delighted audiences, wherever she has performed.
FYC owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Julia Freeman for her incredible professionalism, supreme musicianship and unwavering loyalty to the cause of ‘music education through performance’ for more than thirty years. We all wish her well in her retirement."