Interview: Aaron Nigel Smith

Aaron Nigel Smith features a lot of guest stars on his album Welcome to the Village -- Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Lucky Diaz -- but the guest artists featured most prominently are the kids of his One World Chorus, a multi-national choral group.

Smith chatted with us earlier this month about his experiences growing up at a choral boarding school, his long route back to kids' choral groups, and the benefits of singing in groups, not to mention his future plans (hint: Bob Marley has something to do with it.)

Zooglobble:What was your first musical memory?

Aaron Nigel Smith: I think it was my elementary school music class with Mrs. Gibson.  We played the xylophones; she was using the Orff/Kodaly method.  I really enjoyed that above and beyond the rest of school.  It opened me up.

And at age 11, you went to study music away from home?

Yes, at the American Boychoir School.  I was at Camp Albermarle, a summer camp, and while there they picked a few kids to audition.  I passed the audition, and soon I was at the school.

It was an incredibly life-changing experience.  From day one, people knew that you wanted to be a musician.  There was choir practice several hours a day on top of class.  We toured every state, we went to Europe, we sang with people like Jessye Norman -- it was incredibly high-quality.

What did you want to do as a musician?

I wanted to be a singer, specifically a classical singer doing light opera, oratorio, choral music, that was my main thought, anyway.

And so what was the path from that career to children's musician?

I went to Interlochen, the music camp, which is where I met my wife.  I attended the Manhattan School of Music and performed with the Albert McNeil Choral Singers.  I toured internationally, I was touring rigorously.  But with with kids, it was a little rough -- literally the day after the birth of our first son Zion, I had to fly to Japan for two weeks.  I did it, because that's what I had to do to earn money for our family, but it was heart-wrenching.

The first hour I spent teaching music was another life-defining moment for me.  I went into the class and immediately threw out the plan I had -- I spent time with the kids with honesty and integrity, I improvised.

That was ten or eleven years ago now.  It's great to see families engaged together.

What was the inspiration for the One World Children's Chorus?

That's really coming full circle for me.  I had been exploring ideas for working with a non-profit.  And I'd been touring and working with my children's music program FUNdamentals.

The choir started in California as the Palisades Choir, but if you're familiar with that area, you know that there's not much need for outreach in that area.  When we decided to move from Los Angeles to Oregon, we expanded that vision to Oregon, then to New York City with some kids I'd been working with there for a few years, and then to Nairobi, Kenya.

We started working with the Cura Orphanage there.  We were able to send proceeds to the orphanage.  And I wanted to have these groups of children singing together.

Do you have particular memories from the sessions?

With Los Angeles, it's the memory of the inception of the recording in my home studio, with my sons, goofing around.  In New York, it was the opportunity to collaborate with Antonio Dangerfield, who was my high school roommate and now works with the Achievement First Academy.

As for Kenya, I'd never been there before.  I'd see the state the kids were existing in, then see them sing with such joy -- they had joy in their eyes as they sang together, even though they had no shoes and were singing in a mud hut.

And in Portland, I finally feel at home.  There's been such openness and kindness -- help with with recording, appearances on TV, and parents jumping with enthusiasm.  We had auditions yesterday and the day before and had 50 kids.

What do you see as the benefits of choral singing for kids?

Well, the voice is a pure instrument, it's inside us.  Beyond that, we all come out of preschool together, but by the time you hit fourth or fifth grade people can be tool cool for someone.  Choir has you standing next to someone, blending your voices together.  Those values of cooperation are useful.  Not even 20% of these kids will become musicians, but they'll learn you can accomplish a lot if you sing together.

There aren't many opportunities to have kids sing together, particularly outside of a church setting -- what advice do you have for getting a group together?

Well, to start off with, just sing with your kids -- it's OK!  We spend so much time telling then not to sing, right?  It doesn't have to be from a hymnal, of course -- sing Bob Marley, the Beatles, general sing-along.

Once kids start singing, they want to sing together, to write music.  And there are so many audiences if you want to perform in front of audiences -- schools, nursing homes.

Singing is coming back into vogue now with Glee and American Idol and the rest (not that I'd push Idol and those shows).  That shows cool high school singing.

What's next for you?

I'm excited about the next season with One World.  We've picked out our next location -- in February we're going to Jamaica.  We're going to be working at Bob Marley's elementary school.  There's also a possibility of working in Haiti in 2013.  That's a little more unstable, and we're trying to find the right partner.

Our next CD is going to be a holiday CD, and we're also doing a holiday concert.

Finally, we're going to put on a children's music festival here in Lake Oswego in the Portland area -- we have a year to pull it off.

Photo credits: Dove Rudman (ANS), Melissa Heinonin (OWC Portland), Michael Kilmurray (Cura school)