It’s a funny old world: Olly Smith
‘There was something deeper to my potential than just a treble with a terrible haircut!’
These days, all singing is cool. But cast your mind back to the mid-80s and picture me with a blonde, bowl haircut in a shiny top hat, short, coal-black gown and pinstripe trousers. No matter how angelic my 10-year-old voice, those clothes just weren’t considered cool. But, despite
that, when I reflect on my years
as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, I couldn’t feel prouder.
When I was growing up, my mum was a nurse and Dad was a teacher, and I loved singing. But I wasn’t just in love with singing – I was an avid fan of choral music. I remember saving up my pocket money to buy old vinyl records in the Music & Video Exchange. In fact, I’ve still got them today, with their MVE price tags on – mainly 30p a pop.
Two of my music teachers were adamant that there was something deeper to my potential than just a treble with a terrible haircut! However, when I first went up to
Cambridge to audition for King’s College at the ripe old age of 10, not only was I clueless about hair fashion, I was clueless as to what boarding school was, or what it really meant to live away from home with around 25 hours of singing every week on top of school work.
But I know now that singing around the clock, throughout the year, culminating at Christmas with the Nine Lessons and Carols, was probably the pinnacle of anything I’ve ever done. So much training, devotion and empathy made the whole Olly as a chorister thing feel like an electrical current, charging the Chapel from deep down the ages. It still blows my mind to think of all the history locked in the walls of that building, with my little voice a tiny part of its memory.
Listening to one another as we sang was vital, but learning to listen to the sound of the building, to drift deeply in the silent moments has been one of the most enriching gifts of my life. And as if performing in the world’s greatest man-made acoustic wasn’t cool enough, the choir also took me on tour to Finland, East Berlin behind the Iron Curtain, Japan – and even Norwich!
I took my wife and daughters to King’s College Chapel recently to hear Britten’s Hymn To Saint Cecilia. It felt like a transformative moment of sheer appreciation in the face of incredible effort and discipline from the choir, led by Stephen Cleobury. Now nearing the end of his tenure, my respect for him is undiminished.
This Christmas Eve, when you tune in to Nine Lessons and Carols, that single young lad’s voice opening Once In Royal David’s City will be a rallying call for us to listen – ideally to one another – and celebrate our connections. That’s what I’ll be raising my glass to this Christmas – that and the long-ago demise of that terrible bowl haircut.