An interview with Suzi Digby, OBE, Co-Founder of Biiah.
Suzi Digby is a choral conductor, music educator and social entrepreneur. We find out more about her passion for singing and what inspired her to start Biiah.
Q: Tell us a bit about you?
I’m described as a ‘singing person’. Everything I do is related to singing. I started singing at the age of 3 and haven’t really stopped.
I’m very excited at the idea of helping people access wonderful music making, being a conduit to people’s music experiences and how it enhances their everyday lives, helping them develop as human beings. That’s really the centre of everything I do, both with children and with adults.
Q: What does music mean to you?
There’s a common soul that becomes connected through great music. For example, the works of Bach and Beethoven – everyone who listens to them recognises something. We are united through music and it takes us to a much much higher plane than anything else. Music transcends everything.
Q: Tell us more about the work you did for the ‘I Can’t Sing’ Choirs?
I did a piece in the health section of Telegraph in the early 90s about singing and health. I had many people contacting me after that, so to try and capture this enthusiasm, I started single day workshops where people could come along if they thought they “couldn’t sing”. At every single workshop, someone burst into tears of joy and relief because suddenly this door had opened. That’s the power that singing has on people.
Those singing days were for people who had been told for years that they couldn’t sing. The emotion was unbelievable. That was the unlocking of them being able to finally express their voice, it was a delight to them!
Q: What do you think was the catalyst for you working in music?
I started to sing from a young age and doing shows in school. However, it really all started when my dad took me to sing with him in a choir when I was 9. I would listen to music all the time and go to every concert that I possibly could through my teenage years.
Working with children early on in my career made me realise I had a skill to lead children’s choirs and conduct adult choirs. I received a Churchill Fellowship in 1990 which allowed me to travel around the world observing systems in music education based on the voice whilst also learning from great choir trainers.
This spurred me to create The Voices Foundation. We work with thousands of children and train many teachers through voice based singing techniques. After this came the London Youth Choir which serves all the boroughs and communities of London.
Vocal Futures was next with the purpose of engaging 16-22 year olds in classical music.
Most recently, I started ORA singers, an ensemble of great and talented singers. I’m currently commissioning 100 composers to write 100 choral works based on renaissance masterworks. We’ve won lots of awards and have worked with a great pool of musicians.
In the heart of lockdown, Ora Singers had a concert in the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern. 70,000 people were at the concert and we now have over 300,000 views on the live stream. We were so lucky to pull this off whilst in lockdown.
Q: Who are your musical inspirations?
My dad. He inspired me to want to perform and to learn music. I remember being taken to concerts and his passion and enthusiasm for music. I owe absolutely everything to my father.
Along the way there have also been many other sources of inspiration. As a musician you’re a magpie, you learn bits of genius from people to develop your own way through the inspiration of very special people who have gone before you.
Q: Can you tell me more about the inspiration to start Biiah?
Throughout my life, I’ve come across people who say “I can’t sing” but from working with children all across the world, I’ve learnt that’s a fallacy. Many adults think that they can’t sing. But what does that mean? Does it mean that they can’t make a singing sound or that they can’t sing in tune? Or maybe that they can’t match pitches?
There are so many people out there who want to sing and here at Biiah, we want to give every person possible the opportunity to do just that.
We started to develop our app, Biiah, as a means to provide adults with new ways of learning to sing. Within this free gaming platform we can help you find your voice type, teach you the basics to sing a song well, and lead you through, interesting and exciting ways to improve your singing technique. We hope this app will open doors for lots of people but particularly, and perhaps most importantly, those who weren’t sure they could sing.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career in music?
Shadow other people – observe and learn from people you admire and find out how they do it.
Be aware that a large proportion of your time is going to be spent in admin and fundraising, so learn how to do it. You’re not just going to be able to play music all the time.
Follow your passion! Don’t worry about the reasons why not!
Q: If you had to listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Dichterliebe – Song Cycle by Robert Schumann. I’ve known and played that song all my life. I hadn’t heard it for a long time. I was totally overcome with a combination of nostalgia because I knew it so well but also a new awareness of how brilliant it is.
Suzi was talking to Ione Haynes, former Marketing Coordinator at Biiah.