Jamey Ray and Derric Johnson founded and write music for two of today’s most popular a cappella groups: Voctave and The Voices of Liberty (VOL). Ray, the choral editor at Excelcia Music Publishing and a music professor at Florida’s Rollins College, sang with VOL before collaborating with other vocalists from the group to form Voctave at the end of 2015. Johnson, a prolific musician, educator, author, and much more, has influenced thousands of singers over the past 40 years.
“It’s all about stories,” says Johnson—and there are many great ones featured in this interview!
The Voices of Liberty
The Voices of Liberty began with a traveling gospel show choir called Re’Generation. Bob Cross, then the entertainment director at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, discovered them at a Florida rotary club performance in 1972.
“You guys are more Disney than Disney,” Cross declared, granting the group an initial run of four performances each day for 11 days in front of Cinderella Castle.
The audience response was incredibly positive, with people lined up all the way up Main Street to hear them sing.
The group’s next breakthrough came when their Christmas album caught the attention of Donald Pippin, a prominent conductor, composer, and music director for several of the most successful musicals in Broadway history. The Christmas album achieved widespread renown, and Disney asked Re’Generation to perform Christmas music in the park throughout the month of December. Finally, when Epcot opened in 1982, Re’Generation rebranded as The Voices of Liberty and became a permanent fixture in the American Adventure Pavilion.
When The Voices of Liberty started, there were 16 singers in the cast, which then doubled to 32, and the rest is history: hundreds of singers have been part of the group over the years. While several members have stayed for 20 years or more, Johnson’s wife Debbie holds the record for longevity. One of the original members of the group, she performed over 47,000 shows before retiring in 2015!
Of the audition and selection process, Johnson says that personality is key: “I want nice people who can sing well. I can teach singing, but I can’t teach people to be nice.”
Voctave was born when Jamey Ray’s Disney Fly Medley, featuring several of his fellow VOL alumni, caught the ear of Pentatonix singer Kirstin Maldonado. Ray collaborated with Maldonado and Jeremy Michael Lewis on the Disney Love Medley, featuring selections from Tangled, Tarzan, and Hercules. While Ray’s projects had already begun to draw attention, Maldonado’s star power had the potential to attract a whole new level of fame.
“You need a name and a website,” Lewis told Ray. “As soon as we post this video, people will look for this group. If you don’t exist, you don’t exist!”
While Jamey Ray’s original idea for his group’s name was “8va,” he ultimately settled on the more trademark-friendly “Voctave”—a portmanteau of “vocal” and “octave.” A more fun story, he says, is that the “V” in “Voctave” could represent the number five, since the highest and lowest notes the group has recorded are five octaves apart.
Part of Voctave’s magic comes from the fact that Ray writes vocal parts with specific performers in mind. Arrangements celebrate the individual for whom they are written, and each performer has the unique opportunity to take ownership of his or her part. Many of his works, says Ray, have taken shape with the input of the group’s singers.
Building Choral Sound
Rather than taking a band-style approach in which the lowest instruments form the foundation of the group’s sound, Voctave and VOL do the opposite, building from the top down. First sopranos set the tone for the ensemble, with second sopranos blending into their sound, followed by altos, tenors, and so on. This approach, says Johnson, creates a unique velvety quality that sets both groups apart.
When it comes to pronunciation, Johnson and Ray take a pop choral approach, meaning that performers should sing words the way that they would say them in conversation. Johnson offers the example of the word “nature” in the line “let heaven and nature sing” from the classic Christmas song “Joy to the World.” While some choral purists maintain that singers should pronounce “nature” “not-your,” such choices have the potential to alienate audiences.
“Vowels bring beauty; consonants bring passion,” says Johnson. After all, which would you rather hear: “That was amazing” or “That was ah-maaaaazing?” “You look wonderful” or “You look wooooonderful?”
Candlelight Concerts and Christmas Arrangements
Unlike VOL’s performances at the American Adventure Pavilion, Disney’s candlelight concerts feature a much larger choir along with instrumental accompaniment. These concerts date back to the 1960 Winter Olympics, when Walt Disney and the University of Southern California’s Dr. Charles Hirt met while directing the event’s music and entertainment. Together, they began the process of bringing Christmas carolers to Disney World.
Voctave and VOL’s Christmas arrangements, Ray says, are his favorites. Each has a specific nostalgic sound that evokes the joy and wonder of the holiday season.
VOL: Joy to the World
Joy to the World, one of VOL’s few a cappella Christmas arrangements, is well worth the challenge for choirs to learn. Singers and audiences love it; it’s rewarding both to sing and to hear.
While the inclusion of instrumentalists adds extra grandeur and majesty to any vocal performance, Johnson is (understandably) partial to a cappella. “God only created one instrument,” he says, “and that’s the voice.”
VOL: French Chorale of Praise
Johnson’s arrangement of French Chorale of Praise dates to his time working at a small church in San Diego, California. The youth choir told Johnson that their director doesn’t choose his arrangements because he “doesn’t write real music,” and the “very contrapuntal” French Chorale of Praise was Johnson’s response. Like most if not all his arrangements, it’s a joy to perform. “After you finish singing it,” he says, “you smile.”
VOL: Away in a Manger and Still, Still, Still
Away in a Manger and Still, Still, Still are lovely and moving without unnecessary complexity. Easier to learn than French Chorale of Praise, these hushed, delicate arrangements are excellent choices for any Christmas performance.
VOL: The Hanukkah Medley
Other than one “glorious” high D, says Johnson, Hanukkah! is “very singable.” This medley features three traditional Hanukkah songs: Hanukkah, O Hanukkah; Hevenu Shalom Aleichem; and The Dreidel Song. In his experience, this selection always elicits recognition and appreciation from Jewish audiences.
Voctave: Mary, Did You Know?
Jamey Ray’s haunting arrangement of Mary, Did You Know?, one of Voctave’s most viewed videos, has significant range and force. In fact, one chord in their performance includes five full octaves!
Voctave: All Is Well
All Is Well is the second arrangement Jamey Ray ever created (the first was an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner that he wrote in college). One of his absolute favorites, All Is Well has now been recorded four times, but the opening solo was only ever recorded once—flawlessly—by star soprano Tiffany Coburn.
Voctave: Joy to the World and O Come All Ye Faithful
While sacred Christmas music tends to be rather serious, Ray’s version of Joy to the World with For Unto Us a Child Is Born (from Handel’s Messiah) is both worshipful and lighthearted. There’s an especially fun feature in the middle of the piece in which sopranos sing the famous violin line from Messiah. Voctave’s take on O Come, All Ye Faithful features an incredible tenor solo by E.J. Jacobs (which some groups assign to an alto) along with several interesting key changes.
Both Ray and Johnson value writing music that’s unpredictable, and these two arrangements are perfect examples: they are full of surprises!
Introducing VOL and Voctave Arrangements to Your Choir
While the impressive range of VOL and Voctave arrangements may seem intimidating at first glance, the voice leading in both Johnson’s and Ray’s writing makes these titles very singable. A few selections, including Simple Gifts and Shenandoah, could be accessible to many high school choirs (and maybe even a few middle school choirs).
Both Johnson and Ray write with the goal of creating music that’s fun to sing, sounds harder than it is, and features some unpredictability. Most of their arrangements are feasible to perform with groups as small as 10–12 or as large as 100 (or more!)
Creating a Legacy
Derric Johnson just celebrated his 90th birthday, and the celebration included hundreds of attendees from all over the United States. Naturally, they sang his arrangement of Happy Birthday! At this stage of his life, Johnson continues to work and write music with the hope of reaching a new generation of singers and audiences. “As long as I’m still here,” he says, “I need to be doing something. Why stop now?”
In addition to continuing his own projects, Johnson places great emphasis on the importance of mentorship. “When you get to an age when there are more leaves on the ground than there are on the trees,” as he puts it, “the question becomes not ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what do you help others do?’”. As Johnson sees it, the first part of life is about what you can accomplish, and the next should be dedicated to helping others fulfill their dreams.
Reflecting on the evolution of a cappella music, it’s evident that Derric Johnson has been a true pioneer. A cappella is hugely popular now and has even had an influence on classical choral music, due in large part to Johnson’s contributions. At the start of his career, he was often met with resistance—“Nobody wants to hear a cappella music!”—a sentiment virtually unheard of today. Choirs and lovers of choral music everywhere benefit from the trail that he blazed.
Watch the full interview here.
1:11 What does Jamey Ray do?
3:29 How did The Voices of Liberty begin?
6:01 Having lunch with Don Pippin… then Disney calls
9:02 What made the sound significant?
11:20 How Jamey discovered VOL: Tiffany Coburn and It Is Well With My Soul
14:25 Candlelight Concerts and Christmas arrangements
19:16 Joy to the World
21:13 Jamey Ray’s favorites of Derric’s Christmas arrangements: Away in a Manger
21:54 French Chorale of Praise
23:21 The Hanukkah medley
25:16 More details on Away in a Manger and Still, Still, Still
28:25 How many singers have been part of The Voices of Liberty?
32:17 Notable names who sang with The Voices of Liberty
34:10 What groups should consider these arrangements?
36:14 Voice-leading in Derric’s writing makes it very accessible
39:38 What is the style for people who have never heard it before?
45:16 How would Derric like his music remembered?
48:17 Derric’s 90th birthday party and his Happy Birthday arrangement
50:06 We’re so thankful to Derric for sharing his music with us
51:42 Voctave: How did the name come about?
54:54 Guest artists
58:39 Seeing Voctave live
1:00:28 Voctave Christmas arrangements: Mary, Did You Know?
1:01:54 All Is Well
1:04:20 Joy to the World (Voctave arrangement)
1:05:37 O Come, All Ye Faithful
1:07:05 Jamey’s personal favorite: All Is Well
1:07:45 Programming options
1:09:07 Thank you to Jamey and Derric for joining us!
1:10:08 Wrap-up… and subscribe