Perfect pitch: 30 years of developing music

David Smith

As ISZL celebrates its 60th anniversary, music teacher and leader of the Zug Campus ISZL Choir, David Smith, looks back on his 30-year career at the school. 

Choir of students singing conducted by David Smith

As ISZL celebrates its 60th anniversary, music teacher and leader of the Zug Campus ISZL Choir, David Smith, looks back on his 30-year career at the school. 

The weather forecast promised snow overnight so I decided to leave earlier than expected to take the train into London from my brother’s house in Surrey. It was a wise decision as that train would be the only one to arrive in London that day from south of the capital, the day of the European Collaborative for International Schools’ (ECIS) recruitment fair. However, it arrived very, very late- so late that I missed the initial registration, the interview sign ups and morning’s interviews. Luckily the ‘wrong type of snow’ (as British Rail called it) proved to be a wonderful talking point with Martin Latter, the Principal at the International School of Zug, in my interview he had set up for me later that day. Comparing the Swiss handling of 10cms of snow to the UK was a fascinating and eye-opening discussion. Comparing Swiss and British snow was going to be the most important discussion of my life, I now know.

As my first job outside the UK, I was thrilled to be offered the position combining Music, EAL (English as an Additional Language) and Learning Support at the school but one that I knew was going to be a challenge. Fortunately, this was exactly what I was looking for when deciding to explore international education. And it did not disappoint, although arriving at a first floor, metal clad building above a post office was not the image of a Swiss chalet on top of a mountain I was expecting. Despite the initial surprise, the building proved to be perfect for a school and so my career in Switzerland began.

With 105 pupils from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 7, the class sizes were far smaller than the 30 children in a class in the school in Barry, Wales, that I had left. What a joy it was to be able to teach classes where not only every student was fully engaged and wanted to learn more, but there seemed never to be an issue of discipline. The staff and students were simply wonderful. Martin had made it clear to me that as there was no music curriculum at the International School of Zug. He wanted me to develop a music programme that would be integral to the school’s curriculum but more importantly, one that would bring the love and passion for music to every student in the school. In that first year, I wrote a curriculum for each grade, formed a school choir, began a tradition of two school musicals each December, and founded what is now called the ISZL Music School.  Several years later, I began the instrumental programme for Grades 4-8. Initially offering flute and violin, this eventually grew to offering 11 instruments with 18 music teachers visiting the school each week.

Student choir practice conducted by David Smith

The part of my job I am most proud of and thankful for is the way the school choir developed over the years and the support I have had to achieve my goals from teachers, parents, and leadership. When I first arrived, I discovered very quickly that getting the students simply to sing was a challenge in itself. I had come from Wales where every student sang and wanted to be in the school choir. I can confirm that the old adage that Wales is the land of song is absolutely correct. However, as the choir grew in numbers, the quality and desire to improve also developed, and so began many memorable performances.

In the mid 1990s we sang in the Stravinsky Theatre in Montreux for the opening ceremony of the ECIS conference and were also invited to record on a track for a Zürich based reggae band. In 2007, a Zürich choir invited us to join them alongside the Zürich Symphony Orchestra in John Rutter’s ‘Mass of the Children’. As a huge fan of Rutter’s music, I knew it would be an amazing experience for the children, not only to sing his inspirational music but also to perform with a professional symphony orchestra. We performed at the Catholic Church in Enge and at the magnificent setting of St. Jakob’s Church in Cham. From this concert, Christof Eschenbach, the artistic director and conductor of the orchestra, invited the choir to sing at their Weinachtskonzert at the Tonhalle, Zürich, for 2 years in succession. I knew these experiences would prove to be extraordinary, life-changing moments for the students. Personally, to conduct such a wonderful orchestra with my amazing choir in one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, is something I will never forget, and of which I am incredibly proud. For the choir to be recognised and lauded by professional musicians still makes me shiver with pride.

Leading from these concerts an invitation to sing with the Zürich Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Tonhalle arrived. We then embarked on our first international tour to Vienna, when we sang at the Stefansdom, St Peterskirche and at the Royal Chapel at Schönnbrun Palace. The tour proved to be a phenomenal success and led to several more tours.

After that snowy day in London in 1991 changed the course and direction of my career and life, I can honestly state that working for ISOZ and ISZL for the past 30 years was the best decision I could have made. Facilitating Martin Latter’s vision of ‘Music for All Children’ is something of which I am extremely proud.

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