Mark De-Lisser: The Man Who Hones the Human Voice Into a Thing of Beauty

Mark De-Lisser is a one of the foremost vocal coach/trainers, music arrangers, and choir directors to come from Britain’s Black faith community. His musical talent was honed in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, in which he was raised, and his gift for music has made room for him in all sorts of environments. His achievements are many.

He is director of the ACM Gospel Choir, now known as MDL Singers, which he started in 2003. He is founder of Singology, a community of over 800 singers who meet weekly in person (across nine locations in London) and virtually to sing; and his vocal coach skills have been used on a range of TV shows, including The Voice, Let it Shine, Pitch Battle, This is My Song, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, and The Masked Singer. He is also part of the BBC’s Songs of Praise team of presenters.

He is musical director of The Dementia Choir, birthed out of the highly acclaimed BBC documentary. Such is his knowledge of choirs, he has authored a book entitled 100 Ways To Inspire Your Choir.

Mark’s place in history is secured as the arranger for Stand By Me, the song performed by The Kingdom Choir in 2018 in front of billions at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Mark spoke to gospel stalwart and pioneer Juliet Fletcher about his life, music, and the achievement that makes him most proud.

JULIET FLETCHER (JF): Mark, the obvious question is: how or what started you on this course of life, working in music?
MARK DE-LISSER (MDL): My father. I’m the last of four, and when I was quite young, seven or eight, he took me to a male voice choir rehearsal to give my mum a break. It was actually the Adventist Male Voice Choir (led by Osric DeCoteau), and I was fascinated. Not only by all those voices but by the person who was directing: everything he told them to do, they did it. The sound was amazing. I didn’t fully comprehend why I was so taken by it, but I knew I wanted to do that thing like that man who stood in front of them.

JF: Where do your family hail from? And are they musically talented like you?
MDL: My parents, Clinton and Dorothy De-Lisser hail from Trelawny and St Ann respectively, in Jamaica. Yes, music is in my family (Richard, Paulette and Auline) but certainly no one – especially my father – believed that a living could be made from it. A lot of anxiety poured out of them to me, for me. Having a secure job and setting myself up for future stability – as my parents had done for us all – was paramount.

JF: How did your parents’ anxiety about working in music impact your work choices?
MDL: Well, initially I followed my parents’ good advice because I was too nervous about failing. I became an IT person and was in a very well-paid job. In my early 20s my pay was more than my parents could ever dream of, in all their struggles as migrants. My father worked in a retail supermarket and my mother was an NHS nurse. They believed I was settled on a good thing.

JF: Although you took on board your parents’ anxiety, what inspired you to make that leap into working in music?
MDL: Well, from the age of nine I had taught myself piano to quite a high level, and by 15 I was directing the youth choir in our local church, Brixton SDA. There I imbibed everything I knew about leading and caring for a choir. I realised I had a gift and, if I was going to grow and maximise its potential, I had to increase my capacity through learning.So, I took myself off to Colchester College and progressed to The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where I fulfilled a Master’s (MA) Degree in Voice Studies. It’s through studying that I fully understood the richness and wealth of the musicality in our churches. I acquired tools and began to hone my abilities to create resources and initiatives, so that regardless of culture, ethnicity or status – in the same way salvation is applied – it (singing) was accessible to everyone!

WHY GOSPEL MUSIC IS SO GREAT

JF: So, there you are with a Master’s in Voice Studies. You’re still single at this point. What do you decide to do but go full time?
MDL: Yes, I had learnt all I could from my experience in church now, but as JESUS said, we should “Go OUT” into the world. I decided to do so while I was still young. If I failed, I could go back and find a job.

JF: So, what has it been like ‘out there’, working in music? You’ve obviously survived beyond your parents’ expectations, with your wife Tracey, three children (daughter 14, and two sons aged 10 and 9), and a family home.
MDL: My research and experience have both taught and shown me the privileges we have, being brought up in the Church. Foremost, it’s a singing environment. It is one of our greatest advantages. Going to Africa I saw that within our culture, singing and music are in everything –whether it is work, rest or play. Scientific studies and health advocates are discovering the true benefits of singing and indeed music.

THE ROYAL STRUGGLE OF ‘STAND BY ME

JF: We all know the original hit song ‘Stand By Me’, composed by African American singer/songwriter Ben E King. But you, as an arranger, have given this popular song a totally new life as a choral rendition. Can you describe to us what it was like working on it, so it could be performed at the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan in 2018?
MDL: It was a very heartbreaking experience. I’ve never used that phrase before when describing the process, but it was heartbreaking for me.

JF: Tell us more. Please explain?
MDL: At least a year before I was asked by Karen Gibson to arrange the song, the back story to this experience is very important and speaks my spiritual reality. I remember sitting in my studio, audibly asking God to help me to write or arrange something akin to Richard Smallwood’s Total Praise. No matter where I go in the world to teach it, or where I see or hear it being performed, everyone is moved by it, regardless of race, culture or language – without exception. So, there I am, audibly asking Father God, although I don’t write songs (yet), please give me something like ‘Total Praise’ which will impact hearts and minds on hearing.

JF: Oh, gosh!
MDL: Eighteen months after that prayer, fast forward to when I was asked to arrange ‘Stand By Me’, this scenario occurred: Normally, when I submit my arrangements for a choral piece, it’s no problem. Accepted. Job done. But not in this case. After version four or five was rejected, I didn’t feel that I was any good. Karen and I always differ on the numbers, but it was at least 13 or 14 versions, back and forth. I didn’t realise that God was taking me through a process of creating something that the world would hear. I was on my face emotionally to the point of feeling I’d failed. But what God did in that process, He was stripping ‘me’ away. The first arrangement was lots of handclaps, drums, keys and horns. But what God said was “Nah, this is not about you, it’s about Me.” And each arrangement got simpler and simpler.

When I finally brought it to Karen and the Choir to rehearse, we sensed something. But it was three or four months after its performance at the wedding and the ensuing response, when I remembered that prayer request, and knew I had received an answer. I take no credit for it. It was only God. I learned so much from the experience. It changed my life. It brought me closer to my Creator.

JF: Actually, that speaks loudly to me because most people probably don’t know that the title, ‘Stand By Me’, was inspired by a spiritual, written by gospel-singer-cum-soul-star Sam Cooke and James ‘JW’ Woodie Alexander – a renown gospel singer-musician-producer. The song they recorded was called ‘Stand By Me, Father’. So, there is, what I’ll call, ‘an innately godly seed’ in ‘Stand By Me. Do you get a royalty credit from the song?
MDL: No, is the straight answer. The song belongs to the Estate of Ben E King who died in 2015. I get a very, very small credit from Printed Sheet Music of my arrangement when it’s sold. But that’s it.

JF: You have achieved a lot in your music career, working with choirs, and helping people – the unknown, as well as celebrities – hone their vocal talents. And your music has been heard across the world but, amidst all that, what is the most memorable moment in your career/ministry so far?
MDL: I have performed and made musical arrangements for royalty, including the Queen’s Jubilee, the King’s Coronation, the Royal Wedding. However, my greatest joy was in 2013 when I independently organised ‘Sing Out Sunday’, inviting choirs from around the world – 700 came and there was 1,000-capacity audience. My parents attended. My father’s face and comments blew me away! His reaction was priceless. He said: “Where did all these people on the stage come from? How do you know them? I can’t understand. I need you to get me pictures. I don’t want to forget this moment.” For me, it was my proudest moment.

Visit www.markdelisser.com and www.singology.com

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