One element of Florida theme parks, especially the big ones around the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, is the presence of live performing a capella groups. They bring together some of the best vocal talent in the United States and, when you get that many singers in close proximity, collaboration is inevitable.
One of them, Jamey Ray, assembled 10 friends in 2015 for the modest beginnings of Voctave, which came to be in demand – first as a recording group and then as traveling performers. Their first album was a collection of Disney music posted to YouTube. That led to a recording of “Disney Love Medley,” featuring eventual three-time Grammy-winner Kirstin Maldonaldo of Pentatonix and her then-boyfriend, Jeremy Lewis.
“I knew all of our members from singing with them in Orlando in different capacities,” Ray said. “(Lewis) helped push me in the direction of ‘What is this group? Who are these people? What are you doing?’ And I was like ‘I don’t know. They’re friends of mine and we like to sing, and we get together when we can, whoever is available.’ And he goes ‘Enough of that. You need to have a name. You need to have a set group of people and this and this and this.’ We put it all together and thought we’d be a studio recording group. Then people wanted to hear us live. There was never really a ‘Hey, let’s start a group’ moment.”
After 150 million views of their music on social media and their contribution to No. 1 songs on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, Voctave is bringing its signature sound and range of five full octaves to Central Minnesota. Ray and his fellow singers will reprise one of their latest albums in The Corner of Broadway & Main Street at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24 in Escher Auditorium at the College of Saint Benedict.
Despite the group’s success, including performances with Dove and American Music Award winners, Ray said one of the best parts of the experience is how the singers continue to surprise an audience.
“The biggest thing that is always interesting for us when we do these shows is that people don’t have any idea what they’re coming to see with Voctave,” Ray said. “There are other singing groups where you’re going to see a concert of people just standing on stage singing. There are others that have full-on choreography. We’re somewhere in the middle, but you’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry, and hopefully everything in between. People often laugh and cheer. It’s not like a symphony. The crowd is involved. We won’t make people come up on stage, but it’s not going to be a golf-clapping experience. And when we have a vested and responsive audience, the show is totally different from what you’d expect.”
Ray grew up in Clearwater, Florida, and began his musical career in the Florida BoyChoirs. There he learned music theory and how to sight read, in addition to how to sing.
“I thought it would be a fun hobby by the time I got to college,” Ray said. “I was going to be a computer programmer and I went to grad school. But when I got out, it was like I had to do music. It was too much a part of my life by then.”
He graduated from Rollins College, a liberal arts school in Winter Park, Florida, then went to grad school at New York University. Later, on a return visit to Florida, he was shocked when school administrators offered him a job.
“I never thought in a million years that I would teach,” said Ray, who is a professor of music at his alma mater. “And here I am finishing up my 13th year teaching.”
Ray really has three careers. In addition to teaching alongside his former mentors at Rollins, he’s also the choral editor for Excelcia Music Publishing. And then there’s Voctave, for which he is a tenor, creator, composer, arranger and producer.
“I absolutely love all of my jobs and they all intersect,” said Ray, who is on sabbatical this semester while Voctave tours 19 different show dates between mid-February and April, from Florida to California and Montana to Virginia.
As for what’s at the intersection of Broadway and Main, Ray said to expect a blend of tunes from Disney and Broadway musicals. The rest of Voctave includes: Kate Lott (soprano), Tiffany Coburn (soprano), Ashley Espinoza (alto/soprano), Sarah Whittemore (alto), Chrystal Johnson (alto), E.J. Cardona (tenor), Drew Ochoa (tenor), Kurt Von Schmittou (baritone), Aaron Stratton (baritone/bass) and Karl Hudson (bass).
“We’re in a good place at this moment for the future, because we love recording and we love performing,” Ray said. “Those are the main two things we want to do. We have a pretty packed tour this spring and we hope there are going to be a lot more of those. There are a lot of groups that don’t sound the same live as they do on recordings without any tricks attached, but we do. In fact, I think when you hear us live it’s even a little better than the recordings.”
And Ray said he’s looking forward to singing at Escher, where there’s a strong music tradition among students at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University.
“Any time we can do workshops for other musicians or inspire people who love music, that’s really rewarding,” Ray said. “It’s nice for students to see people who are out there working in the industry, and we’re still doing what we wanted to do when we were their age. It’s possible. It’s real. And they can attain it if they polish their talent and work hard enough.”
Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $40 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances. The show is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. The National Endowment for the Arts also contributed to funding for the show.