McElfresh and McGaughey—saving lives with music

I’m always saying that the Heights Choir saved my life. It’s true. I was headed in the wrong direction. Probably a few wrong directions. And even though I’d been singing and performing music professionally since I was around 13 years old, I did not get into the choir in my first year of high school—which, in those years, was the 10th grade—because of my grades.

I brought my grades up a little, just enough, and auditioned for the choir at the end of 10th grade and was allowed in for the next school year. Not only was it going to be my first year in the choir, but it would also be that of our new director, Claire McElfresh, who had served for several years as the director of the Men’s Chorus and Girl’s Glee Club.

The choir began its year two weeks before the school year started, meeting twice a day for a couple of hours each time. The very first minute of the first of those sessions set me on a course I’m still following, nearly 50 years later.

The choir was seated in the school’s fourth-floor choir room. Mr. McElfresh, whom we all called Mac, had us sing a chord. It sounded good to me. But Mac stopped us and said, “You sound like high-school kids.” Many of us high-school kids said, “We ARE high-school kids.” And Mac said, “But you don’t have to sound like it.”

Hmm . . . THIS sounds interesting, I thought. Mac said, “Do this,” and gave us a couple of tips for how to sing differently, and had us sing that same chord again. The sound this time was so dramatically different that it was breathtaking; it gave me chills. I thought (though not in words): I’m going to stick around; if that big a change can come about so easily, I want to find out what else can happen.

So I did stick around. Within a few weeks, and with much more instruction and direction from Mac, we no longer sounded like high-school kids. We sounded, as so many have said, like adults and like professionals. We started learning pieces that were way beyond what most school choirs could do. Mac also recognized my raw talent and encouraged me to use it. He allowed me to sing my own songs in our concerts. He let me arrange pieces for smaller ensembles to perform. He often invited me to sit in his office to talk about music and the music business.

The Heights Choir was the one and only reason I ever set foot in the school. As soon as the final choir concert and subsequent choir recording were completed, about a month before my class graduated, I quit school. (Short several credits, I wasn’t about to graduate, anyway.)

Within a year, I was in New York, playing in a rock band and opening shows for major artists. In another year, I was signed to a recording contract and a publishing contract, and was also working as an arranger and producer. I’m still doing all of those things.

About 15 years ago, I found out that the school board was considering eliminating the vocal music program at Heights, and I played a small part in reversing that decision. I also became aware that the choir was in ruins—tiny, undisciplined and, despite several very talented kids, pretty awful-sounding. Concerts drew audiences of about 40 people, most of whom talked all the way through them.

I won’t tell the story here, but I took action, in several ways, that put the school’s vocal music program back on track. It’s a good story, but I don’t have the space to tell it, and I believe it would hurt a few people’s feelings. But it’s true. I take credit for it. And it’s one of the things in my life of which I am proudest.

I will say this much: When the vocal music director resigned, I pushed the school’s principal to put together a search committee, including me, and to advertise for the position, and to do whatever was needed to hire not just a new director, but the right one.

Luckily, Craig McGaughey applied. During his interview, I asked him, “How do you maintain the discipline that’s necessary to create a great choir, while still making the experience fun for the kids?” His answer: “The reward is in the results.” I said to myself—and then, later, to the committee—“This is the guy. That’s how it worked under McElfresh.”

McGaughey got hired and immediately turned the vocal music department around, greatly increasing its numbers and, especially, its quality. And its audiences. The choir has become one of the school’s, and school system’s, greatest goodwill ambassadors. McGaughey also reinstated the annual schoolwide musical production. And he has taken the department’s groups all over the country, and beyond, to perform and compete.

Craig McGaughey is retiring at the end of this school year. All I can say is: Thank you for all of your very hard work in restoring the vocal music department—and maybe even saving some more kids’ lives.

Actually, that’s not all I can say. I can also say to the school’s administrators: I hope you have either already found someone great to take his place or are in the process of doing that. And if not, let me know, and I will be more than happy to help.

David Budin

David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 11:01 AM, 05.29.2015