Jeffery Redding: Passion and Purpose
Grammy-winning choral director Jeffery Redding brings arts cachet, educator fame to West Orange High.
It’s a late February afternoon, and Grammy winner Dr. Jeffery Redding is just back from directing a National High School Honor Choir at Carnegie Hall. Tonight, he’ll board a plane to Kansas City, Mo., for the American Choral Directors’ Association national conference. But in this moment, he feels the music as he rehearses “Still I Rise,” “We Are One,” “Fire Dance of Luna” and other numbers with 23 female teenage singers of West Orange High School’s award-winning Bel Canto choir. They’re rehearsing for a March performance at the 2019 International Choir Festival & Competition in Verona, Italy.
Dressed in a black V-neck tee and blue jeans, he leads. They follow. He jokes. They laugh. His choral director’s arms gesture, point and pause to tell the music’s story. Their dulcet voices rise and fall to create a sound so divine that it manifests perfectly their Bel Canto moniker, which is Italian for “beautiful singing.” And you can see how seriously they embrace the choir motto—“Passion and Purpose”—fueled by their director’s vision.
Even so, they get a kick out of lighter, sweeter moments surrounding their teacher’s recent Grammy fame. No sooner had the Orlando native learned he won the Recording Academy’s 2019 Music Educator of the Year Grammy from a field of 2,800 nominees than CBS This Morning reporter Jamie Wax visited the West Orange rehearsal hall to produce an exclusive story announcing the win and featuring Redding with his advanced choir.
Four days later, on Feb. 10, when the television spotlight found him in the Grammy awards audience and 15-time Grammy-winning host Alicia Keys introduced Redding to the world, she paused to praise her own piano teacher for changing her life forever, then said, “We thank you, Mr. Redding, and exceptional music teachers everywhere who help kids find their music and change their lives in the process.”
After Redding, 48, returned from the glamour and glitz of the Los Angeles awards ceremony (“It was wonderful. It was life-changing. But I’m the old guy, and there were lots I didn’t recognize. But I know Smokey Robinson! I saw Diana Ross.”), a crush of local reporters descended upon the school for a welcome-home media moment with marching band, cheerleaders and student hugs. Today, when Redding invites the group that had just sung so sweetly to sit in on an Orlando magazine interview, they listen, rapt, as he shares his reaction to sudden fame.
Redding shifts in his seat when asked how winning the Grammy made him feel. “Um, uncomfortable,” he replies humbly. His students giggle, and he explains, “. . . because I don’t teach for awards. I teach because I love to teach. It’s about touching and changing lives, about unity, about inclusion, about all those things that are healthy, and about teaching the world that you don’t have to treat the arts with the mentality of an elective. The arts are just as important as math, English and science.
“So, for me, what the Grammy means to me, it’s about art, about my kids, about my mom, and it also gives a platform to talk about those things—unity, passion, purpose.”
Redding credits his mother, Eula Redding, with creating a family foundation for success, for leading by example and showing him that he could be the “best version” of himself. She is such a hero to Redding that he produced a TED Talk, “Lessons From My Mother,” during a TEDx Orlando event five years ago.
“My mom was my first teacher, my first love, my first everything,” Redding says with unabashed adoration. Eula Redding, who still lives in Orlando, supported him and his brothers on a meager school cafeteria worker’s salary and food stamps. And, after years of all five of them living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, they moved with government help into a three-bedroom home when Redding was in sixth grade. “I was so excited because I thought I was rich!” he says.
What he remembers most is how truly rich he felt because of the “motivating and inspiring environment” his mother created. And how much he loved music, joking that he started singing “when I came out of the womb.” (His attentive Bel Canto singers crack up at this.) A tenor, Redding sang in church and school choirs. He calls himself a “music geek” who appreciates all genres, and one of his favorite numbers to sing is Luther Vandross’ “A House is Not a Home.” His mom, Eula, once was a singer. And his uncle, American soul singer Oscar Toney Jr., was famous in the late 1960s for recording “For Your Precious Love” and several other singles on the pop charts.
Redding tears up a bit when he says he can never repay his mother for all that she sacrificed for her family. When he and his brothers did well, “she loved us by hugging us.” But when their behavior riled her, “she loved us by disciplining us,” like the time he sassed legendary Jones High choral director Edna Hargrett-Thrower during a practice.
“I got mad … and I rolled my eyes at her,” he says as his choir titters. His mother, at work in the school cafeteria, was called to the classroom and set him straight in front of the entire class. “She said, ‘Boy, you will not be disrespectful. You will not be rude. You will apologize.’ There was no time out. No negotiating a punishment. And that’s how she did it.”
After graduating from Jones High, Redding earned his bachelor’s degree in music education at Florida A&M University and his master’s at Florida State University. He discovered his passion for directing while working on his FSU doctorate in choral conducting and music education.
Redding joined the teaching staff at West Orange High in 1997 and co-directs multiple programs with colleague Daryl Yasay. In 2006, West Orange High earned the Gold Award for best choir at the Verona, Italy, competition, and Redding was honored as top director. In 2016, he was a quarterfinalist in the Grammy Music Educator competition that he went on to win this year. He has conducted and competed in more than 40 states. He’s globetrotted to Spain, Italy and Norway and plans a trip to Australia and another to Germany for Beethoven’s 250th birthday blowout celebration in 2020. He contributes to the Winter Garden community as director of the Garden Choir, and every holiday season he is one of the esteemed conductors for Disney’s Candlelight Processional at Epcot. He is also chancel choir director for First United Methodist Church of Orlando, which posted a sign congratulating Redding and inviting downtown passersby to “come sing” with the choir.
As his Bel Canto students consider their post-graduation paths, they credit Redding as a major influence in their lives.
“He wants you to be the best version of yourself, so he’s not going to let you slip up,” says Darby Lestin, an 18-year-old senior who switched her career focus from criminal law to music education after joining the choir. “Dr. Redding really inspired me with how he impacts people.”
Stephanie Mustonen, 17, is a junior with a career interest in meteorology who applies the choir’s “passion and purpose” motto to how she wants to live her life. “You can put that into everything you do, not just music, but your life in general—your grades, your home situation and what you go out to do in the world.”
West Orange High School Principal William Floyd says the wave of Grammy excitement has elevated the already excellent school “to an entirely new level.”
“I am thrilled for Dr. Redding,” Floyd says. “He is a humble man who never seeks the spotlight, but the way he connects with our students is so impactful that it deserves this type of award. We have all enjoyed sharing in the excitement and attention.”
Redding, whose Grammy came with a $10,000 grant and another $10,000 for the school, is grateful that the Grammy accolades will shed light on the importance of music education. And he emphasizes that you don’t need a voice like Alicia Keys or Diana Ross to succeed in his music program.
“You come, we’ll train you,” he says. “It’s just that simple. But you have to be willing to try.”