A Conversation with Grammy Award-Winning Conductor, Jeffery Redding
For students who perform, WorldStrides’ Festival at Carnegie Hall is a preeminent experience, and we are honored to have Jeffery Redding, a preeminent and Grammy award-winning conductor, once again leading the National Youth Choir at one of our upcoming festivals. I was delighted to sit down with my friend Jeffery shortly after he was awarded the Grammy for Music Educator of the Year. He answered some great questions from music directors around the country, sharing insight into what drives him, techniques for creating an outstanding choir, and how he inspires students to find the best version of themselves.
Marion Gomez: I have the great honor of sitting down with this year’s Grammy Award-winning Music Educator of the Year, Jeffery Redding. How did it feel to win?
Jeffery Redding: It was surreal. It was an incredible experience.
MG: To be recognized by all these educators who have made significant and lasting contributions in the field of music education is an amazing accomplishment.
Jeffery Redding: It’s a great honor, but more so, it’s a testament of my former teachers and my students. It’s a wonderful thing.
MG: We received a lot of great questions for you. Starting with – how do you keep a music program fresh and current when there are so many outside forces that pull at the music department?
Jeffery Redding: At the end of the day, you must control your environment. How do you do that? If there’s a new direction that music is going in, find out how you can make that applicable to your situation. You must remain fresh, so your students remain fresh. How do you guard against issues? You guard yourself by educating yourself, so you can speak to what’s currently happening and protect your environment.
MG: Which I’m sure is challenging at times.
Jeffery Redding: Absolutely. With testing, with school rezoning, there are a lot of issues that we fight that have nothing to do with music. You must equip yourself by educating yourself, but also by finding an advocate who believes in your program and can support you.
MG: What are some ways to build a strong music culture within a system that struggles to support music education?
Jeffery Redding: The two things you can control are your preparation and your response. Your preparation, meaning your music. Your response, meaning how do you respond to people that may not get what you’re trying to give? If you respond in a way that may be negative or counterproductive, you end up hurting the product. The way you fight it is by trying to sing well, trying to inspire students to become your best advocates. When they become your best advocates, they become your best recruiters, and they become your loudest voice.
MG: What are some of the key strategies that you use to motivate students?
Jeffery Redding: I want them to see that I love choral music. I love the social aspect of it, I love the intellectual aspect of it, and I love the musical aspect of it. What I sell to students is this, “Don’t look at this as an elective. Look at this as something that’s going to teach you how to be an entire person.” Not only are you going to get math, English, and science, but you’re also going to learn how to communicate with someone who is not like you. One way I recruit is to say, “Look, I have come from this background and I’m doing this. I’m no better than you, I’ve just made decisions to try to become the best version of myself. Allow me to help you get to that point.”
MG: What resources or curriculum would you recommend to directors to start a successful choral program? Are there any specific pieces?
Jeffery Redding: There are so many resources out there, I don’t prescribe to one thing. There’s so much stuff on vocal training and on how to create a motivating and inspiring environment. You really can’t go wrong, but you need to find what works. You can’t lock yourself into one thing, because one thing may be good Monday, but may not be good on Friday. You must come in from many different directions and be flexible while creating an environment that’s inspiring.
MG: What are some ways that you prepare students for festival adjudication, both long and short term?
Jeffery Redding: I use what I call a 1 through 10. One through five is the composer’s intent – I teach rhythm, notes, dynamics, everything that the composer wants. Once the students have that down, they can go into a situation prepared. Then I go a step further with my 6 through 10 which is my passion and purpose – where I may take the phrase and add a little bit more bravado to it, or I may slow down the tempo, and I will absolutely go to the heart of the matter of the composer’s intent.
It creates an atmosphere where the student becomes transparent to the music. My one through five is very important because my one through five gives clarity to my passion and purpose. I can do 6 through 10 all day long, but if my one through five is not intact, the kids will sing out of tune. They’ll sing sharp. The vowels won’t be right. I’ve got to teach all of that, and then I take them to the next level. When the students participate in an all-state or honor choir, the director must put their spin on it, and make it their own. The students are taught to be flexible and to work with any director that’s in front of them. I try to prepare them that way, to be able to go in any direction that the director wants.
MG: What accomplishment are you most proud of over the course of your teaching career thus far?
Jeffery Redding: That’s a hard one because I don’t see it as my personal accomplishment, I see it as an environment that has been created. I am proud of the environment that’s been created for my students to become the best versions of themselves. So be it in my own classroom, be it conducting at Carnegie Hall, every room that the teacher steps in front of is their classroom. I think my proudest moments are inspiring people, I feel like I’m truly serving and paying it forward. So as long as my students are doing the very best they can, and they are learning something, I’ve done my job. When I see a kid cry on a stage and say, “I get it.” And they say, “I want to now be the best version of myself to give it away, to serve others.” That’s truly what’s important for me. that’s my heart.
MG: How do you keep the passion for teaching after being in the profession as long as you have?
Jeffery Redding: I go back to the first time I fell in love with music to keep me inspired, and that was before the students. For me it was growing up in the projects and going to the playground, I would swing on the swing and sing.
I go back to my first love. I go back to a child-like state when I first fell in love with it. Then, I get happy and energized, and I take that energy and that love, and I transfer it to my kids. Wisdom tells that not everyone is not going to show your excitement, not everyone is going to see it as you see it. People will say, “Well, that’s not my career.” It’s not about being a career, it’s about loving what it does. Just because someone doesn’t love it as you, doesn’t mean that they can’t get something from it.
Do I get tired like everyone else? Yes. But, then I go back to my old neighborhood, I will sit, I will walk around the projects, and I will remember why I loved it. Then, it will give me the energy to go again.
MG: I want to let people know how they can work with you directly next year. I have the pleasure of, once again, having Jeffery in my lineup of exciting choral conductors for our 2020 festival at Carnegie Hall program next season. Jeffery will be conducting our National Youth Choir event on April 16th through the 19th. I think you just exude excitement and passion for what you do. It’s incredible to watch you with these kids onstage. When you have a passion for something, as you do, it’s just contagious. I cannot encourage people enough to take advantage of this opportunity.
Jeffery Redding: Thank you so much, it is truly my passion. This is what I love to do, I love inspiring through music.
MG: Thank you, Dr. Redding, for sharing your advice with us and taking the time to speak with me, and for your support professionally for our programs here at WorldStrides OnStage, and your personal friendship. I greatly appreciate it.
Jeffery Redding: Well, I want to tell you, Marion, and the folks at WorldStrides, the environment that you create is absolutely powerful. It’s so wonderful because it makes it easy for conductors like myself, the only thing that we have to do is come in and make the magic happen. You guys do incredible work, an incredible job of inspiring, of recruiting, of building, of providing a venue, and you’re doing a wonderful service. Please continue to do what you are doing, because it’s a wonderful partnership between you guys and conductors. You get lifelong friendships and a lifelong love of music making. So, thank you.
Marion Gomez: The feeling is mutual. You guys inspire me constantly, so I can’t thank you enough.
You can work with Dr. Redding at our Festival at Carnegie Hall: National Youth Choir in 2020! Apply now.
Dr. Redding also works with our Honors Performance Series.