“He changes lives.” “He was a mentor and instilled in me a passion for music and singing with feeling.” “What a blessing to have been his student at West Orange High 20 years ago.” “I owe a big part of my social development to Dr. Redding.” “I learned how to feel the music, and understand the meaning behind it, because of how he directs.” “Dr. Redding has taught me to sing from the heart.” “He is the reason why I continue to sing.”
Dr. Jeffery Redding has made an indelible impact on choral students at West Orange High School, but after 23 years, he has decided it is time for a change. He has accepted a position as director of choral activities at the University of Central Florida.
What he leaves in Winter Garden is a legacy more than two decades in the making. Hired as the choral director at West Orange when he was 27, with a master’s degree in hand, Redding sought to unite the many cultures and races that were represented by the student body.
“I tried to create change by focusing on creating a culture that was inclusive, that accepted everyone, regardless of race, regardless of social economic status, regardless of background or talent,” he said. “I wanted to always just inspire students to be the very best versions of themselves with music and then apply that to their everyday life.”
Unity would be a recurring theme throughout Redding’s career at WOHS as he sought to defeat racism and prejudice. At the annual spring choir concert, his students always ended the show with a performance of the song “Unity,” first learned by Redding as a college student at Florida A&M University in memory of Augustus Pearson Jr., a professor who was like a father to him.
“We mix up, we try not to stand next to someone of the same race,” he said of the final song. “We hold hands, and we sing. That has been the theme song of West Orange for 23 years. … I took it to West Orange because of the racism and different prejudices that were going on. My thing was, uplift people, inspire people.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close campuses in March, so Redding was unable to perform his final “Unity.” He said this has destroyed him.
So he dwells on the positive.
There are so many wonderful memories from his time at West Orange, he said: “Singing in the hallways, rehearsing, singing Christmas concerts, our choir trips, the times we laughed, moments of laughter and hanging out, and the talks. Absolutely great moments. The lifelong friendships (we’ve) created because of it.”
Students who have experienced a music class with Redding tend to say one thing — he changed their lives.
“I attribute it to being real,” he said. “Letting them know I’m perfectly imperfect and that through my imperfection I’m going to always love you and give you the best version of who I am. I was relatable.”
BUILDING A POWERHOUSE
When the students in Redding’s choirs sang, the result was something powerful, something magical. By expecting the best from his students, he produced one of the top choral programs in the country, he said.
His singers performed more than 30 times at state, regional and national levels of the American Choral Directors Association conventions. They were invited to sing at nearly every major concert hall in the United States, including Carnegie Hall in New York City. They won international competitions in Verona, Italy, in 2006 and 2018 over the top choirs around the world.
“What made it so special was it was ordinary kids doing extraordinary things,” Redding said. “We were middle class to poor kids, and that’s what makes it so special, but it goes to show that you can do anything you want if you focus on the process and not so much your situation. And it doesn’t matter when you get there, as long as you get there.
“The biggest accomplishment that we have made is that we literally made a strong effort to transform people’s belief that color matters,” he said. “It doesn’t. It’s about unity. It’s about everyone has a seat at the table. It doesn’t matter who you are, your background, everyone has a seat at the table.
“If the world was a true reflection of what we had in that West Orange High School choral department, we wouldn’t be going through this (current state of affairs),” he said.
Redding said he is so grateful to the six principals and their administrations for believing in him and supporting his program.
The accolades he has received are a testament to his talents.
He was named Orange County’s Walmart Teacher of the Year and West Orange High’s Teacher of the Year several times. Last year, he received the Grammy Music Educator Award, which is given to one teacher for his or her role in shaping students’ lives through music.
He is quick to recognize the people who were with him on this journey: Gail Mininger and Ledean Williams, who were his accompanists; and Daryl Yasay, an associate director who also conducted some of the choirs. He credited his students and their families for supporting his vision, too.
Redding has kept in contact with many of his former students and is quick to leave a positive comment on their social media pages.
PRAY FOR UNITY
Because there was no final fanfare to celebrate Redding’s career at West Orange, his students got together virtually to create a lasting gift for their teacher. More than 50 people representing his 23 years of teaching individually recorded themselves singing “Unity” and submitted their videos to Chad McClellan and Tariq Roozitaleb. The pair spent a month compiling more than 60 video submissions and editing video and sound, and then the finished product premiered on Zoom for Dr. Redding and some of his students and their parents.
“As we concluded, Dr. Redding said, ‘Thank you for reminding me of who I am,’” McClellan said. “Thank you for helping us discover who we were in the first place.
“Our world is literally on fire right now, and 23 years after Dr. Redding first taught us this song, we still pray for unity,” McClellan said.
Although Redding is heading to UCF in east Orlando, he said he will remain committed to the Garden Choir and keep it in Winter Garden. The Garden Choir falls under the umbrella of the Orlando Choral Society, as do the Voci del Choir and Jubilate choirs. He plans to add a few more choirs, including one for middle- and high-schoolers.
“I’m thankful to the West Orange community for giving the love and giving the support and believing in the dream and realizing we aren’t perfect but we believe in the process,” he said.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.