Teacher Kept Classes Focused on Music in an Idol Year

In the fall of 2010, not long after classes began at Garner (North Carolina) Magnet High School, choral teacher Meredith Clayton learned a secret she knew would impact the high school and her music program.

Meredith Clayton warms up her group, “Die Meistersingers”

One of her students, Scotty McCreery, was in the process of auditioning for American Idol. She knew she would need to keep her students focused when everyone knew he was on the show. As she explains it, “the school year of 2010-2011 was sort of a whirlwind!”

Scotty McCreery poses with Meredith (first on the left) and members of “Die Meistersingers”

“Once January came around and the show began airing, we could start talking about it with the students. To say people were excited would be an understatement.”

When he came back to school for a visit, she gave students a few minutes to talk with him, then returned to rehearsals. McCreery, a seventeen–year–old Garner native, won the competition last May. Clayton was in the audience and received a new car, courtesy of the show, and McCreery, who praised her vocal instruction.

A blizzard of confetti falls after McCreery won.

Meredith Clayton reacts when she learned she would receive a new automobile from Ford Motor Company and McCreery.

Scotty hugs Meredith Clayton on American Idol after she learns she would win a new car from Ford Motor Company and McCreery.

Clayton said “His classmates and I knew how great his voice was and that he had the personality to match it, so we all assumed he would go far. I’m not sure if I saw Scotty winning the whole competition, because the other singers were so great and versatile, but I told him I saw him in the top 40, easy. I think his marketability was something the judges saw right from the beginning, especially having such a deep voice for such a young age, which made him stand out.”

Clayton summarizes the school year: “I must admit, it was little weird having him in my classroom, after seeing his audition on national TV a few nights before. But little did I know, this was only the beginning. One of his classmates asked him ‘Scotty, how do you feel now?’ and he answered ‘I’m just Scotty, the same ole’ Scotty.’ He was determined to stay real and grounded, from the beginning.”

She said his parents has a lot to do with keeping him on an even keel.

Scotty McCreey poses with his parents, Michael and Judy McCreery

“School went on, the classroom teaching went forth, chorus rehearsals resumed, and life was normal. Scotty’s schedule was up in the air a lot.  He never knew when he would be returning to Hollywood.

“The students and I were super excited for the journey he was embarking upon, but we also deeply missed him on a day-to-day basis and especially during concert time. He was able to perform in our Fall Tri-High Concert, but missed our holiday performances and winter concert (and eventually, missed the rest of the year). He was just as sad as we were.

“His mother, Judy, stayed in close contact with his teachers, and we found out Scotty was leaving for an indefinite amount of time on February 14th. This happened to be the day where the entire choral department delivered singing valentines throughout the school, so we decided to sort of combine it with a goodbye party for Scotty.

When Scotty McCreery visited Garner around Valentine’s Day students made a boot cake for him.

“Students came in at 6:30 am to decorate the chorus room, they made ‘We love you Scotty, Oh Yes We Do’ buttons (he was Conrad in “Bye, Bye Birdie” the year before); they painted t-shirts, hung banners, and made a cowboy boot cake for him, along with wearing pink and red for the singing valentines!

During a visit to Garner Magnet High School, Scotty McCreery gave Meredith Clayton roses.

“We surprised him with all this, and when he walked in the room, my heart melted. The entire 150 students from the choral department and parents were all in my classroom, and we cheered and cheered! He was very touched. Scotty kept telling us that he would probably be eliminated and return home soon, but I think the rest of us all sort of had a hunch that we might not see him for a long time.”

Clayton also said since student interest in the show was high, she used American Idol as a teaching moment. Students discussed and critiqued the voices they heard on the show.When the finalists were determined, an American Idol television crew visited Garner to record a “homecoming” episode.

“They filmed me warming up my choir, and then had them perform a song twice. We were singing, and Scotty walked in the room….We stopped and screamed and clapped and cheered! Many of us shed tears, and Scotty was emotional too. I didn’t realize it until later, but I think one of the reasons it was such a special moment was because it was just me and my choir. There were no spectators (well beside the camera crew….but we kind of forgot they were there)…and Scotty was a member of our choir…so it felt like our family was together again!”

A graduate of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, Clayton was able to keep things focused in her classroom because of her music training and family background.

Meredith Clayton poses with Terri Vandiver of Rossville, Georgia, principal of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School.

“I feel very blessed to come from a family of musicians. My father, David Covington, is the director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my mother, Diane Covington, is the choral director at Leesville Road High School (in Raleigh). My parents are my biggest help day-to-day—I’m constantly calling them for advice as I grow as a musician and teacher,” said Clayton, an MENC member. Her mother is a member as well.

Clayton has taught at Garner for six years. She says she has about 150 students in the choral program. “I have wonderful parental support and a thriving Choral Booster Board,” she said.

“Every day, I love waking up and driving to my job. My program consists of three ensembles, a beginning mixed ensemble, which is mostly freshman, an intermediate chorale, which is a mixed choir for 10th–12th grade, and an advanced choral ensemble, called “Die Meistersingers” made up of about forty auditioned juniors and seniors.

She said “the ensembles have consistently received superior ratings in both Performance and sight reading from adjudicators at Large Ensemble Festivals, Music in the Parks Festivals, and Heritage Festivals. Die Meistersingers have traveled to New York City to perform at St. John the Divine Cathedral, Orlando, Florida, Williamsburg, Virginia;, Atlanta, Georgia and Chicago, Illinois, to participate in the Heritage Festival of Gold.”

Her students constantly work to be an “ensemble,” open to critique and flexible to all styles, and a hard work ethic.“I do think Scotty had an advantage because of his music background. Scotty had been singing solos in his church since he was a small child, and entertained in the community during his teenage years. He was involved in chorus all through middle school, and his three years of high school, McCreery said.

Scotty McCreery sang with “Live Like You Were Dying’ with Tim McGraw
“Certainly, he had some knowledge of vocal health and the importance of taking care of his vocal cords. I also know that his ability to sight-read music was great, and that might give him an advantage over singers that maybe could not read music. We work a lot on sight reading, intervals, and ear training…so hopefully it all helps shape him in some way.

“I am so proud of Scotty for representing our Choral department well,” Clayton said.

As she prepares for the 2011–12 school year, Clayton said she has noticed some changes.

“Idol became a recruitment tool for me. I have an overwhelming number of girls and guys signed up for freshman chorus. We have also had many invitations to perform at different gigs throughout the area. It has been an exciting and humbling experience.

“Over the summer, I took a music workshop to learn [the rhythm method] Takadimi and am studying new methods of teaching sight-reading. “I have also listened to and browsed new music. My choral boosters have one fundraiser starting in August, and I will get together with student directors to finish organizing our library and prepare our fall repertoire. My advanced choral ensemble always has a fall retreat so I have to have music in their folders by the first day of school.” Classes begin at the end of August.

Clayton said, “Perhaps the most important thing I will do to prepare for the new school year….is to absolutely do nothing at all! I fully believe that taking a mental and physical reprieve from your job can be the best thing a teacher can do. We work so hard throughout the year and have such passion for our jobs that it can really take a toll on our bodies if we don’t take care of ourselves.”

Meredith Clayton and Scotty McCreery at the American Idol post-finale party

Of her the past school year she said, “It was by complete chance that Scotty chose to do this, and that he happened to be in my class. I cannot take any credit for his talents. Those gifts were given to him by God. I appreciate what all of you [music teachers] do to inspire others to a life-long love of learning and music. I hope you had a restful summer and I wish the best to you as you start this new school year!”

All photos courtesy of Meredith Clayton

Roz Fehr, August 24, 2011. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education