Largo High School Choir Director Bill Renfroe, above, joins the school’s Madrigal Singers as they perform “Silent Night” for guests in the lobby of the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Dec. 21. The holiday season was Renfroe’s last as director. He will retire at the end of the school year.
LARGO – The students have known of the inevitable end of a choral era since the fall. But that hasn’t made Largo High School’s eventual farewell to choir director Bill Renfroe, who first came to teach at the school in 1974, any easier.
“We all keep trying to get him to stay, but we all know that he wants to retire. He’s got his mind pretty set on that,” said choir student Jamie Brighthill.
As the choir program closed the fall semester, its Madrigal Singers, the top performing group of about 16 students, wrapped up their taxing holiday schedule, which included more than a dozen public performances in December alone, caroling in the school halls and the program’s most anticipated choral performance: the Madrigal Dinner.
“It’s been totally crazy. I wasn’t expecting all the stuff that I’ve had to do and prepare for,” said Tristan Jarvis, 17, and a first-year member of the Madrigal Singers.
The students don’t begrudge Renfroe’s demands on their time, talent and voices. Instead, they revel in the challenge he offers.
“He’s the teacher that will work you, because he really, really cares,” said Charlie Tsai, a junior, and member of the Singers. “He’s inspired many, many people. It’s really sad … I don’t get him next year.”
Renfroe admitted that his final semester will be nostalgic, but insisted that the time is right for his retirement.
“It’s time for someone younger to come in with new ideas and to continue many of the traditions that we have,” he said.
Financially, retirement will allow the teacher who also is a professional tenor singer and soloist to pursue more musical performances, especially those that are outside the Tampa Bay area.
“It’s going to be a new chapter in my life. But it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I look forward to it, but gosh, I’m going to miss the kids,” he said. “It almost makes me kind of teary-eyed because of all the special times that we’ve had together and all the special moments over the past years.”
Point of inspiration
Renfroe owes his musical beginnings to a teacher in his own school career, one at what was then Dunedin Junior High School.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was this little girl who took me to see her chorus teacher,” he explained. “At that point, I had hated singing.”
An elementary school teacher, who forced her young male students to sing too high, had turned Renfroe off to music. But he had a crush on the little girl who wanted him to join chorus, and so he followed her to Mrs. Moore’s class.
“She talked me into joining chorus, and the rest is history. I got hooked on it and stayed with it,” Renfroe said.
His mother laughed when the teacher called to ask if young Renfroe could perform the lead in the school show.
“I can’t believe you’ve got him singing,” Renfroe said he overheard her saying as she gave her permission.
Renfroe eventually studied at St. Petersburg Junior College and Stetson University as well as some classes at the University of South Florida. His double major in vocal performance and music education mirrored his intentions to sing professionally and teach at the same time, he said.
His career started at Largo High School in 1974. At the time, he assisted the then-Choral Director James Johnston, until he took a job at the brand new Pinellas Park High School, from 1976 to 1983. Then for a year, he sang with the Voices of Liberty group at Disney World’s Epcot. Renfroe returned to teaching at Countryside High School for a year and then worked fulltime at a church.
Johnston called him when he had decided to retire, and talked him into applying for his position. Renfroe has been choral director since 1986. Together Renfroe and Johnston will represent 50 years of the school’s chorus history, more than half of the school’s total history.
Renfroe says his days usually start when he arrives at the school at 6 a.m. On a good day, he leaves by 3:30 p.m., but that’s not usual.
“There are days when I stay well into the evening. It’s a very busy program,” he said.
Renfroe teaches six classes, including keyboards and music theory, musical theatre, mixed chorus and concert choir. Students from the concert choir class are part of the chamber singers, the women’s chorus and a men’s chorus this spring.
The Madrigal Singers have their own class too. Every member of the class, and thus the performance group, must re-audition every year, in a two-day process at the end of the proceeding spring semester.
“I look forward to the new sounds,” he said. “Every year has their own set of excitements, things that work well for them … Every group is different.”
In small groups, the students preform a madrigal song Renfroe has given them in advance to prepare. The second day of the audition involves singing in a quartet with Renfroe listening from behind a sheet.
Between 50 and 60 choral students try out for the limited Madrigal Singers spots. Brighthill said she’s seen girls in tears because they didn’t make it in. But Renfroe doesn’t play favorites, she and Tsai insisted.
“He’s just going to pick the people he thinks are the best,” Brighthill said.
Renfroe said he has a freeform teaching style that encourages his students to think outside the box.
“The music is more than just ink on paper, it’s an expression of a composer’s idea,” he said, explaining that bringing “all the elements into the picture” makes the music come alive.
His favorite moment is watching the “light bulbs come on” for students as they suddenly connect the dots. It makes teaching, which isn’t a financially profitable venture, worthwhile, he explained.
“If I were paid based on the successes that I’ve had in my classroom, I’d be a very wealthy man,” Renfroe said. “But I’m wealthy in other ways besides financial. I‘m wealthy in the fact that these kids grow up with the knowledge and present to the world what I’ve given them.”
More than singing
Renfroe maintains that over his years of teaching it’s not the kids who have changed, but society. Teenagers are still eager to learn and excited. But they have more complicated problems to deal with, from their parents’ divorce to abuse in their home, Renfroe said.
“A lot of times they come to me with their hearts broken, and they really hurt,” he said. “With society changes, both positive and not so positive, come the perils we have today … But the kids are still the same.”
Students, even the ones not in chorus, feel comfortable coming to Renfroe with their problems.
“I’ve had friends who’ve had problems and I turn them to him,” Tsai said.
Brighthill agreed, explaining that their chorus teacher is known for being discrete about personal issues.
“It’s someone you feel comfortable opening up to other than, like, an administrator,” Brighthill said. “He treats everyone like it’s his family.”
Renfroe remembers a couple that met in the Madrigal Singers group and began dating several years ago.
“At the end of class, they were both sitting in my office. And they looked up at me as I walked in, and I said, ‘You’re pregnant.’ The color left her face,’” Renfroe recalled. “She said, ‘How do you know?’” I said, ‘Well, it’s all over you. Now what are you going to do about it?’”
The couple ended up getting married. Their son, also a singer, graduated from Renfroe’s program a couple of years ago, and their daughter is currently in his classes.
“It’s been neat working with those kinds of families … to see that love started here and has blossomed all these years,” he said.
Along with his personal counsel, Renfroe is a school sponsor for the National Honor Society and an advocate for good grades. A better GPA can factor into a tied audition for the Madrigal Singers, and participation in chorus events can be dependent on poor grades improving.
“Many times, that’s quite an incentive for kids,” he said.
A legacy to leave behind
Renfroe thinks he’s easily taught about 2,000 kids in the last 38 years.
“That’s 2,000 ideas that have gone out into the world. And 2,000 different songs that they can take out and share with others,” he said.
He admits that he’s “a little” worried about his replacement, but is determined to help the school find the right person for the job.
“Somebody that wants to make a career with Largo High School, a person that will be more than a choral director. A person that will be a facility of good performing ethics and be a part of the school,” he said.
Lately, the alumni have been coming back to visit and wish him well. One such Madrigal Singer almuna was Eilleen Cardone, who came to the group’s performance at the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Dec. 21 just to see her old teacher.
“They have big shoes to fill. But I’m happy for him,” she said after the performance. “He was amazing.”