Inspiration from our Greatest Generation
An Interview with Minnesota Choral Director Larry McCaghy
by Wayne Kivell
Larry McCaghy held only one full-time position during his career, 34 years as choir director at Lakeville High School. It was only after retirement that he held several part time positions at other institutions.
When/why did you first decide to become a choral director?
Believe it or not, my final decision actually came about during my first year at Lakeville High School. Having just graduated from UW Eau Claire in 1963 with BA as a “Comprehensive Music Education Major,” I was certified to teach music K-12, instrumental and vocal. I had student taught in both band and choir, and though leaning toward vocal area, I was not sure I wanted to teach at Jr/Sr High level at all. This is because I was also interested in composition, arranging and music history. I enrolled in graduate program in musicology at U of MN. As I was finishing the MA, my wife, Faith, who had been supporting me up to then, applied for and received a government grant to pursue graduate work in speech pathology and audiology. So we switched roles for a year or two and I had to find a job. I was offered the newly opened position at Lakeville Jr/Sr HS and by the end of the year was hooked! I absolutely loved the kids, loved what I was doing and abandoned thoughts of going on to further grad school.
McCaghy in rehearsal in 1972
What are some memories of your first year as a choral director?
I remember being terrified at first and feeling thoroughly unprepared for the task. The assignment included Senior Choir, Girls Glee Club and separate mixed choirs in 7th, 8th and 9th grades, Madrigals, plus a couple of sections of Junior High General Music. The Senior Choir consisted of about 60 members, but only a dozen or so boys. I was not at all sure if we would be able to sing the four-part repertoire that I was accustomed to in my HS choir and in student teaching. When I met them for the first time and asked them to sit in areas I designated for each section about a half dozen young ladies sat with the tenors. They insisted that was the part they were used to singing and were not at all interested in changing. Having little knowledge of vocal health issues at that time and in the interest of being able to sing in four parts, I regretfully conceded that first year. The other thing I remember is a lot of time driving. We were still living in southeast Minneapolis, near the U, and this was before I-35 was completed. This seriously limited the amount of before and after school contact time that is important to building a strong program. By the end of that first year I was sure enough that this was where I wanted to be. So we bought a house in Lakeville over the summer.
Comment on the fact that teaching at Lakeville HS was the only full-time job of your career.
Lakeville was an ideal place for us to lay roots and raise our seven kids, with a fine school system and parish that we loved. I felt I had good support for our program (except for our 6-period day) from all administrators, from the Superintendent on down. Lakeville was already a growing community, which bode well for the school system and the choral program. And the location is great! We are (or at least were) away from the hustle of the big city, but close enough to get to concerts, conferences, etc. in half an hour.
The 1967 Senior Choir
Who were the choirs and conductors that inspired you in those early years?
I was inspired by the work of a number of more experience directors in my early years, but am especially thankful for the impact of Dennis Brown, Bud Engen, Carl Lipke, Gar Lockrem, Roger Tenney and my neighbor, Loren Squires, not only for their example of outstanding music-making, but for their kindness, generosity and encouragement in the early years of my career.
As a recent transplant from Wisconsin, and only dimly aware of the great “Minnesota Lutheran Choral Tradition,” I initially felt a bit of an outsider, even intimidated by it all. It was not long before the strength and beauty of the choral scene here was allowing me to discover new possibilities of what could be accomplished with groups of young voices, compelling me to raise my standards and expectations of myself and my singers.
How did you go about selecting your repertoire? From what sources did you seek ideas?
I always tried to attend every reading session possible – the old Schmitt Clinic being obvious one in earlier days. I attended summer choral clinics regularly. A week with Douglas McEwen at Sugar Hills yielded years worth of repertoire. I got a lot of repertoire ideas from the concerts presented by outstanding choirs at ACDA and MMEA conventions. And, of course, Summer Dialogue!
McCaghy at the piano in 1981
Name five choral chestnuts of repertoire that you would recommend to the conductor of today?
Some of my favorites, based on ones that I repeated: “The Last Words of David” and “Chose Something Like a Star” (Randall Thompson), “Beati Quarum Via” (Stanford), “Salvation Is Created” (Tschesnokoff), “The Trysting Place” (Brahms), “O Vos Omnes” (Victoria).
What was the typical balance of sacred and secular music on a concert?
The balance of sacred/secular in any concert would tend to vary depending on the season and/or theme of the concert. I was more concerned with the balance over the course of the year.
What did you look for in a piece of music for the first piece you would rehearse with a choir to begin the year?
Most of the music with which we started over the last 20 years was determined by what the directors involved in the Dakota Valley Festival chose for the combined work(s) for that fall. Most years was a (minor) major work such as the Vivaldi Gloria, a Mozart, Schubert or Haydn Mass, Faure Requiem, etc. In addition to the large work each choir would perform two solo pieces at the concert held in early to mid-October. The first meeting of the choir typically consisted of roll call, quick warmup and start working on the combined work, having let the singers know that we would be performing it plus two memorized pieces in 6-7 weeks. Occasionally, the combined repertoire would be octavos and would make up the entire program. Obviously, we always started right away with quality music! I would strongly encourage any and all HS conductors to find ways to rehearse and perform cooperatively with neighboring schools!
What do you take into consideration when choosing music for the year?
With my background in music history, I always attempted to expose my singers, regardless of level, to music by important composers representing each of the major eras from Renaissance through contemporary sometime during the year. For years I kept a kind of journal of repertoire by musical periods. Another factor in music selection was to insure enough variety for my students with emphasis on music which I could use to help them become better singers.
McCaghy rehearsing with the Lakeville High School Women’s Chorus in 1978
What were some of the special performance events (festivals, conventions, tours) in which your choirs participated?
The Dakota Valley Festivals were a wonderful opportunity for my students to learn and share great music with our neighbors in Districts 196 and 191. We were also invited to participate in the choral festivals at Gustavus Adolphus and Luther Colleges. The Now and Then Singers were the 2nd group chosen to represent Minnesota at the Young Americans National Invitational Performance Choir Festival in Los Angeles in 1986 and to perform at the Central Division Convention in Rapid City in 1995. Members of the Lakeville HS Chorale joined with students from Burnsville in a 15 day summer tour of Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic in 1997, culminating in a large youth choir festival in Prague. The Chorale took a solo tour of Austria during Spring Break 1999.
McCaghy on tour with one of his Lakeville High School Choirs
Some of us had madrigal singers, others show choirs, others jazz ensembles. Comment on how the “Now and Then Singers” ensemble came about.
A director does not have to make a choice between having a madrigal group or a jazz or show choir. The very name of my most visible group, “The Now and Then Singers,” suggests just that. Our “lower level” groups at LHS were named “MadriJazz.” There was a madrigal group at LHS when I came in 1965. This was around the time of the popularity of what came to be called “folkum” (Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, etc) and a few of the members had taken up the guitar and expressed an interest in learning some of that kind of music as well as madrigals, which we did. Throughout the history of the group, which kind of evolved over time in the direction of vocal jazz, we never stopped learning and performing madrigal/small ensemble literature at home concerts, solo-ensemble contests, and choral conference appearances, the last being at MMEA in 1999.
Now and Then in performance in 1981
Who were the people who influenced you in the vocal jazz area?
First and foremost was Phil Mattson. I had opportunities to attend his workshops and admired his knowledge and intensity. He was a warm and caring individual, which made learning from him very easy. Then, of course, listening to groups was important. Beside Phil’s ensembles there was Manhattan Transfer, Singers Unlimited and the Real Group.
As you listen to choirs of today, how have the components of choral music performance evolved? (tone…blend…diction, etc.)
I am not sure if there is always the same emphasis on clear enunciation of text and word stress now as in past years. Aside from this, the choirs of this generation reflect very good training. Because of the relatively recent emphasis on ethnic music performance, choir directors and singers need to have some flexibility in what constitutes good tone quality. In my view, the best quality is that which is most genuine and appropriate for the culture which the piece presents.
How did you first become involved with ACDA, and what has kept you active in ACDA over these many years?
I think I first became involved because of the urging of colleagues. Once involved with ACDA it would be unthinkable to not remain active in this wonderful organization! The events sponsored have been of tremendous value to me, both personally and professionally. I have been, and continue to be lifted up by the dedicated individuals that make up this organization.
Looking back, what has been the value and impact of ACDA upon your professional career?
Through involvement with ACDA I have become acquainted with many great people I otherwise might never have met. I have been given the opportunity to hear and be inspired by countless amazing choirs and ensembles that I otherwise might not have known. I have been exposed to new and useful ideas from interest session presenters that otherwise I would have missed out on. I have been given the opportunity to be of service to my profession, for which I am grateful. I have held positions as Division R&S chairs for Show Choir & Vocal Jazz; FMC Endowment – Scholarship Subcommittee Chair; and FMC Investment Subcommittee and Investment Management Search Committee Member.
Reflecting on your own legacy to choral music in Minnesota, what are some of the contributions and gifts you have made to the profession?
Hopefully I helped raise awareness for some of the musical and pedagogic value of singing vocal jazz with their students. My main legacy would be the extent to which my students were changed by the satisfaction and joy they derived from working hard together to create some moments of great beauty.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give the emerging choral director of today?
First of all – join and become active in ACDA! Attend the conferences and have your students audition for the select choirs. Summer Dialogue is a must! Second – get to know your neighbors and finds ways to cooperatively create exciting choral experiences for your students. Third, have a tradition or two. For example, a certain type of concert, or a music selection that is repeated each year and invite alumni to come up and sing with the choir. And finally, teach the ability to sight-read. One of the most effective tools in teaching ear training and intonation for me was chromatic solfege (do, di, re, ri, etc.) and I found myself using it more and toward the end of my career. My singers would be given a handout early in the year with an octave diagram of the scale, syllables only (no notation) both ascending and descending. They were informed that this would be part of the 1st quarter final. We would, in the course of most rehearsals, sing up and down the scale from a chart on the board, checking frequently for accuracy. Once the scale is in the ears, the syllables can be used to teach many other concepts – intervals, tricky tuning passages in the repertoire, more advanced ear training by singing the scale canonically at different intervals.