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Issue 684

03/20/2014 at 4:39pm

Dr. Doug RenfroeIsland Neighbors: Doug Renfroe
Conductor, Vocalist and Much More

Doug Renfroe has been conducting the choir at the Beach United Methodist Church for six years. But that’s like saying Steve Jobs worked on computers for a while, or that Henry Ford spent some time working on cars - there’s just so much more to the story.

Dr. Renfroe has an impressive resume that, all by itself, reveals a lifetime of achievements. Of course, natural talent is a gift, and surely Doug was born with music in his soul. But talent alone does not necessarily translate into critical or popular success - years of study, hours and hours of practice, dedication to his craft, perseverance and, what Doug describes as ‘fortunate decisions’ along the way have led him to concert stages around the world, where he has garnered popular and critical acclaim all of his life. The Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Washington Opera, The Boston Opera, the Sarasota Opera, The United States Navy Sea Chanters, venerable churches and temples throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East - all have been graced with his phenomenal voice, described by one critic as a "virile bass, remarkably lyrical in the upper register… equally rich in the dark deeps of the low sustained tones.” He has appeared with Placido Domingo, been directed by Sarah Caldwell, and has been the featured soloist on recordings with many different symphonies. But there’s more.

Doug is also an accomplished conductor, program director and teacher. As a conductor, he created two Equity Theater companies, the Concord Symphony Orchestra and was the Artistic Director for the Lakes Region Symphony. He has appeared as the guest conductor at the Varna International Music Festival in Bulgaria, was responsible for the Summer Pops program while he was serving in the U.S. Navy Band, and was Adjunct Professor and Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Edison College. He taught at two prestigious private schools - St. Peter and Exeter, in New Hampshire. Currently, in addition to his work at Beach United Methodist, he serves as Artist-in-Residence for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City during the summers. Since 2001 Renfroe has been Cantor and Music Director at Temple Bat Yam on Sanibel, and in 2010, Doug became the Artistic Director of the Voices of Naples, a position he also maintains.

Doug Renfroe was born in Anderson, Indiana in 1952. When he was five months old, the family moved to Indianapolis where they stayed for five years. By the time he graduated high school, he had attended fifteen different schools. He explains, though, that he was not an ‘Army brat’.

"I thought my dad couldn’t keep a job. We kept moving all the time. He did very well financially, and honestly, I was spoiled.” Up until a few months before his father died in 1984, Doug didn’t doubt his childhood assessment of his dad’s seeming inability to keep a job. "The Thanksgiving before he passed away, we were talking and he said to me, ‘You never thought I could keep a job, did you Doug.’ I told him ‘No, but it didn’t stop me from loving you, Dad’ to which he replied, ‘Well, I have to tell you something.’ That’s when he told me the real story.” Apparently Doug’s dad Walter had been given an appointment to the Naval Academy as he finished up high school. Walter’s mother and father were Church of God missionaries, and consulted many of their fellow parishioners to ask if they thought Walter should be allowed to accept the appointment, but all advised not to let him go, as he would be taught how to kill people. And so, in the late 1930’s, Walter Renfroe went to college and ended up with several advanced degrees in high tech engineering. "So my dad was an engineer, and he went to work at a plant doing government contract work in Muncie. One project they were working on was the design of the engines for the planes that were to be used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The test pilots were unhappy because the engines kept conking out at 30,000 feet, and they needed to be able to get up to 38,000 feet. My dad asked if he could take the blueprints home and look at them over the weekend because he thought he saw the problem.” Walter returned to work the following Monday with the solution. The engine design was corrected, and rest is history.

Walter’s work on that project led to another, and another, each time with stellar results, and he became a troubleshooter on highly classified technology projects and has his stamp on things like devices that open in space, and the seats that were developed for the Apollo project. As he talks about him, one can see that Doug is very proud of his father’s accomplishments.

But while he was growing up, Doug knew none of this. What he experienced was being the new kid at school every year but one until his graduation from high school. "It was hard for me, but it really was a blessing though. As a teacher, I have had so many students who spent their wholes lives in one place, and it was often hard to get them out of their comfort zones.” Doug compensated for being ‘the new kid’ by developing some social skills he may not otherwise have had available in his rather well stocked toolbox of abilities and talents.

Doug admits that he was somewhat of a jock in high school, where he played football, baseball and was wrestling champ twice. "I was scouted by the Cleveland Indians for the shortstop position, and was offered a $6000 annual contract to play. I turned it down to go to college - I knew that as a teacher I would make more than that,” he says with a laugh in acknowledgement of how different the pay scale for pro sports is now. "But I did play semi-pro in New Jersey for two years and that was fun!”

Fun though it may have been, baseball was not Doug’s true calling. "Music has always been in my life. My dad was a trumpet player, and he sang; he was part of the original Bill Gaither Ensemble.” When Doug was five years old, his father taught him a conducting pattern, and in front of about 1000 parishioners, he gave his first vocal and conducting performance in Springfield, Ohio. "I pick up things on my own. I did study clarinet, but I taught myself to play oboe and the saxophone because I was bored. Learned to pick at the piano. I am not really sure how I picked up the ability to sight read music, but it comes naturally to me.”

The hit television show Glee portrays the club members as being at the bottom of the social pecking order in their high school. But it was different when Doug was a teenager. "I was lucky because all the guys on the football team, the wrestling team, the theater group - they all joined the chorus. It was the fun thing to do.” Moving from Pennsylvania to New York for his senior year, Doug went from a class of 63 to one of 512. "It was hard, but I did very well.” In fact, that year was the year that Doug got really motivated to pursue music for a career.

Already having taken advanced classes in conducting, music theory, music history and voice, and having never had to audition or compete vocally, Doug had to audition to get into the school’s chorus. Doug’s music teacher that year, Roland Bentley, became a huge influence. "He was a marvelous baritone, and really understood conducting and the nuances of music. I really got turned on to music then, and realized at that point that I actually had a shot a doing something with music as a career.” Mr. Bentley eventually went on to Ithaca College and became one of their leading professors for student teaching and music education.

Before graduating high school, Doug received an Early Decision Acceptance from Westminster Choir College, part of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. "It was the perfect scenario for me because I immediately had the good fortune of being picked out, so I was suddenly able to get positions that were profitable for me - good career decisions - exposure like solo work in Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall because we always had conductors coming in - Bernstein, Tchaikovsky - to do major works, and we always had student solos. I even auditioned for a major role in Tchaikovsky’s penthouse when his chosen lead singer got sick, and he hired me on the spot. I got paid, they put me up in the Waldorf Astoria, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Here I was a twenty-year-old and I was feeling pretty cocky.”

Doug says the only thing he ever won in his life was the draft lottery in the Viet Nam War era. His number was 3. "I was in Elmira, New York, and I went to the draft board. I already had my master’s degree and all kinds of things set up, but they didn’t care. ‘Everyone is gonna go’ they told me.” So, the dean of men at the choir college advised Doug to audition for the military choruses because of his exceptional voice.

Doug did his research; the Army had a 40-man chorus on every base, and the Air Force ‘Singing Sergeants had 48 members. The Marines had a soloist, a ‘lifer’, and they told him not to even bother. When he asked about the Navy, he was told he couldn’t get into the Navy choir, because the choir was created by an Act of Congress so you had to get your local congressman to recommend you. "I called the Navy Yard in DC and I talked with a Lt. Beck, with whom I eventually became very good friends. He was very nice to me, but said there were many things I would have to do to even get an audition.” There was one opening, but there were already 1500 applicants ahead of Doug. Lt. Beck then asked Doug where he was in school, and when he said Westminster Choir College, Beck laughed and asked ‘Why didn’t you say that from the beginning? We have fifteen singers and four are graduates from your college. When can you be here?’ So I went to DC for the audition. I was supposed to have three pieces prepared, but I ended up singing for an hour and a half. They hired me on the spot. I still had the second half of my senior year

in college to go, but I had already signed the papers, and knew exactly where I was going to go.”

With the many conducting and performance opportunities afforded the Navy chorus’ members, within three months Doug was named Assistant Conductor and eventually Director of the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters, simultaneously moving up in rank to Ensign.

After his four-year stint with the Navy, Doug returned to civilian life and began teaching in New Hampshire. After one concert he gave during that time, someone approached him and said he wanted to hire Doug as their sales manager. "Usually, when someone approaches me after a performance, it is to tell me how much they liked it, or to ask me to perform somewhere.” But when the man explained who he was and what he wanted, Doug laughed. "He said they wanted someone who had my ease in front of people, and that they would teach me what I needed to know. They needed someone who could just talk. I said no.” But when the same people returned two weeks later and told Doug what they were willing to pay him, it was twice as much as he was making at the time, and he took the position. "I eventually became Vice President of Sales and Marketing. I started in New Hampshire, then moved to Connecticut, then Arkansas, and then Houston, Texas. I loved Houston. I hadn’t done any singing for about five years, and I started getting back into it there.” But then he was transferred to California in January of 1994. Three days after his arrival in California, Doug had a major heart attack. He was 42. Having absolutely no history of heart problems in his family, the attack was attributed to one thing. "Stress. I was sent out there that January to fire 1500 people.” After a few months of rehab, Doug returned to work and three days later, he had a second heart attack. "I realized I was in the wrong business. It was killing me, literally.”

With a laundry list of achievements and accolades in music and in business, and with a tidy settlement from the company, Doug moved sight unseen to Fort Myers, Florida. "I chose it because it was the #1 retirement community in the United States that year. There were performing arts opportunities at the college (Edison), teaching opportunities, and of course, the weather. Due to several factors, Doug only stayed for a year before returning to his teaching positions in New Hampshire. But by 1998, he was back in Fort Myers for good. "I have never wanted to go elsewhere since I returned, other than my touring.”

Dr. Renfroe talked about music venues in the area, their acoustics and how there are very few halls that are designed for acoustic vocal performances, saying that most are built for instrumentation or amplification. "I struggle with the ‘belters’ of the world. I was offered a position at a large church in Fort Myers to be their vocal instructor in order to teach their choir members how to ‘belt out a song’, and I turned it down. I was not the right person for that.” He says one needs to develop "your (vocal) support mechanisms, to understand the foundation of the voice, the breathing, the eloquence…”

Thinking about these venues and what it takes to develop a vocal talent, Doug talks about his work at Beach United Methodist and the popular Hibiscus Concert Series he has presented to the community for the past several years. "The acoustics in the sanctuary are wonderful. We have a pipe organ and a grand piano, and we draw a lot of people from the community, not just our parishioners. "Of the 150 folks who came to my concert last week, only about 20 of them were from our parish. The rest were from the community at large.”

The church choir meets for rehearsals from about the middle of October until the end of April each year, at 7 PM on Wednesdays, and Doug prepares the singers for a quality presentation at every church service in addition to any concert performances, and they cover a wide range of musical styles. Says Doug, "I’m trying like mad to make this a center of performing arts for the Beach.”

Excited about upcoming events, like the Judeo-Christian Music Workshop to be held in the church’s Fellowship Hall on Thursday, April 10th at 7:00 PM, conducting workshops (he will give at a 7-day conference at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City), and various concerts in which he will either perform or conduct in our area, Doug’s passion and dedication to his music shine through.

Some final thoughts from this most prolific man with world-class talent: "Support us. Support what is happening within our performing arts community. There are things happening besides what you can see and hear at the local bars and restaurants - things you should expose yourself and your children to. No matter which church or organization in town is doing a musical presentation, go see it.”

Jo List