Posted Online: Aug. 09, 2014, 1:53 pm

The music man: May takes on role with new school

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By Jonathan Turner,

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Photo: Gary Krambeck/
Ron May of Moline at his piano.
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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Ron May, as Moline High School's choral director, leads his students during a rehearsal April 13, 2007. Mr. May has won the Outstanding Music Educator Award, one of 18 music educators in the United States to receive the honor that year.
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Photo: Todd Mizener
Ron May as Applegate and Dan McGinn as Joe Hardy starred in Quad City Music Guild's 2004 production of 'Damn Yankees.'
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Photo: Dan Videtich
Ron and Cindy May were married on June 11th, 1977, the day Circa 21 opened in downtown Rock Island. The Mays met while working on Music Guild's 1975 production of "The Sound of Music," the same show that played Circa on their 25th anniversary in 2002.
MOLINE -- Ron May is a music man of impeccable taste, imposing standards, and prodigious talents.

The 61-year-old Bettendorf native will bring those virtues -- and an impressive 40 years of experience as a music educator in the Quad-Cities -- to yet another new role: performing-arts teacher for Davenport's new Creative Arts Academy, which starts with the new school year on Aug. 18.

"It's a concept that's been long overdue for the Quad-City community," said Mr. May, who's stepping down as Moline High School's choral director after 21 years.

"I'm very, very passionate about arts education. It is not a frill; it is not an extra," he said. " It is a driving force of our economy. We should not be ignoring it in education. It's vital."

"We have other math and science academies springing up everywhere," Mr. May said. "They're bending over backwards to teach engineering in high school, not even waiting for them to get to college. What are we doing for the arts? We're cutting back. Really? We should be doing the opposite."

The former Davenport North High choir director -- who helped open that then-new school in 1985 -- will be among three full-time arts faculty for the new Davenport magnet school. Fifty-four sixth-graders and 33 high school juniors and seniors (all but three from Davenport public schools who had to audition) will start CAA courses at the Adler Theatre on Aug. 18, then move to its new hub after Labor Day at the Davenport Public Library downtown.

The sixth-graders will spend mornings in CAA classes and the remainder of the day in required academic classes at Sudlow Intermediate School. High school students will have core classes at their schools in the morning and come to the hub -- and other downtown arts institutions -- in the afternoon.

Mr. May was part of the auditioning team for the CAA this past spring, and he applied for the faculty position after seeing many budget challenges in Moline. "Budget problems throughout the school systems are so offensive, for us to try to do the right thing," he said.

"In spite of the fact of all the documentation that says students who study music excel in everything, in spite of the evidence, arts are getting cut," he said, noting he last worked with 230 Moline students in four choirs, compared to two choirs when he started in 1993.

Mr. May also has been responsible for leading music for the annual school musical, and coordinating all students and choirs for annual competitions, tours and conventions.

"We are very pleased and excited to have a person of Ron May's musical and teaching caliber joining the Creative Arts Academy," Joel Franken, CAA department chair, said by email. "Ron brings a wealth of educational experience in music and theater. His vast knowledge of and working with the Quad-Cities musical and theatrical scene helps bring instant credibility to the CAA."

Mr. May was planning to retire in another three years, but when this opportunity came along, he said, "I thought this is invigorating. I could keep doing this forever."

"I wish I had a school like this when I was growing up," Mr. May said of the CAA, noting he plans to have high-school students intern with area arts organizations, and get chances to talk with local and visiting artists. "I'm not the kind of person who's going to just stop. It's an extremely exciting potential, to see where it's going to go, help cultivate it and nurture it."

"Ron always sets a high bar for his students, which pushes them to achieve things they might not otherwise have tried if left to their own accord," said Erin Platt, who began working with Mr. May and his choreographer wife, Cindy, on the musical production staff at Moline in 1997, and has been book director every year since 1999.

"He does not coddle them, but they always know when the chips are down that he believes in them, even when they may not believe in themselves at the moment," Ms. Platt said. "It isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and Ron always finds a way to blend his expectations with varying personalities to achieve success. In addition, he works very hard to expose them to new experiences to enrich their perspective of the world, and is always generous with his time, talent, and enthusiasm in order to do so."

From Bettendorf to the world

For someone so into musicals, Mr. May missed out on being in one while a student at Bettendorf High School.

"I never got cast in anything. I was always stage crew," he said, noting he didn't even play piano for the shows since back then, they used an adult as pianist. Mr. May got inspired to pursue teaching high school choir his senior year at Bettendorf.

One of the choral directors had broken his ankle just before an exchange concert Mr. May's choir was going to give, and as president of the group, he was asked to conduct. "I had a blast. It was great fun," he said.

At Augustana College, from which he graduated in 1974 with a degree in choral/vocal music education, Mr. May was profoundly influenced by Don Morrison -- with whom he studied voice and was in choir four years -- and Tom Robin Harris, an organ professor. "What a blessing they were to me in so many ways," he said.

The summer after he graduated high school, he was on stage for the first time in the Quad-City Music Guild production of "Mame," the first of many Guild shows for him. His lead roles included Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees" and Thomas Jefferson in "1776." Twenty-eight years after his first "Damn Yankees," Mr. May played the devil Applegate in the show in 2004 at Guild.

His first teaching jobs were at Coolidge Junior High in Moline and North Scott High, for a year each. Mr. May then taught at Davenport West High for nine years, took a choir to Coventry, England, one summer, and in 1984, partnered with Moline and Fort Madison, and their alumni, to form a Mississippi Valley Chorale that sang all over Europe.

In 1985, Davenport opened its new North High School, and Mr. May and Paul Holzworth were recruited to teach music, and provide input on designing a new auditorium, which the converted school building then didn't have. They did eight years of concerts and musicals in the cafeteria and the gym.

"It got really old and frustrating," Mr. May said, noting the new auditorium (named for Mr. Holzworth) didn't open until after he left. In 1993, former Moline High choir director Cal Hedegaard retired, and Mr. May had student-taught there while in college.

"I love Moline. It was a great time, a good program," he said of his 21-year career there.

Mr. May offered a routine for his choir students to alternate each year -- to visit Chicago to see a Broadway musical, and every other year, travel to a major event, such as a choral convention, or perform in New York City or Europe. He said his favorite excursions have been to prestigious Carnegie Hall twice -- first in December 1994, as part of a 300-student choir conducted by composer/arranger John Rutter.

"To think that we were going to sing at Carnegie Hall was so intimidating, we worked like mad to do this," Mr. May, noting they spent weeks getting ready. "The experience was mind-boggling," he said of the two-hour concert. On top of it, the kids planned a special visit to NBC's "Today Show," where they would wave outside in the crowd.

The day before they left for New York, the manager of local NBC affiliate KWQC-TV said NBC wanted the choir to sing Christmas carols on the show, but they hadn't prepared for that.

"You're kidding me," Mr. May said he thought, noting "Today" wanted the kids to sing three or four times, during cutaways before commercials. "We were practicing in the airport on the way there. But wow, what a thrill."

Host Matt Lauer also interviewed Mr. May, after he said the students were supposed to be interviewed. "We were outside so long, my lips were frozen, and I could hardly talk," Mr. May recalled.

He also took choirs to the Big Apple to sing at Lincoln Center -- on their own and among larger student choirs -- to Washington, D.C., as Illinois' choral representative for the bicentennial of the White House in 1992, and a second time to Carnegie Hall, with other schools, in March 2011.

"Those were pretty thrilling times," Mr. May said. "The Carnegie Hall events provide such a sense of history, and a sense of being responsible to being absolutely at a world-class level."

"Just to know that you're rubbing elbows with the name people, at the top of their field -- John Rutter, Weston Noble," he said, noting the kids typically appreciated it more after they left high school.

In 1996, Mr. May sang himself under one of the kings of choral conducting, Robert Shaw, in a 100-member adult choir at Carnegie Hall. He had to audition to participate in Mr. Shaw's choral institute, and they sang Verdi's Requiem.

"We worked with him eight hours a day for a week," Mr. May said. "Some of the techniques you learn from him, you bring home. Robert Shaw was a very big stickler on accurate rhythm. He said, 'The right pitch at the wrong time is still a wrong note.' That was drilled into us. It was quite an experience. I got a score with his autograph, that he produced just for us."

Mr. May said he gets great satisfaction from seeing his former students succeed in musical careers -- as educators or performers. When he and his wife, whom he met at Music Guild in 1975 doing "The Sound of Music," appropriately enough, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 2002, they went to New York City and had a reunion party for Quad-Cities students who have settled in New York.

They included Jay Douglas, who was in "The Full Monty" at the time; Chad Vogel, who was in a national tour of "Peter Pan"; and Kyle Hall in "Metamorphosis." Mr. May said, "I thought, we wouldn't be here if it weren't for these kids."

His musical theater students have performed on Broadway ("Fantasticks," "Miss Saigon," "Full Monty," "The Drowsy Chaperone") as well as in many regional productions and national tours.

From grad work to church music to opera to Circa

During summers off from teaching, Mr. May has done graduate work at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master's degree in vocal performance and pedagogy, and completed the coursework for a doctoral degree in conducting.

"Most teachers I know want to be the best they can, so they're either taking a class for credit, or taking some sort of class just because. That's just what teachers do," he said. "It helps to stay current with trends and teaching techniques."

Mr. May -- who has taught voice at St. Ambrose and Augustana -- was honored as outstanding music educator by the National Federation of High School Associations in 2007, and currently serves as organist and choirmaster for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport. He is a past choir director at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bettendorf.

He will get a feather in one of his many musical caps this winter, when he joins an elite 40-voice national choir that will perform four Evensongs in London's Westminster Abbey, representing the American division of the Royal School of Church Music.

Trinity Cathedral is a member of the Royal School of Church Music, and Mr. May had to audition to be accepted into the choir to perform the week after Christmas. Another Trinity member, soprano Renee Long, will also go.

Of course, Mr. May has been to England's great cathedrals several times before with his school choirs, who got to sit with the church choirs at Westminster, St. Paul's Cathedral, King's College Cambridge, and Christ Church Oxford.

As a singer, Mr. May is passionate about opera, and in 2002, he co-founded Opera Quad Cities -- serving as president -- and conducted many of its performances ("Cosi Fan Tutte," "Carmen," "La Boheme," and "Rigoletto").

The company still maintains its nonprofit status but has been on hiatus the last several years, since it's been unable to secure funding to stage big productions. Mr. May said he hopes to offer smaller concerts, such as a tribute to Mozart in January on the anniversary of his birth, with community support. "We'll get there," he said.

Since he started directing at Moline, Mr. May also has been a fixture at Rock Island's Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, music directing summer shows such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "Legally Blonde," "Hairspray," and "Whodunit," among others, and the Bootleggers' bi-annual August revues, He's playing for the current Bootleggers tribute to the movies.

He and his wife have two grown children, Tyson and Briony, and three grandkids. Of all the musicals they've done, Mr. May said his favorite is John Kander's and Fred Ebb's "Cabaret" -- not only for its score, but its moral, historical message of how to treat others.

As for the new Creative Arts Academy, Mr. May said he is excited to have the chance to integrate arts into students' overall coursework, have them work together on creative projects, and expose them to other arts they may not be involved in.

"I could go to 70 at least, God willing," the energetic, lanky music man enthused. "I'm not the kind of person that can be idle."