After Nearly 30 Years, ETSU Choral Director Still Inspires Students to New Creative Heights
By Sara Johnston | March 27, 2007Editor's Note: The following article was written in 2005 and reprinted with permission from the East Tennessean student newspaper at East Tennessee State University
Heads turn as he strides erectly into the auditorium. Talking ceases, muscles tense and backs straighten. All eyes are on him. Approval? Disapproval? His singers watch for the nod that says they "got it right."
That teetering on the edge of your seat kind of feeling is something Dr. Thomas Jenrette seems to engender everywhere he goes. The director of ETSU Choral Activities not only compels singers to wait for his direction, literally with baited breath, but his audiences also often experience the same anticipation.
Why? Because he demands and often produces perfection.
"In performance, it doesn't matter if it's your best or your least," Jenrette said. "It just has to be right."
Jenrette's chorale class is 55 minutes of intense focus. There is not a minute of relaxation until he tells the class goodbye. "I want them to be sure how serious we are," he said. "We are not getting together to have fun singing pretty songs."
Sometimes demanding perfection can seem brutal. "What's special about him is that he has an incredible attention to detail, and he has an absolute ruthlessness to get it out of you," said Stephen Farrior, a music education student at ETSU.
A native of Galax, Va., Jenrette began his own musical career as a child, when he took piano lessons in fourth grade and later began singing. His parents have always been supportive of his love for music, and he said that they were very proud of him and came to as many concerts as they could.
His first job was teaching the choir at Cummings High School in Burlington, N.C. Musicals were a huge production then, Jenrette said, and the community gave their full support by providing sets and costumes.
The first musical he performed in was Annie Get Your Gun, while his directorial debut was Guys and Dolls. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing, and somehow I made it through," he said.
[In 2005 Jenrette co-directed] with theatre professor Pat Cronin, Forever Plaid, a '50s musical about four male singers who die in a collision with a school bus full of nuns on the way to their first performance.
"I've always liked doing musicals, but it's hard work," Jenrette said. "It's not like a fun after-school social activity."
Jenrette's lead singers in the musical knew his expectations very well. "He expects perfection from you and from himself," said Ricky Hilton, who played Frankie in the musical. "Every time you come into practice, you think, 'Get it right. Do it right,' and you'll do it 100 times. One time I told Doc (Jenrette) that I worked for two hours and still didn't get it right, and he said, 'You wasted two hours then.' If in the third hour, however, he got it right, Jenrette noted, it was worth the hours of effort.
"It's expected that it's going to be done perfect or it's not going to be done at all," said Cody McCullah, who played Jinx in Forever Plaid.
"If we don't strive for perfection, then what do we strive for?" Jenrette asks. "It's painful but the reward matches the investment and, unless you've made the investment before, you don't even know what the reward can be."
The investment has indeed paid off for Jenrette and his students. Since his first day at ETSU [nearly 30] years ago, he and his students have performed in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican in Rome, and twice at the White House in Washington, D.C.
"He gets such great results from singers," said Music Department Chair Mary Dave Blackman. "His attention to detail is intense and he just gets it out of them. It has to be right. It has to be perfect."
There's always the reward to strive for — if not absolute perfection, at least the beatific smile of approval from the maestro himself.