Don Cleary knew at four years old that he wanted to play the piano but, when Santa visited his house that year, he didn’t quite get what he had expected.
“I got a little teeny toy thing and I just looked at Mom and Dad and couldn’t figure out why Santa couldn’t figure out that it wasn’t what I was talking about,” he laughed. “But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I never said anything to them.”
Instead, Don continued to ask for a piano every year, but his parents always put him off for one reason or another. So finally, at the age of 19, he decided to get a job at the A&P grocery store and pay for it himself.
“It was a rebuilt upright,” he remembered. “It had been reconditioned and they wanted $350 for it, so I tried to talk them down and they said they couldn’t take less. So I gave them my sob story and said, ‘How about if I put $200 down and pay the rest in time?’ And they said, ‘Alright, we’ll do it.’ So I had my first loan and my first piano at 19 years old.”
And not only that, he taught himself to play in a rather unusual way.
“I started teaching myself to play piano by going through the hymnal, and I would do the soprano line and then the alto line and then the tenor and the bass, and then I would slowly, meticulously, do all four notes at the same time,” he explained. “I went all the way through the hymnal twice doing that. It took me all summer long and, by then, I was somewhat proficient.”
It’s a great story all on its own, but, for those who know Don, it’s even better because it illustrates so perfectly his approach to music. If he wants to explore a certain instrument, style of music or anything, really, pertaining to his passion, he just does it. He either teaches himself or enrolls in classes.
That’s how he learned to play piano. It’s why he played saxophone in rock bands in middle and high school. It’s how he became director of music ministries in churches of several denominations before going back to school to get a PhD in comparative arts and just happened to take some graduate theater classes while he was at it.
“I tell people that I get bored easy,” he laughed. “I’ve done a lot of related, interconnected things. I studied cello at GRU for a while and then decided, ‘Well, that was fun. I think I’ll try stand-up bass.’ So then I tried that for a couple of years and that was kind of fun, so I got just good enough to know that if I wanted to be really good I’d have to practice and I thought, ‘Naaaa.’ What I did was I transferred what I’d learned as a bass player back into keyboard, so now when I improvise I play bass lines that I never played before. So even though I don’t always end up doing what I thought when I started out, I can always make use of it.”
These days, he’s making use of his varied musical and arts backgrounds to teach classes at both Aiken Tech and Augusta Tech, act as musical director for the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre’s upcoming show “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and play with the Augusta Celtic Ensemble, who will be performing at the Westobou Festival, and the Sand Hills String Band, a group that also includes his wife and his grandson.
Don is also beginning his fourth season as artistic director and conductor for the Columbia County Choral Society, a position that comes with a lot of different responsibilities. Perfect for someone like him.
“I’m responsible for picking music and presenting it to the board for their approval, designing concert themes, suggesting locations where we would perform, who might perform with us if we collaborate, hiring musicians, doing orchestral scores, teaching the music to the choir,” he said, “and, of course, as the conductor or director of the group making all those decisions about the interpretation of the music.”
Conducting, he said, was a natural outgrowth of getting an undergraduate degree in voice.
“You know how there are Cadillacs and Pintos? Well, I have a Pinto of a voice,” he laughed. “It’s probably a little better than a Pinto, but not much better.”
So even though his dream of being a singer wouldn’t pan out, Don said he used what he learned getting his undergraduate degree to help him become a conductor. He knew what a Cadillac of a voice should do, and his training gave him knowledge of what a particular piece of music wants those voices to do.
“And I’m a people person,” he said, explaining the third trait that makes him a successful conductor. “I really get a joy out of watching people grow and learn because I guess I’m a teacher at heart.”
Don has found the perfect outlet for that in the Columbia County Choral Society, a group that has a long history but that hasn’t gotten much recognition. Part of that, Don said, is because it was formed by a group of people who had come from a church choir background, but who wanted to go a little bit more in depth with music and sing some styles other than sacred.
In other words, they came together and sang for their own fulfillment rather than to please an audience.
“And what I’ve been trying to do the last couple of years is raise the performance standards of the group to strive toward excellence and they’re very, very supportive and they try to do everything I ask them to do,” he said. “A lot of times they’re very successful at it so I’m excited to be working with them.”
One thing Don said he’s been striving toward lately is doing a mix of traditional choral pieces with some musical theater, as evidenced by the group’s last concert of last season, an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan favorites.
“It was one of the most successful concerts the group has ever done, I think, and they had never done anything like that whatsoever. But they were game,” he said. “The biggest challenge was they had to do it all from memory. It was a little scary for a few of them, but they rose to the occasion and they really pulled it off. It was funny because, in my mind, it started out as a concert but ended up as a show.”
As cost-prohibitive as shows like that are — what with having to rent a theater, hire professional musicians and come up with costumes and set pieces — Don has planned a similar show for the winter concert called Broadway Boogie.
And there is still time to join the Columbia County Choral Society, Don said. Guest Night will be held Tuesday, September 1, at the First Baptist Church of Evans, which is where the group holds their weekly rehearsals. The evening will start with a meet and greet at 6:30 p.m. and rehearsal from 7-9 p.m.
“We ask people to sing with us three weeks in a row,” he explained. “By then, they know and we know if it’s a match. And then they’ll actually sing for me and I’ll make sure there aren’t any pitch issues and that they’re singing in the right section. They don’t have to read music. It helps, but it’s not a requirement.”
Joining the group now, he said, is a chance to help an established group grow.
“We’re trying to elevate the group to take their music a little more seriously,” he explained. “They’ve done almost all their concerts at First Baptist Church, Evans, so we’re trying to get out into the community and perform some different places and appeal to broader audience. When I started we had 23-24 members and last year we were at 40, so we’re starting to grow and get a little bit more attention. It just takes time, but I really think we’re coming into our own.”
CCCS Guest Night
First Baptist Church of Evans
Tuesday, September 1
6:30 p.m., meet and greet; 7-9 p.m., rehearsal
762-383-3176 or 310-497-8047