As the Concord Academy Singers bring their holiday medley to a close, the audience at Newbury Court, a retirement community in Concord, bursts into applause. A cry of “bravo” comes from the front row of the auditorium. The CA Singers, an audition-based group of sophomores, juniors and seniors, look pleased, and a touch embarrassed, by the praise for their lively performance.
Their director, Tai Oney, is more comfortable in the spotlight, smiling as he gestures the students off-stage and lets the audience know of other upcoming concert dates. A charismatic opera singer and Boston University graduate student, Oney became CA’s choral director in September 2018. It’s a role that represents a change for the award-winning countertenor, who has performed around the world and spent much of the last decade based in London. But it’s a role that allows him to combine his own artistic pursuits with his desire to give to others what a dynamic teacher once provided him.
A performer since childhood, Oney grew up singing gospel music in a band with his siblings and parents. “We were kind of like the Jackson 5, only we were known simply as the Oneys,” he remembers. Frequent performances in childhood led to a recording contract by age 12, but then huge disappointment — he was dropped from the label after a management change — at age 16.
It was Oney’s high school’s choral director who helped him recover. “She is the one that nurtured my musical talent and helped me learn to read music,” he says. “I get teary-eyed just thinking about how much she cared about me and saw the potential.”
CA choral director Tai Oney (right) with the CA Singers after performing at the opening of Concord Museum’s Rasmussen Education Center in November.
“I get teary-eyed just thinking about how much [my teacher] cared about me and saw the potential.”Memories of her are partly what brought him to CA after leaving London in 2017.
– Tai Oney, CA choral director
“The mission statement on the website really resonated with me and when I visited, I felt like the school put the mission into action rather than just words,” says Oney, who directs CA Singers and the CA Chorus, serves as an academic and affinity group advisor, and teaches classes in music theory.
As a teacher, Oney says the moments he most relishes are the ones in which students make connections between an academic concept and the music they enjoy. “If we’re studying intervals, sometimes students come in the next day having noticed them in their favorite songs,” he says.
And he excels at helping students make those discoveries, says Samantha Morrison ’19, a student co-head of Chorus. She describes him as a serious musician who is also down-to-earth, able to laugh at himself and with the students. And she admires the way the way he includes both non-technical and technical explanations in his teaching. “He’ll remind us not to sound like whimpering puppies, but also point out an interesting modal harmony or a Picardy third,” she says.
Like his students, Oney is constantly engaged in the back-and-forth between theory and practice. In addition to his work at CA and his own career as a soloist, he is also a second-year doctoral student in historical performance at BU. A typical weekday has the Maynard, Mass., resident dashing from a class to a performance to a rehearsal, and then heading into Boston for a private lesson of his own.
But his enthusiasm for all these endeavors is palpable and apparent to the students who see him each day. As Morrison puts it, “He knows how to rehearse the music in a way that everyone can learn from.”