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Montville - During a rehearsal for a school drama production a few years ago, Montville High School choir teacher Josh Cushing noticed the silhouette of a freshman he didn't recognize messing around on the piano.
The student was producing impressively fluent improvisation, and Cushing thought, "I need to figure out who that is" and get him involved in the music program.
Three years later, that student, Jeffrey Cregeur, is 17 and on the verge of graduation. In the fall, he'll attend the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, but he's accomplished quite a bit while still in high school.
"Jeff is easily within the top 1 percent of music students I've ever come across," said Cushing, who was impressed with Cregeur's ability to lead a choir as well as sing in one.
Cregeur did end up taking choir with Cushing, and crammed music in everywhere else he could during his high school career: playing in the jazz band, learning about composition during an independent study course and improvising on the school piano during his study halls.
Cregeur was elected musical director of the a cappella choir, a primarily student-driven ensemble, and has been able to run entire sections of rehearsal in Cushing's absence. He has also tutored other choir students.
By all accounts, Cregeur is an accomplished musician. But he probably wouldn't introduce himself that way - he'd tell you he's a composer.
Coming from a teenager, that may seem like an exaggeration. Cregeur, though, has plenty of songs and awards to back that title. Four of his songs have been performed live, including one by the Hartford-based professional choir Voce.
While most kids might start composing pop songs similar to what they hear on the radio, Cregeur said his biggest influence was composer Eric Whitacre's "Water Night," which he first heard in chorus sophomore year.
"I was blown away by the harmonies Eric Whitacre was able to create," said Cregeur, who decided at age 15 to try choral composition.
His first piece was "The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked," which was set to Psalm 1 of the Bible. When the school's chamber choir sang his composition at a choral competition in Annapolis, Cregeur said he received one of three awards given to outstanding musicians.
The songs he's written were "basically what I heard in my head," said Cregeur, who has never taken a formal music theory course.
That will change in the fall, when he begins studying musical theory and composition with a vocal emphasis at the Hartt School.
Since writing "The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked," Cregeur has composed more complex pieces and ventured into new territory by writing for instruments such as the string bass or the clarinet.
That's been one of the biggest struggles of composing so far, said Cregeur, who checks in with his instrumentalist friends to make sure fingerings that might be easy on piano aren't impossible on the instrument he's writing for.
Sometimes he writes songs based on literature, such as the Bible or the set of classical Persian poems called "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." Other times, he writes for specific individuals.
"I met this girl at All State (choir) and I was like, 'Hey, if you find some text, I'll write a song for you,'" said Cregeur, who two months later finished a piece for solo voice with piano based on an Emily Dickinson poem.
Cregeur's interest in music began when his parents asked him at the end of fourth grade whether he wanted to take piano lessons.
The future composer's response was, "Sure, why not?"
He picked up the instrument quickly "and I just started having this passion for music," said Cregeur, "and the next thing I know I'm in high school and the chorus teacher's like 'oh, you should try singing,' and now I'm singing and I like that more than piano. And (then) I'm composing."
Cregeur couldn't explain exactly why he excelled in music.
"It's just something that I get," he said.