Quintessential People

Peggy’s Song

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by David Rutter | Photo: thomas balsamo

She was 10 then and just beginning to stalk teen-age dreams.

Peggy Becker could dream big because she had show biz zing. She had spunk. The 1950s were good times for spunky kids in Winnetka.

Plus, there was a song inside her that belonged to no one else. Songs may seem just accumulations of patterned frequencies and vibrations ordered into harmony. But for some hearts, those notes are maps and sign posts. For her, the song guided her to the precise life she was meant to have.

She came from one of those Winnetka launching pad families in which impossibly famous futures were set off like Roman candle pyrotechnics at New Trier High. Maybe she would be movie star Ann-Margret before the Elvis Days. “Yes, I saw her on stage,” Peggy says. “She was leaning against the curtain stage-right and belted out (a very sultry) ‘We’re Having a Heat Wave, a Tropical Heat Wave,’” for her New Trier chums.

Peggy lowers her voice to mimic the gravelly come-hither lyrics. And then she giggles.

Or gender aside, maybe she was going to be New Trier’s next Charlton Heston or Rock Hudson. She might have been any one of a thousand stage-famous New Trier grads that have wielded music, drama, and art on world stages. Fame of all kinds flowered there. You could become anybody if you eventually were a Northwestern University vocal music graduate, as she would be.

Even then as a child, she had this perfect, resonant, modulated mezzo soprano singing voice that would have made Verdi or Bach weep. She was one of Richard and Merrio Becker’s two daughters in a house of artful sensibilities and classical music at 1336 Scott Avenue.

The voice made you remember her. She was exactly who and where she needed to be: a darling daughter of music aficionados. Very smart people from a smart home in a smart town.

Young Miss Becker knew Chicago’s Lyric Opera before she new Bobby Darin and the Big Bopper.

She was born Margaret, but she was never Margaret or even Maggie. She was always Peggy Becker. Pugnacious and perspicacious Peggy Becker was going places. Peggy means “Little Pearl”, and it fit.

She had all the signs. “I have always loved to sing,” she says. “Always.”

But life is never a straight line. Life had something else planned for her other than Broadway or the Metropolitan Opera.

Peggy Becker—she’s been Peggy Crawford for 45 years or so—is famous now for reasons she could not have envisioned in that little house on Scott Avenue. That’s the trick of life. It all seems so obvious now, after you’ve done it successfully.

She’s intermittently taught choral music in Barrington for 40 years and the multi-level Barrington Children’s Choir she invented 30 years ago remains one of Midwest America’s great cultural gems. She has become great by creating greatness in others. People who would not know Ann-Margret would know Peggy and her kids in Paris, Prague, and Oxford.

For years, no one in Barrington quite understood how she could merge elementary choruses and stage 300-cast member operatic extravaganzas as she often did. “With horses, chickens, and goats,” she says.

But first came the musical signposts. In the months after graduating from Northwestern, Peggy went to visit family in ancestral Wales on England’s western coast. The train trip back to London finally settled her life direction. “I was in this railroad car, and all these guys showed up at the door and asked if they could come in and have a seat,” she recalled. The French male national chorus was on its way back from an international competition.

“Two dozen of them. They sang ‘a cappella’ to me. I cried. I sang to them. They cried.”

And later in the underground parking lot of London’s main train station, the French lads ringed her taxicab and serenaded France’s “La Marseillaise” national anthem to her. “The cabbie turned around to me and said ‘You must be someone special.’ At that moment, I cried and knew I had to get back to Itasca and be a teacher.” That was a half-century ago.

In those intervening decades, her children’s choir has made Barrington famous. That glory reflects on her even more brightly because there surely have been valued and energetic helpers, allies, and supporters along the way, but this is hers— invented it, built it, and sustained it. At any moment of any average day, there are 300 area singers learning their craft in one of four choirs divided by age and skill levels.

It’s a musical foundry, and Peggy Crawford is its blacksmith.

Her choir’s perfect tonal harmonies sang morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, called the faithful to prayer in Canterbury Cathedral, summered on Mackinac Island; even regularly saluted 19,000 Chicago Bulls fans with the Star Spangled Banner. They know Barrington neighborhood kids all the way from London to Paris to Milan to Florence.

“Yes, I have been to the mountain,” she says. “You can stand closer to heaven there.”

Crawford’s personal song with its perfect pitch and magical grace has not only given music to her unofficial family, she has given them the world, too. It’s an unimaginable gift.

Peggy Crawford has taught thousands of area children the precise, technical joy and glory of classical choral music, first as elementary teacher in Barrington’s District 220 and then as the Children’s Choir architect. She has adult children and was foster mom to seven. She adopted three of them before her biological son, Reid, arrived.

Life’s song was always inside her to share. By all accounts, her gentle teaching style is unique and deliberately sharing. “What you hope to do is create a environment in which creative children can be themselves,” she says. “What you see as they grow is that they bloom. They open up, but at their own pace. Some start ready to sing; others take time. You don’t have to worry about making them competitive. They are already like that with each other.”

Once she trained the choir to a world-class perfection, she made them singing globetrotters. But now, she says, it is time for new voices to carry the choir’s melody. So she will turn over management and direction this spring to successor Carol Sesso and become a board member.

It’s time for that. But there is no allegorical period to that sentence. She’s not the sort to go away. Now there is a next act.

That will be volunteering at GiGi’s Playhouse, a locally founded educational oasis for children with Down syndrome and other learning challenges. The centers have spread to 30 other locales. “I needed a platform where I could reach out to different kinds of kids,” she says. “I needed to be with kids who don’t think they can sing.”

She will teach them that they can sing. Her notes belong to them, too. Peggy will sing to them in that perfect mezzo soprano voice. And then they will match her and, then, together the sounds will rise. She has done that for thousands of children.

It will be a pure, sweet song. Verdi and Bach will weep. It’s the song she was always meant to sing.

Here are some words that others shared about Peggy crawford

Ned Loughridge, BCC Men’s Choir

Peggy Crawford has inspired generations of Barrington elementary and middle school children with her love for music and singing. She is not just a teacher of notes. She helps her students connect with each song they perform by imparting the true mood and meaning of the music and words whether sung in English, Latin, Italian, or even Swahili. Her founding of the Barrington Children’s Choir 30 years ago provided even more young people the opportunity to learn and grow under her direction as many choristers come from neighboring communities. Lastly, about seven years ago, Peggy assembled a group of BCC fathers and friends to provide bass, baritone, and tenor support for some of the more complex works she wished to teach. Under Peggy’s tutelage, that group too has growing musically and has become a tight-knit fraternity. Her magic works for adults, too.

Tara McDermott, BCC Student

I first met Ms. Crawford, or ‘Crawfs’, as I affectionately call her, when I was 10-years-old at my audition for BCC. When I think of the people who have had the biggest impacts on my life, Crawfs is one of the first people that comes to mind. She watched me grow up in the eight years that I was in BCC, and she really helped to guide me throughout the years that I was in choir. Crawfs was one of the first people to believe that my voice was capable of great things. When she called me to tell me that I had gotten into BCC, she told me that I had a wonderful audition, and that she was excited to watch my voice grow, and blossom. She was complimentary of my voice, and said that she had great faith in my capabilities as a singer. I am now a freshman in college studying vocal performance in Washington D.C., training to be an opera singer. If it were not for her unwavering faith in my abilities as a musician, I can confidently say that I would not be where I am today. Crawfs enabled me to pursue my dreams, and I could not be more grateful.

If I had to describe Crawfs in two words (a nearly impossible feat), I would use the words inspiring, and musician. Crawfs knew how to inspire her students to both see and reach their full potential. I chose the word musician because Crawfs really does embody that word and everything that it means. True musicianship demands a lot. It requires intelligence, passion, total dedication, hard work, and a vulnerability that only comes through music. There was nothing Crawford wanted more than to share her zeal for beautiful music with her students, and it was a privilege to be able to witness that during my eight years in BCC.

Lynn Minton, Colleague

I met Peggy in 1999 as a Hough Street School parent; my daughter, Jillian, is currently a chorister in BCC (since 2010). I was administrative director for BCC for three years. Peggy is able to see and communicate the big picture for a great show. For Peggy’s last concert at Hough Street School, she orchestrated 300+ students, first through fifth grade, to perform an epic Disney medley on stage at BHS. It was truly amazing; all the children knew exactly what to do and were having a blast doing it. Watching rehearsal can be magical. You can hear right when everything clicks between Peggy and her choristers. She uses music theory, lessons from history, and the pure passion of the music to inspire the members of choir to fully understand and live the music as they combine their voices.

Carol and David Nelson, Friends

We met Peggy over 30 years ago when our children were at Hough Street School together. She was their music teacher at Hough, as well as the mother of their friends. Peggy had a vision for a world-class children’s choir and when she asked for help in gathering a support group, it was our pleasure. The rest is history.

Peggy has made her dream come true. The Barrington Children’s Choir has touched many lives throughout Barrington and beyond. Children have learned and performed music from classical to contemporary and have been part of a phenomenal choral group with an international reputation. Today, Peggy serves on the Barrington Cultural Commission to continue to bring great talent from many sources to our Village. She has never stopped giving back to her community. Peggy has created an immeasurable gift for children, their families, and for the greater Barrington area. We have been so fortunate to have benefitted from her ability and dedication!

Ed Scoby, BCC Men’s Choir

I have known Peggy Crawford for nine years as part of the men’s section of the Barrington Children›s Choir. The first time I walked into the music room at Station Middle School to practice with the rest of the guys, I had pangs of doubt. I didn’t know if—as a “shower singer” with no formal training—could rise to the level of musicianship all around me. Peggy put me at ease from the start. She inspired us all, proving that we could sing not just familiar Christmas and Americana songs, but complex and moving vocal pieces such as the “Gloria” by Vivaldi and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. When I look back on the Men’s Choir one day, it will be with affection and gratitude for Peggy. She helped us accomplish something beautiful, something larger than ourselves, with confidence and warmth. Laudamus te, Peggy.

Carol Sesso, Colleague

I have known Peggy for 20 years. Peggy was the general music teacher at Countryside school, where my two youngest children attended. Being a music teacher, I tend to always be especially interested in the school music programs and concerts that my kids are participating in. My two older children had attended schools in another community. Generally, the programs were a disappointment. Upon moving to Barrington in 1994, what a surprise and delight it was to attend our first winter concert at Countryside! It seemed truly amazing that anyone could inspire such beautiful sounds from second- and third-graders. When I began teaching in Barrington 220 a few years later, Peggy was my unofficial mentor. My children were BCC members and for the past 10 years, it’s been my pleasure to serve as an accompanist and director of the intermediate ensemble under Peggy’s artistic direction.

Peggy is a visionary and a dreamer, who has made that dream happen. In her teaching, she has coupled her love of children with her deep love of music, and does this with her own artistic touch.  She’s a captivating story teller and uses that gift to engage her choristers, while teaching the history of certain composers and the meaning of the pieces being studied. Peggy is the heart and soul of BCC. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of children have been introduced to the magic of singing because of Peggy. 

Christine Shelton, Colleague

(Christine is a private vocal instructor, retired music educator for Barrington District 220, and a former Barrington Children’s Choir director.)

You mention the name Peggy Crawford to me, and others, and the immediate image appears of a woman who lives and breathes music. The art of making music and creating singers and connecting people through her gift is truly magical and all-consuming. Peggy has the unbelievable ability to transform a roomful of children (and adults) into a choir of angels. She is incredibly creative and filled with knowledge and repertoire that through her vision, comes alive with the voices of her singers.

I have had the wonderful opportunity of wearing “many hats” with my dear friend Peggy. Having moved here from California in 1994, my first connection with Peggy was enrolling my three children in her renowned Barrington Children’s Choir. One year later, we were working side by side as a classroom music instructors in the Barrington School

District. Our musical friendship grew even closer when she eventually hired me as the Intermediate Ensemble director for her beloved BCC. It has been such an honor and privilege to participate, in such a small part, of the many grand visions and success stories that Peggy has brought into the lives of our children and their families both in Barrington and the extended communities. I value the opportunity to have shared the same stage with Peggy as a director with the BCC, as one of the most fulfilling experiences in my professional career.

Peggy has given effortlessly and generously to society through her passion for music and the education of our children. She is the definition of an inspirational, exceedingly dedicated, gifted teacher, and musician. Her talent to bring peace, love, and happiness through music to thousands of lives is such an exceptional and rare gift. Her personal message has always been that music is the “universal language of mankind.” That is represented by Peggy’s signature closing song with the Barrington Children’s Choir, “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me.”

Judith Thompson, Friend

Peggy and I first met in 1992, when my oldest daughter, Kelly, became a member of BCC as a fourth-grader. Her younger sister, Emily, also joined choir in 1995.  

We became better acquainted with Peggy as my husband John and I served as treasurer for several years, but as we spent more time together planning national and international tours and touring together (along with the other members of the infamous “tour committee,” Nancy Nadig, Joan Sestak, Cindy Doering, and I), we became very dear friends.

Barrington Children’s Choir holds a very special place in the heart of our family. I cannot imagine what our lives would have been like without it. It was a transformational experience. We so value the musical experiences and the friendships we have gained. I only hope that Peggy realizes the tremendous impact she has had on individuals, families, and on her community. I am inspired by and in awe of her talents and creative drive.  

Both Kelly and Emily remained in choir until they graduated from high school in 2000 and 2003. They were devoted to and love Peggy to this day. Kelly continues to be involved in her own community’s choral groups and musical productions and will be performing in “Little Shop of Horrors” this spring. Emily more directly followed in Peggy’s footsteps and is a middle school choral director in Austin, Texas. Peggy just lent Emily her collection of elementary school and middle school music programs spanning the years for Emily to peruse and use for inspiration. Our third daughter Megan, whose talents took her in a different direction than music, was a devoted supporter and attended all of her sisters› performances, both abroad and stateside. I still remember it was Megan’s idea to distribute flowers to all BCC performers after their concert in Canterbury Cathedral in 1997. Thank you for writing about this special woman who is so important and so loved.

Rev. Don Wink, Pastor

I have been Peggy’s pastor for 18 years. I have also known Peggy as a BCC parent and as a participant in the BCC Men’s Choir. Peggy is an extraordinarily visionary leader. BCC has been her “baby” for 30 years. I believe the original idea came from Dave Nelson, but it has been Peggy’s vision that has been realized. She has a clear idea of how vocal music should sound, and how to achieve that sound from voices that are still developing. It’s more than notes on a page to her. Both of my daughters sang in BCC, and I encouraged them to participate by telling them that we don’t get too many chances in our lives to be part of something that is really good. BCC has been one of those things for our family. I marvel at the complexity of music coupled with the purity of young voices. As for the not so young voices, I’ve enjoyed singing quality repertoire and getting to know a strange and wonderful group of guys.

David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.