Stories produced by St. Peter's Journalism Students
Obligated to attend out of family tradition, Bill didn’t always look forward to Sunday service. That was until, he discovered the magic of music. “My favorite moments were listening to the choir sing. It was music with a purpose and we had a ‘singing’ choir,” he recalled. “Everyone was talented, and they were my family!”
His mother, Edna Farley, was, and is still to this day, one of the leading voices in the choir. She also joined an all-female gospel group called “The Golden Harmonettes”. His father, Bill Farley Sr., was a guitarist, and would play throughout the service. His brother would pick up the drums, while his sister sang soprano, along with a host of cousins, aunts, and uncles, who each made their musical contributions respectively. Bill soon began to realize that music was pumping through his veins.
One of his earliest inspirations was middle school choir director, Thelma Slater. “I remember being mesmerized as I watched her play the piano.”
His fascination with musicians’ talents drove him to get a taste of what it would be like to be behind the keys. One afternoon, during his younger sister’s piano lesson, he asked her to teach him one of the songs she had learned. Within a matter of minutes he had picked up the song, just like that. Eager to show off his new talent, he would play the only song he knew anywhere there was a piano. As fate would have it, the seeds that would eventually sprout his musical career had been planted.
“When the people in the church heard me play that song, they thought I could actually play the piano for real. So, they made me play for the choir, and that’s how I started.”
Churchgoers were stunned at how fast he could pick up a song, simply by hearing it. “I didn’t know why people were making a fuss. I thought everyone could do that,” says Bill. It was during these years Bill would hear ‘you have something special’, and the more he heard it, the more he believed it.
His natural musical ability would evolve into a singing career in high school that earned him a National Choral Award for Best Vocalist. With a little push from his guidance counselor, Bill would eventually audition for a few notable music schools, exposing him to a new world. Westminster Choir College in West Virginia, accepted the young musician, and he was eager to attend. However, Bill’s father had something else in mind.
“My parents were concerned about making sure we had a financially stable life,” said Bill. So, after hearing about Bill being accepted into Westminster College, Bill’s father secretly signed him and one of his younger brothers up for the US military.
“I didn’t even see that coming, but I really believe there’s a [specific order] that’s just for you.” A few months into the service Bill would learn just how much music had become apart of him. Whenever there was a gathering, Bill was asked to show up not only as a guest, but as entertainment.
“They would say, ‘you coming out tonight?’ ‘are you gonna sing later?,” recalled Bill, “so the music followed me.”
By ‘divine grace’, as he refers to it, a spot in the Navy’s Band opened up, and Bill seized the opportunity. It was there where he began to step outside of his gospel roots, learning rock, jazz and classical music. People continued to tell him, ‘you have something special’.
“That’s when I started to feel good about myself. That’s when I really became Bill Farley the musician.”
Three years of playing with the NAVY band, including a gig to play for President Ronald Reagan, gave him a certain level of fulfillment he had never experienced before, but still he felt there was more in store.
“ I remember working part-time at a record store, and I was really content because I had music all around me. One day a guy came in and asked me what else I was going to do with my life. I told him what I thought was a good idea, and his response was ‘is that it?’ So I said to myself ‘NO that’s not it.’ That’s when I knew I had to keep challenging myself because my potential was great.”
He decided to finish his service and re-auditioned at the Westminster Choir College. There he would meet his ‘musical’ wife.
Coming from a family of vocalists, Vanessa Jones had a voice that Bill could not get out of his head. Their love of music made them best friends, and they eventually wed.
“Music is our life and all of our friends are musical,” said Vanessa. “So for our wedding party, I suggested that we all sing a song together.”
“I was like you want to do what?” joked Bill, “But I said okay let’s try it.” The collaborative efforts of the newlywed couple with their vocalist friends proved to be a hit.
“They tore the house down!” recalled Vanessa, “Our guests were so shocked to hear how good we all sounded.”
Bill would later credit Vanessa for making such a clever and creative call. Since first meeting in college, they realized their mutual love for music would be an intricate part of their bond. Bill would eventually graduate Westminster with a degree in Musical Education. His first test as a musical director would be to teach a group of kids gospel music to perform in an upcoming concert, headlined by notable gospel singer Bobby Jones.
“The principal at Irvington High School was adamant about having a choir director who had experience with gospel music. After playing 15 seconds of a gospel song I knew, he said ‘when can you start,” he said.
After months of work, the students managed to earn a spot in the program to showcase their talent. To this day, it has proven to be one of Bill’s proudest moments. “It made me feel special, I felt like this was where I was meant to be, and again I realized steps are ordered.”
The choir at Irvington High worked hard to make a name for themselves in their own right, being one of the few schools selected to perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. And, after nine years of soulful melodies and everlasting memories with his Irvington students, Bill knew he was ready for his next challenge. That opportunity would come after witnessing his hometown high school choir perform at an event. Bill, was really impressed by their advanced technique and vocal training. He mentioned to a few people that he would be interested in working with the West Orange program, and a week later, he was hired to direct the choir.
“Like I said man, Order!” Bill reminds us, as he recalls his musical destiny unfolding.
Brandon Miller is a junior at West Orange High School, and has been a part of both the choir groups Bill directs since freshman year.
“[Mr. Farley] is a really nice guy. If you’ve been a part of any of his classes, you will most likely remember him as one of your favorite teachers,” said Brandon.
Not only does Bill work with his students to develop their vocal abilities, but he has been an inspiration, and a friend that has maintained long term relationships with them.
Lemar Gale, a West Orange High alumni, participated in choir and the step team, both advised by Mr. Farley. Lemar has maintained his relationship with Mr. Farley since graduating in 2005, and assists in directing the school’s step team.
“Mr. Farley’s always been really easy to talk to. The compassion he showed me made me want to be a better singer, dancer, and a better person overall,” said Lemar.
“He is one those teachers that stay late and works on honing the skills of each of his choir members. He never turns away a student and finds a moment in each song that they can shine even if they are not the most talented vocalist,” said Hayden Moore, a Dean at West Orange High School.
Moore has been a consistent attendee of the choir events directed by Mr. Farley and describes the experience as “electric.” “My favorite moments are when the choir mixes harmony and movement. It gets the crowd excited and motivated to clap and sing along.”
Now, almost 20 years into his teaching career, Mr. Farley continues to let music inspire him, while he continues to inspire others. When he is not at school, he spends time in the studio developing music he has composed and written himself.
“I’ve been writing songs for such a long time that I have so many in the vault…it’s great to finally be able to put them out there for everyone else to hear,” said Farley, who is currently working on his third project.
As busy as he is, Farley still finds the energy to spend time with his four children, including six year old triplets.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better father for our children,” said Vanessa.
All who cross paths with Mr. Farley, from family and friends to students and colleagues, recognize one thing: that he is truly ‘something special.’ Through divine grace, music has played a prominent role in his childhood, education, and career. As is its nature, it has allowed him to create memories, lasting bonds, and touch the lives of many people. But, among all his success, the impact it has had in his personal life might seem most divine. He and his musical wife Vanessa can be assured their musical legacy will be carried on to another generation through their six-year old triplets. They are all, already musically inclined expressing interest in music and musical instruments, divine evidence that the Farley musical tradition is destined to live on.