DURHAM — When Carlton Miles stood before a group of high school singers, his aim was to teach them more than how to reach the high notes. He wanted his students to know how to push themselves, how to realize their potential and how to retain their humility when they did.
A large man with a deep voice, Miles' mere presence seemed almost enough to convey his expectations.
"He could speak volumes without saying much," says his friend Charlie McNeill. "He just had a way, that when he spoke to you, you knew he was talking from his heart. It was never demanding, never overbearing, always from his heart."
Miles died last month at age 45 after a brief illness.
He grew up in Durham and graduated from Jordan High School and N.C. Central University. He spent most of his career as a music educator in the Durham schools.
For the past eight years, he directed the Spotlight Singers, a choral group that features Durham County schools' best vocalists. Through his leadership of the singers and his involvement with many other musical groups, he quietly inspired countless others.
Lisa McIver met Miles when he was a student in the band at Jordan High School. She was the choral director. He played the drums, but when McIver heard him sing, she recruited him to join the chorus. Through the years, he spent a lot of time with McIver and her children, becoming almost a family member.
McIver describes Miles as a gentle person with a knack for listening and a passion for music.
"He didn't just play the drums," she says. "He made music with them."
One of the staples of Miles' year was the production of the Evening of Entertainment, a showcase of performances of Durham County students of all ages. This year's event, held this month at the new Durham Performing Arts Center, was dedicated to Miles.
'All of us went over it'
McIver says Miles extended the kind of friendship that transcended traditional barriers of age, race and status. The hundreds of people of myriad backgrounds who attended his memorial service bore witness to that, she says.
"He built that bridge, and all of us went over it," she says.
Charles McNeill met Miles when he was a Spotlight singer as a senior in high school. Miles became his vocal coach and eventually a great friend and mentor.
His association with music and Miles led McNeill to his current occupation as a family pastor at Hope Creek Church in Durham.
"I would have to say that he was one of the greatest musicians and vocalists I've ever met, but he was also the most humble and generous man I've ever met," McNeill says.
Talented musicians tend to be prima donnas, McNeill says, but Miles never was.
McNeill says that, as a student, he learned from Miles the value of hard work.
"He always told us that what we put into it was what we got out of it," he says.
Music to ministry
McNeill and Miles started hanging out, bonding over many common interests, including a passion for musicals. McNeill says he had drifted away from the church when Miles began encouraging him to attend services at New Horizon Church, where he played drums in the band.
The music, Miles told him, was outstanding. It took a little persuasion, but McNeill began going to New Horizon.
"They brought me in with the music, and while I was there, I started listening to the messages," McNeill says.
That opened his heart to a call to the ministry, he says. It's among the many gifts his friend left him with, and one of many memories he plans to return to regularly.
"As long as I can keep him alive in my heart and I can pass along the things he taught me, the spirit of Carlton Miles will never die," McNeill says.