John Neal rocks out with a student from the Maine Arts Academy, where Neal is director of music.

Since he was 8 years old, John Neal’s life has been tied to music.

It started with piano. After being introduced to band direction as a junior in high school, Neal spent the next 40 years working as a band director at a variety of Maine high schools Currently serving as director of music at the Maine Arts Academy in Sidney, Neal will act as band director for the Maine Bicentennial Band during the Bicentennial Parade scheduled for Aug. 15 in Lewiston-Auburn and he’ll be bringing decades of experience with him.

“When I came on as band director, I was told that this parade is going to be something every Mainer can be involved in,” Neal said. “Whether they’re in it or watching it, in the community band or the marching band, it’s something for everyone.”

How did you became involved with band direction? It’s kind of a long story.

I started playing the piano when I was 8 years old, and when I started high school at Edward Little, I played in jazz band.

After my junior year, our band director was reassigned and a new band director – Jeff Cale – was hired. Jeff had a real expertise and interest in marching band and completely revamped our band program. He needed a student to direct the band on the field in 1973, and at the time, the ELHS band was maybe 32 students, which was on the low side. He didn’t want to take an instrument player and reassign them, so there I was: the perfect candidate. I had played piano, so I knew how to read music and scores, and I proved to be a quick study with conducting.

I ended up loving conducting and directing band. The thing that’s so engaging about directing for me is the process of pulling all of these individuals together and leading them to a goal. You don’t get that as a solo performer. The idea of everyone moving in the same direction and with the same energy and getting them excited about the music, that was the real hook for me.

What did you do after graduating high school? I went to Bates College and got some wonderful piano training there, but they weren’t really offering a music education program. I ended up going to Ohio State University, where I got my bachelor’s degree in music education in 1978. After that, I taught in Van Buren, Maine, at a secondary school as a band director for grades 5 through 12.

From there, I went to the University of Connecticut, received a master’s degree in instrumental conducting, and then from 1985 to 1995, I was band director at Edward Little High School.

That was my first big job in band direction, and after 1995, I taught private piano lessons for about four years. In 1999, the superintendent who had hired me in Auburn was now the superintendent of RSU 4 and asked if wanted a job as music director at Oak Hill High School. I accepted it and served there for 17 years, from 1999 to 2016.

After that, the administration at the school had a different idea of where the band program would go than I did. They offered me an early retirement package and I was just old enough to take it, so I did. A little while after that, the Maine Arts Academy opened, and I took a position as director of music there.

How did you get offered the position of band director for the Maine Bicentennial Parade? The committee for the Bicentennial Parade landed on May 16 as the date for the parade and began pushing that date out to different organizations to try and get people involved.

One of the organizations was the Maine Band Director’s Association, which is a group of high school band directors throughout the state.

William Buzza, the current Edward Little band director and one of my former students, told the committee that May 16 was the date of the Maine All-State Music Festival. He told them that if they held the parade on that day, they wouldn’t get any high school bands to participate.

William recommended to the committee that they get a community band together, which means the experience level of each person involved may differ.

There may be some people who are currently practicing, and others who are pulling horns out of their closets that have been gathering dust for 30 years. He said he knew just the guy who could direct it, and it ended up being me.

When I came on as band director, I was told that the parade was designed to be something that every Mainer could be involved in. It’s not an auditioned band. If you want to be involved in it, come on in.

That was the mandate for me: Make this accessible for anyone who wants to participate.

I’m sure some of the high school and college band performers may find the composition easy, but it’s meant for everyone.

With COVID-19 everywhere and a stay-at-home order in place, it seems preparing for the parade isn’t possible at the moment. When the order is lifted, how will planning for the parade go, given that many of the performers may live in different areas and have different levels of experience? Well, the members of the band have had the music, at this point, for a couple of months or more. I hope they’ve been playing it or practicing it a little bit, because we never got the chance to meet and rehearse before the stay-at-home order went into place.

Before the order was issued, the plan was to publicize the parade as widely as possible and give people a chance to register, which we’ve done. We looked at where the registrations came from and began scheduling regional rehearsals.

The University of Maine system was very accommodating, and University of Maine in Orono and Southern Maine provided a place for people to rehearse.

Our idea was that we’d have two rehearsals before the parade, with a third scheduled just before the parade at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn.

I think that’s still the game plan, except the parade has been moved to Aug. 15.

My hope is that in the two or three weeks before the new date, we’ll be able to find new rehearsal spaces and do everything as we originally planned.

Do you play any instruments, recreationally or otherwise? Besides the piano, I’m an indifferent performer on the trombone.

When I was in marching band and the season ended, I told Mr. Cale that I wanted to stay in band and asked what I could do. He told me that they didn’t have enough trombone players, so he handed me a trombone and said, “Here you are, now go learn it.”

So I learned the trombone and played some through college band. I could still play a tune on it if you put a gun to my head, but I don’t really practice anything now other than the piano.

Outside of band direction, what do you do for fun in your spare time? I’m an avid paddler and canoeist and an amateur astronomer. In fact, my wife and I built our first telescope at Ohio State University.

It was a big date night: We went up to the physics lab and made a telescope.

What would you say to anyone looking to get into the field of music or band direction? I would just say that I believe there’s a lot of value in music for youngsters. Too often, in the days of STEM, with all the emphasis on science, technology and engineering, music is shoved aside. Standardized tests don’t measure music, and typically, it’s the first thing to be cut. I think that’s a real mistake.

When we teach the arts, we’re teaching students what it feels like to be human.

I think it’s critically important that there’s music and arts for every youngster. mdaigle@sunjournal.com


Name: John Neal
Age: 63
Hometown: Greene
Occupation: Music educator