North Lincoln High School Director of Bands Neil Underwood has come a long way in his music career since his elementary school days when he bought his first instrument to impress a girl.
The 31-year veteran of the education field recently celebrated one of the highlights of his life, being named the top band director for the state of North Carolina.
His picture and biography were featured this month in School, Band & Orchestra Magazine’s 16th Annual “50 Directors Who Make a Difference” list.
While his many school bands have been highlighted in prominent national publications in the past, Underwood’s personal story and background have never graced such prominent pages, he said.
After finding out in November he had been chosen for the honor — being nominated by a former student, a band student parent and Drum Major Instructor Chess Black — he ironically kept quiet.
“I just sort of sat on it,” he said, “and didn’t say anything.”
After SBO Magazine later contacted him, Underwood learned the true degree of distinction behind being named to the list.
Magazine officials told him they had received numerous North Carolina nominations this year, and that his information must have proved most “convincing” for him to receive the honor.
“It’s gratifying to think people think highly enough of me to nominate me,” Underwood said.
Eleven years ago, the teacher with music talent so diverse he’s able to dabble, to a certain degree, with a number of different instruments, switched from a 20-year band director position at East Lincoln High school to his current Pumpkin Center location.
He now heads seven different musical bands at North Lincoln including Symphonic, Marching and Concert Bands along with Wind and Jazz Ensembles, Winter Guard and Indoor Percussion.
Underwood also spends one day a week during each spring semester assisting North Lincoln Middle School’s band students, knowing they, too, will one day represent the Knights on the high school level.
“We couldn’t do what we do here (at North Lincoln High School) without a good middle school program,” he said.
The high school music program maintains nearly 180 students, more than 15 percent of the entire student body, Underwood said.
His positive influence in the classroom has earned him much acclaim among students looking for musical inspiration or a musical mastermind caring and patient enough to assist them with their budding skills.
“Mr. Underwood has taught me everything I know,” 16-year-old tuba player Marc Purdy said.
Fellow band student, Clay Bradshaw, who plays baritone and trombone, credited his teacher with helping him love music more and, through his example, mature as an overall student.
“He teaches you respect, loyalty and to be a better person,” the 15-year-old said.
For Anna Escobar, also 15, Underwood gave her confidence to perform on her own.
“He’s very inspirational,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have done solos.”
Growing up in Forest City, Underwood had no doubt a music career would be his future, but exactly how that role would play out, he wasn’t quite sure at the time.
“I wanted to perform,” he said, “and if I (ever) taught, I thought it would be at a college.”
For as long as music maintained his interest, his mother required he take piano lessons, although he “resented” the undertaking at the time.
In fourth grade, Underwood purchased a flute that his church crush was selling, thinking the move would encourage her to like him in return, he said laughingly.
When he relayed the news to his band teacher one day that he intended to learn flute, the instructor seemed shocked.
“He said, ‘Boys don’t usually play flute,’” Underwood said.
While flute playing didn’t snag him his childhood love, it secured him an even better woman later in life.
“I met my wife in the flute section at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,” he said.
Joanna, his wife, also a teacher at North Lincoln, heads the school’s choral and theatre arts programs.
When asked why Underwood chose music education over a performance career, he spoke of a college professor who encouraged him to pursue teaching before making a final decision on his vocation.
At the time, Underwood worked with high school students as part of his course work.
“He said, ‘You need to get out there and get this (teaching) out of your system,’” Underwood said, “ ‘and then come back and be a performer.’ I still ain’t got it out of my system.”
Underwood considered one of his most memorable moments in education, other than teaching both of his children, to be a surprise gift planned by band students in North Lincoln’s 2010 graduating class.
Students commissioned a piece of music from Underwood’s most beloved composer/producer/performer Brian Balmages.
Behind their teacher’s back, they rehearsed the piece and flew Balmages to town during their last semester.
“That was one of the coolest things,” Underwood said.
Additional teaching highlights, he noted, have been celebrating the North Lincoln band program’s 470 trophy wins over the last decade, not including the victories his East Lincoln students obtained in years past.
Since moving to Lincoln County in 1983, Underwood has experienced much support, truly believing that because of parents, students, staff and surrounding citizens’ ongoing interest in music arts, he has maintained his community role and not looked for similar jobs outside the county.
“The reason I think I’ve stayed in Lincoln County is the strength of the band community, which started way before I came,” he said. “I’m just very fortunate.”
To read SBO Magazine’s complete article on Underwood, visit sbomagazine.com.