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A former high school band director who left his mark on the Lincoln County Schools band program, Neil Underwood has made it to the quarter finals of a national competition – the GRAMMY Educator Award. Underwood, who now is the instructor of music and associate director of university bands at Lenoir-Rhyne University is one of 216 music teachers from 199 cities that have been selected from nearly 2,000 initial nominations for the annual honor presented by the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Museum, with support from Ford Motor Company Fund.

A L-R student, Katie Vines, nominated Underwood for this award which is to honor those instructors, from kindergarten through college, public and private schools who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools. 

“I had no idea she nominated me,” Underwood said. “I got a message from the GRAMMY Awards saying that I had been nominated. I’ve known of this award for a long, long time. I’ve been nominated before, but nothing’s ever come of it. I think maybe I spent a little more time doing it and I’m older and have more experience.”

After Underwood filled out the information requested by the GRAMMY Awards, he promptly forgot about it until he received another piece of correspondence in May saying he was a quarter finalist. The person who ultimately wins will be entitled to receive their award at the GRAMMYs in 2021.

“This is a big honor,” he said. “It was a real process to make it here. The semi-finalists will be narrowed down to 25 and then 10 finalists. It’d be great to make the semi-finalists. I’m not teasing myself that I could win the thing, but it’d be cool to make it one more level.”

Underwood has had a lot of help getting his materials and videos together.

“It was a lot of work but a lot of fun,” he said. “Now I’m waiting until September.”

In one of the videos that Underwood had to do, he showed how he was innovative in his teaching. Not all students are able to practice as much as maybe they should, so he’s found a way around that.

“In order to get their practice in, I stop the band if we get to an extremely difficult passage and I’d say, ‘okay, we’re going to take two minutes to rehearse this passage,’” he said. “I tell them that if I catch them not practicing during those two minutes, then at the end of the two minutes, they’ll have to play it in front of everyone by themselves. This practice sounds really horrible, but at the end of the two minutes, it always got better. I give them the time to do it during the classroom which helps alleviate the need for them to take their instruments home quite as much.”

Underwood retired from his position as band director at North Lincoln High School in 2015 and accepted a position as instructor of music and associate director of university bands at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2016.

Both Underwood and his wife, Joanna Underwood, retired at the same time. Underwood said that the hardest part for both of them was leaving the kids. For the last ten years of their tenure in public education, they worked together at North Lincoln. Joanna Underwood has returned to Lincoln County Schools and is teaching music at G.E. Massey Elementary School.

Since Underwood started at Lenoir-Rhyne, he got the pep band up and going, worked with the wind symphony and has taught music classes. Like with most teachers across the country, in March, Underwood had to switch to online learning which was challenging for music, but he made due.

“As of right now, L-R is still planning on playing football so we’re trying to have a marching band and make sure that we’re social distancing, wearing masks as much of possible and keeping everything sterilized,” he said. “My thought is the health of the student has to come first and if we’re going to be taking too much of a chance doing this, then I’m in the position to say for band, ‘we’ll do what we can, but not more than what’s safe for the kids.’”

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