LINCOLNTON - Not one, but two former band directors from Lincoln County were recently inducted into the North Carolina Bandmasters Hall of Fame. Technically, Donald Peach, the former band director at Lincolnton High School was inducted in 2020, but COVID prevented the ceremony. At the most recently ceremony, both Peach and Neil Underwood, the former band director for East Lincoln and then North Lincoln High School received their awards.
Peach and Underwood are the first Lincoln County band directors to have been inducted into the North Carolina Bandmasters Hall of Fame.
“To me it made sense that Donald went first because he should have been there a long time ago,” Underwood said.
Serving as band director at Lincolnton High School from 1973 to 1994, during which time his bands received numerous superior and excellent ratings and attended the 1985 inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. From Lincolnton he went to Hickory High School and then served as interim associate director of bands at Appalachian State University where he was director of the marching mountaineers and symphonic band. He is a graduate of Mars Hill College with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education.
“I knew Neil when he was in high school,” Peach said. “I went to where he was going to school in east Rutherfordton to help the band director put together a show for a football game. At the time, Neil was in the band and played the piccolo. He was playing the piccolo solo on ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ I heard that and said, ‘you’re going to be the show.’ We centered the whole show around him. Then he came to Lincoln County to East Lincoln after he graduated from UNCG and was there forever.”
Underwood didn’t plan to be a band director. He was going to be a performer, but while he was in college, he worked with one of the local high school marching bands and he realized how much he enjoyed teaching. Both of his parents were schoolteachers. After he was hired, Underwood’s goal was for East Lincoln’s band to be as good as Lincolnton’s band was.
“Donald had established the level, John Ball had established a good band while he was there, but when Donald came in, the band was the pinnacle of the state,” he said. “I wanted to be like Don.”
Currently the associate director of bands/director of athletic bands at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, Underwood served as director of bands for a combined total of 32 years at East and North Lincoln High Schools. During that time, his concert bands twice performed in Carnegie Hall, once at the Lincoln Center, twice at North Carolina Music Educators Conferences, in Washington D.C. for the 60th anniversary celebration of the ending of WW II, and, in 2012, for the ASBDA National Convention. Underwood’s bands have been the featured musical ensembles for the NC State Board of Education Conference on two occasions. Marching bands under his direction have marched in the National Memorial Day Parade, the Hollywood Christmas Parade, were champions at the Gator Bowl National Field Show Championship and were finalists at nine Bands of America regional championships.
“I’d been at East for 20 years and when they were opening North Lincoln, I got to be on planning board for the design of the art wing there,” he said. “I told Joanna (Underwood) that I needed a change and needed to do something. She was open for a change too. She’s jumped around a lot due to having children. Opening the new school gave me that opportunity.”
Peach said that he’d like to think that he’d helped mentor Underwood through the years.
Both men agreed that a band director is a demanding job because it’s not an eight to three job, not that any teacher’s is, but as a band director, afternoon, evening, and weekend hours are necessary all year round, but that’s all part of what they do.
“The life expectancy of a band director in the job is now between three and give years,” Underwood said. “It’s such a difficult balance between career and family. If Joanna had not been understanding and supportive of my career, I couldn’t have done it. I was fortunate that both of my children were involved in the band. They didn’t really have a choice.”
In 2001, Underwood received the Award of Excellence from the South Central District Band Association where he served as district chair. He served as president of the North Carolina Bandmasters Association and was a founding member of the N.C. Bandmasters Marching Band Committee. In 2001 Underwood was recognized as East Lincoln High School's and Lincoln County School’s Teacher of the Year. He received the N.C. Citizenship Teacher of the Year in 2008, and in 2013. Underwood was selected as one of School Band and Orchestra Magazine’s "50 Directors Who Make a Difference." He was a quarter-finalist for the 2021 GRAMMY Music Educator Award.