Linda Neel, French horn player and band and choir conductor, was honored during her 44 year career for both her teaching and leadership of award-winning ensembles. She is also an international award-winning athlete who taught physical education classes for several years.
Neel was born in Cedaredge, Colorado, a small town near Grand Junction, the older of two daughters born to Norman and Beulah Crim Neel. Her mother loves to sing and is an active amateur musician who also plays harmonica. Her father's grandfather had been a music teacher, so both parents were very supportive of her when she became interested in music.
Linda started her music study with piano lessons in the fifth grade and continued until the eighth grade. Her mother sacrificed to raise money to buy a piano with the understanding that she would pay for piano lessons but Linda would have to play any time she was asked.
She attended a band concert when she was ten, which ignited a desire to play in that kind of group. However, because she attended a small grade school, she was unable to realize that dream until she attended high school. By that time she had already decided she wanted to play the French horn, having been influenced by a cousin who played the instrument. When she approached the band director, Thomas Sylvester Thomas, about her interest, he gave her an instrument and a method book so that she could teach herself to play.
It was a band that marched at Friday night football games, and when Linda told him she couldn't play on Friday nights, he replied she could teach herself the horn during that time and would then be able to join the band when rehearsals for the concert season started.
Because of her piano background and having watched others play, Linda was able to make rapid progress and played in the band for the next four years. By the time she was a senior, she had become accomplished enough to be selected to play in the Colorado all-state band. As a senior she had two major interests, physical education and music, the latter inspired by director Thomas.
In 1967, during her senior year, she went to a concert of the Union College band, the Concert Winds, when it performed in Grand Junction during a tour. She met and visited with the director, Melvin Hill, who was also a French horn player. Although unsure about where she would go to school, she decided on UC when she received a letter from him two weeks later with an invitation to come to Union College and play in the band and study French horn with him.
After two years at UC, Neel enrolled at Pacific Union College in 1969, when Hill accepted an invitation to chair the music department there. She completed a degree in music education in 1971, having studied horn primarily with Hill and also with Carlyle Manous, band director at PUC.
Neel accepted a position as band director at Bakersfield Academy as she graduated and in her second year also conducted the choir. In 1973 she moved to Sacramento Academy, where she directed the band and two choirs and taught physical education classes for five years. During that time she gained certification to teach in physical education.
In 1978 she accepted a position at Milo Academy in southern Oregon, where in addition to teaching music and PE, she served for two years as assistant girls' dean. This was her first experience in working at a boarding school and although it was in a beautiful rural setting and she enjoyed working there, she found the professional demands at times overwhelming.
Six years later, Neel took a teaching position at Portland Adventist Academy, a day school in Portland, Oregon. The music program was in disarray and student participation was minimal. She later described the challenge and how she met it in an article about ensemble competition written in 1991:
There were fourteen students in the band the year before I came. Kids would skip the concerts. In the spring concert held the year before I came, they had only one trombone player, and he went to a ball game the night of the concert instead of coming. They were just barely hanging on.
I came and started visiting homes in June, knocking on doors and visiting as many homes as I could during that summer. We started a summer band with adults and kids, which also helped get the program off the ground. We ended up with 34 when school resumed.
We went to a small school band festival that Columbia Christian College sponsors. It's not a competition, except that if you want to play first chair, you must audition. Our kids walked in the door and just went and sat at the end of their sections. They didn't think they had a chance to have first chair. Finally, one of the flute players decided she would audition. She walked back into the room just beaming from ear to ear - she had gotten first chair. Some of the other kids decided to go ahead and try. Every student who auditioned succeeded, and we ended up with six or seven first chairs.
These successes affected how the students felt about themselves. One boy went home amazed and proud that they were going to have uniforms and look good. They began to feel pride in the organization.
Additionally, in the second year they started participating in state band competitions and began repeatedly to place first in their category. These successes led to a flourishing and growing band program that within the decade included over ninety members.
Neel's interest and participation in sports helped in recruiting boys for the choir. In time, the choir started to participate in state choir competitions, finishing with honors and placing within the top four positions for several years. That aspect of the music program strengthened, and in 2003 it sang for the opening session of the Oregon State Senate and then performed a concert in the lobby of the capitol building.
In the eighteen years the band competed, it won nine first places and was credited by other band directors as raising the overall level of performances by groups in those contests. One of the downsides Neel and her band came to feel was that the focus on bringing four or five difficult numbers to a competitive level meant a reduction in time to prepare more enjoyable music for the group.
Near the end of those eighteen years, she wrote about the experience from a perspective gained from doing it for so long:
In more reflective moments, I have had some regrets about having competed. Yet, having said that, I have some very pleasant memories from the experience, some of which were shared twelve years ago in the article about competition. It was an exciting musical experience as we met the challenge of mastering difficult compositions and successfully competing. It certainly helped the program grow.
The students were willing to master and ultimately enjoy music they might not have but for the competitions. And for many of these same students there are irreplaceable memories of personal and collective triumphs as they met the challenges of preparing for competition.
Winning in competition, be it music or sports, can be an exciting and morale-building experience. After you've won, however, nothing is quite as good as being first. It was heady stuff for the group and for me personally.
Over time, however, the programs feeding the academy got smaller, and the band suffered in both instrumentation and quality. At the same time, more bands began participating and it become much more competitive. The first time we didn't get first place after winning for so many years was a traumatic experience for the group, one that made me do a gut-check when I saw how it affected the kids.
Another factor that affected preparation was when the school started to schedule two-week spring vacations so that students could go on mission trips. These extended breaks reduced rehearsal time at a critical period just prior to the competition. Although the band voted not to participate in 2005, it voted to compete again in the spring of 2011 and won third place.
More recently when talking about competing, Neel observed:
I think that Adventists sometimes feel that the quality of our education isn't as good as that in the public schools, that we are sacrificing academic quality to create a better environment. The band and choir competing against the public schools and doing so well boosted the morale of the school in general and actually increased school enrollment. It also brought about the feeling that maybe we do have a quality program. If we are that good in music, we are probably just as good in other areas.
In hindsight, we got to play college level music we never would have attempted on our own. For the average kid who was really committed to music, it was a wonderful experience. The other side of that is that I am not convinced that music is about competition. Let the basketball team compete. Music is music, an aesthetic and emotional experience that can be diminished by making it competitive.
In 1992 Neel received the Zapara Excellence in Teaching Award. Now in her fortieth year of teaching, she has had several students who have continued in music and enjoy careers in music, teaching at all levels and working as professional performers.
At the time of her retirement at the end of the 2014-2015 schoolyear, she was honored on several occasions during the year, beginning with her Christmas concert, where every principal she had served under during her 31 years at PAA, testified to her effectiveness and the many successes she had had during their shared time at the school. In recent years she had become known as “Linda the Legend,” because of her many accomplishments with the school’s music ensembles.
Although she stopped teaching PE classes at PAA before her retirement she continues as an active athlete. Neel played racquetball competitively in several national tournaments at the masters level for several years and, at age 55, won the world senior championship at a tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2004. Another sport she enjoys is kayaking, which she teaches and works as a guide during the summers.
Neel has been active as a French horn performer during her years in Portland, playing in a number of brass ensembles. Presently, she is principal horn in the Sunnyside Symphony Orchestra, a position she has held since its founding in 2002.
Sources: Interview, 28 January 2011; "Is Competition the Answer? Portland Adventist Academy," IAMA Journal, 1999, Volume 6, 27; "Is Competition the Answer? (Updated)," IAMA Notes, Winter/Spring 2002, 16; personal knowledge.