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Herricks music man follows own drummer

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011 10:44 am | Updated: 6:03 pm, Thu Jan 5, 2012.

As the Herricks School District's music and performing arts director, John McNeur has founded the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra and helped revive Herricks' music fortunes.

And when the 60-year-old retires next fall, he will keep teaching as he has for nearly 30 years.

But it's not exactly the career path he imagined.

"When I left high school in New York City, I never wanted to set foot in a school again," McNeur said.

The son of Presbyterian minister Dr. Robert McNeur, McNeur was born in Scotland but never stayed in one place too long as his father's ministry brought him to numerous locales abroad and in the U.S.

His family moved from Scotland to Bronxville, and then on to San Francisco.

He started to play the flute as a fourth grader attending elementary school in the Bay area.

McNeur went to his mother's native New Zealand with her, traveled other parts of the world and eventually returned to school at the Friends Select School, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After his parents divorced, he moved to New York City with his mother, Linda, graduating from Charles M. Hughes High School.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to go to college," McNeur said.

But while he was visiting a friend of his at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., McNeur was invited to interview for the school.

He attended Bard as an English major for two years, interrupted in his sophomore when the school ended its semester early after students were shot dead by national guardsman during a demonstration at Kent State University.

He went to work at a ski lodge near Woodstock, NY, kept playing the flute and thought about returning to school.

McNeur eventually earned his bachelor's degree in 1976 at University of Bridgeport, where he played with visiting conductors Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

He subsequently received his master's degree in education administration at Fairfield University.

He met his wife, Clare, who was attending the Rhode Island School of Design, along the way and they had their first child, Luke.

McNeur's desire to teach music was a decision taken when he found how much he enjoyed it when he taught music lessons to work his way through college.

"I paid my way through school teaching flute lessons. And it was from giving private lessons while I was going to school that I decided I liked teaching," McNeur said. ´"I eventually cane to realize that I wanted to teach the way I wanted to be taught, and that was my motivation for teaching school."

He taught for 10 years at a private school in Stamford's Low-Heywood Thomas School, teaching band, choir and orchestra in elementary, middle school and high school, along with humanities and mathematics.

"I sort of taught everything and got a sense of all the different areas of music too. It was good because I got a lot of experience," he said.

McNeur continued private teaching when he started at Herricks, and started a private arts academy in Manhasset, but soon gave it up.

"This job at Herricks is just too demanding to do after school stuff as well," he said.

He had arrived at Herricks following what he called the "golden days" of the 1960s and 1970s when the high school had a widely recognized marching band under the direction of Kay North, while Bill Dwyer was the band director and Ray Anderson was the choir director.

As those locally renowned music educators retired, the district school population diminished, and the music programs with it

"The reputation was diminished, so we were looking to build it back up," said McNeur, who arrived in Herricks in 1986 after answering ads in the New York Times

His sense of purpose was formed, as he puts it, "That I could have some influence on how kids felt about making music could get them to really appreciate and share my love of classical music."

He immediately started pumping out press releases noting students' accomplishments, such as attaining top scores in the New York State School Music Association.

But the primary factor in building the Herricks music programs was hiring a strong faculty, which McNeur has done, hiring 17 of the 21 music instructors in the Herricks district schools.

There is a systematic approach in music education at Herricks, where 90 percent of all third graders start learning to play instruments as a prelude to starting to play in ensembles as fourth and fifth graders.

When students arrive at the high school, they find themselves immersed in a culture that encourages and recognizes musical virtuousity. That's graphically demonstrated by the musical hall of fame of students's pictures outside the high school auditorium, honoring those who gained recognition as all-county or all-state NYSSMA musicians while at Herricks.

"When you come into the building, you see that music's important. The kids who excel at music are celebrated," McNeur said of the picture wall that went up in 1990. "It's like creating a school culture."

A few years later, McNeur did take on an after-school project - "kind of like a hobby, I guess" - when he founded the Metopolitan Youth Orchestra, intended to feature the best players from all over Long Island in a sing performance group. Two of his three children were starting to play instruments and he wasn't impressed with the existing groups he heard.

He started the MYO with 15 students in 1993. The group has now expanded to 700 student musicians, with rehearsals at Herricks High School and at Sachem East High School.

"There are a lot of good musicians and there are a lot of good music programs," said McNeur, who said it grew by word of mouth among serious music students. "It's like a snowball effect. It becomes the things to do."

These days, many Herricks students play instruments in the group as Herricks has placed more students in the NYSSMA All-State music groups than any other high school in the state during McNeur's tenure.

MYO plays concerts both here and abroad. McNeur led it through a tour of Australia two years ago.

During McNeur's tenure, Herricks Orhestras have played in their own groups spring festivals in locales around the country including to New Orleans, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville and Orlando. Next up is a performance in Washington, D.C. at the Heritage Music Festival in March.

McNeur said the school district has seen some attrition in recent years, but added that "all groups are strong all the way through," at present.

He said he "feels very satisfied" with how the music program at Herricks has developed, beyond the original expectations he had. The Herricks district has been recognized the NARRAS Foundation Grammy Signature Gold Award in 1999, and has been a finalist as one of the best communities for music.

The district has also won the annual President's NYSSMA Seal of Excellence twice as well.

As he contemplates the future, he's concerned that the fine tempo of Herricks music could be disrupted with the imminent budget cuts that could potentially cut back the Herricks music program by starting instrument lessons one year later, in fourth grade.

"If you cut it off at the feet, it's going to be hard to keep it going. It's all a delicate balance," McNeur said.

As he prepares to leave Herricks, McNeur draws high praise from Herricks Superintendent of School John Bierwirth, who said, "I have worked with some of the best leaders of music programs in the U.S. during the course of my career. None are better than John. He developed a team of extraordinary music educators and created one of the top music programs in the US."

Over the course of his career at Herricks, McNeur has earned the Distinguished Service Award of the international Tri-M Music Honor Society. He was also named Educator of Note in 2008 in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame and Educational Partner Award in 2009 from Nassau BOCES.

In his free time, McNeur is a distance runner, having finished the New York Marathon in 2003 and 2004.

When he has more free time next year, McNeur said he may put his New York City tour guide license to use. He also wants to do voiceover work and join an orchestra in New York City, where he and his wife will be living. But he also intends to return to what sparked his vocation in he first place.

"I also want to go back to private [music] teaching," McNeur said.

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