Berklee Today

Alum Profile - David Neves '76

Rhode Island's Teacher of the Year

David Neves'76
Photo by Mark Small

"In my family, when my brothers and I each reached our eighth birthday, our parents took us to Ray Mullen Music in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to pick out an instrument," recalled David Neves. "Neither of my parents played, but they thought it was important for their kids to play." The idea that music is important to a child's development, instilled in Neves at a young age, has guided the saxophonist and music educator throughout his quarter-century career in the Scituate, Rhode Island, public schools.

Neves is one among thousands of dedicated music educators in cities and towns across the country who work to teach young people the basics of music. After spending a few hours with him, it became clear to me that his dedication to music is only a portion of what motivates him to expend the effort that he does; what truly drives him is a genuine interest in the lives of young people. Neves has enrolled record numbers of students in Scituate's music programs and directed his bands in many award-winning performances at competitions throughout the East Coast, from Canada to Florida. His dedication and hard work recently earned him Rhode Island's 2002 Teacher of the Year Award. It is the first time in the history of the program that a music teacher has been selected.

In October 2001, Peter McWalters, Rhode Island's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, presented Neves the award. As a recipient of the honor, Neves will travel to Washington, D.C., where teachers of the year from around the country will meet with President George W. Bush and participate in a peer-review process to select the national teacher of the year.

"David represents what's best about Rhode Island's teachers," McWalters noted as he presented Neves the award. "His philosophy of education is that every student can achieve and experience excellence in the fine arts. As a result of his work, every single student in the Scituate Middle School is in a musical ensemble, and 60 percent of the high-school students are involved in the music program as performers."

It was during his own high-school years that he decided to major in music education at Berklee. "I had dreams of becoming a famous saxophone player," he said. "I went on the road for one summer, but that wasn't for me. I discovered that I really loved teaching. I finished Berklee in three years and was hired immediately in Scituate as choral director. I later became the high-school band director and system-wide music supervisor for the town three years later."

Neves frequently thinks outside the box to give his students a rounded musical experience. Before graduation, all his classes have had some valuable life lessons in addition to learning music theory and instrumental technique. "The kids are the most rewarding part of this job," he told me. "I have grades six through 12 here, so I teach some beginning band and string players. I take them right through the high-school symphonic band—our top group. I love to see how they grow musically and academically over the six-year span."

As I sat in on a rehearsal with Neves and his concert band, it became clear why Neves's teaching is so highly regarded. He is a natural leader and a good motivator, but he also has fun. Every moment in the classroom provides a potential teaching opportunity. He strives to communicate to his students that it is not enough simply to play the right notes. With humor that his young charges can relate to, he tells them, "I want you to bring out everything that's on the page so that the dumbest person in the audience will understand what you are doing."

He spends a few minutes on exercises to improve their critical listening skills. "Trom-bones," he calls out, "play bars eight to 16." They play the passage, and then Neves turns to the woodwind players and asks them to describe the articulations they imagine they would find written on the trombone parts. Then he turns to other members of the band and asks them to critique the trombone section's intonation and tone quality.

"I teach them to do critical listening and to evaluate their own performances," he tells me afterward. "They also have to attend a concert and write a review. Each quarter, they also do an evaluation of a major piece we are performing. They will research the piece and write their reactions to it on an emotional and an aesthetic level. That tells us what they really know. I feel that it's a tragedy if students work hard and all they end up knowing about the music they played is the third clarinet part."

Neves devotes a lot of time to academically challenged students. "For some of them, the real enjoyment in school is coming here to make music," he says. "I try to keep them involved. It is incredibly important to give them something they can be proud of."

Neves has a four-year plan that provides his band members with distinctive experiences during each year of their high-school career. "In the first year of our cycle, we take a short trip to do festivals, concerts, and competitions," Neves said. "The second year, we make a CD in a recording studio. It would be easier to record them in our auditorium, but I want the kids to get the full effect of working in a real studio with all of the mics and an engineer. A major trip is also part of the cycle. This year, we fly to Florida to play at Disneyland.

"In the fourth year of the cycle, we commission a composer to write a piece for us. Last year, we had Roger Cichy to write a major piece for 130-piece band. Before he wrote anything, he came and talked to the kids, got their ideas, and listened to us play. He spent a lot of time writing here in our practice rooms. It was great for the kids to give some input, see him working, and then finally premiere it. The piece, titled 'Festival,' had six movements and worked really well."

Neves reiterated several times that the kids are the best aspect of working as a teacher. He doesn't measure his success in terms of the number of students who go on to major in music after high school. He said that of the 135 students now in his band, only a few will pursue music seriously after graduation. Most will put their horns away and perhaps play only occasionally thereafter.

A stack of congratulatory cards sent from former students who learned about Neves's teacher of the year award is an indication that Neves has imparted something that endures. Many of the students reminisced about the great music they played, their travels and competition victories, and the excitement of working on music composed just for them. To inhabit such a bright spot in the memories of young people is the mark of an effective educator.