By: Kristin Conrad
Dr. Jenny Neff is professor and program director of Music Education at the University of the Arts (UArts) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also serves as director of the university’s Master of Music degree program and oversees Summer Music Studies. Before joining UArts, she taught for 25 years in K-12 public schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Her most recent position was teaching instrumental music at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District. Neff’s career path has allowed the pursuit of a variety of artistic disciplines.
“I’ve enjoyed all my jobs, but we never really know where we’re going to end up and for what reason,” Neff said. “I’ve done a lot of different things, and I feel like now I’m in a place where all the things I did as a child that I loved in the arts are celebrated. Dance, art, music, theater – all of it.”
Neff immersed herself in the arts from a young age. She sang in choirs, played piano, and started French horn in fifth grade. She continued all of these throughout her high school years. Neff also took ballet lessons for 13 years and pursued art lessons. She went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Michigan State University, where she studied horn with Douglas Campbell and Neill Saunders, and played under the batons of Eugene Corporon, Kenneth Bloomquist, and Leon Gregorian. She returned several years later in her career to earn a doctorate in educational leadership from Immaculata University.
“I like to ask people, ‘What did you like to do as a child?’” Neff said. “It’s interesting to hear how opportunities develop organically from those foundational experiences. And if we are true to ourselves and our integrity, in whatever areas we’re passionate about, the interests evolve with us, and those opportunities come to fruition. I feel like we always want to build on that foundation and see what is our superpower, what is our specialty.”
Neff believes all students should have access to the arts and that pathways of possibility can be created in all areas through arts education.
“My philosophy is built around the theme of being a gardener and the foundational soil that we nurture for our students, and our aim for growth. Growth in our students, growth in our programs, growth in ourselves. And that never really stops if we are lifelong learners,” Neff said.
Neff’s work as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and clinician has taken her all over the world. She toured for four years with American Music Abroad, conducting in seven different countries, and continues this now regionally.
“Having opportunities to travel, work with so many people, see so many amazing things, and to take some time when you’re not on the podium to get to know the culture – the people, the area, the food, the beauty of the area – I think is really unique to what we do,” Neff said.
Neff was one of 10 writers on NAfME’s Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) curriculum project through the Library of Congress in 2016 and continues to contribute to the TPS website as a blogger. She is also the Pennsylvania State Representative for Women Band Directors International (WBDI) and serves on the organization’s grants and scholarship committee.
“WBDI is a supportive organization for women from all different backgrounds. As women, we have many roles and responsibilities both in what we do in music, and what we do outside of our careers. The organization provides support, mentoring, and encouragement,” Neff said. “Having that support, and some people to bounce ideas off of and ask questions to, is important and helpful.”
Neff is a co-founder of Women Banding Together, a group that was created in May 2020 to mentor female band directors and provide support to those of any gender who mentor female band directors. The group organized and hosted monthly panels throughout the pandemic to support those in the field during a stressful time.
When asked what advice she might give the next generation of music educators, Neff emphasized the importance of not creating our own barriers.
“It’s important to use our musical skills,” Neff said. “But also, we are really good at building relationships, connecting with people, supporting other people, and being compassionate. And I think we need to use all of our superpowers to get to where we want to be. Let’s not create our own barriers, but pave pathways of possibility.”