Academic artistry

Tips and insights from an arts administrator

Washoe County School District's Julye Neel reveals a stash of cellos. Many instruments are available for rent through WCSD.

Washoe County School District's Julye Neel reveals a stash of cellos. Many instruments are available for rent through WCSD.


Talk about a long job title. As a K-12 fine arts coordinator and music supervisor for Washoe County School District, Julye Neel has a broad range of duties. She’s also in a position to affect thousands of lives, seeing as every single elementary student in the district takes music, and all sixth graders enroll in band, orchestra or choir.

Neel grew up playing the flute in her native Alaska, and now sings soprano with the symphonic choir at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her moonlighting isn’t unusual. She says most of WCSD’s music teachers are involved in ensembles, choirs and other such projects. Here’s to ’em.

Let's start really broadly, here. Why are the arts important?

Students who are involved in the arts—in music, in visual arts, in theater—are connected to their schools, and connected to communities of art. It's one of the most amazing connections you can make. There are students who stay in school because they're in band or they're in choir or they're in orchestra, or because they love their art teacher, or they love theater. Those are reasons for kids to stay in school. We know our kids who stay in music … we have statistics that show they have a very high rate of graduation. There are all kinds of reasons for staying in music, for staying in art.

So, in many ways, it spreads out to influence other parts of a child's life that wouldn't necessarily appear to be arts-based?

Music and art, all fine arts classes, are integral in a child's development. They cross all the borders of math, of language arts, of social studies, because in a music class you're going to do math, you're singing, and you're working with a libretto—you're working with a poem, a piece of literature. And you're learning to count. You're using your body to express [yourself]. There are so many reasons for the arts that support what kids do academically in the classroom. … Kids who can walk to a beat can read. And speech therapists use music all the time to help kids who may be struggling.

Do you feel like arts funding is where it should be?

Oh, I always feel like arts funding should be more! But I feel very, very supported by Washoe County School District. They provide us with teachers, with resources, with instruments, with equipment. We're always looking for more, but we feel very, very supported by our school district and by our superintendent, and we have a lot of support from the Reno Arts Consortium. They're folks who are mostly from nonprofits around town and from Northern Nevada, and they advocate for us regularly on a local level, on a state level and on a national level. They have been awesome.

One of my goals is to get art teachers into the elementary schools. We have a few, but we also have 65 elementaries, and you can't administer art to 65 elementaries. But we do have music teachers in every school—every elementary school, every middle and every high. So, a goal is to grow the visual arts program, also. As far as feeling supported by the community, we have access to different kinds of grants around here through the Redfield Foundation and through E.L.Cord, and we have an anonymous donor who continues to give grants to [middle- and high-school music] teachers who apply every other year.

We also have the university here, and its huge arts program, music program and theater program. We’re very well connected, and most of the teachers at the university in some way participate in our festivals, and our in-services and our professional development, and all their interns learn from our established teachers.

How does Reno's arts world compare to that of other towns you've seen?

I've never been in a town this size that can support [organizations like] the Reno Philharmonic, the Reno Chamber Orchestra, the Reno Jazz Orchestra. We're just blessed with talented, talented people. It's small enough in Reno to have a small-town feel, yet big enough to offer a lot of arts experiences.

Let's say parents are reading this guide and going, “You know, we really can't afford to have our kid play the trumpet,” or “We can't possibly pay for something like band camp.” Are there ways to make up for this sort of thing at home?

I can speak to what we do here in the school district. Every child will have music, and will have a music teacher from kindergarten through sixth grade. At the beginning of sixth grade, they have a choice: they can take orchestra, band or choir. We do have a substantial inventory of instruments, and we don't want to turn anyone away who can't afford [them]. There are a lot of ways to rent instruments. We try to reserve them for students and families in need first, and once we satisfy those needs of those families, other students can rent. There are ways to do it, and the music teachers in the building will help them figure that out.

What about students who freeze up and think they just aren't cut out for music? What would you tell them and their families?

For some kids, it's going to be very natural for them to just sit down and learn the trumpet or the flute. But the more students are exposed to—and hear, see and listen to—performers, the more natural it will be, because there are all kinds of models out there. Even if Mom and Dad don't play or go to performances, there's all kinds of outdoor concerts here in the summertime. In the fall, Bartley Ranch has an amazing series of concerts, and all through the winter they have $3 concerts on Saturday nights. [While $3 is the suggested donation, the park's Come in From the Cold Family Entertainment Series, which runs through March, is technically free.]

The Reno Philharmonic also has an educational outreach program that is phenomenal. They have something called Young People’s Concerts—the YPCs, we call them—so every single elementary school has the option of attending a concert in the fall and a concert in the spring. The Reno Phil plays during the day, and many of our music teachers are already members, so there’s a lot of teachers on the stage anyway. Music teachers can sign up. They can bring their kids to a fall concert, they can bring their kids to a spring concert, and there’s a minimal charge of $1 or $1.50 per child. And someone from the Reno Phil got a really nice grant, so they pay for all the buses. The exposure is huge around here.

Something else parents can become involved in: Once their kids are in sixth grade, and they start in an instrumental program or they choose choir, every high school will host something called a Zone Concert, which showcases music education from sixth grade to 12th grade. So on the gym floor, here’s the elementary group, the middle school group, and the high school group, and they normally all play something the sixth graders can play at the end. Moms and dads sit in the bleachers, and there are over 35 Zone Concerts in March.

There’s a lot going on! It’s almost overwhelming. But it’s so easy for families to take advantage of, especially here, because we do have the inventory of instruments, and we do have [music] teachers in every building. It’s a lot to offer.

What about students who just don't want to practice? Any advice you can give their parents?

It is really hard. My mother used to set a cooking timer, and if I stopped practicing, I had to start it over. But she was hardcore. Just encourage them, and notice the things they do really well. Help them find the instrument that's best for them—that's probably the key. Practicing, like anything, is going to be hard. You've got to be diligent and dedicated to it, and if you're going to be any good at all, you've really got to practice. It's not easy, ever, but to make it fun, maybe there's a reward at the end. Just like homework—it's the same kind of idea. But make sure that it's set aside as an important time of day. Maybe it's the same time of day, or maybe it's not every day but every other day, if you have a child who's not too keen on practicing so much. But the key to practicing, too, is choosing the best instrument for your child to begin with.

What our teachers do before our kids start choosing is they have what they call an “instrument petting zoo.” At the end of fifth grade when kids are getting ready to choose their instrument for sixth grade, teachers will say, “This is the flute, this is the clarinet, this is the trumpet, this is trombone,” and they let the kids kind of touch it and play it, and then they’ll bring in players—someone who can really play and demonstrate it. … I don’t think people in the community realize what a great chance these kids have—what a great opportunity they have to participate in music, in art and in theater.