Playing it forward: A professor and an alum shape the next generation of musicians

July 17, 2023

A career in music can take many different forms, but for UArts Professor Jenny Neff, EdD, and Grammy-nominated alum Clayton Reilly, MAT ’21 (Music Education), BM ’06 (Instrumental Performance), its highest form is one rooted in education.

Indeed, Neff was recently recognized for her contributions to education as a quarterfinalist for the Grammys’ 2024 Music Educator Award. She joins 211 of her peers from schools across the country hoping for a trip to Los Angeles in February, which also comes with a significant honorarium and a matching school grant.

After receiving her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Music Education from Michigan State University, Neff spent 25 years in public schools—first in Connecticut, then later in her native Pennsylvania. Those years wove for her a rich tapestry of experience across grade levels, from teaching music theory and individual instrument classes to directing orchestras, jazz bands, string ensembles and advising on school musicals.

Then, five years ago, UArts recruited Neff for a temporary opening, and that’s when her future came into focus, she says.

“I realized that the reason I had done all these different things was because I was meant to teach future teachers.”

Now the full-time program director of music education, Neff oversees the undergraduate minor and the Summer Music Studies and Master of Music programs. She also works with educators in the field, advising in the classroom and helping develop curricula.

As a child in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Neff was lucky to have a music program in her school, which piqued her interest in the French horn.

“I was fortunate to have those opportunities, but we have to pave pathways to, or through, the arts,” she says. “As a music educator, you have to advocate for music programs in schools. In my 25 years, there was not one year where I did not have to justify my role. ”

The future of music education in public schools is worth fighting for, because it’s the future of music itself. Take Reilly for example: The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native began voice, trumpet and piano in fourth grade and stayed active through high school, when he had the opportunity to play for the Queen of England.

As an undergraduate student at UArts, Reilly played in area clubs and churches, which ultimately led him to a career in R&B music, backing Patti LaBelle, Musiq Soulchild and many others. He later joined Corinne Bailey Rae’s band on tour, during which he opened for John Legend. That eventually led to a summer tour with Legend, which turned into an ongoing gig in his band from 2009 to 2013, appearances at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the pregame show at the Super Bowl, as well as songwriting and producing work with many other artists. Among his three Grammy nominations, Reilly has also earned numerous other accolades.

But after he got married in 2020, Reilly wanted to settle down in the Bethlehem area, and he decided to pursue his Master’s degree in Music Education at UArts.

Reilly has now come full circle and works in the Bethlehem Area School District. It’s not every day that elementary school kids can say that their teacher is a celebrated musician who’s topped the Billboard charts, but Reilly is teaching his students to appreciate all the doors music can open.

“When you learn music, you're learning tools that we can use in life,” he says. “You build confidence. You express yourself. You learn social skills.”

When he’s not teaching, Reilly continues to work as a studio musician, solo artist, producer, and collaborator. He was honored with UArts’ Silver Star alumni award at Commencement in May.

“When I think about why we need music as part of public education, I just imagine a world without music,” he says. “Every musician should be an educator. We have a gift that should be given back, so we keep this thing going.”

Story by Elisa Ludwig