Strike up the band

Published 5:59 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Longwood grad revitalizes Buckingham music program

The victim of budget cuts and constant staff turnover for a couple of decades, Buckingham Public Schools’ music program has rebounded under the direction of Bridgewater native and Longwood University graduate Danielle Neller.

Neller, who was hired as a long-term substitute in January 2012 after the midyear departure of the music instructor at the time, has Buckingham’s music program humming again. Since taking over the floundering program, she has begun a guitar ensemble at the high school, reinitiated the choir program at the high school, started two after-school competition choirs for middle and high school students, begun a competition eighth-grade band, taught after-school strings and guitar classes, and started a pep band.

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When she got the call from Buckingham in 2012, Neller was “excited to begin teaching, and even more excited that I could remain close to the Farmville area that I fell in love with when I became a student at Longwood.”

But she knew it would not be an easy task.

“Due to budget cuts, the drop in the economy over the last two decades, and a few teachers that cycled ‘in-and-out’ in one or two academic years, the music program suffered greatly,” Neller said.

At the time, band was the only music class offered by Buckingham High School each semester. Instead of an actual band room, the class was taught in the auditorium.

Some of the instruments were in disrepair and even had pieces missing. Students’ skills had lagged as a result.

“Although the middle school had a separate music classroom, the resources were not much better than the high school: a music room filled with broken instruments that had long since seen better years, decades-old method books with ripped-off covers, and a limited selection of music,” said Neller. 

Danielle Neller poses with the first-ever eighth-grade competition band trophy won by Buckingham schools at the Kings Dominion Band Festival of Music in June. The band won second place overall and earned a superior rating.

Danielle Neller poses with the first-ever eighth-grade competition band trophy won by Buckingham schools at the Kings Dominion Band Festival of Music in June. The band won second place overall and earned a superior rating.

It was apparent to Neller that the students were interested in learning, but funding was an obstacle.

Over the years, she has steadily revitalized the music program at Buckingham, thanks in part to a supportive administration.

“I recall that she and I met in 2012, where she precisely shared her vision with me about what she wanted for a music program in Buckingham County,” said Superintendent Cecil Snead. “I concurred that she and I had the same vision, and she’s been working towards those goals ever since that meeting.”

Snead said Neller has used her self-motivation and ability to connect with the students to build an exciting music program that has brought life to the school division.

Music students have earned many accolades along the way.

“In the last four years, I have had nine students accepted to the Longwood University Honors Band event, 18 students accepted to the Longwood University Honors Choir event, 1 student accepted to the Longwood University Honors Jazz event, 6 students accepted to All-District Choir, 1 student accepted to All-State Choir as an alternate, 8 students accepted to All-District band, and countless students work towards auditioning for these events,” Neller said. Previously, no Buckingham student had auditioned for these events in about 15 years, according to Neller.

When Snead arrived in Buckingham County in 2012, he could not recall seeing the band perform at football games or other events.

Under Neller’s direction, the Marching Knights premiered their first field show during the first football game of the season in September. In addition, the band has performed at the Buckingham/Cumberland County Relay for Life, the Dillwyn Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Dillwyn Christmas Parade.

The Melvin C. Draft Foundation has provided more than $20,000 in funding over the last four years for the music program at the middle and high school levels, Neller said.

The donations have allowed me to take the broken instruments we had to be repaired, to purchase new instruments, to purchase method books and music, and classroom materials. It has also allowed me to help cover the audition costs and fees for my students to be eligible to have extended-curriculum opportunities, and it helps me provide for transportation costs to help get students to and from these events, she said.”

Snead said while there are more goals to accomplish, Neller has given the gift of music back to the Buckingham community.