Neal H. Levin (1980) Vibraphone
Ed. Note: Neal performed on the Vibraphone. He toured Greece and Romania with the 1980 Jazz Ensemble, and was a Recording Engineer, Stage Manager and Photographer during that trip.
I spread myself thin in high school, exploring, wandering, uncertain, unsure, probably like many other high school kids then and now. As such, I was decent at lots of things, though far from great at any; soccer, WNTH DJ, theater and of course music, whether Band or the New Trier West High School Recording Jazz Ensemble. While I certainly gained from having a broad array of high school experiences, and would continue to do so throughout my life, I did not focus enough on any one discipline while at NTW; and while I obviously possessed the necessary talent to be assigned a music stand in the highly coveted Recording Jazz Ensemble, I was clearly not one of its top musical artists. Perhaps I did not trust myself enough, perhaps I did not know myself enough, perhaps my passion, while a driving force to try and love so many things even within the music program, was simply no match for the skill that it took to be truly proficient at anything, especially when lacking the confidence to get there. Hence, I was the B+ guy, in sports, in my academics and clearly as a musician – and as to the latter, that might be a generous grade.
Our Director Roger Mills was committed, though, to finding the best in all his charges, individually and collectively. He constantly looked for ways to empower us, to help us grow, to learn, to be elite performers, to be best- in-show, whether it was tossing erasers for not having our heads up (probably not-PC today, though so effective) or choreographing the horns to find and move with the soul of the music. Our performances were works of art, works that truly mirrored the essence of the music and its jazz form. Roger was a perfectionist, and he wanted to instill that very quality in all of us. He succeeded often, especially on our most amazing ambassador trip to Greece and Romania, many of the recordings from which would become tracks on our album, Pillars of Jazz.
So, it is no surprise that he would say to my father, and I at a conference one day, in an attempt to encourage me to find more that he believed resided in me: “You can either be the President of the United States or a used car salesman.” Little did he know at that moment that my dad actually owned an auto dealership and was in the business of selling cars. Though the message was clear.
While I left my musical career behind, along with New Trier West as we knew it, music would always be and continues to be a major part of my life and that of my family’s. Yet more than just the music, I would take with me that message, as well as a great appreciation, for the delivery of the music and for the thrill of the stage and show and that feeling you get when you pull off a truly great performance for your audience. I have told my daughters many times, “love your audience…you have no idea when they might stop coming.” Roger and the Ensemble afforded us the chance to not only be our best, to feel what it is like to be truly great at something, but also to engage with audiences, here and abroad, through the shared love of the show, the music, and the people who play it.