GRAMMY Finalist Debra Reilly: Teaching and Performing Music Helps Create a Legacy

Deb Reilly
Debra Reilly is an Allentown, Pennsylvania, symphony violist and the orchestra director, Springhouse and Orefield Middle Schools in the Parkland School District.


In February 2015, the GRAMMY Foundation named Jared Cassedy of Windham, New Hampshire, the 2015 GRAMMY Music Educator. Cassedy was one of 10 finalists chosen from a pool of 7,000 nominations nationwide. Of the ten music educators, eight are NAfME members. Each finalist received a $1,000 honorarium, and their schools each received a $1,000 grant from the GRAMMY Foundation.

Glenn E. Nierman, president of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), says the honored teachers represent high-quality music educators everywhere. Glenn E. Nierman, president of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), says the honored teachers represent high-quality music educators everywhere. Read Nierman’s full remarks.

Debra Reilly answered some questions from NAfME:

What role do you believe music education plays in the overall learning experience of students?

Music education plays a vital role in the overall learning experience of children. It opens up their creative minds and allows them to freely express themselves. Music helps develop self-confidence and self-esteem. It teaches perseverance and commitment are an essential tool for success. Playing in a music ensemble teaches children how to concentrate, collaborate and communicate while making music together. Numerous studies have shown children who study a musical instrument score higher on test scores. The discipline required to achieve success while studying a musical instrument filters into all subjects and everything they do. Music enhances a child’s education and should be considered a core subject in all schools.

Why did you decide to become a music teacher?

I was inspired to become a music teacher by my teacher Leonard Mogill, former violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. My vision was to become a professional musician. Upon graduating from high school, I went to Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts and obtained a Bachelor Music Degree in Viola Performance. Shortly after graduating from PCPA, I was hired as a sub in the Viola section of Reading Symphony and had the privilege of sharing a stand with my former teacher Leonard Mogill, who had since then retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He discussed the importance of teaching and sharing my knowledge as a professional player with children. He stated, “When you die, your legacy will not live on.” These were powerful words, and a few years later I enrolled at Moravian College to obtain a Music Teacher Certification. 

Please describe your music program and what role you believe your music program plays in the overall fabric of the school. 

When I first began teaching at Parkland in 2005 I had a 40 students in each middle school. Today my middle school orchestra program has grown to 300 students. I teach at two middle schools and direct a 6th grade, and 7th and 8th grade orchestras at each school, and combine them for concerts. I also direct an Honors Orchestra that students audition for, and teach advanced players difficult repertoire. In addition, I developed a string mentor program for 7th and 8th grade students to have the opportunity to mentor the 6th grade orchestra. 

When I first began teaching at Parkland, Band, Chorus and Orchestra was a club, not a core subject. Retention was a major concern. Administration, asked me to brainstorm and submit a proposal to alleviate this problem. My proposal was for Music to become a required graded course, allowing students to choose General Music or Performing Music. They loved my idea and today our performing groups have had considerable growth and retention is no longer an issue.

Any thoughts on the GRAMMY Educator process? 

I applaud the GRAMMY Foundation for creating the GRAMMY Music Educator award and recognizing the value and importance of music education in the schools. I am very honored to have been nominated two consecutive years and for being selected as one of the top ten finalists. The entire process was amazing for me, and I enjoyed working on the videos that were required after being selected as a quarterfinalist. My students enjoyed participating and over all this was a lot of fun.

Although it seemed like a long time in between each round, I really did not dwell on this too much. I have a very active performing life as a professional musician playing in Allentown Symphony and doing many freelance gigs, in addition to teaching full time. This is probably what kept me sane throughout the process.

What role do you believe your NAfME membership has in the professional development aspects of your career?

NAfME plays a vital role in the professional development aspects of every music educator’s career by offering valuable insight in all areas of teaching. They developed the Core Arts Standards, which is clear and precise.

NAfME offers many workshops and conferences that I have attended over the years and learned new and innovative ideas about teaching music.  

As [I am] an avid member of NAfME, my students have the opportunity to participate in Elementary, Intermediate and District Festivals, which is a terrific experience. I have also had the opportunity to be a guest conductor at these festivals, which is always the highlight of my year.

As a music educator, speaking out about the importance of Music Education is vital. With budget cuts, music is often the first program that school boards consider cutting. NAfME has terrific resources that provide facts and useful tools for music educators to become knowledgeable and proactive about speaking out about maintaining success of music programs in the schools.

  Photo Courtesy of Debra Reilly

Roz Fehr, NAfME Communications Content Developer, February 26, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (