Talking Music in the Key of Education with Phil O’Neal

In today’s Dirty South Club spotlight we give a little bit of shine to the Summerwood Elementary School, Teach of the Year, Mr. Phil O’Neal. I’ve known Phil for years and consider him family and thought it was only right to acknowledge his accomplishments in our community, specifically with the youth.

I’ve always admired his musicality and his love for the craft. It was good to catch up with Phil and see how life has progressed for him in the field of music. Seeing where he is today and reflecting on where we came from, I’m really proud of the brother! It’s great to see him having an impact, dare I say a greater impact, on his students maybe even more than those who influenced us early on musically.

Read on as he gives us background on his journey to becoming a music educator, he also shares the importance of remaining flexible and what he loves about the Dirty South!

What’s your name and where are you from:

Philip O’Neal Jr. Well, Philip Jerome O’Neal Jr., aka Phil O’Neal and that’s what I go by now, you know, to differentiate between my dad and myself. From Galveston, Texas, originally. Went to school in Galveston and in LaMarque, Texas. Graduated ironically from Hitchcock, Texas, which is right next door.

What do you do and what inspired you to do it:

Well I’m a music educator. This is my 13th year teaching music and I’m a professional musician. Performed in like five bands up in the Dallas County area because we lived up there for a number of years. Also, I’m heavily in the music scene as a church musician. I’ve been playing at churches professionally since 1998. Currently right now, I’m the worship leader at the Atascocita United Methodist Church.

I can say it started in Galveston, Texas, with the Mount Gilead Baptist Church choir. That’s where I was born, raised, baptized; all of that. My mom was an alto in the choir and she also was a soloist. So, that was my first musical experience as far as somebody that I was related to, singing every week. Seeing her sing and tear up church and rip it up! From there, just the constant bombardment of music that we got growing up. The music back then inspired you to want to do it and that was the difference.

I got into education, because of course, trying to get into the industry all of those years and getting this close and something happens. Get close again and something happens, and I just refused to be a starving artist. So, I always said I was not going to be that cat that’s giggin’ to eat. I knew it was steady in education and then I found out I taught very well.

I feel like even for us as a group, back then, had we utilized that stuff a whole lot better there’s no telling where it would’ve taken us. It’s good to see you making that impact on the kids dude because I always felt like the teachers, because they did it for us, they have this particular impact that’s able to go a lifetime. And while we’re talking about teaching; get into the Teacher of the Year man, what was that like:

I won ‘Teacher of the Year’ at Summerwood Elementary School. The teachers at the school they actually nominate names and then they pick the nominees and then everybody votes on the name. They voted for me this year, which I was shocked! This is my 4th year doing this and I finally got the accolade. I was shocked when they called my name out.

As far as business and personal advice; what do you feel like some of the best business and personal advice is that you’ve received:

As an educator, one thing I’ve learned is to remain flexible. Because your plans; what you plan, it hardly ever goes like that. The personal advice, my mom told me this, you’ve got to be twice as good to get the same thing!

Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for those who wish to follow in your footsteps:

I’ll say, in college, learn as much as you can in as many areas as you can. Because a lot of times you go to college and you say I want to do this when I graduate college. Then, when you graduate college there goes those wrenches again. I never thought in a million years I would be an elementary music teacher. I thought I was going to either be a band director or a choir director. Granted I’m still doing choir, but I never thought it’d be elementary, but that’s just the way it ended up unfolding. I thought it would be temporary, but doors have just been opening for me in elementary music. Then, I found out I was good at it and when I moved down here, that was when my career just like – catapulted man.

Getting back on the question; learn as much as you can in as many areas as you can so when you get out into the work-force you’re prepared. Master your instrument; whatever that is. I regret all of the times I was at parties instead of being in the practice room. Put as much time and energy into your instrument and your craft so when you get out you’re really prepared.

How do you define success:

Success; there’s a scripture that says something like you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. So, my definition of success number one is the kids. For example, how successful are your ensembles? Number two, how many kids are sticking with me? Me, at the elementary level, I think my job is to shoot them on to the next phase. Which is getting in band, choir, or orchestra in middle school. Then, the middle school teacher takes it from there and tries to get them on through high school. I’ve been pretty successful, because most of my students go on to band, orchestra, or choir and they stick with it.

So, any plans or goals in the near future, personal or otherwise:

I mean, everything is music based. Right now, I’m trying to build up the church. I’m in the process of building that up and they’re doing pretty well. I might finish my Master’s eventually. That’s been buggin’ me; I just like finishing. Also, I’m getting back into recording.

What do you like to do for fun:

For fun, I started doing a martial arts school. Rising Sun Karate, they came to Summerwood and they did an exhibition and I wanted to get my boys in it. I always said when I had kids I wanted them to learn martial arts and I want them to learn an instrument. I signed them up for Rising Sun, but then the whole time I’m there watching and finally one day I said forget this. So, I’ve been doing that for two years. I’m a purple belt now and that is my mental break. That’s been really fun! The hardest part about it is, I’ve got 43-year-old knees now. (Laughs exchanged) I’m in class with 20-year-old knees; it’s a difference man!

What’s your favorite genre of music; I feel like I know this answer:

You know the 95 answer, but now, I don’t have a favorite genre. I have several favorite genres, but who I am is R&B, jazz, and gospel. That’s who I am! Like, people will say what’s your favorite song? How can you narrow that down? It seems like the more you learn the wider it gets.  I can say, my all-time group influences on me, in order: Take 6, Commissioned, and BoyzIIMen. Those are my three! Now, that don’t mean that’s all I like though. The list just goes on and on.

Last question, what do you love most about the Dirty South:

I love the laid-backness of the South. I love the weather. When I was in Dallas, I loved the snow there, but what I missed about the Houston area; I missed the summer. Another thing I love about the South is the housing. You get way more for your dollar in Texas compared to New York. Also, I love the flava!

Phil, welcome to the club my dude and good luck on getting that Humble ISD Teacher of the Year kinfolk!

If you are in the Houston area you should catch Phil and his choir doing their thang! He’s doing an amazing job with his students and choir. You can keep up with Phil and all he’s doing here.


Photo Courtesy of Phil O’Neal

© 2017 C. Huey for Dirty South Club | D$C