When Steven Kelly, president of the Florida Music Educators Association, first met Jeanne Reynolds more than 20 years ago, he knew she was someone who commanded respect.
Everyone wanted to talk to her.
He’d later go on to serve on national committees with Reynolds and learned that she was a force in music education around the nation. In addition to being a former president of the Florida Music Educators Association, she had also led other statewide music organizations, winning awards for her leadership.
“I don’t think music would be in the schools today in Florida as prevalent as it is if it wasn’t for Jeanne Reynolds, and I don’t think there’s a single person that would question me on that,” Kelly said. “She just understands what music brings to human beings.”
To Reynolds, 64, who retires Friday as the Pinellas County school district’s long-time performing arts supervisor, appreciating music is part of being human.
She remembers her uncle playing music when she was 3 years old, and quickly learning to play the same pieces on the piano.
“I think part of the thing with the arts is that it transcends words, so it’s hard to describe it,” Reynolds said. “Music just always spoke to me. It always did, it always will. Really all of the arts. When you go to a performance, it really is like somebody is looking into your soul. It’s what it is to be human.”
By the time she became a student at Largo High School she was an accomplished pianist. But a choral director there made her realize there was so much more to music, from ensembles and the way different parts come together and the sense of community that came with it.
“That’s what teachers do,” she said. “They change your life.”
Reynolds started as a performance major in college but after a teaching job in Pinellas over a summer, she changed course and got an education degree. She began teaching in Panama City before moving back to Pinellas, where she began teaching at Clearwater High in 1980.
“That was just extraordinary,” she said. “Teaching, I just can’t think of a better profession. It’s not easy, but it’s so important, and of course we see that more than ever right now with the pandemic and what an impact teachers have on our lives.”
After leaving to stay at home after the birth of her first daughter, she returned to the district, working in administration and advocating for arts education for all students. She went back to graduate school and later taught again at Clearwater High before her second daughter was born.
She came back in 1997 in her current position. Throughout, advocacy remained her passion.
“She really believes in quality music education for every single child no matter if the child is in a Title I school or any other kind of school,” said Meghan Alfaro, president of the Pinellas County Music Educators Association. “She really believes every child deserves to have access to arts education.”
Throughout her career, Alfaro said, Reynolds built partnerships across Tampa Bay so students had access to free private lessons from professional musicians, as well as access to hear the Florida Orchestra, Master Chorale and St. Pete Opera for free. She secured grants for teachers working in high-poverty schools, and won numerous awards across the county, state and nation.
“She’s recognized as one of the leading music curriculum specialists in the country,” said Kelly, the FMEA president.
Reynolds’ experience of music as a child was what she wishes to share with every student.
“It’s just like every fiber of my being,” she said. “When I look back at it now as a grown up, doing those musical experiences at a really early age was really critical development for so many other things. Now we know so much, there are a lot of brain connections, and it’s kind of like fireworks for the brain when you are making music or arranging music or reading music.... But the big piece is that it’s also emotional.”
That experience, she said, transcends socioeconomics. In the arts, she believes there is no achievement gap. And that, she said, can be used to empower students.
Over the years, she’s faced challenges, from a prop that went missing right before a show to budget crises that threatened the fate of programs. But there was nothing, she said, that couldn’t be overcome with enough effort and belief.
“If there’s a challenge, it’s usually because people don’t believe your mission or vision,” she said. “So most of the time, in an advocacy challenge where people are going to cut a program or minimize arts opportunities for kids, it’s because one didn’t do a good enough job showing why it’s so critically important.”
Alfaro said Reynolds’ belief in the arts and empathy for others made her advocacy even stronger.
“She really listens to people,” Alfaro said. “She really thinks carefully about the situations they’re facing and the challenges and she tries to view issues from all sides, which makes her a really good advocate because she’s able to build bridges with people from many different walks of life.”
Alfaro said she remembered going to Reynolds at a tough point in her career as a teacher about 10 years ago. Reynolds told Alfaro that she had probably saved a student’s life. Alfaro remembered thinking at the time that was probably a stretch. But over the years she kept in touch with former students, and last year heard from one who thanked her for exactly that.
“I thought to myself, ‘My gosh. She’s right. Music education really does change lives,’” Alfaro said.
Reynolds said there are many memories she cherishes, from the pride of bringing back orchestra programs to instituting digital music programs to finding new ways to get the arts to reach a student.
But the things she thinks will stick with her most aren’t all that extraordinary.
As a teacher: the pin-drop silence after a rehearsal.
“You knew you had moved all of the children in that room and you had that shared experience with them,” she said.
As a supervisor: walking in on the rehearsals preceding all-county or all-state performances.
“Sitting down, it all just comes together,” she said. “All the work teachers do. You can hear what you have taught. It’s your work made visible and audible.”
During a band performance last Saturday at Tarpon Springs High, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego addressed the crowd, giving a warm assessment of a career spanning four decades. “We are a better school district because of Jeanne Reynolds,” he said. “I am a better superintendent because of Jeanne Reynolds.”
Retiring in a pandemic, Reynolds joked, means traveling from her living room to the kitchen. But she said she eventually hopes to be able to travel and spend more time with her daughters and grandchild in North Carolina and New York.
She doesn’t plan to retire from music, however. She hopes to continue creating and advocating, including working with Kelly on state legislation that will recognize students who have participated in music for more than four years. Kelly said studies have found that such programs boost student retention and grade point averages.
“The arts will be here, long after we’re gone,” Reynolds said.
Times Staff Writer Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report.