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Off-the-clock: Spreading happiness through music

Denver Water engineer plays saxophone at churches, nursing homes, festivals and even prisons.

Editor’s note: Denver Water celebrates and embraces the cultures around us that shape who we are today.

February is Black History Month, an opportunity to recognize and honor the contributions of Black people to our nation. Just like our customers, Denver Water employees have diverse backgrounds, and we’re proud of our rich cultural diversity that reflects the 1.5 million people we serve.

Myron Nealey, a hydraulics engineer at Denver Water, also is an accomplished musician who is passionate about sharing music with many different people. Photo credit: Denver Water.

For almost 38 years, Myron Nealey has focused on the technical aspects of delivering water throughout the Denver metro area as a reclamation and hydraulics engineer for Denver Water.

For much longer than that, he has focused on spreading joy and peace through his music.

Nealey is an accomplished musician who currently plays the saxophone with a band and small orchestra in Denver. 

With a heart for service and lifting people up through music, Nealey donates his time and talents at various churches and community events, many of which are part of Denver’s Black communities. 

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“For me, my music is a way to give back to the community,” Nealey said. “I truly believe music is soothing and is a blessing. Through music, you use a creative part of your brain, and it’s a way to help and inspire other people.” 

His love of music started at home, thanks to his parents, who both made music an important part of home life. His father was a choir director and played the piano. Nealey and his brother and sister all took piano lessons. Nealey first took his lessons at school, but when the program was discontinued after his first year, he wasn’t sure what instrument he wanted to learn instead.

“I didn’t do anything musically for a while. Then I saw someone playing a saxophone on TV, and I thought maybe I could try that,” Nealey said. 

His parents signed him up for private lessons and he started playing the tenor saxophone. 

“I still have that first tenor saxophone,” Nealey said. “It’s one of those old horns that’s made very well.”

When his schedule permits, Myron Nealey will play the saxophone at special events such as weddings or other celebrations. One of his favorite memories is playing for his oldest daughter’s wedding reception. Photo credit: Myron Nealey.

One of the things that drew Nealey to the saxophone is the instrument’s versatility. He could play saxophone in the school band, a jazz band, jam sessions with friends or an orchestra. 

“I like all types of music,” Nealey said. “If I hear it and like it, I’ll want to play it. It doesn’t matter if it’s gospel, jazz or classical — I don’t want to just play one type of music.”

Wanting to try different types of saxophones with varying tones and ranges, Nealey also began playing the soprano and alto saxophones. It was easy for him, as the note fingering is the same on all three instruments.

Nealey picks which saxophone to play based on the genre or style of a piece. This also has increased his technical skills, specifically playing by ear or sound, which can be a challenging way to learn music.

“I first learned by sight reading music for lessons and playing in the school band growing up,” Nealey said. “Later, when I would either hear a song on the radio or on a record and would want to play it, I learned how to play by ear. For years, I did mostly everything by ear.” 

For over 24 years, Nealey has played in gospel jazz band Shields of Faith. The band currently plays or has played at different churches, events and festivals, including the annual Black Arts Festival held at City Park and the People’s Fair each June at Civic Center Park. 

Myron Nealey plays the saxophone (shown second from the right) with jazz band Shields of Faith. Having played together for over two decades, Nealey and his bandmates see their music as a gift and a way to encourage others in their faith. Photo credit: Myron Nealey.

For Nealey, he believes sharing his music is a gift. He often plays for elderly residents with health limitations at long-term care centers and selects religious or gospel music that might appeal to a specific age group. 

“For many of those elderly people, the music brings peace. It often helps them relax,” Nealey said.

“If memories are fading and they hear a song from when they were younger, it can resonate and help them remember,” Nealey said. “Especially with gospel, they will remember the song and they’ll start singing along with me.”

For several years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nealey played music at prisons. He typically had a limited time window to play, which disappointed some of his audience.

“They would want to hear more music and would ask when I’m coming back,” Nealey said. “I’ve had guards talk with me as I’m leaving and tell me that they like what I did. Many times, it’s been an encouragement to them and to me.”

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One of the things Nealey loves most about music is the ability to build connections between people. 

“I’ve been able to play for many different types of groups and cultures, including Ethiopian groups, Latin American groups, Black and Caucasian groups,” Nealey said. “Music brings people together.”

During summer 2020, when protests took place nationwide following George Floyd’s death in police custody, one of the high school students at Nealey’s church helped organize a demonstration at the Colorado State Capitol with other students. She asked Nealey and his band mates from Shields of Faith to play music for them.

“Everyone there was really positive to our music,” Nealey said. “When people there supported the high school kids, I was glad we participated. Music builds bridges, and when you perform or play, you’re having a dialogue. You’re talking.”

Helping kids get into music is something that’s near and dear to Nealey’s heart. 

“Some years ago, a music director asked me to lead a church band and include the children and youth. I think it’s really important to help kids build a lifelong passion for music like I did,” Nealey said. “I love seeing kids get that spark of music.” 

When he started playing in a church orchestra, his conductor would rewrite some of the more traditional orchestral instrument parts for his saxophones so Nealey could play. Now, Nealey does the same thing, creating musical parts for students to play with his band or doing musical arrangements for instrumental pieces.

Because the saxophone is such a versatile instrument, Myron Nealey (shown far right) plays with a church orchestra as well as with a jazz and gospel band. Playing different genres of music is a challenge and allows him to grow his technical skills as a musician. Photo credit: Myron Nealey.

“I can either write a part for them to play or use songwriting software to help arrange and transpose the music using a small electric piano.”

He also encourages a lifelong approach to music, specifically related to education. 

“A lot of students don’t know there are a lot of music scholarships out there, especially for instruments that aren’t commonly played,” Nealey said. “The ones who stick with it, it’s really special to see their skills and talents grow.”

As a musician, Nealey himself is still learning. He’s thinking about taking piano lessons again, and over the past three years he has learned how to play the flute. 

“The small church orchestra I play in didn’t have a flute player available all the time, so I thought I’d give it a try,” Nealey said. “The way you use your breath to play the flute is completely different from saxophone. It’s been an interesting challenge.”

While Nealey is still playing with Shields of Faith, he does solo performances at wedding receptions, events, or programs where people want background music. A couple of highlights include playing at his oldest daughter's wedding reception and previously working on music with his youngest two daughters.

Nealey was with a friend visiting an elderly lady at a private home once where her daughter mentioned her mother liked listening to music.

“When I told her I had my saxophone out in the car and would be happy to play for her, her face just lit up,” Nealey said. 

“I think music is a blessing from God, and it’s a service ministry to me,” Nealey said. “It’s a blessing for me and for the people who are blessed by it. I’m thankful I’m able to play my music and share some joy in this way.”