PHOTO BY CARMEN FIELDS/TAKE A LOOK PHOTOGRAPHY
Every person is born with a special gift. While some struggle to identify that specific gift or talent throughout their lifetime, a select few embody it from birth.
A member of this fortuitous group is Alabama State University alumna Joy McNeal Scrutchings. Born to a family of musicians, her passion for music and life resides in her biological makeup.
Now serving as an active musician, a piano teacher, former pageant titleholder, the executive director of a family-operated school, and an exceptional wife and mother, Scrutchings believes that her time as a Hornet prepared her for real life.
“I was born in South Bend, Indiana, I was raised in Gahanna, Ohio, but I grew up at Alabama State University,” she said.
As the youngest of three siblings and the daughter of Cynthia McNeal, an instructor and church musician, and Lawrence McNeal Sr., a computer analyst, pastor and guitarist, Scrutchings grew up surrounded by the magic of music. With her mother owning McNeal Piano Studio, where she gave piano lessons to people throughout Columbus, Ohio, it did not take long for Scrutchings to join in on the family fun.
“I remember begging my mom to let me play the piano when I was really little because my siblings played, my mom played, my uncle played, and my dad played the bass guitar,” she remembers. “Finally she taught me and I never stopped. I was so little I had to stand up to reach the keys.”
Beginning the art of piano at only 3-years-old, she went on to play in competitions and for the local church at 8-years-old.
Scrutchings attended Gahanna Lincoln High School, where she continued her musical pursuits in various outlets. While still playing for the church, Scrutchings played the trombone in the marching band, took part in the concert band, and
was also a member of four different choirs.
Capitalizing off of her talents, she began a successful pageantry and industry career, granting the opportunities to work with the Omega Psi Phi Talent Hunt, NAACP Act-So program, and to hold the titles of Miss African American Teen Columbus and the first black Miss Teen Columbus.
Scrutchings also took part in the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) and formed her own black cultural awareness club for the few minority students of the predominantly white school she attended.
“When something needs to be changed and done, I believe, ‘Why not be that change?’” Exhibiting her rebellious nature as a leader, she remembers staging events and encouraging the African-American students to unite whenever ostracized by their classmates.
Though she had initial dreams of attending The Juilliard School in New York or traveling overseas for college, Scrutchings was exposed to the wonders of Alabama State University by her family friends, and “second parents,” alumni Janice and Percy Wright II.
After auditioning for Dean Thomas Hagar, Ph.D. and Corrine Anderson Free Ph.D. of the musical performing arts department, she was able to secure a scholarship and spot as a Marching Hornet.
“I had a scholarship in piano and band … it was just a great fit,” Scrutchings said. “And who does not want to go to an HBCU after going to an all-white high school?”
As a freshman, Scrutchings enrolled as a music education major with a focus on piano. She began playing the piano and leading the youth choirs at Hall Street Baptist Church and Metropolitan AME Zion in Montgomery. Soon gaining the reputation as not only a skilled musician but also a charismatic individual, she began giving piano lessons to the members of the community.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, Scrutchings began a subsection of McNeal Piano Studio at the Hornet’s Nest.
“I started teaching out of the practice room on campus,” Scrutchings said. “Eventually I got my own apartment and piano and I started to teach out of my own home. Then, I would sign out the auditorium in the music building to hold the recitals.”
Also as a young student, Scrutchings pledged Delta Omicron International Music Fraternity, a professional music fraternity, and joined the Mighty Marching Hornets. She continued her pageantry career as Miss Freshman, Miss Black and Gold of the Beta Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and also several other Miss Black and Gold titles.
“I would march into the football games as Miss Freshman. Then change and march during halftime, and then change again and go back and sit with the royal court!”
From these successes, she decided to participate in the Miss Hornet Scholarship Pageant, a local preliminary to the Miss Alabama Pageant.
“I loved the idea that Miss Hornet went on to a much larger platform than just at the university level,” Scrutchings said. “Miss Hornet trained to be Miss Alabama and Miss Alabama trained to be Miss America. I always set my sights high.”
After capturing the title of Miss Hornet in 1994, Scrutchings was awarded a scholarship, a platform and a number of personal appearances.
“You are representing the university to the community,” she said. “You are able to speak to people, and to kids, and really be a good representation of the university and yourself. Also because you are representing ASU, you are representing black women, which was needed at the Miss Alabama Pageant because we were not being seen.”
Scrutchings received countless hours of detailed training, and direction from her mentor Kenneth Dean, J.D., who supervised the yearbook staff that sponsored the Miss Hornet Scholarship Pageant at that time. Under his leadership, Scrutchings focused on her physical makeup, on-stage presentation, private interview skills and she learned how to view colors and designs that best worked for her petite stature.
“He would identify the right people to work on the various competencies that were needed,” she said.
“Of course it is a competition, but it was all about self growth,” she expresses. “My weekends were filled with people who knew more, had done more, and had experienced more, pouring into me and enabling me to be a better Joy, a more well-rounded Joy.”
Though she did not win the Miss Alabama 1995 title, Scrutchings gained many life lessons and experiences that she still carries to this day.
“I have the ability to walk into any room, any space, with any culture of people and feel extremely, one hundred percent, confident in speaking with them about anything.”
From the many hours spent training to compete, she gained confidence in her speaking, musical ability, and overall presence.
“Along with confidence on the inside, we have to exhibit that on the outside as well,” she said.
Due to her devotion to many different extracurriculars, Scrutchings cannot say that she has one favorite memory as a Hornet, but a list of lifelong friends and relationships. “For an example, my freshman roommate is my daughter’s godmother.”
“The only thing left in my spirit is good stuff,” she says. “Everything I did was centered around what I love, so it was not a chore.
Though she does not have a favorite, she does value her time, “… being a Marching Hornet. There is nothing like the Alabama State University Mighty Marching Hornets.”
By playing under the band director Danny Davis Ed.D. as a Hornet, Scrutchings followed under her older sister’s footsteps who played under Davis at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
“I remember going to Central State and saying, ‘One day I am going to be just like my sister and play the trombone in the marching band!’”
Along with Davis, Scrutchings also highly regarded several other faculty members of ASU. She thoughtfully remembers her time with Mrs. Bobbi Parker, who taught Freshman Orientation.
“I thought she was the sharpest thing walking. The woman just dripped with class,” Scrutchings said. “She wore her heels, and her suits, and I thought, ‘One day I am going to be just like Mrs. Parker.’”
Other positive influences were her academic adviser, Elizabeth Hostetter, Ph.D. her college piano teacher and Sheyann Christburg.
After graduating in June of 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in music education, she soon married gospel and jazz musician Walter Scrutchings. The duo began their careers as professional musicians, performing gospel music, overseas in Japan.
“[Walter] was commissioned to do a concert while I directed and taught the music to the choir,” she explains. Over the course of a few months, the two traveled to share their talents with the people of Sapporo, Japan; Osaka, Japan.
After completing their tours, both returned to Ohio where they both pursued master’s degrees from Malone University. Scrutchings studied curriculum instruction and professional development.
“I always knew I wanted to work with kids and thought one day that I might be a principal because I wanted to design how I wanted children to be taught,” Scrutchings said. “I wanted to develop teachers that would develop students.”
While a graduate student, Scrutchings was employed as a high school choral director of the Akron, Ohio public school system in 2000. Along with being a teacher, she later gained the title of being a mother. Serving as a new mother, teacher, church musician at Wesley Temple AME, and graduate student, Scrutchings refused to slow down.
“I feel like as a woman you have to learn to, not only multitask, but not to stop just because society says, ‘Now you have to be a wife; now you have to be a mother; now you have to be a sister; now you have to be a daughter;” Scrutchings said.
While balancing all of her tiles and roles, Scrutchings completed her master’s program in 2003, a month after welcoming her second born into the world.
Thoroughly enjoying her career as a music teacher, she is happy to continue passing her talents down to the next generation.
“As a high school choral director, it was exciting all the time because now I get to perform as a group! I get to train this group and make this beautiful music with my ideas and my vision to make it come alive,” she said.
Partnered with her passion for music is a love for children, which allowed her to flourish in this position.
“Throughout my entire life I have never had what felt like a job,” she elaborates. “Everything has only been a new experience that leads to the next. A career that is also your passion lets you live giddy…You are not going to become rich off of a teacher’s salary. You get rich off of your students coming back and saying, ‘Thank you.’”
In 2007, Scrutching’s mother, Cynthia Hoke McNeal, and uncle, Frank Hoke Jr. launched Hoke McNeal Academy (HMA), a Pre-K-5 school that infuses state-standard curriculum with biblical teachings and musical topics in Decatur, Ga.
“We call it Atlanta’s best- kept secret that does not want to be a secret anymore,” she said. While she initially only instructed during the summer programs at HMA, Scrutchings now serves as the executive director of the school.
“Along with the website, I have grown the school to have an advisory board, incorporate community service, developed a 501C3 Foundation to make sure the school moves forward,” she said.
Separating itself from the average institution, HMA offers many courses and experiences that other schools do not.
“We are big on black studies. It is a part of our school culture,” she shares. “We do not do black history month because we teach our heritage and history just like we teach math and history.” They also teach violin, piano, Spanish, chess and dance as a part of their curriculum.
With funding posing as its biggest challenge, Scrutchings has enacted various initiatives to gain exposure and supporters.
“We have commercials, publications, the website, as foundation and other ways of making people know we exist,” Scrutchings said. She acknowledges that money is only a minor obstacle as the school is wealthy with an excellent staff, spirit, and shining children.
By alternating months in Georgia and Ohio, Scrutchings also continues to serve as a substitute teacher in Akron. Due to the pandemic, she can work virtually, and even serve the students of Akron while temporarily residing in Atlanta.
“I continue as a sub because I want to make sure I know what is going on in the public school system. In regard to HMA, I want to make sure we are not getting behind with what others have going on,” she said.
No matter whether it is as a general music and choir teacher, piano instructor, executive director of HMA, or as a substitute, Scrutchings believes the most rewarding aspect of her career to be the impact left on the children.
“These children are not my own, but they become mine,” she emphasizes. “We are with these children all day, every day, sometimes more than their parents. You really just get to see them become successful.”
She values the happiness of her students, staff, and herself over any amount of money the world could offer.
“When we are young, we think the biggest thing in life is money, in my opinion, that is such a minor thing,” she said. “There is nothing like your happiness and peace of mind, and my life allows me to live on my terms.”
That passion for people and serving is what allows her to tackle every day and every obstacle. From her work, she hopes to leave a special mark on each of her student’s hearts and brains.
“I hope that at the end of this thing, they say that I taught them how to think,” Scrutchings said. “So often, a lot of exams are just to see how much you remember. But, I want to teach young people how to think, how to be open to other perspectives, and to listen.”
Along with the incredible musical and pageantry training, she appreciates the ASU community for giving her a sense of self. Coming from a predominantly white community as a child, the university exposed her to Black culture, rich history, and a standard of excellence that she could not have received on any other campus.
“Alma Lyle, Ph.D. taught me not to be mediocre because mediocrity was not accepted at all in her book…” Scrutchings said. Those high expectations are what pushed her into the musician and instructor that she is today.
“It is knowing that you are capable and worthy to be in THAT room. That is what ASU taught me.”
Among all of the professional and pageantry titles and awards, Scrutchings’ favorite is being known as “mommy.” With her husband, Walter E.L. Scrutchings Sr., she shares five children; Serrin Joy, Walter Jr., Lynette, Lydia, and Sophia.
Along with her children, she also holds a special place in her heart for her nephew, or as she calls him “nephson,” Ashlynn McNeal, who is the child of her late older sister Dawn Denise.
While all of her children excel musically, academically, and in other performing arts, Serrin Joy has already kicked off her music career. At only 19, Serrin Joy has already performed on the current season of American Idol, where she received the golden ticket and was given the chance to perform in Hollywood. Truly a prodigy of the arts, she is currently studying piano, piano, and theatre at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York City.
When not working, Scrutchings enjoys any activity that allows her to be artistic.
“I like anything creative. I hate being in a box, I thrive with anything that allows me to think and create,” she said.
She enjoys doing hair, personal styling, and traveling.
“I work hard, therefore I play hard! I believe in rewarding myself and self-care,” Scrutchings says. Living an exciting life free of regrets, she plans to rejoin the pageant world by competing for either Mrs. Georgia or Mrs. Ohio.
Following the lead of the ASU alumni before her, Scrutchings hopes to pass on wisdom to the next generation of Hornets.
To the students hoping to pursue a career in music, she advises “to follow your passion and make music anywhere possible.”
“The music industry is very competitive. The world will not always have room, so you have to create that space so that you can live in what feeds you,” she said.
Upholding her idea that the best is yet to come, she reassures all students of the College of Visual and Performing Arts that they will pass every difficult piece of the curriculum that will come their way.
To the entire student population, Scrutchings provides words of encouragement.
“You are at the most magnificent university on the face of this earth,” she said. She shares that as a part of the Hornet community, no student is ever alone.
“ASU is a family that supersedes the campus. Everyone is watching, and we are all in support of what you are doing,” she states. “We are proud of you before you even finish what you are doing!”
Thankful for the alumni that she met, for the professors that pushed her, and the community that supported her, Scrutchings is adamant that the members of Hornet Nation will never steer their students wrong.