Neal Bailey-Harper at Children’s International School in Alexandria in November. “Kids are real,” says the preschool music instructor. “They are honest.” (Joseph Victor Stefanchik /FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I graduated college as a trained classical singer, but since all actors and musicians have to start out as waiters, that’s what I did, at Marriott. I worked my way up to a corporate sales manager, but I just kept saying to myself, “I’m in the wrong world.” I went into teaching music. I wanted to be around real people, not some executive who ruined your day because he didn’t get his coffee in the morning. Kids are real. They are honest. They remember, so they keep you honest. With kids, you have to be reactionary. A lot of teachers come in with plans — don’t get me wrong, you have to have an outline — but with the little ones, you have to go where they go.

I decided to go out on my own when I couldn’t teach like I wanted to anymore. I [had] taught band, chorus, music appreciation and orchestra. Music appreciation was where we dumped everybody who had to have an elective. You had to find different ways to reach them. I showed “West Side Story,” and the kids were really getting into it. But I got called on the carpet because it was “gang-related.” I realized I didn’t have the freedom to reach the kids in a way that mattered to them.

“To walk into a room where everyone is just so excited to see you? That’s a blessing,” Neal Bailey-Harper says. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik /FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

From my front door, there are 300 preschools; I knew if I could get into at least 10, I could pay the mortgage. I do about 11 a week now. To walk into a room where everyone is just so excited to see you? That’s a blessing. It makes you stay on top of your game. Children love you, but they don’t really care if you don’t feel good. Once you come in the room, it’s playtime. A few weeks ago, I was going through a blue period. I don’t get them too often, but I just wanted to win the lottery and get away for a while. On a Sunday night, I get a phone call from a dad whose daughter had my class over a year ago. She just really wanted to talk to me again. Those kind of things really make you feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. These parents trust with me with their kids — and that’s the biggest thing in the world.

I’ve always had this thing with kids, because I don’t think I ever was one. I am one of 12 — nine sisters and two brothers. My father died when I was 7. I started working at 11, at a grocery store. With 12 kids, that’s a lot of groceries, and playing doesn’t bring home any food. Now I play all day long. And my kids? They’re both musicians. My wife is a singer. We’re all on Mr. B’s CD. This is a legacy for me: We play together.