He wanted students to easily feel the cadence of the song they were rehearsing. So Alex Baker presented a simple request to his Debuteens and Music Men Choir at Columbus North High School.
“Snap your fingers along with me,” he said, swinging his arm as he began to do just that to the upbeat, jazzy Broadway tune, “Live In Living Color.”
The 24-year-old Baker, less than two months into his post as the new school’s new choral director, is finding his rhythm with about 170 choir and piano students.
He has replaced Janie Gordon, who retired last year after 19 years and left a legacy as something of a nurturing, motherly figure.
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Baker, a friend of Gordon’s since he was a student teacher at North during Indiana University’s 2016 spring semester, understands that impact. He remains in touch with Gordon (“she really set me up for success”), but is wise enough to be his own person with his own teaching style and approach.
Like Gordon, though, he already fashions himself as partly a motivator and encourager as he prepares his five choirs for their annual fall concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria of the school, 1400 25th St.
“I’m here more to be a facilitator of learning,” said Baker, who acknowledged that he shares that perspective with new Columbus East High School choral director and new friend Nick Brockamp. “This is more about what students can accomplish together.
“It’s not at all going to be about ‘Hey, look what I did at North.’ This is more about how they’re collaborating.”
At one time, a younger and gifted Baker considered becoming a professional concert organist, having begun lessons at age 13.
“But I realized that I hated to practice, and professional musicians have to spend so much time alone in a room not interacting with anyone,” he said. “The isolation was not enjoyable.”
Although he considers himself an introvert, he decided teaching could be wonderful.
“Organ is a pretty solitary instrument,” said Baker, who was a worship musician at First United Methodist in Columbus last year. “But choir inherently is a cooperative thing — and I like the idea of really connecting to a song’s lyrics and the message.
“So teaching provides me a good outlet for my love of music.”
Already, students have noticed his enthusiasm and drive.
Senior singer Nathan Patton knew Baker from when he student-taught at North — and was impressed.
“I thought he was the perfect person (to be choral director),” said Patton, who sees Baker as substantially disciplined, and one who generally expects students to be the same. “He was already very good as a student teacher, and clearly knew what he was doing even then.”
Junior singer Leah Rodriguez offered a similar take.
“We loved him to death,” said Rodriguez, who also had him as a student teacher. “It was like having a really fun uncle come in to teach us. And it seems like he can easily relate to a lot of (student) stuff.”
Rodriguez added that she and her peers also love hearing his stories from last school year teaching English As a Second Language classes in Austria. But Baker joked that students use a tell-us-another-story approach to whimsically make class time easy.
He plans to refrain from any significant choral changes in his first year or two, adding that much of his current goal is “to look and listen,” while he assesses what students truly want in his program — and how invested they can be amid their myriad of their other activities.
Plus, he needs room for a figurative off-key moment as he adjusts to his surroundings and responsibilities.
“I have asked parents (in an August meeting) to be patient with me,” he said.
Away from the classroom, the passionate music lover sometimes needs some distance from his daytime element.
“After a day of music, sometimes it’s nice just to hear the quietness,” he said with a laugh.
Yet, he knows that part of teaching music is encouraging students to experience it as well as vocalize it. Earlier that day, he asked his Debuteens and Music Men to close their eyes briefly while they sang.
“I really want you to feel that rhythm,” Baker said as he stood in front of them near the piano.
Meanwhile, Alex Baker will feel his way along the path of his new job — with eyes wide open to all sorts of possibilities.
Current role: Choral director at Columbus North High School, coordinating five choirs totaling about 170 students, plus teaching a few piano students.
Hometown: Lancaster, Ohio.
College education: Masters of music education from Indiana University in 2016.
Arts background: Was a tenor member of IU’s Singing Hoosiers choral group and IUnison, the university’s vocal jazz ensemble.
Previously at North: For one semester of student teaching in spring of 2016 before leaving for one school year of teaching English As a Second Language in Austria.
Currently listening to: Everything from Top 40 tunes to jazz artists such as Kurt Elling and Ella Fitzgerald.
How he unwinds: With favorite shows such as “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Walking Dead,” and with simple gatherings with friends in nearby cities.
Who: Columbus North High School’s five choirs: 25th Street Singers, North Stars, Concert Choir, Festival Chorus, and the collective Debuteens and Music Men.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: The cafeteria of the school, 1400 25th St.
Admission: Free but donations accepted.