Could he be described as a musical prodigy? Some say so.
But Waxahachie High School’s Ben Barker, who’ll be a senior this fall, didn’t even display much of an interest in or talent for music prior to his fifth-grade year in school.
Yet, after receiving encouragement that year from his great aunt, his musical career has been full-speed ahead ever since.
Barker is in the concert band, wind ensemble, marching band, jazz band and musical theater at Waxahachie High.
“I play the bassoon and sometimes piano,” he said of his participation in the concert band and wind ensemble. For the marching band, Barker plays electric piano. Marching band is seasonal, with most performances taking place during the first half of the school year, but jazz band rehearsals and shows take place for the duration of the school year.
“I play jazz piano all year long,” Barker said.
Barker is interested in music composition and has written several songs for the band. This past February in San Antonio, the WHS Jazz Band played one of his pieces at the Texas Music Educators Association’s convention.
“It was a very cool opportunity,” Barker said, expressing what an honor it was the WHS Jazz Band was invited to perform at the prestigious event.
“Mr. Armstrong asked if I would write a song to play at the convention,” Barker said, referring to WHS director of bands, Rich Armstrong.
“I started thinking about what to write in the fall. I spent a lot of time at my computer or at a piano,” Barker said of the process involved in composing the music.
“Mr. Armstrong gave me a few suggestions,” he said, noting that Armstrong suggested solos that would highlight also the tremendous talent of Barker’s bandmates, then senior Joey Burk and junior Ashtin Rostetter.
In January, Barker presented the first draft of his composition.
“Some things needed to be changed, of course. I just kept bringing back more revised copies,” he said, detailing the steps leading up to the final version of the song.
The WHS Jazz Band consists of musicians on saxophone, trombone and trumpet with a rhythm section of percussionists on drums, piano and bass – each musician playing a different part. Unlike the concert band, where several sections have multiple instruments playing the same notes at the same time, in jazz band, each instrument plays its own unique part. The task of writing a composition for the jazz band, therefore, included creating 20 different parts.
“He is one of the most talented musicians I have had the privilege of collaborating with,” Armstrong said of his student. “He can sing, dance, compose and perform on multiple instruments. He understands groove, has an amazing ear and picks things up fast. He truly is ‘it.’ ”
So, what was Barker’s journey to becoming “it”?
“As a fifth-grader, I went on a trip with my grandfather,” Barker said. “My grandfather’s sister (Martha Smith) is a pretty well-respected pianist and teacher. She showed me how to play some basic songs. I came home from that trip and told my parents that I wanted to take piano lessons.”
Soon thereafter, Barker began taking piano lessons and joined the junior high band in sixth grade as a bassoon player.
“My piano teacher is Ms. Linda Weiss,” Barker said. “She is awesome. I took lessons from her for about four years. She was a very big part in a lot of my success. She really helped by teaching me fundamentals.”
Barker said the piano is a great instrument to learn, especially if a musician is interested in composing.
“The piano is the only instrument that gives you a full understanding [of the different parts in a composition] because, when you are playing the piano, you are playing several different notes at once,” he said.
A year ago, Barker started taking voice lessons.
“This past year I started taking singing seriously,” he said, explaining that his goal was to “be able to just sing competently” so as to “effectively communicate ideas.”
He also joined musical theater.
“Not having a plan, I just thought it would be fun to try,” he said. “I actually ended up loving it. It’s just this other form of a way I can perform and be creative with music: on stage singing, dancing and acting.”
What does the future hold for Barker?
“I definitely want to do something creative with music,” he said. “I plan to major in music in college. I am interested in composition.”
Barker enjoys listening to and is inspired by many different genres of music, including “old school jazz,” contemporary jazz, rap and hip hop, to name a few. One celebrity musician for whom Barker has a great deal of admiration is Quincy Jones.
“He started out as a trumpet player and he played in big bands in the 20th century. Then, he became a producer. As a producer, you’re not just playing – you’re creating with other artists,” Barker explained, saying his desire for a career is one in which he would “focus on the creative side and make stuff that’s original. Producer is the main option that I would like to pursue.”
Barker said the musical genre which will be his main focus is jazz “because its uniqueness sets it apart from other genres.”
“Jazz is one of those things that you can be solo, improvise, play something that you make up. I can improvise the entire song. Soloing is really cool,” he said, describing how a jazz musician is allowed the freedom of using his or her musical instrument as a medium for musical ideas in his or her head.
“It’s like composing on the fly, composing a solo on the spot,” he said. “Jazz is the hardest genre to become good at it. Because of the jazz experience I have, I could branch out into other stuff [musical genres] if I wanted to.
“I guess I always wanted to be in the spotlight,” he said. “I wanted people to recognize me.”
Baker is a Waxahachie native and lives with his parents and two younger sisters.