Renee Baker: Continuing the March ForwardBy Gary Redfern
It’s the Thursday before Thanksgiving, just two days before the week-long holiday break for Central Union High School, and in one teacher’s office the comings and goings never stop, even when there isn’t a class in session and attention for some turns toward some much-needed time off. Besides the usual clutter of paperwork and supplies, a stack of Marie Callendar’s pie boxes line one shelf. A tasty holiday deal at $15 apiece, those pies are helping the teacher in that room and her students get somewhere.
A school maintenance worker leans into the office, and the teacher grabs a cloth harness and excuses herself as the two go into an adjoining room and examine a board painted with a giant S and P. The teacher explains what she needs, and the maintenance man tells her he will be in during the break and get it done.
“What kind of pie do you want?” the teacher says when they’re done. “We have pumpkin, apple, berry.”
The worker chooses a pie and is on his way.
“I’m trading pies with the maintenance staff to get some work done,” the teacher unabashedly explains, adding such work plays an integral role in her particular educative mission.
Such is backstage in the music biz. The teacher is Renee Baker, director of Central’s The Great Spartan Band, and the efforts are for what will be the 180-member group’s biggest gig of the school year.
“We’re going to New Orleans for two parades for Mardi Gras,” she quips with a hint of boast.
Of course no one will know who the band is unless it brings along the shields with the band’s name, but there’s a logistics problem because not all of the band will be making the trip.
“We only have six girls, but there’s eight shields. We have to make it comfortable to carry,” she explains.
One maintenance worker will have a delicious pie, and Baker and her band will look great in New Orleans. Of course, the band also needs to sound great and, back-room tinkering aside, that mission is more than a full-time job for a teacher whose roots trace to this very room.
“I get here at 6:30 a.m. My first class is at 6:50 — marching band for two hours. I said to our new principal (Mike Sterner) you need to come out and see us and then see the finished product,” Baker says of the preparation required for those 180 students to march straight and play sweet at football games, parades and other events.
They do. The Great Spartan Band is an award-winning favorite wherever it plays and has a lineage that is defining Imperial Valley music for a second generation. While it existed before, the band blossomed after the late local music legend Jimmie Cannon took the helm in the late 1960s. Baker, a band alumnus who graduated in 1980, assumed the helm when Cannon retired from Central in 1996. She had his full support at the time and she did not disappoint.
“It was two-sided,” she remembers of relieving Cannon. “It was a great honor, but it was big shoes to fill. He was very supportive and he wouldn’t criticize.”
Baker recalls getting a somewhat informal start in music in an El Centro family that favored gathering around the piano. Her parents, Roy and Bobbie Godfrey, encouraged their children to learn music starting at an early age.
“I was always involved with music,” Baker says, recalling she was in the band at Hedrick Elementary School and Wilson Junior High before attending Central. Her parents also paid for private piano lessons.
Besides playing woodwinds in the Spartan Band, she played saxophone in Cannon’s school jazz band. All the time through high school Baker wasn’t just playing, she kept a keen eye on a true maestro, one that not only directed a band, but kept all its inner workings running.
“He had a way with people. He could really read people. And I learned from him how to run a program,” Baker says of Cannon’s influence. “You look at this position and you’re not just a teacher. You have administrative duties, instruments to repair, uniforms, parades to apply to. Our hours are different. We spend a lot of time with students. What I appreciate from Mr. Cannon was he did all that. I was involved and saw all that he did.”
After graduating from Central she attended Imperial Valley College and then transferred to the University of Redlands where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. Returning to Imperial Valley after graduation, Baker was hired to oversee an elementary music program for Holtville schools and also taught kindergarten. Later she directed Holtville’s junior high school band.
After 11 years in Holtville she applied to take the reins from Cannon. While succeeding her mentor, a legend such as Cannon, might seem like rising to untold heights, Baker describes it more of a “progression” resulting from hard work, dedication and love of music.
“I always knew I was going to be a teacher. I didn’t know until high school I could do music. I always had a passion for it,” she says in her calm, measured manner. “With teaching nowadays you have to have that passion. Teaching’s changed a lot in the 26 years I’ve been in it, the requirements, the renewing of credentials.”
Baker later earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from San Diego State University, Imperial Valley Campus. She also took over Cannon’s stage band class at Imperial Valley College.
Baker is married to another Central Union High teacher, David Baker, who teaches graphics and photography and oversees the school yearbook and newspaper.
Baker describes “balance” as the most challenging aspect of her career, and having to be careful her work does not consume all of her personal time, saying her approach is “just to not let it take over because I could easily live down here (in the band room), which sometimes I do. For me, the hardest thing is saying no.”
Even in her spare time, music is never far away. Besides reading, Baker still works to sharpen her skills on the saxophone, clarinet and piano. Being an active musician helps her connect with students.
“I play with the beginner’s band. They think it’s cool. With the (main) band, when you play with them, you have to show them something,” Baker says.
Asked what she learns from her students, she is quick to respond, “They keep you young. Their enthusiasm. You watch them grow and they bring you ideas. I had one of my trumpet players come in when I was listening to some music. He said ‘That’s Freddie Hubbard on the radio.’ Then you know you’re having an effect on them.”
Baker stresses, however, that the success of The Great Spartan Band comes down through the school administration, which recently had the band facilities modernized much to her delight, to the parents of band members and the dedication of the students.
“I couldn’t do what I do without the parents and the student leadership. That’s where the four years come in. Other teachers have students for one year. I have some of these kids for all four years. They see it and they want to be it. They want to leave the band better than when they came,” Baker explains.
Tacked to her open office door is a card that shows a section of music staff with complex notes and the statement, “If you can read this, thank a music teacher.”
The best achievement, she says, is when the band is sounding and performing really well and that she knows how that came to be.
“The time they spend with you, they get to know you,” Baker says of her students, who clearly amaze her. “They know I care. I’m not going to let them play a wrong note. I’m not going to let them fail.”
Somewhere up above Jimmie Cannon is very proud.