Walk into Ben Yoder’s classroom at Hamilton Southeastern Junior High and immediately you’ll notice a closet door covered in laminated affirmations.

“You’re the most fun teacher I’ve ever had.”

“You’re my most favorite teacher.”

“Without you, my life would be B flat.”

A music teacher is helping two students play the violin

“I love my job,” Yoder said. “I get the chance every day to make music with some pretty cool kids. The fact I get paid to do this is a bonus to me.”

Ten years into his career, Yoder, ’07, has turned teaching middle school into an art form. Under his direction, the school’s orchestra program has rapidly expanded, receiving superior rankings and earning top honors in music festivals in Indiana and beyond. In June, he was nominated as one of 197 music teachers selected as quarterfinalist for the Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Museum.

Yoder sees working with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders as a calling. “I love this age,” he said. “They’re at a point in their lives where so many things are changing, and it’s important they have positive role models. I enjoy being a part of that. They’re just so cool.”

Many of his students return that sentiment. During a break from practicing a medley of pop hits, seventh-grader AJ Ricafort, 13, said, “We’re his students, but he makes us feel like we’re his friends.”

Maggie Philips, 13, added, “Every day is an adventure in his class.”

‘Put some rock into it!’

Yoder helps students choose which of the orchestra’s four string instruments they’ll play — violin, viola, cello or double bass. He teaches classical pieces in the fall, but come spring, it’s time to let loose. “They don’t believe me when I say strings can play pop music. It’s a fun challenge to show them.”

Fun is certainly the word the 32-year-old was conjuring while discussing his seventh-graders’ rendition of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”

“Come on, guys … you can’t play a Journey song without enthusiasm. Put some rock into it!”

Ryan Hourigan, director of Ball State’s School of Music, recalls observing Yoder lead a class in college. “Watching the kids light up when he conducted them was a real joy.”

Yoder’s enthusiasm for music came years before he picked up a conducting baton. He began violin lessons in fourth grade. “I fell in love with its sound. The violin spoke to me from the first time I played it.”

Soon after, he wanted to become a music teacher. “When I found out you could become a music teacher and get paid for it … I may have only been in fifth grade, but that’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

A classroom full of middle-school music students listens to their teacher.

Ben Yoder leads a group of seventh-graders during in-class rehearsal. Yoder said, “As an educator, I preach personal responsibility. I tell my students, ‘I can’t play this piece for you. I can’t practice it for you. You have to take responsibility on your own. If you don’t, you’re letting your classmates down.”

Committed beyond the classroom

Yoder never lost sight of his childhood aspirations. One reason he wanted to study at Ball State was that his private violin teacher, Sharon Stauffer, ’76 was a graduate. He cemented his decision after his first lesson with a Ball State instructor. “That was the tipping point, because I knew I wanted to work with that person. I enjoyed her presence.”

A photo of a violin has a quote over it: "Music is a gift that can last a lifetime, and sharing that gift with my students is my ultimate goal. Its why I do what I do." -Ben YoderToday he’s as passionate about his alma mater as his profession, having recently served as vice president of the Young Alumni Council. “I still miss the place every day.”

Yoder’s commitment to music education extends beyond the classroom. He’s on the Indiana Music Education Association’s Board of Directors, judges at Indiana State School Music Association competitions, and gives private violin lessons. In his free time, he enjoys performing with the Anderson and Muncie symphony orchestras.

While many of his middle school students go on to play in high school orchestras, Yoder doesn’t believe his job is to cultivate world-class musicians. “It’s about graduating students who appreciate and support the arts, whether they continue to play or not. Music is a gift that can last a lifetime, and sharing that gift with my students is my ultimate goal. It’s why I do what I do.”