Alec Powell has been fascinated by sound for as long as he can remember.
“I’d listen to someone play the piano and my 4-year-old brain would try to go home and make those sounds — it’s kind of just been forever,” said Powell, a choir teacher at Mountain Ridge Junior High School in Highland.
This fascination compelled him to abandon his original path of becoming a mechanical engineer in college, opting instead to pursue a career in music.
“I needed some type of outlet, so I figured I’ll take a choir class,” Powell said. The class during his freshman year of college was the first time he’d ever taken an organized choir class.
After taking it, Powell was in love. So much so that he didn’t declare a major. So much for engineering.
“Nothing sparks joy like music does, I figured I wanted to chase that joy for as long as possible.” — Alec Powell
Powell saw that the music department had a scholarship available. He applied for the scholarship — and got it — setting his musical journey in motion.
“I kind of just fell into this. Nothing sparks joy like music does. I figured I wanted to chase that joy for as long as possible,” he said of becoming a music teacher. “I like the freedom that education allows as a musician. There’s still the procedural aspect of being a teacher, but it also leaves me a lot of freedom to be expressive.”
Powell has certainly capitalized on this freedom. He has been following his passion for music to the crescendo that was being named to Yamaha’s 40 Under 40, a list recognizing outstanding music educators under 40 years old who are making a difference by growing and strengthening their music programs.
Yamaha recognized teachers across the country who possess action, courage, creativity and growth characteristics.
David Mower has been the principal at Mountain Ridge Junior High for just a year, but said Powell’s impact on the school and the students he teaches has been evident.
“Mr. Powell, he’s kind of the best of all the worlds that you hope from a teacher,” Mower said. “Even aside from choir, when (students) are struggling with other things, they like to talk to Mr. Powell to get his advice. Can’t say enough good about him.”
Powell found out that he was named to the prestigious list while giving a test and said that it “didn’t feel real.”
He was nominated for the list after he mentioned it to Katy Bigham, a friend and English teacher at Mountain Ridge Junior High.
“I was reading some of the profiles because they had them up from last year and I thought, ‘You know, he’s a really great fit for this award,’” Bigham said.
Bigham nominated him for the list but didn’t think her nomination would garner much attention due to the sheer number of submissions Yamaha received. Yet when she discovered that Powell had been named to the list, she wasn’t surprised.
“I was really pleased that he won the award because he was so deserving of it,” she said.
As someone who works under the same roof as Powell, Bigham said she sees examples of his excellence every day.
“One of his No. 1 strengths is connection. He is so incredible with connecting to the students,” Bigham said, noting the difficulty that comes with teaching middle school students.
“He teaches over 300 students, but he memorizes their names and he knows the things that they like, what they dislike and he knows what’s going on with them as far as extracurriculars go. But he also does check-ins with them,” she said. “He’ll check out a Chromebook cart that we can get from the school and he’ll do a Google check-in and they can explain how they’re feeling. He’s been doing this his whole career, and he changes his teaching based on how his students are and where they’re at.”
Despite the lofty accomplishment, Powell doled out the credit to the many people who have influenced him throughout his musical journey.
“This is just a culmination and a homage to all the amazing educators around here,” he said. “I went to school around here and had some incredible music teachers growing up. I learned from all of them and I’m kind of just a mishmash of everything that I’ve had up to this point.”
In the classroom, it’s evident that Powell’s infatuation with music is not only felt, but embraced by the students he teaches. One could easily mistake the Mountain Ridge Junior High concert singers group for a choir far better than is typically found at the junior high level. They sound good and they have the accolades to back it up as well.
“We’ve done a lot this year in terms of high musical excellence,” Powell said.
His singers have performed at the junior high state honor choir as well as the Utah chapter of the American Choral Directors Association’s fall conference.
“Each time (the) group performs, we get positive input. People who aren’t even involved in the school — they’re from Salt Lake or they’re from Ogden — they’ve seen the choir and they see his interaction and it strikes them as someone who’s positive with the kids,” Mower said.
When asked about his teaching style, “chaotically good” came to mind for Powell.
“Structure makes sense and structure (is) needed, but I’m not a fool to know that these are junior high kids and 70 minutes is a long time to be anywhere just working — it’s rigorous,” Powell said.
To combat this rigor, Powell has embodied a playful, yet down-to-business style that doesn’t stifle the creativity or personality of his students.
“I like to shake things up. I like to not feel (that) I’m so rigid (that) it makes the class unfun,” Powell said.
His students undoubtedly feel supported, too. At one point during a recent practice, Powell looked at the section he was working with and said, “Sing with the confidence I have in you.”
At the end of the day (or the concert), Powell’s goal is not to craft phenomenal musicians, but phenomenal human beings.
“I always want to have them leave better than when they walked in,” Powell said.
He added, “There’s such a pull in this generation where they have to be the best, they have to be No. 1 and it’s like, ‘No you don’t, sometimes you can just have fun.’”
At the heart of all that Powell’s students accomplish in the auditorium is the hope that they will be able to retain a “level-headed perspective on life.”
Despite being named to the prestigious Yamaha list, Powell still senses room to grow and improve as an educator.
“I feel like I’m a better educator than when this was announced and I hope that a month from now I’m a better educator than I was today. I always want to be progressing forward,” Powell said.
“I don’t think that accolades necessarily define success, but I do believe in a constant push upward.”