There are some teachers we will never forget – teachers who recognized our talents, took us under their wings, encouraged us to pursue our dreams.
For Denise Baldwin, that teacher’s name was Richard Zana, a music teacher in the Ambridge Area School District in Baden, a little town north of Pittsburgh where Baldwin grew up.
Baldwin’s love for music was nurtured by the late Zana. He taught her how to read music, how to hold a note. She recalls how he proudly took his chorus students on the road so they could perform at nursing homes, on the local radio station, on the field at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.
“He never believed that just because we were kids, we had limitations,” Baldwin says of Zana, adding that she and her fellow chorus members recorded three studio albums by the time they had entered tenth grade. “He gave us tons of opportunities to perform and many of his students are still performing today.”
Baldwin began playing the six-string guitar at 12, taking a few lessons with Zana before, regrettably, quitting (spoiler alert: she eventually picked up the instrument again, in addition to the 12-string guitar). A year later, Zana asked her if she’d like to learn how to play bass. Yes, she answered, and Zana transcribed her bass parts from musicals as they had appeared in the original scores.
“Nothing was dumbed down,” she says. “I became the first girl bassist in our school, and many years later, he shared with me that other girls wanted to follow in my footsteps.”
At 18, Baldwin and her best friend began playing covers and writing original songs, and when it came time for Baldwin to audition for inclusion in The Hot Ice Band, she impressed the members with her electric guitar skills.
“Back then, not many girls played electric guitar,” she says. “It was unusual.”
Yes, they said. Join us.
Baldwin and The Hot Ice Band’s guitarist, Bill Watson, soon went on to form several different rock bands around Beaver County. Baldwin spent the majority of the 1980s serving as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the bands Sojourn, Paradise and The Works. She played music full-time, at nightclubs and festivals – “with an occasional wedding, prison, or nudist colony thrown in the mix” – throughout the western half of Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. She describes those years as “memorable, fun and sometimes wild.”
“I loved the energy in the air, playing to hundreds of people every night,” she says, mentioning that Sojourn opened for Huey Lewis and the News, as well as Donnie Iris; and The Works opened for Southside Johnny. “We are forever indebted to our sound and lighting engineers and road crews that kept things running smoothly. Anytime something went wrong on stage, they were on it in seconds. They were our unsung heroes.”
After The Works broke up, Baldwin decided that it was time to earn a college degree – a geology degree from Slippery Rock University, to be precise. Next came marriage, the births of her two children and a move to the Laurel Highlands, where she has resided ever since.
After sending her children off to school, Baldwin resumed playing music (“so much for that geology degree,” she jokes).
“Music is in my soul and I love sharing it.”
If you see her playing solo somewhere in or around Johnstown, she’ll most likely be playing a setlist comprised of 90% rock – “definitely not your typical acoustic stuff.” We’re talking songs by Heart, Pat Benatar, The Who, Journey, Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi, just to name a few. (In 2017, Baldwin did expand her setlist to include oldies music from the 1940s through the 1970s so she could play at local senior centers – a side gig she calls “heartwarming.”)
Though Baldwin enjoys her solo gigs, she also finds great pleasure in collaborating with other local musicians.
Twelve years ago, for example, she and Roy Milstead formed a duo called Two Far Gone. They’ve been playing on the fourth Friday of every month at Homestead Inn in Johnstown’s Elton neighborhood ever since.
Baldwin is also known for founding SongWorks in 2004 alongside Walt Churchey, Rick Cosgrove and Rachel Allen. SongWorks allows musicians who enjoy writing original music to get together in a friendly, supportive workshop setting once a month at Bottle Works – Arts on Third Avenue in Cambria City.
“Songwriting is a very personal experience, and since we are so close to the songs, it is difficult to be objective,” she says. “Unless you are just writing songs to play in your bedroom, it is important to learn to craft your creative ideas into a song. It's all based on what draws the listener in, holds their attention, makes them feel something.”
Members of SongWorks present a few concerts at Bottle Works throughout the year and their most popular annual show, “A SongWorks Christmas,” is held at The Grand Halle on Broad Street. The dinner and concert combo is scheduled for Dec. 18 this year (tickets can be purchased online at www.grandhalle.com).
In addition to songwriting, Baldwin is passionate about teaching voice and live stage performance lessons.
“About eight years ago, an acquaintance asked me to teach her daughter and it has snowballed from there,” says Baldwin, who took voice lessons from William Riley, master pedagogue for The Metropolitan Opera. “I absolutely love sharing what I have learned, and it's the coolest thing to see students improve and gain confidence.”
Baldwin’s students are to perform their annual Christmas concert, “A Christmas Mosaic,” Dec. 8 at Grove Avenue United Methodist Church, where Baldwin serves as praise band director.
“This is a lively, fun show,” she says. “My students work hard on not only singing, but also choreography and group songs. Please consider attending. Tickets are reasonably priced and all proceeds will go to support local community ministries.”
In the future, Baldwin would like to begin working with bands so she can help them take their live performances and musical arrangements to the next level.
For more information about Baldwin, visit her website at www.denisebaldwin.com or find her on Facebook and Instagram.
If her beloved music teacher were still alive, Baldwin says she thinks Zana would be happy to know that his passion for sharing music and encouraging others was contagious.