Columbus, Ohio USA

Justin Riley: It's a Musical Planet!
New Music Director strikes a happy chord with Short Stop students
July 2007
by Jennifer Hambrick

© Photos by Rick Borgia

Justin Riley making music with Short Stop Theater Director Emily Davis (left)
and student Jordan Martin.

In the music room at Directions for Youth and Families’ Short Stop Youth Center, Jordan Martin, 14, munches on Cheetos as she talks about the day three years earlier when she first came to the center. She had been walking down High Street not far from Columbus’ Arts Impact Middle School, where she was a student at the time, and something caught her eye.

“It was a big, gigantic church with a butterfly on the door, so I went in,” Martin said with a broad, playful grin. “I make a habit of going into churches with butterflies on the door.”

She entered the building and found the main office.

“I was like, ‘This place is pretty crazy. What’s goin’ on?’ And they said, ‘It’s an arts place,’ music, writing and all that,” Martin said. “And I really liked the sound of it.”

Martin filled out some paperwork and started participating in the center’s after-school program. Martin says she had done some creative writing and had worked on plays at her school and that she liked the idea of doing more of the same at Short Stop.

Justin Riley, who has been Short Stop’s music director since May, works with Martin in regular music lessons.

“She can sing, too,” Riley said.

A bashful smile crosses Martin’s face.

“Oh, well, I guess I can,” she said. “I never thought I could, but I guess I can.”

Martin is just one of many kids who find opportunities for creative expression at Short Stop, and Riley says he’s game to help each of them find his or her own voice through music. Though he never planned to be a teacher, Riley’s gift for working with the kids at Short Stop is clear. He is a patient caretaker, gently cultivating budding talents ready to blossom and flourish. The students are today’s emerging young artists, but more than that they are young people who, with Riley’s help, are discovering their talents and becoming the people they really are. And in the meantime, Riley is charting the course for the future of the urban arts center’s music program.

A Teacher by Chance
Riley, 25, came to Short Stop last March to help with the music for the center’s production of Through the Looking Glass. Short Stop Theater Director Emily Davis, a friend of his, needed someone to rehearse the musical numbers for her production after Riley’s predecessor, Talisha Holmes, resigned.

After performances of Through the Looking Glass were finished, Riley was invited to take over as the center’s part-time music director, and began offering students private music lessons. Now his musical career leans clearly in the direction of teaching, something he never thought he’d do.

Riley completed a degree in music technology at Capital University in 2004, and had planned on a career in the recording industry.

“I thought that I would go out and work in a recording studio and be a record producer and move to Los Angeles or Chicago or something,” Riley said, “but I kind of found out that it just wasn’t for me. When it got down to working with bands it got really tedious and monotonous. So I knew that I needed something a little bit different.”

So he began to conduct residencies and clinics to give elementary school students creative experiences in music. He recently completed a residency in Dublin in which he taught third-, fourth- and fifth-graders how to record their own music on CD and how to produce music videos. He has been a clinician in the OperaColumbus Educational Outreach Program, a role in which he guided students in New Albany and Hilliard elementary schools in writing their own musicals.

Riley also was on call for a year as a substitute teacher for the Columbus Public Schools, an experience he says he loved.

“It was just such a great, easy job,” Riley said. “It was something where I was able to just take my guitar – especially for the kindergartners – and just sing songs with them, play the guitar, talk about what a guitar is and make some sounds. I was kind of amazed that a job could be so easy. It didn’t feel like a job. It felt like something fun that I could do to make a living.”

Part of Riley’s amazement with working as a music teacher may be because, even now, he’s not sure he has a true talent for the work.

“My high school music teacher said that to become a teacher, you must first hear a calling from God that tells you that you need to be a teacher, and if you don’t get that you’ll be miserable in teaching, because too many teachers go into teaching as a back-up plan,” Riley said.

“I don’t feel that I’m doing that, but I don’t feel that I ever got a calling from God.”

Still, calling might not be everything. What Riley has is an ability to pay attention to his students and help them bring their musical projects to fruition. He’s a guide, not a dictator, and is happy to accompany his students on their musical journeys, wherever they may lead.

“I’ve got some kids who are writing their own songs. They just came in with lyrics and said they had an idea for what they wanted to sing, and then I started playing guitar along with them and we came up with something really nice. I was even able to record it on a little recorder,” Riley said.

* * *
Martin talks about a song she wrote with Riley’s help in the center’s after-school program.

“It’s called “It’ll Only Hurt For a Second,” and it’s a song about a girl about to get a flu shot,” Martin said. “He helped me with it, and it’s really great.”

Jordan Martin

Mutual Respect
Riley helps his students with more than songwriting. He makes himself available to teach the kids whatever they want to know musically and is committed to giving them opportunities to practice what they learn.

A guitarist, Riley says he’ll give private lessons to any kid who wants to learn the instrument. But it doesn’t end there. He also coaches kids in how to sing. And if a student wants to learn how to play, say, the tuba, Riley would find a way not only to teach that instrument, but also to give the player a chance to perform on it.

“Any spark of interest I can get, I’d love to turn that into a fire. If that means including a tuba in the next musical production, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll write a new arrangement so that the tuba can play a little more,” Riley said.

Riley would like to recruit some of the young vocalists at Short Stop for a new vocal ensemble. The ensemble could in some ways fill the void left by the now-defunct Short North Youth Chorus, which had been a joint venture of the Godman Guild, Short Stop and the outreach wing of CityMusic. However, the vocal ensemble Riley has in mind likely will not resemble a traditional choir. He wants to reach beyond the traditional choral literature and give Short Stop kids a chance to sing music they know and love – including hip-hop tunes, Motown hits, and 1980s pop music – in fun arrangements. And he’d like the ensemble members themselves to compose some of the music they perform.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if our vocal ensemble would do some original compositions rather than doing traditional arrangements, maybe even letting the kids try to come up with some of their own harmonies and parts. I like to get kids more involved,” Riley said.

Riley is already matching skill sets with performing opportunities. One of his students, he says, already plays the piano a little. Riley dreams of having him accompany the choir someday.

Though Riley has no plans at this early point in his tenure at Short Stop to revive the Short North Youth Chorus, CityMusic Executive Director Steve Rosenberg, who helped build the chorus, says he’d “like nothing more than to see the chorus up and running again,” and would be happy to discuss bringing the choir back to life.

Whatever the vocal ensemble may become, there is plenty of other musical talent at Short Stop for him to nurture. One student, a fifth-grader who is learning how to play the guitar, Riley says is just a natural.

“There are certain things about the way he’s learning that I’m very impressed with,” Riley said. “A lot of times, when a person is learning a new instrument, if they make a mistake, they’ll stop and go back. I’m always that way. But as he’s playing, if he misses a note or accidentally hits the wrong note, he keeps going and stays in time. And it’s so great to see that. He’s able to keep in time, and the next time he’ll get it.”

It seems that a big part of Riley’s talent for teaching – perhaps ironically – has nothing at all to do with music, but rather with how he regards his students. Riley sees his Short Stop music students, who run the tween/teen gamut, as respected colleagues with whom he works toward common goals, not underlings to be brought in line.

“I think that this is almost a collaborative effort between myself and these students, especially when I was teaching the kids to record their own music – and they’re the ones that are bringing in the music (to record). I enjoy listening to their music. And they might listen to something and not be sure about it, and I can help them make it better or show them what’s really great about it. I feel it’s a collaboration. I feel like I’m a musician and teacher and am collaborating with them. I feel like when the kids are singing and when they are making their music, it’s an automatic artist relationship of mutual respect.”

Future Collaboration
It could be that the absence of pretense from Riley’s work comes in part from his own upbringing in the modest town of Bellesville, Ohio, near the West Virginia border.

“It doesn’t even have a stoplight,” Riley said. “It’s a stop sign kind of town.”

His family and friends encouraged him to get involved in musical activities. When Riley was quite young, his grandmother told him he had a good voice, so he joined the choir at his church. During his freshman year of high school some of his friends were in the drum line. Riley joined, and started drumming.

“It sounded like a really cool thing. I just had fun playing drums with my friends, and we would write different drum cadences, different drum cheers to play during the game. And that’s how I got into composing,” Riley said.

He started taking piano lessons during high school and, during his sophomore year, his parents bought him his first guitar.

“Once they bought me that guitar, I picked it up really fast. Learned every chord in the book. Learning to play an instrument is such a great first step into music. It changes the way that you feel about music, the way that you see music.”

Now Riley sees music as a way to help kids discover their sense of self. He’s got many plans for the future of the music program at Short Stop, and most of them place the students front and center. He plans to encourage more students to start writing their own songs in lessons with him. When enough Short Stop kids are composing their own music, he’d like not only to record their music onto a CD, but also teach them how to do it. Riley envisions setting up his laptop and a couple of mics right in the music room at Short Stop, or maybe recording in the center’s more acoustically friendly performance space, once the main sanctuary of a church. He says he’d teach his students about how to record themselves in such a way that their performances can be edited later, and would reveal the secrets of musical editing software.

Riley also is already planning future collaborations with Short Stop’s theater program.

“Now that Justin has joined the staff here, we will be collaborating even further, pushing beyond traditional-style musicals,” Davis said.

Davis says they are planning a performance for November that will consist of a one-act play and a one-act student-written musical. Davis is currently deciding which published play to perform. This fall, students will write the musical – with song and dance numbers in their favorite types of music – in the Short Stop after-school program.

Though Riley and Davis have so far collaborated on only one production, last spring’s Through the Looking Glass, that collaboration uncovered some unknown talents in their students. Jordan Martin discovered in that production that she could cover a cast member’s part at the last minute while also working as the production’s stage manager.

“During our most recent production we had an actor drop out during the last rehearsal, and Jordan literally learned the entire part in one weekend and performed flawlessly in the show,” Davis said.

* * *
Riley asks Martin what she thinks about working with other students to write and produce a musical next year.

“I like that,” Martin says, “especially the part about superpowers, because I’ve always wanted to be Wonder Woman and own my own planet. I think that’s awesome and I’m really excited now.”

The Short Stop Youth Center, located at 1066 N. High St., is a division of Directions for Youth & Families. Visit their Web site at

©2007 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.