JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- She lights up a room with her enthusiasm and puts others at ease with her smile, but when it comes to talking about herself, Staff Sgt. Michelle Baker can be quite reclusive.

Baker's energy and ability to carry a tune that can send anyone's feet tapping are just two of many characteristics that earned her, "Army Band Junior NCO of the Year." The clarinetist with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 56th Army Band was nominated by her leadership and selected from more than 50 other applicants Armywide.

Nominees were graded on various topics including leadership, effectiveness and mission accomplishment, organizational and planning skills, personal honors and artistic integrity.
Sergeant Maj. Shawn Firch, 56th Army Band sergeant major, said the program is reserved for the finest musicians in the Army and that only the best are nominated.

"To be nominated in itself is huge," Firch said. "To be competing against everybody in all the active component Army bands then actually win is quite an honor."

Baker's musical roots go back to age 10, when she first picked up the clarinet. Her father had served in the Army and encouraged her to enlist, but Baker had other plans. Instead, she went to college and graduated in 1992 with a degree in performance arts. As fate would have it, Baker ended up following her dad's advice, but only after she was unable to find a job.

"I actually came across an ad in the newspaper looking for Army musicians," Baker said.

She met with a recruiter soon after, met the requirements to both enlist and try out for the band, and Baker said, "the rest is history."

Throughout the years, Baker's career had its share of ups and downs. Prior to being stationed at JBLM, she took a year and a half break from the Army, then joined the Reserves for four years. In 2006, she returned to active duty, at which time she and her daughter, now 17, came to JBLM, where she was assigned to the Henry L. Lind NCO Academy. In 2009, she was reassigned to 56th Army Band, where she enjoys "entertaining people and making them feel good."

Baker recalled being home when a friend contacted her to let her know that she had won.

"I was shocked because it was so competitive," she said. "I don't ever see myself as better than anybody else, so this was just a huge surprise - but it means a lot because I've worked really, really hard at several different jobs."

One of Baker's senior leaders who nominated her, Master Sgt. Jean Van Effen, said Baker's energy and hard work make her beyond worthy of such an award.

"She is working above her pay grade in terms of her skill, her accomplishments and her contributions to the unit," Van Effen said. "She sets a really good example of what a Soldier and bandsman ought to be."

Baker was quick to give credit to others, including Firch and Van Effen, for her success.
"You can't do this kind of thing without your family first of all, and without awesome senior NCOs leading you," Baker said.

Laura M. Levering: