by Lauren Vogel Weiss
He's the composer of "Three Dances for Solo Snare Drum," performed on dozens of concerts this year alone. Gordon Stout dedicated his well-known "Mexican Dances" to him. And he is the author (and illustrator) of a clever book of limericks, "...And My Daddy Will Play The Drums." But who exactly is Warren Benson?
After young Benson played timpani,And before he would seemingly primpani,He would pound the snare drumWhile he’d sing, dance and hum,On the cheap, and all night, and not skimpani.
This poem describes the author himself. Warren Benson's sense of humor, appreciation of music, and zest for life can be summed up in these five simple lines.
Not having been active as a percussionist for nearly four decades, this spry, almost-octogenarian (he will celebrate his 80th birthday on January 26, 2004) was surprised upon hearing of his election to the PAS Hall of Fame. "I started out as a percussionist and had a very healthy professional career before I focused my attention on composing," Benson modestly states. "I am very pleased that PAS remembered me." In addition to performing, he has also influenced many students during his years as a teacher and continues to reach out to new generations as young percussionists all over the world play his music.
A native of Michigan, Benson attended the Detroit Public Schools where he encountered the first two of four influential teachers in his life: Gerry Gerard and Selwyn Alvey. Then, in late 1943 and early 1944, during his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Michigan, he studied with Jack Ledingham and Arthur Cooper.
"I value my good teachers so much because I never learned anything from them that I had to change," explains Benson, "What they taught me was solid all the way through my career. And that is extraordinary."
During his high school years, Benson played in the High School All-City Orchestra and did a few performances with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Upon graduation, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he was asked to teach percussion. He also played third horn in the DSO.
Benson was invited to become Detroit Symphony Timpanist in 1946. "I got a call from the orchestra asking me if I could come in the next day to play with Ormandy in the morning and Bernstein in the afternoon," he recalls. "Since it was the 50th anniversary of the automobile, all the major radio broadcasts used our orchestra for the celebration and every conductor who was anything came to Detroit that year. I played with 17 different conductors in a short time."
Following a 14-month recuperation from a surgery that ended his professional playing career, Benson returned to the University of Michigan in 1947 to finish his degree, now with a major in music theory. He soon had his bachelor's and master's degrees and headed to Europe on two Fulbright teaching fellowships.
In 1953, Benson returned to the U.S. and began a 14-year tenure at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where he taught percussion and composition. "There was only one other percussion ensemble in existence at that time," Benson says. "Just Paul Price at the University of Illinois and me. You have a limited audience at one location, so even though we played regularly scheduled concerts as well as informal ones where I could try out new things, we needed more opportunities to play. So I organized a tour of the eastern U.S."
Among those touring Ithaca students was Robin Engelman, who went on to become a member of Nexus. "We'd spend my lesson times having coffee at a local diner," Engelman recalls. "Post-percussion instruction was how I liked to think of those perambulations. I’ve kept in touch with Warren for 45 years, and our phone conversations can be epical. He has a wonderful sense of humor, writes poetry, and wrote what I believe to be the definitive book on snare drum technique which, alas, was never published. To have a composer as teacher and mentor is a blessing."
Another former student from Ithaca was Ruth Komanoff Underwood, who gained national attention as a mallet percussionist with Frank Zappa. "When Mr. Benson spoke about music, life, and love," Underwood vividly recalls, "he was riveting and inspiring. We would cram into his small teaching studio to soak up the wisdom he expressed so passionately and eloquently. Poetry virtually flowed from this man, and he reached us all on an emotional level."
While at Ithaca, Benson wrote several pieces for percussion, including "Three Dances for Solo Snare Drum,""Streams" (a quiet ensemble for seven players), and "Symphony for Drums and Wind Orchestra." By 1965, Benson had stopped teaching percussion (while continuing to teach composition) to focus on writing music.
One of his first published compositions was "Trio for Percussion" (1957), which was also used for the ballet "Sky Chant," choreographed by Pearl Lang, an associate of Martha Graham in New York City. "'Three Pieces for Percussion Quartet' was commissioned by Schirmer publishers," Benson says. "They wanted to know if this ‘percussion ensemble thing' would sell. And it did--1,200 copies in six months!" By 1958, Benson and his percussion ensemble were also endorsers for Slingerland drums and featured in one of their ads.
In 1967, Benson was invited to become Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music and moved to Rochester. There, he coached two young percussionists who were interested in composition: Bob Becker and Bill Cahn (both founding members of Nexus).
"Composition studies with Warren Benson were always an adventure," says Becker. "He was the most active listener I had ever encountered. Whether I was hacking through a recent composition at the piano, or playing a recording of my last improvisation, Warren's focus and energy were sources of inspiration and support as well as questions and clues. A lesson that began with a simple classical form could end in a discussion of music from halfway around the world, or a new poet, or Oriental carpets. The one thing that never happened in a lesson with Warren was the predictable!"
Benson was nicknamed Nexus' "midwife" thanks to his efforts in bringing them together for their first concert at Eastman in 1971. "I had been commissioned to write a trio for flute, piano, and soprano for the Osaka World's Fair," explains Benson. "Since these Toronto-based musicians were also taking two percussionists with them--John Wyre and Robin Engelman--I wrote another piece called 'Nara.' As they were rehearsing it in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I asked John and Robin if they would be interested in coming to Rochester and improvising with two of my students. So they joined Bob [Becker] and Bill [Cahn] in a concert featuring what seemed like 500 bells and other [non-Western] metallic instruments. My colleagues at Eastman were overwhelmed by their playing."
Wyre recalls that first concert as well as the second one the following morning at the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, where Benson is a member and gives poetry readings. "Warren organized these first two Nexus gigs and motivated us to take our sound explorations to the stage. Every time I've had the pleasure of being with Warren, I've come away renewed and inspired by some new insight or experience that has shown me a new horizon and motivated me to pursue my dreams in a more productive way."
Another Eastman student during the mid-1970s was Gordon Stout, currently Professor of Percussion and Chair of the Performance Studies Department at Ithaca College. "The first 'Mexican Dance' was originally the ninth etude for marimba in my second book of etudes," Stout explains. "Warren--who had been to Mexico many times--thought that piece had a Mexican quality to it. Since it didn't fit with the other etudes in the collection, he suggested that I write another and call them 'Two Mexican Dances.'"He also taught me to understand the rudiments of snare drum--the technique of how to analyze the different stroke types of the rudiments. Not only was he a great person and composer, as well as a wonderful teacher of composition, but he knew a lot about percussion and he taught me many wonderful things about being a percussionist."
In 1994, Benson was appointed Professor Emeritus at Eastman, to complete a 50-year teaching career that began in 1943 at the University of Michigan. But "retirement" hasn't slowed him down. On July 12, 1997, Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Jack Delaney, premiered and recorded Benson’s "The Drums of Summer" for wind ensemble, chamber choir, and six percussionists. "In the wind group for 'Drums of Summer'," explains Benson, "almost everyone plays some type of percussion instrument: tin cans, bottles, stones, pieces of wood--trash, really! So at times during the piece, there are 20 percussionists playing."
Has percussion influenced his compositions? "To the extent that I'm so intimate with percussion instrumens that I know more about what they can do than most composers would," Benson admits. "I also use them rather differently than most people do. I don't write for them as drums; I write for them as colors.
"I’m not a percussionist," he continues. "Don't misunderstand me; I was very proud of being one because I was a good player and my percussion ensemble was a knockout. But now I am more of a composer and writer." Benson is currently working on several commissions and recently finished a children's book about all the instruments. "I wrote that for one of my grandsons," Benson says with a smile. "Now I have to find the time to finish the illustrations."
What advice would Benson give to today's young percussionists? "First, listen to more symphonic and operatic music. Students spend a lot of time on band music, jazz, rock, etc., which gives them an extraordinarily limited view of how to play. To learn real finesse, you have to study music and listen to music that requires it--which is the symphonic repertoire. Second, spend time every week sight-reading! In addition, young musicians should try to be individual and not just follow the crowd."
"Under Mr. Benson's guidance," summarizes Ruth Komanoff Underwood, "I learned the importance of communicating from the heart. Warren Benson is a true Renaissance man--teacher, composer, author, lecturer, and so very much more. Everything he touches turns to beauty. His impact on the world, personally and professionally, is incalculable."
"Brag Sheet" from "...AND MY DADDY WILL PLAY THE DRUMS” by Warren Benson
Copyright © 1999 Meredith Music Publications (distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation)
All Rights Reserved Used by Permission