Our next Teacher Feature is one of the teachers who’s been with us the longest: Ben W. A Berklee School of Music alum, singer-songwriter, and excellent music teacher, Ben is accomplished, to say the least. His current album is in the works, and he’s in the process of raising money to finish the album, start a radio campaign, and get introduced to management. If you want to help this talented, hardworking musician get the recognition he deserves, consider donating to his kickstarter campaign. Read on to learn about what “making it in music” means in 2014, what some of his insider tips from Berklee are, and what he wished he had been taught before going out into the music world.
MM: Let’s start with what instruments you play, how you got started with each one, and how long you’ve been playing them.
BW: I was singing for as long as I can remember. I was born into a singing family with a mom as a vocal coach and two older sisters who sang and were very active in the musical theater world. It was one of those things that I was born with naturally but at the same time put in the work and had the discipline to improve on as I got older. By the age of 5 I was on stage singing for showcases, in musicals, putting on shows at family gatherings, etc. It was a natural way of expressing myself. I continued to sing through the years, making it about 20 yrs of singing but probably even more without my even knowing it. I had a short 3-year stint with saxophone from the ages of 10 to 13, but at the time couldn’t relate to the instrument (wish I still played today though). That’s when I picked up guitar–it was a natural fit. It was something I could use to accompany myself with and was relatable with the music I listened to. I would spend hours playing and had a yearning to learn more and more. Everyone would go out to the movies and hang out with friends…I just wanted to look up lessons online and teach myself guitar. It’s now been 12 going on 13 yrs of playing. Piano was something I started having an interest in around the age of 15. This was about the age I started taking songwriting more seriously so I was into the singer/songwriters that were popular at that time. A lot of them were guitar based like John Mayer and Jason Mraz, but I was a big fan of Gavin DeGraw, who was piano based. I remember sitting at the piano not knowing how to play but listening to the tracks and transcribing the melody and chords by ear. That’s when I decided to start understanding what I was hearing and became a full-blown music theory nerd, still am to this day. At the time I knew formations on the guitar but didn’t know the notes I was playing. However, I did know the basic pattern of a major scale, so I started taking these formations I knew on guitar, figuring out what notes they were, and then transferring that knowledge onto piano. That was the beginning of teaching myself piano. About a year after that I took lessons, but it was short lived until I had to take classes later on in college. I’ve now been playing piano for about 10 years.
MM: Tell me about your program at the Berklee College of Music. Would you recommend it to other budding songwriters, and what’s the most important thing you learned there?
BW: My experience at Berklee was an interesting one. The songwriting classes were very informative and helped me look at songwriting in ways I hadn’t before. It’s the little things that you may not notice, like how the beat in which you say a word can totally change the way the listener interprets what you say, how to write when you aren’t necessarily inspired to do so, or how to relate to something that you don’t naturally relate to so you can write about it. It gave me techniques and an arsenal of weapons that I hadn’t had before. Overall I’d say it takes a certain kind of person to go to Berklee. It’s much more of a business and place to make connections and network than it is a school persay. With that being said you have to be willing to go out there, put yourself on the line, and do the schmoozing on top of learning and perfecting your craft. As cliché as it sounds, I learned at Berklee that you just gotta be yourself. Berklee is the school where all of the best in their fields come together, and you’re suddenly not the best anymore. With that you begin to learn more about yourself. What makes you stand out? How are you different from the other person who does the same thing you do?
MM: Now that you’re out in the music world “making it,” what do you wish someone had taught you when you were younger.
BW: Confidence is key in all you do. It’s about turning off that little voice in your head and just living in the moment. I’ll admit I’m making this number up, but I’d say 70% percent of the things you say you can’t do you probably can–you’re just too afraid to try because you might fail. But as long as we learn from our failures then we can build off of that and be better next time around. Not everyone is gonna like you, that’s fine. You have to have the attitude of ‘that’s because they don’t know what they are talking about’ and keep doin’ what your doin’. With this being said, know the difference between destructive and constructive criticism. Along these same lines, say yes to everything because if you say no, there are 50 people behind you who will say yes. Of course keep your morals, but I’ve had people ask me to do projects or teach something I knew nothing about, but as long as I have enough time to figure it out by the deadline I’ll say ‘of course, no problem.’ Just may mean I have to do a little more work than the next person, but it’s worth it if you get the job.
MM: Tell me about your current music project.
BW: When I first graduated Berklee, I had to get a product to start promoting and pitching, so I recorded a 4 song EP with songs of all different feels and sounds based off of my musical influences. I began to pitch to commercial/movie placements, artists looking for songs, labels, etc. all from contacts on ‘songlink,’ ‘cuesheet,’ and other tip sheets I gained from going to Berklee. After about a year of endless pitching, dead ends, rejections, I finally got a response from a producer/published writer for Warner/Chappell located in London saying he liked what he heard and wanted me to sing on a couple of his tunes. What started off as a song production deal turned into an artist development project, and we began writing and creating together. We’ve now been working together for almost 2 ½ years and have launched my website, got some performance videos done, just recently released the music video to my single ‘Mars,’ and have close to an album’s worth of songs done. I am now running a kickstarter to help promote the project and raise money to finish the album, start a campaign for a radio promoter who is passionate about my music, and get introduced to management through the promoter as well.
MM: “Making it” in the old days used to involve getting picked up by a major label. Tell me about what the process looks like in 2014.
BW: It depends if you’re trying to ‘make it’ as a musician or an artist. As a musician it’s just about getting work. Saying yes to everything and doing everything. It means working the hours when everyone is off, working holidays, working split shifts, going out of your way driving, late nights, maybe even sacrificing relationships whether they be romantic or friendly. But you do it because there’s no other option in your mind. It’s what you were born to do, and it goes beyond a love or passion. It’s the old saying, ‘if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
When it comes to making it as an artist, you just have to know the game and play it to a tee. In today’s world no one takes a chance on you, and you have to do everything yourself. You have to be a writer, excel at your instrument (if not more than one), be a videographer, a promoter, social media expert, and coordinator. It’s not so much about finding the best talent, but more of a popularity contest and who has the best team to get you where you want/need to be. Once you have your 100,000+ followers on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and are selling out shows or close to it, you then start to create the attention of labels, management, etc. At the beginning of the year, I started having meetings with management, and they would literally say, ‘we really like your product but you don’t have enough followers on social media.” Essentially you have to do all the groundwork yourself. You also have to deal with issues like, in order to perform at venues you have to guarantee an ‘x’ amount of fans, but the only way you’re going to get fans is by performing so there are constant ‘catch 22s’ you have to deal with. We have shows like The Voice, American Idol, X Factor, but they’re all fixed. They make it look like contestants randomly auditioned, but really they already had an agent in place that got them that audition and skipped all the lines and pre- auditions. I’ve had friends who have been on shows, and they tell them right away when they’ll get cut and who’s gonna win the competition. I don’t really have an answer on how to get around all this as I’m still in it figuring it out as I go. But I think it’s more of a ‘walls are gonna stop you from getting where you wanna be. So, you either give up or do what’s necessary to get over that wall and keep goin’. How bad do you want it? Lastly, a lot of it is a combination of being at the right place at the right time and who you know/networking. Persistence is key. That’s what my kickstarter is helping me with. I have a radio promoter in place who I got connected with at a function in LA where my EP was available to pick up. He contacted me, and now I’m raising money for the campaign. Because of the people he knows and has worked with in the industry, he can now introduce me to the management I’m searching for while sharing my music with the masses. That’s just one example of networking and persistence, as it’s been 3 years of constant pushing and working and now there are possibilities. In the meantime, you have to live the life of the musician or do what you gotta do to stay afloat.
MM: How do you balance teaching, working on your own music, and working toward other life goals?
BW: It’s definitely a challenge and takes a special personality to do so. You have to be able to put on different ‘hats’ at different times and not let something that’s going on in your personal music/life affect your teaching, and visa versa. You have to live in that moment, get done what you gotta get done, and then move on. In the process of balancing you’re sacrificing the ‘normal’ things people do, but in your mind you’re not sacrificing. I may not watch the latest TV shows, know what’s going on with the stars and gossip, not hang out with friends as much as most, or play the latest video games. It’s because that stuff doesn’t matter to me. If I paid more attention to that I would just feel like I was wasting my time not doing what I’m supposed to. That’s also because I find so much enjoyment in what I do. When I’m in music nothing else matters, so it’s not hard for me to balance teaching, creating, life goals, because it all has to do with the one thing that brings me peace of mind. Music.
MM: If you were stranded on an island and only got to have one album with you, which would you choose?
BW: This is a hard one for me. I’m constantly described as an ‘old soul’ in life, and that translates in to my music interests as well. With that being said, I would probably pick Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’ Stevie had/has such a great way of combining Rnb, Jazz, Soul, Funk, and making it relevant in Pop or popular music. Some of Stevie Wonder’s best songs were on this album, including ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ ‘Sir Duke,’ ‘I Wish,’ and one of my favorites, ‘As.’ He’s the perfect example of what I call ‘intelligent pop.’ Finding that balance between making it musically satisfying and challenging for yourself, while appealing to the masses. Some other artists that I feel fit into this category are Paul McCartney/The Beatles, Billy Joel, Elton John, Sting, Eric Clapton, and John Mayer, to name a few. I try to achieve this same feat in my musical compositions as well. A close second would probably be John Mayer’s album ‘Continuum,’ as he brought back a soulful/blues vibe and snuck in folk sounding songs like “Stop this Train” and more funk-influenced material like “Vultures” at a time when it wasn’t exactly relevant. He then paired it with great guitar work, beautiful well-written poetic lyrics, and pop melodies. This also had a greater effect on me due to the fact that when it was released I was a senior in high school working on perfecting my craft, knew I was going to pursue a career in music, and was someone that was at his musical peak while I was aspiring to do the same.