Sensory Percussion: Q&A with Alumnus Ben Sloan on His Work with The National

Ben Sloan is a musician, producer and teacher who is passionate about making music accessible to all. Last year People’s Liberty awarded the CCM alumnus with a $10,000 grant to build Percussion Park in East Price Hill. This year he’s experimenting with sensory percussion, which led to a performance as Artist-in-Residence at The National’s Homecoming Music Festival in April and a short tour with the rock band.

Ben Sloan. Photo by Ryan Back.

Ben Sloan. Photo by Ryan Back.

Sloan (BM Jazz Studies, 2011) is grateful for the opportunity to tour with The National and thinks they will work together again in the future. He’s now on a two-week tour with local ensemble A Delicate Motor, which releases a new album Fellover My Own on June 29. Later this summer, Sloan will travel to Berlin to participate in an experimental music festival called PEOPLE.

When he isn’t performing, Sloan works as a teaching artist at MYCincinnati, an after school youth orchestra program directed by CCM alumnus Eddy Kwon (BM Jazz Studies, 2011). He teaches the pre-orchestra students, ages 5-10, in a class that combines singing, movement and percussion.

We caught up with the busy alumnus to talk about his work with sensory percussion and his experience with The National.

What is sensory percussion? When did you start working it?
Sensory Percussion is amazing, and that’s about 90% of what you need to know. It was developed by Sunhouse, and though it’s making the rounds with musicians all over, it is still a relatively new technology. Sensory Percussion is essentially a collection of sensors (you can use up to four), which attach to a drum. Using a corresponding software, the sensors analyze the vibrations of the drum to determine where the player is hitting, i.e. the center, the rim, the shell, the edge, etc.

It’s up to the player to “teach” the sensors how and where one prefers to hit the drum — it is a very individualized system. This “mapping” of the drum allows the player to specifically pinpoint quadrants of the drum and assign samples, midi data, effects and a host of other functions. The result is a totally dynamic and fluid interplay between electronic, sample-based sound and acoustic drumming. I’ve had the sensors for about a year now, and over the past few months I’ve been really digging into them. They are so powerful, it’s incredible. I think the open ended nature of the software, makes the sensors so compelling. No one really sounds the same, because it’s up to the player to set the musical palette and craft the sounds.

How do you incorporate sensory percussion in your work with music groups and local projects?
Since they are still a bit new, I haven’t fully utilized them with any projects other than my own. For the longest time I sort of felt that the music I created through recording and manipulating samples wouldn’t or couldn’t be realized in a live context, but with the sensors, I can take a lot of that material and produce it live, or even embellish the sound. They are just really dynamic instruments.

I’ve brought them to MYCincinnati for our students to use, but because this technology is so new and exciting to play it makes normal drums less enticing. I have to win them back over by playing something really fast or loud — it only kind of works.

You also brought this percussion style to the National’s Homecoming Festival. How did you get involved in the festival?
I ended up using sensory percussion pretty heavily at Homecoming. I was working with A Delicate Motor ensemble to write a set of new music, but I knew I wanted to do something entirely on my own, which was impetus for writing some music with the sensors. The process was an endless tweaking of a sound palette until I could improvise an entire piece. From those improvisations, I would distill whatever I thought was good, and cut out the rest.

I got involved with the festival through Bryan Devendorf, drummer of The National. He’s always been inviting, and over the years we’ve gotten to know each other a bit. He reached out to meet while I was touring with the band WHY? and since then we’ve stayed in touch. He asked if I would be interested in being this year’s artist-in-residence at the Homecoming Music Festival, something they hadn’t done in the past, and I said ‘yes, like duh, of course!’

What was performing with The National at the festival like? Any plans to reconnect with The National in the future?
It was affirming. I spend a lot of time being critical of my work and my abilities, but when artists on that level invite me to play, it’s feels like a major validation of the hours put in. It’s also time to step up and not look like a doofus on stage! I mean, I totally ‘look’ like a doofus, cause that’s how drummers look when they play, but I think it sounded good.

Ben Sloan at The National's Homecoming Festival in April 2018.

Ben Sloan at The National’s Homecoming Festival in April 2018.

After the Sunday night show, The National invited me out for a short tour, so I ended up hopping on the bus for a few days with them. It was a treat to spend some time with the band, and see everything behind the scenes — touring on that scale is crazy! They had such a big crew, all of whom were kind and patient. I’m still reflecting on it all. I’m just grateful. I’m not sure how or when, but I think we will work together again!

What else are you working on right now?
A Delicate Motor started a two-week tour on June 18. We have a lot of momentum from the festival, and the record Fellover My Own is due to be released on Sofaburn later this month. Our album release is June 29 at Northside Tavern. I’m trying to invest as much time in my solo project as possible. It’s still so fresh, but I hope to put out an EP in the coming months.

Later this summer, Price Hill Will/MYCincinnati, in collaboration with The Contemporary Arts Center is hosting the third annual Price Hill Creative Community Festival, which is an ever-evolving and beautiful festival. Each year we host artists-in-residence to work collaboratively with MYC students for two very intense weeks. Along with the artists in residence, the festival curates a huge array of great performers to come do their thing. This year we are hosting cellist and composer Tomeka Reid, who has cultivated some powerful momentum in the Chicago improvisation and jazz scene. I strongly encourage you to go check her work immediately! We also have Josiah Wolf (CCM alum), multi-disciplinary arts collective Collaborative, Jarrod Cann and Paradox Teatro. The full list of artists, and their work is listed online at creativecommunityfestival.org/artists.

That Price Hill Creative Community Festival usually consumes me in the best possible way. It’s happening on August 3-4, the performances are unique and sometimes challenging, it’s all ages, we have great local food and admission completely free!

 

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Children playing on tank drums made of repurposed propane tanks, which will be installed at Percussion Park.

CCM Jazz Alumnus Ben Sloan to Open Percussion Park in East Price Hill

If you build it, they will drum — East Price Hill is getting a new park that is built to make noise. Part playground, part instrument, Percussion Park opens in grand style on Friday, April 21, with a celebration at the corner of Warsaw and McPherson avenues.

Percussion Park is the creation of Ben Sloan, who graduated from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) in 2011 with a BM in Jazz Studies. It all began when Sloan watched a video of a child playing on a drum set made of paint cans and buckets. He thought, “I could build something like that” and set to work.

A bass marimba inspired by the marimbas commonly found in Zimbabwe. The instrument will soon be installed at Percussion Park. Photo provided by Ben Sloan.

A bass marimba inspired by the marimbas commonly found in Zimbabwe. The instrument will soon be installed at Percussion Park. Photo provided by Ben Sloan.

The park is a collection of outdoor percussion instruments; a brass marimba, tank drums made with propane tanks, suspended stainless tubes and wooden tongue drums. The instruments are easy to play, some are meditative and others are bouncy and playful. “It’s sculptural, it’s playful, it’s bright, it’s inviting,” Sloan says. “It’s a space for making noise.”

He hopes people will enjoy the instruments and make connections through music.

“Perhaps someone finds some clarity playing an instrument on their own on a dreary afternoon, or a couple of friends have a laugh while playing something as they pass by, or total strangers find themselves communicating through music,” Sloan says. “I would love to see the park become a gathering space for the community, a place for events, for impromptu performances — a place for creative expression.”

 

Sloan works as a teaching artist and site coordinator at MYCincinnati, an after school youth orchestra program directed by CCM alumnus Eddy Kwon (BM Jazz Studies, 2011). He teaches the pre-orchestra students, ages 5-10, in a class that combines singing, movement, percussion and “a lot of silliness.”

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful and Price Hill Will help clean up the vacant lot, which will soon host the Percussion Park.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful and Price Hill Will help clean up the vacant lot, which will soon host the Percussion Park.

Last spring Sloan shared his idea for Percussion Park with MYCincinnati founder Laura Jekel, who is also the head of Creative Placemaking at Price Hill Will, a nonprofit focused on community development. She shared Sloan’s idea with Price Hill Will and a few days later there was space for Percussion Park in an empty lot at the corner of Warsaw and McPherson avenues.

Sloan received a $10,000 grant for the park from People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati. He also worked with Price Hill Will and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful to revitalize the vacant lot. They have added a rain garden, plants and trees in addition to Sloan’s outdoor instruments.

When he isn’t teaching or building a new community park, Sloan performs in a handful of other local music projects including A Delicate Motor, Lazy Heart and Fresh Funk.

“Many of the musicians I play regularly with are CCM alums,” Sloan says. “My biggest takeaway from CCM are the friendships forged over those four years.”

Sloan recently connected with fellow alums from CCM and UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) at an event hosted by the UC Alumni Association. He spoke about Percussion Park at the event, which was held at People’s Liberty.

Percussion Park’s opening celebration is from 4-6 p.m. on Friday, April 21 at the corner of Warsaw and McPherson avenues in East Price Hill. The celebration features short performances from MYCincinnati musicians and free catered food from local restaurants Veracruz Mexican Grill and Urban Grill.

For more information on Percussion Park, visit percussionpark.com.

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Eddy Kwon with the MyCincinnati youth orchestra.

Alumnus Receives $50K Fellowship for Work with MYCincinnati Youth

United States Artists, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting artists and innovators, awarded alumnus Eddy Kwon an unrestricted $50,000 Fellowship to encourage his work with young Cincinnati musicians.

Eddy Kwon

Eddy Kwon.

Kwon (BM Violin Performance, 2011) co-founded MYCincinnati with cellist Laura Jekel shortly after he graduated from CCM. The youth orchestra program offers free music lessons to children in Price Hill. It is part of Price Hill Will, which strives to revitalize the neighborhood through renovating homes, creating community gardens and other community-building initiatives.

“Price Hill has many wonderful assets, but, in 2011, it was clear that there were not many opportunities for intense, high-quality arts engagement in the neighborhood,” says Kwon. “Since MYCincinnati’s founding, we have always been at enrollment capacity with a long waiting list, which clearly demonstrates the community’s desire for such a program.”

The unrestricted fellowship gives Kwon financial support, which will allow him to “take some risks” in developing future projects as he deepens his investment in MyCincinnati and Price Hill, he says. Kwon is one of 45 innovators to receive the 2016 United States Artists Fellowship. The winners were nominated by peers and field experts for their impacts on their respective fields, including architecture and design, dance, literature, media and music. Each fellow receives $50,000 to help them continue to pursue excellence and innovation in their crafts.

“It’s an honor that I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I quite deserve,” says Kwon. “It’s a reminder that there is so much more we need to do to ensure that all young people — not just those with access to privileged resources — have opportunities to build upon their imaginations and be recognized for their work.”

MYCincinnati is a “musical family,” Kwon says. The program is modeled after El Sistema, a Venezuelan program that engages at-risk children in extensive music classes and rehearsals that culminate in the renowned Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. El Sistema is not a parent organization to MYCincinnati; rather, the latter is part of a loose network of programs inspired by the Venezuelan initiative. All of these groups strive to teach young people more than just music.

“At its core, MyCincinnati is a youth development program that uses music as a vehicle,” says Kwon. “We’ve seen children that, when they are first enrolled, cannot focus for more than a couple minutes at a time. After a year of MYCincinnati, they are able to focus and strive for excellence for a full hour of rehearsal.”

After several years, the children are also teaching and mentoring younger students and interacting with the community as ambassadors for the program. Some are even composing their own music while others conduct and lead orchestra rehearsals on their own. “There are too many amazing individual stories to recount,” Kwon says.

The Ambassador Ensemble.

Eddy Kwon and the Ambassador Ensemble.

Kwon has been the director of MYCincinnati for several years, and he also directs the organization’s Ambassador Ensemble, an avant-garde string sextet that combines social activism with collaboration and performance. When he isn’t working with MYCincinnati, he often composes and performs with The Happy Maladies, a string quartet of which he is a founding member.

Two years ago, Kwon was awarded a $6,000 Cincinnati Art Ambassador Fellowship, which he used to compose, perform and film three concerts with the MYCincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, the program was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Louise Taft Semple Foundation to continue and expand the Ambassador project, which encourages outstanding MYCincinnati students to develop their own creative projects. All of these awards have allowed Kwon and his organization to shape Price Hill youth into artists, community leaders and mentors to their younger peers.

“I have absolutely seen many positive changes in both individual students, our MyCincinnati community and the greater Price Hill community in the short time MYCincinnati has been active,” Kwon says, adding that the program now has more than 100 students. “MyCincinnati is a musical family, and we strive to make every child feel welcomed, expected and supported.”

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Story by CCM Graduate Student Alexandra Doyle

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Participants from the Music for Youth in Cincinnati's (MYCincinnati's) free youth orchestra program in Price Hill.

CCM Hosts Gathering of Midwestern “El Sistema” Inspired Programs This Weekend

This Saturday, May 9, CCM will welcome “El Sistema” inspired programs from throughout the region for the Fourth Annual Midwestern Seminario.

Hosted by CCM’s Preparatory Department and Office of Community Engagement, the event will draw nearly 200 young performing artists who are involved in programs inspired by “El Sistema,” Venezuela’s National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras. Over the past 35 years, El Sistema has evolved into a world-renowned youth development program, which uses music as a vehicle for social change. El Sistema’s success in helping children build better futures has led to the creation of similar programs in over 30 countries around the world.

Participating programs include North Limestone Music Works (Lexington, KY), Shift: Englewood Youth Orchestra (Chicago), Q the Music (Dayton, Ohio), MYCincinnati (Cincinnati) and the Avondale Youth Orchestra (Cincinnati).

The Seminario‘s guest speakers will include CCM Dean Peter Landgren and UC President Santa J. Ono.

The program on Saturday, May 9, will culminate with a participant’s concert at 4 p.m. in CCM’s Corbett Auditorium. The concert is free and open to the general public!

The concert will be conducted by CCM alumni Eddy Kwon (BM Jazz Studies, 2011) and Isaac Selya (DMA Orchestral Conducting, 2014), along with Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras Artistic Director Daniel Chetel.

“We believe in the power of the arts to bring people together to create a strong, vibrant community,”  explains CCM Director of Community Engagement Anne Cushing-Reid. “This gathering reflects our ongoing commitment to community engagement and collaboration. We are also proud to support the efforts of the CCM students and alumni who are working locally with MYCincinnati, through a grant provided by ArtsWave.”

You can learn more about the other community engagement initiatives fueled by ArtsWave’s grant support here.

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CCM Performances and Collaborations Highlighted on Several “Best of 2013” Lists

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As we ring in a new year, several local arts writers have released their “year in review” lists for 2013. Rafael de Acha, Mary Ellyn Hutton, Kirk Sheppard, Rick Pender and Janelle Gelfand help us take a look back at the year that was:

In his “best of” roundup for Music for All Seasons, Rafael de Acha commented, “(CCM) consistently achieves professional level in its numerous productions of operas, musicals and concerts which approached the four-digit mark this past year.” Last spring’s original production of Into a Lamplit Room: The Songs of Kurt Weill and the recent concert production of Verdi’s Don Carlos, along with CCM’s Mainstage Series productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Owen Wingrave, all received special mention in de Acha’s review.

Mary Ellyn Hutton presented her top 16 performances for Music in Cincinnati, which included three CCM productions: Verdi’s Don Carlos, Bach’s St. John Passion and Britten’s Owen Wingrave. Of Verdi’s Don Carlos, Hutton commented, “This gets my vote as perhaps the single finest concert of 2013 in Cincinnati.”

Compiled for The Snappy Critic, Kirk Sheppard‘s list of favorite theatre productions of 2013 included last spring’s Mainstage production of The Threepenny Opera and the Studio production of Parade produced in collaboration with the Carnegie in Covington. This past fall’s CCM productions of Carrie and Singin’ in the Rain also made Sheppard’s list.

Rick Pender included two CCM productions in his 2013 round up of theatre in Cincinnati for CityBeat. Last spring’s co-production of Parade with the Carnegie and the recent Mainstage production of Singin’ in the Rain received special attention.

Janelle Gelfand also included CCM’s massive concert production of Don Carlos in her list of “Top 13 Classical Music Shows in 2013” for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In addition to her performance-specific list, she published a summary of “arts highlights” for the year, which included the work of the MYCincinnati after-school program in East Price Hill (learn more about CCM’s connection to the organization here) and the new partnership between Cincinnati’s World Piano Competition, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and CCM.

What were your favorite performances of 2013? What are you looking forward to most in 2014? Get a first look at what’s coming up at CCM in 2014 here!

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Price Hill String Quartet Presents FREE All-Mendelssohn Concert on May 2

The Price Hill String Quartet.

The Price Hill String Quartet.

CCM’s new Community Partner the Price Hill String Quartet will present a FREE all-Mendelssohn program beginning at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, May 2, at the LISH Art Gallery in Price Hill. This concert is open to the general public and will conclude with the first and last movements of the Mendelssohn Octet performed by the Quartet and four members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra!

The Price Hill Quartet is the string quartet of Music for Youth in Cincinnati (MYCincinnati). The Quartet is comprised of two MYCincinnati directors and two current CCM students, and is funded in part by CCM and CCM’s ArtsWave Community Partnership grant.

Learn more about CCM’s New Community Engagement Initiatives here.

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CCM Announces New Community Engagement Initiatives Fueled by 2012-13 ArtsWave Grant

Participants from the Music for Youth in Cincinnati's (MYCincinnati's) free youth orchestra program in Price Hill.

Participants from the Music for Youth in Cincinnati’s (MYCincinnati’s) free youth orchestra program with John Morris Russell (center) in Price Hill.

CCM is proud to announce several new collaborations supported by a grant from ArtsWave. Awarded in June 2012, CCM’s $50,000 ArtsWave Community Partnership grant was designed to develop mutually beneficial projects that will advance both organizations’ goals for the community and the arts sector.

ArtsWave’s generous support will help CCM enhance its current collaborative relationship with the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) and will also allow CCM to formalize new partnerships with several community outreach programs, almost all of which were initiated by CCM faculty, students or alumni.

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CCM Students Present Two Rarely Performed Mozart Operas June 9 and 10

 

This Saturday and Sunday, the CCM student-organized Projekt Wolfgang will present two rarely performed Mozart operas, Bastien und Bastienne (1768) and Der Schauspieldirektor (1786), at the Hoffner Lodge in Northside. Each performance will feature accompaniment by the Queen City Chamber Opera Orchestra. Antoine-François López and Isaac Selya conduct.

Admission to the double-bill performance is free. Projekt Wolfgang will be accepting donations at the door for Music for Youth in Cincinnati (MYCincinnati), an El Sistema inspired program using classical music to transform the lives of children in Price Hill.

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