With an international career in opera spanning over 10 years and roots grounded in rock music, ArtSmart mentor Ben Wager has collected a kaleidoscope of skills, experiences and life lessons. He is now sharing his unique perspective with his ArtSmart students, while continuing to learn more.

I never knew the human voice had different ranges. I thought “Tenor” was a sort of title given to accomplished male opera singers a bit like “Esquire” is for lawyers. Sure, I knew who Pavarotti and Domingo were when I was 21 years old but that was the extent of my classical music knowledge (save for a head-full of old Looney tunes!). So, I was a little shocked when, at my very first voice lesson, the teacher told me I was a bass. I thought my inability to sing in the ranges of such rock legends as Robert Plant, Brad Delp, and Steve Perry simply meant I didn’t “Have IT:” that natural ability young people so believe in, that is behind most of the great things people can accomplish in life. I quickly made the transition from concentrating on the contemporary music world (at the time I was in college pursuing a major in Criminal Justice and a minor in jazz harmony as a bass-guitarist) to the unknown one of classical music. At each stage of this odyssey I felt out of place. In graduate school, I was the only student who didn’t have a conventional music education. I had years of rudimentary musical and linguistic ground to cover in a matter of months just to catch up with those around me who did have formal training as classical singers. However, my background as a performer of contemporary music gave me some unexpected advantages. It gave my performances a certain visceral energy that some of my more buttoned-up, academic colleagues lacked. Singing high harmony vocals above already high vocal lines gave me facility and confidence at the upper range of my voice, prompting coaches and teachers to wonder if I didn’t have a higher voice than I do.

Recently, after 17 years of pursuing a successful career in classical music, I’ve returned to the contemporary music world. Picking up my guitar and singing with friends some of the music I grew up with, I’ve discovered that all those years in classical music have reciprocally given me some unforeseen advantages. My attention to detail and ability to play with the nuances and subtleties of musical phrases have crept into my thought processes while performing.

It’s with these two seemingly unrelated musical backgrounds I head into my newest adventure: Mentoring with ArtSmart. The insights and experiences I’ve gathered over the years have given me a unique vantage point from which to address young singers. Even more rewarding then I could’ve anticipated is the way these students provide a third point of reference which interacts with my own experiences in unexpected ways, and perhaps vice versa. What makes Whitney Houston’s rendition of the National Anthem so powerful or Stevie Wonder’s riffing so musical? Newer singers like Adele and John Legend offer up their own approaches which ignite my puzzle-solving mind as much as it does the students. Perhaps it’s cliché but the truth is: I’m still learning. The one thing I’ve learned as a mentor and teacher is that we must always listen to and incorporate fresh perspectives and points of view while drawing from what we already know. That is, after all, what makes the learning about and making of music such an adventure.

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By Ben Wager, ArtSmart Mentor  |  Published on 01/29/2020