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Spotlight on Student Member: Harrison Benford

September 20, 2022

Outstanding student performer, Harrison Benford, performed in all five concerts on FMMC’s 2021-22 Student Recital Series at venues including Strathmore Mansion, Chevy Chase Village Center, Goodwin House in Alexandria, and Riderwood Chapel in Silver Spring. We appreciate his passion for public performance, and in thanks for his contribution to our programs, welcome him as an honorary member for the coming year.

In addition to the article in our October 2022 Newsletter about Harrison, we also invited him to share his own thoughts on being a musician and his important milestones thus far.

Q: Can you tell us how piano came to your life, or how do you remember it?

Harrison: I remember it very fondly! I was walking down the street with my family, age 4. Suddenly, I broke away from my dad’s hand and sprinted towards the sounds of a busker. I immediately ran back to my dad and asked him to start learning the piano. Although they initially said no, I spent the next 6 months pestering my parents about taking piano lessons until the day I turned 5 when they finally agreed. It has been a wonderful 12 years since then!

Q: You participated and won many piano competitions. If you could highlight just one, which would it be and why?

Harrison: It’s gotta be the Rubato International Piano Competition held in Oxford, AL. It’s not only the most recent competition I’ve won, but also the biggest. The format was a week-long program for jazz and classical pianists, juried by a stellar panel of concert pianists from throughout the United States. Twenty-one semi-finalists from eleven countries met for master classes, practice sessions, and socializing, and, of course, to compete in three divisions: one for jazz pianists and two, divided by age, for classical pianists.  After the finalists were selected, we each played one last piece for a live audience – I played the 4th and 5th movement from Bartok’s Out of Doors. I ended up winning first place, a gold medal and $5,000!

Q: You credit your teacher of 6 years Nancy O’Neill Breth in Washington, DC for her guidance with transforming your development as a musician and a human being. Can you elaborate how taking piano lessons affects your personality?

Harrison: My lessons make me a more thoughtful and reflective person. The way music is notated really tells us nothing about the emotional intent behind pieces. In order to correctly interpret a piece, you have to dig beyond the surface that is the little black marks on the page and analyze harmonies, structures, theme variations, rhythms, articulations, and so on. Once you have fully analyzed a piece, or “mapped” it, as Mrs. Breth says, then you can truly understand the piece and how it should be played. 

Mrs. Breth also has the wonderful and rare ability to completely change the way in which people think about the world. She does this through long and philosophical discussions. These always relate back to music in some way or another, but there is also an underlying message she tries to convey through each conversation. 

Q: Outside of music, you study Mandarin and are nationally ranked in both QuizBowl and tournament Scrabble, being named one of the top ten youth players in North America in 2022.  How do these activities and skills connect with musicianship?

Harrison: Musicianship is (thankfully!) not just being a technically-perfect performer, having a good ear, or having the brains to be a scholar. Being a musician also means you must connect and collaborate with people. We do this in many ways: private lessons, chamber music, teaching, or even analyzing music. Similarly, I make strong connections with people through games such as Scrabble and Quizbowl, as well as the beautiful language of Mandarin. I play duo scrabble and a few years ago my partner and I ranked 3rd in North America! Likewise, Quizbowl is played on a team of four and last year we ranked top 5% in the nation. And of course, I can’t leave out Mandarin! The Chinese language has been a passion of mine ever since my 6th grade counselor discouraged me from taking the course because it was “too hard” for non-native speakers. Needless to say, I took on the challenge and here I am six years later in AP Chinese in my senior year of high school. Chinese, just like music, is a language used to communicate with other people. One of the really cool aspects of the language is that it is a tonal language, meaning that “má” means something completely different than “mà”, the only difference being your inflection. Having a good ear for Chinese is essential, and something that I personally think I get from my musicianship. 

Thanks so much to Harrison for sharing his thoughts and we wish you all the best! Can’t wait to hear you at the next FMMC Student Recital.