Ben Thomas ‘92 has always been drawn to music — be it jazz or tango, percussion or bandoneon; he's tried it all, mastering multiple instruments and genres, both during and after his time at Swarthmore College.
“My dad was a musician. He played the piano, drums, he sang, he played the guitar and banjo. As kids, we had to take piano lessons, though I didn’t take it very seriously back then. Once I got to high school, I decided to be a drummer, like my dad,” Thomas said.
He spent his freshman year of high school working hard at the piano and went looking for a drum set teacher. A former member of the Florida Orchestra agreed to teach him, but there was a catch — he had to learn to play a variety of percussion instruments, not just the drum set.
“I played timpani and marimba and snare drums and enjoyed all of them. And funnily enough, I never studied the drum set with him. In high school I fell in love with all the mallet percussion, so vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, all the instruments that you can play melodies on,” he explained.
With a pre-determined interest in studying music and mathematics, Thomas was advised to apply to Swarthmore by the dean of his prep school. After a visit to campus, he made up his mind to continue his studies here.
“I found the math department and met a professor, Gene [Eugene] Klotz who was hilarious and just so friendly. He came in and told me all about the math department and how he was an amateur musician, so he really worked a lot with the music department. Everyone was just really welcoming and it was gorgeous. So I just applied! I’m so glad I went,” Thomas described.
Swarthmore’s interdisciplinary culture played a big role in his time here. For Thomas, math and music “go together.” He fondly recalled how every professor and staff member in the math department at the time was a musician in some way or another.
“Gene Klotz played electric bass, Helene Shapiro played the piano. Charles Grinstead accompanied the choir in the music department. So everyone played music at some level in the math department and it created wonderful links,” Thomas said.
While Thomas did play some jazz in high school, he discovered his true love for it at Swarthmore. He began playing jazz and popular music outside of class, as music courses were focused almost entirely on European classical music at that time.
“Between my sophomore and junior year, Swarthmore hired a new professor named John Alston. He had done his doctorate in music from Indiana University and studied jazz with David Baker, a legendary jazz teacher. So he came here and started offering a history of jazz class and I started learning under him,” Thomas explained.
He continued playing classical music for the programme but was mentored by Alston on the side. Alston is the Founding Director of the Chester Children’s Chorus, a prominent music program of the college that provides year-round music and math education to children in Chester, Pennsylvania.
“[Alston is] one of my best friends and we still stay in touch frequently. A big reason we became so close was that I didn’t know much back then. He came in, quizzing me on whether I knew anything about jazz. I gave him enough right answers for him to say, ‘Okay, I can work with you.’ And then he just kicked my butt for a few years and really lit a fire underneath me.”
Thomas went on to earn a Master of Music with Honors in Improvisation from the University of Michigan in 1994 and later completed his Doctor of Musical Art in Percussion Performance from the University of Washington in 2007. Thomas is both grateful for his “incredible education” and “solid foundation” in classical music that he received at Swarthmore.
Thomas’ thirst for knowledge led him to learning experiences outside the walls of higher education. In 2001, he found himself playing a lot of African and Puerto Rican music in salsa bands on percussion instruments.
“I realized I’m playing all this music and I don’t know anything about the dance. So I started taking salsa lessons and got really into it. After a year, one of my teachers asked me to try the tango and [at first] I thought it was boring, but I ended up falling in love with it. And after a while it came full circle. I thought, ‘I’m doing all this dance but I don’t know anything about Argentine music,’” Thomas said. He promptly bought a bandoneon and started practicing tango music.
The challenges of playing lesser-known instruments like the vibraphone and bandoneon are familiar to Thomas. He described people mistaking a vibraphone for a xylophone — the former is made of aluminum while the latter is made of wood. The bandoneon on the other hand has bellows and is frequently confused with the accordion though it more closely resembles a concertina, like that used for Irish and Folk music.
“They are unusual instruments. It’s given me opportunities and challenges. Part of the problem is that the US doesn’t have much tango music, it’s quite niche. So often I have to be the leader of the ensembles. Not a lot of band leaders think, “Oh I need a vibraphone.” They often need a bass player or a keyboard player. So that’s a challenge but on the other hand, it has made me get out and hustle for gigs and opportunities.”
Thomas has upcoming tours with the Atlas Tango Project, a band from Texas and will be performing chamber music in Dallas with an ensemble he is a part of from Seattle. He has released four albums as a band leader of entirely original work, and even more as a co-leader. In addition to his career as a performer, Thomas is also an educator. He is the chair of the Music Department at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington. Thomas started teaching at Highline in 2001 and went on the tenure track around 2005. Currently, he is focused on teaching theory and composition classes.
“I was 14 years old and I knew three things: I wanted to study music, math, and I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always known. My stepmother had been a teacher and I’ve just had some very powerful, influential professors throughout my life. Teaching has always been something I’ve wanted to do,” he explained.
For Thomas, music is all about being curious and putting yourself out there. His musical journey has featured multiple genres and instruments and continues to get more varied and colorful as time goes on.
“My advice for any Swarthmore students doing music, or any students really, is to study and play as many things as you can,” he says.
Thomas knows there is a divide between what is considered ‘artistic music’ and ‘popular music’ and believes that if artists only feed themselves a certain kind, like only classical or only jazz, it makes it very hard to find opportunities.
“Learn as many styles as possible and go in deep, don’t touch them tangentially. Give the music the respect it deserves.”
Learn more about Ben Thomas by visiting his website.