Composer and Music Alumnus Benjamin C.S. Boyle Reflects on his Education at USF

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Benjamin C.S. Boyle is a composer and music educator living in Philadelphia who began his musical training at USF.

Boyle was 16 when he enrolled at the university. He went on to earn a master's degree in composition from Peabody Institute and a doctorate degree in composition from the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, he affirms that a strong music program at a state university like USF is the right place for dedicated young musicians to begin their studies.

Aside from his public high school music classes in Maryland, Boyle had no formal training in music before college.

"I loved it from early on, and I practiced all the time. I did everything I could," said Boyle. "But I didn't really have any support to help with that."

Boyle auditioned to the USF School of Music for clarinet, piano, and composition. He was accepted to the school for all three. Boyle elected to dual major in both piano performance and music composition, studying with Robert Helps and Hilton Jones, respectively.

Helps, a renowned pianist and composer, attracted Boyle to studying at USF.

"He was an amazing teacher," said Boyle.

Helps gave him the structure he needed to succeed as a pianist. He acted as a mentor figure and introduced Boyle to the expectations of a professional musician.

Outside of lessons, Helps immersed Boyle in a classical music scene through the orchestral musicians who would come to visit him.

"It was all fun and games outside of the studio, but when we had our one-hour lessons, there was no screwing around," said Boyle. "He kind of demanded excellence and that you put in the time, which, for me, was the right approach."

Boyle remembers Helps pushing him to perform outside his comfort zone. Helps helped Boyle to explore works unfamiliar to him, such as works by composers such as Brahms, Debussy, and Schoenberg.

Boyle also studied with USF professor of cello and chamber music Scott Kluksdahl, who shaped Boyle's understanding of how to accompany in the chamber music world. Years later, he would go on to play music composed by Boyle.

Boyle remembers not only his talented mentors but also time spent with his peers in the music building, now the Fine Arts Hall, the current home of the School of Art and Art History.

Boyle and his peers would congregate in the air-conditioned practice rooms, sometimes in the middle of the night, to practice and socialize in the warm Florida days and nights — unfamiliar weather to Boyle at the time.

"You could always walk around and see what everybody was doing," said Boyle. "Come out to the middle, hang out with your friends. I just have a lot of fond memories of that space."

Boyle graduated from USF in just three years. After completing a master's program in composition at Peabody, he took a year off before enrolling in the music composition doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Graduating at the age of 25, he became the youngest person to ever receive a doctorate from the program.

Today Boyle teaches private composition lessons to a studio of about 30, most of which are students at the doctoral level or above. He teaches students from all over the world via the video chat software Skype.

This summer, he concluded his 19th season of teaching at the European American Musical Alliance Summer Music Institute in Paris. Boyle serves as associate director of the program.

Each summer, Boyle teaches composers, performers, and conductors in an intensive month-long program teaching in the method of the renowned 20th-century composer, conductor, and educator Nadia Boulanger. Her teaching style centers around counterpoint, harmony, musicianship, musical analysis and the singing of chorales.

In his own practice, Boyle composes four to six new works each year. He composes in a variety of genres, but his specialty is art songs, pieces for vocalists with accompaniment that typically include a text, such as a poem.

He says he gravitates toward art songs for his love of poetry, working with singers, and the sense of intimacy afforded in the performance of art songs.

"You can work with a really fine paintbrush," said Boyle.

To him, art songs offer a sense of closeness that can't be achieved by a symphony orchestra.

"It's very hard to be intimate with 150 people, but when it's just a singer and pianist, you can get into great detail that you wouldn't otherwise," said Boyle.

Boyle's recent works include a CD with his friend, longtime collaborator, and marimbist Makoto Nakura. The recording, titled Prayers and Tears, includes Boyle's piece Les bois du paradis for piano and marimba. Boyle plays piano in this recording, making this CD his first release as a pianist.

On June 17, the Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing performed the world premiere of Boyle's Voyages, a cantata set to Hart Crane's poem of the same name.

The 30-minute work, commissioned by the Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing, took Boyle nine months to write and debuted next to Robert Convery's piece set to the same poem and commissioned 25 years earlier by The Crossing.

In February 2018, Boyle's piece Spirits in Bondage won the National Associations of Teachers of Singing Art Song Competition. Boyle received a cash prize and had his piece performed at the organization's national conference in Las Vegas.

As Boyle continues to take on a variety of commissions and his students become talented young professionals, he is pleased that he began his studies at USF and used his the opportunity to help him get where he is today.

"For me, having an undergraduate education at USF that was well rounded — eighty percent music and twenty percent other things I didn't get in high school and was interested in — that was a really good idea. Then I could go to conservatory after that and become a specialist in the field."