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MYTHbuster #49

Part of the joy of a quality liberal arts education is the miraculous, life-changing discomfort of finding yourself tested in ways you never dreamed possible. It’s life outside your comfort zone.

Ben Sollee

Musical artist Ben Sollee

Imagine being asked to make sounds you never fathomed. Imagine being asked to question the foundation of your musicianship. Imagine doing this in front of your peers, your teachers, and a respected guest artist named Ben Sollee (who is responsible for pushing you along).

Imagine stretching yourself and being surprised to find yourself reveling in the process of discovery. 

Imagine freedom. That’s what sophomore math major Adrianne Tarpey found during a workshop for Transylvania students given by Ben Sollee.

Which leads us to MYTHbuster #49: True or false?

  • There is only one way to play the cello.

  • You can’t sing while playing the cello.

Like most classically trained cellists, Tarpey might, at one time, have been inclined to answer “true” to both. But that was before she met Ben Sollee.

Ben Sollee master class

When the genre-bending, one-of-a-kind cellist/singer/songwriter presented a master class with Transylvania’s musicians, the world of music and the cello, as Tarpey and others had known it, was changed forever.

It’s a bit like the world shifting on its axis.

Through improvisation, and by approaching the cello without the constraints of “right” or “wrong,” Sollee encouraged “a different kind of fun.” As Tarpey explains, “He strayed so far away from the little black dots on a page. He gave me a new sense of the instrument that I’d played for years. He gave us freedom.”

In fact, the newfound freedom made her regret she hadn’t been pushed to explore a similar path sooner. “It made me a little angry. The way I’ve been trained has been so structured—chained to a sheet of music.” 

Imagine the freedom to be creative and question the way things have always been done; the liberty to draw from within; and the option to explore the untested.

Tarpey asked Sollee how he came to use such different techniques. His answer surprised her. “He told us that it didn’t seem so far from how he’d been trained,” which, incidentally, included being taught by one of Transylvania’s own teachers, Clyde Beavers, the university’s Juilliard-trained cello instructor. “[Sollee] explained that he got a lot of that freeness from learning and working with musicians from around the world—people not limited to western ideas.”

The students also asked what he thinks about while he’s playing the cello…and singing.  “In an effort to illustrate what he does,” Tarpey recalls, “he burst into playing ‘Wagon Wheel,’ and he changed it up. He seemed so focused on the sound and his singing.” Expecting a complicated reply, Tarpey learned instead that his approach was simple. For Sollee, the complexities of playing and singing dissolve into the art of telling the story.

Tarpey understands that access to artists such as Sollee—what she calls the “colorful opportunities” at Transylvania—can take you outside of your comfort zone, challenge you to your core, pull the very best from you, and change your life forever. 

As a singing, songwriting, bicycling, activist cellist, Sollee offers a rare model for anyone who is interested in busting a few myths.

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