headshot of Case Western Reserve University marching band director Benjamin Helton

5 questions with… Spartan Marching Band Director Benjamin Helton

When Benjamin Helton leads the Spartan Marching Band onto DiSanto Field Saturday to open the 2018 Case Western Reserve University football season, the audience is sure to recognize the tunes.

Helton chooses what he considers classic collegiate marching band music that “keeps the crowd—and the student section, especially—into football games.”

And his choice for the season opener was as much about being practical as it was fun: songs from popular Disney films.

Helton, who’s entering his second year as band director, wanted a song list that not only encouraged band members to flex their musical abilities, but was somewhat familiar to them—because they had only a week to prepare, compared to the usual several weeks between performances.

This year, Helton is most looking forward to the band’s homecoming show Saturday, Oct. 13, against St. Vincent College. Themed “Ode to Cleveland Weather,” the band’s halftime performance will feature renditions of a song by Earth, Wind and Fire, “Let It Go” from Frozen, and an arrangement of the classic The Weather Girls song “It’s Raining Men.”

Though Helton thinks the student who initially suggested the Cleveland weather theme might have been joking, he thought the idea was “brilliant.”

And, fittingly, Helton reflects most fondly on the band’s performances marked by inclement weather. During one late-October game last year—at which students were wearing Halloween costumes—it sleeted throughout.

“It’s times like those that people remember,” Helton said. “It might be terrible at the time, and you might hate it at the time, but then you think back and you’re like, ‘That was kind of awesome.’ It sticks in your mind and you remember the people you were with and how you still made it through.”

Path to CWRU

Before coming to Case Western Reserve, Helton taught fifth- through 12th-graders in western Illinois for two years and then returned home to the Chicago area as a high school band director for four years.

Ultimately, though, Helton, who also is an assistant professor of music, wanted to teach college students and conduct education research, which made the director position at Case Western Reserve a perfect fit. Helton’s research primarily focuses on education policy and teacher assessment.

“One of my firm beliefs in education is assessment should be purposeful,” Helton said. “A student should feel like they’re learning something through the process. Testing for testing’s sake means nothing to me. I want to know that a student understands what’s being assessed, why they’re being assessed and what they’re gaining through the experience.”

The community can hear the band at the Spartans’ season opener Saturday at 7 p.m. against the University of Rochester. But first, learn more about him in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s your favorite poem or poet?

One is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot. I think its general message about aging and time is really poignant. I always think of the line, “There will be time, there will be time.” And the whole point is there won’t be time. I just like the assertion and the arrogance of the narrator in thinking of this and reflecting on all the things they missed.

The other one is When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman. I use it as a professional reminder to not lose the forest in the trees. In academics, we can often get very granular in how we look at things, and especially music and teaching. We can’t forget why we were attracted to it in the first place.

2. Do you prefer e-readers or actual books?

Books. I’ve done e-readers, but there’s something about actually sitting there, holding a physical book, that you just can’t replace.

3. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

One of my undergraduate teachers said: “Kids don’t take band; they take you.” I remember that because I’m the one who manages the tone of the band. If I’m unapproachable and rigid and I have one way of doing things, that’s going to be reflected in what the band is. I always need to be aware of the environment I am facilitating and the experience of the students.

4. If you were to become famous for something, for what do you think it would be?

I think one of the interesting elements in today’s society right now is that fame and popularity are so ephemeral. What is lasting fame? And how do you attain that in today’s internet society?

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

By far, it’s the students. It’s what keeps me motivated and grounded. When I’m reading what I’m working on right here—mixed methodology, hermeneutic understanding, critique and power—all these high-minded philosophical debates, it gets really easy to get too in my own head. And then I think, oh wait, I’ve got to go teach marching band this afternoon! When you genuinely interact with students and you share an activity and you share experience, it reminds you who it’s all about. It is about the students. It is about their learning.