"My scholarship helps to keep me going, and makes me want to do more for others."
Ben Shirley '19
BM, Technology and Applied Composition
My name is Ben Shirley and I am a proud member of the very first class to major in Technology and Applied Composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I am also a 51-year-old undergraduate. That's not a misprint. It's also not the most unusual thing you will read here. No one is more surprised by my story than I am, or more grateful for the telling. One thing is for sure: I wouldn't be where I am without a lot of help from a lot of people.
From a young age I loved music, even the kinds that weren't popular with my friends. Nothing else gave me so much joy or satisfaction. I learned the bass - the first of a number of instruments I would pick up - and knew that I wanted to create my own sound. By the age of 15 I was playing in clubs, and I got noticed. I ended up touring with some of the biggest bands of the time. I earned a little fame and fortune. You could say I was living the dream. But I wasn't happy.
I ended up on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and you can probably guess why. Addiction cost me my career, my relationships, my home, my health, and every cent I had. But losing everything was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. I've been in recovery - and sober - for five years.
I wouldn't have made it without the people at the Midnight Mission, an L.A.-based organization that not only met my basic needs but also helped me to feel alive again. I got the chance to go back to school. Being a versatile musician I wanted to learn Pro Tools - a computer-based program for composing, recording, and editing music - and I discovered that I had a knack for it. But at the local college, music and electronic media were separate majors, and it wasn't possible to mix and match. They were extremely supportive of me though, enabling me to do both simultaneously. That was 24 credits of coursework at once!
Eventually it was time to transfer. I couldn't have guessed that there was a program for music and media in the way that I imagined. But I discovered that it was just about to launch at the Conservatory: it was called Technology and Applied Composition (TAC for short). I was so excited that I didn't stop to think about how I was going to afford it. Once again help appeared, this time in the form of the Conservatory Scholarship. I wouldn't have been able to make the leap to the Conservatory without it. It's that simple.
Every Conservatory student has a story to tell, and I'm glad to tell you mine. If you have already made a gift in support of scholarships, I thank you. And if you haven't, please consider a gift at this time.
If I had to describe my Conservatory education in one word it would be "beautiful". I've never known a school to look after its students so well. All of the time I am asked, "What do you need? What can I do for you? Is this working out for you? Have you thought of trying this?" And no matter what I ask, the answer is yes, yes, yes. I've rediscovered the reasons I fell in love with music in the first place. It's like being a kid again.
I love my program. The studios and faculty are unbelievable. I also get to work with exceptional classical musicians, and this has been a rich resource for my compositions. The general education is mind blowing, especially my class with Nikolaus Hohmann. Academic study like this feels a lot like playing music - fluid and soulful with all kinds of unexpected connections. In short, I am immersed in cutting-edge production techniques, the finest classical music, and tremendous thought work - and this has been just the right formula for me to continue to explore my sound.
Outside of study I have a job in the library and I serve on the Student Advisory Council. We've come up with a lot of ideas for my fellow students, and we're talking about doing more things in the local community. I think that's important because we have it really good: most of us don't know what it's like to be down and out. Working in our community means helping others and learning the value of service.
I have known need in my life. There are so many kinds. People need food, shelter, clothes, kindness. So why support scholarships? Because you never know where someone is going to end up. My scholarship helps to keep me going, and makes me want to do more for others. Music means giving back. If you can't use music to help someone, what's the point?
As part of my application to the Conservatory I wrote a piece called Midnight to 12:01. The title refers to the end of a day and the start of a new one - a metaphor for my life. I'm blessed beyond anything. I feel like I'm in a dream every second I am in school at the Conservatory. And I am profoundly grateful to everyone who has helped me get here and stay here.
Consider making a gift in support of scholarships so that students like Ben can have the opportunity to pursue their talents and realize their full potential.