A man of many firsts, Warren Benson has left a legacy for his friends, family and colleagues that has changed the worlds of percussion and composition.

Born Jan. 26, 1924 in Detroit, Mich. Benson was 81 when he passed away at Strong Memorial Hospital on Oct. 6.

Benson began his professional music career at the age of 17, playing timpani in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“He was particularly well- known for his work with percussion and wind instruments,” Benson’s former student and Eastman composition professor David Liptak said. “Warren was mostly a self-taught composer.”

Benson studied as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Michigan before beginning his worldwide adventure to make a significant impact in the world of music.

In 1950, Benson received a Fulbright Grant to teach at Anatolia College in Salonika, Greece.

Benson received the grant two years in a row and taught in Salonika from 1950 to 1952. During his time there, he established a five-year bilingual music curriculum and the first co-educational Anatolia College Chorale.

His teaching career continued long after Anatolia, as he went on to teach at Ithaca College for 14 years. He achieved yet another first when in 1953 he organized the first East Coast – and only second worldwide – touring percussion ensemble.

Benson came to Eastman as a professor of composition with a tenure from 1967 to 1993. While at Eastman, he received an Alumni Citation for Excellence, the Kilbourn Professorship for Distinguished Teaching and was also awarded the honor of being named University Mentor.

In 1994, he rose to the position of Professor Emeritus. Benson also took a position as a visiting professor at Southern Methodist University from 1986 to 1988.

“He was one of the early pioneers in percussion – he knew what to take out of the drum to make it more musical,” Eastman percussion professor John Beck said.

He was dynamic in his performance and composition of percussion and wind instruments. Benson helped found the Percussive Arts Society – the world’s largest percussion society – and was inducted into their hall of fame in 2003. The PAS’s goal is to spread music through percussion to the world in education, performance and research.

Throughout his life, Benson composed more than 100 works, which have been performed in nearly 40 countries. He received many awards for composition, including the John Simon Guggenheim Composer Fellowship, the Lillian Fairchild Award, a Citation of Excellence from the National Band Association, ASCAP Serious Music Awards and three National Endowment for the Arts composer commissions.

“He could make music out of anything, like the snare drum,” Beck said. “In his solos, he evoked quite a bit of musical potential out of the drum. He approached composition in the same way, making instruments sound well was his forte.”

In addition to all of his compositional achievements, Benson wrote voice songs and choral settings late in his life, including the 1999 publication of “And My Daddy Will Play the Drums: Limericks for Friends of Drummers.”

“Warren always spoke with a smile,” Beck said. “When you talked to him, you walked away feeling good. His music was always enjoyable and rewarding to play and I’m sure he conveyed the same impression to his composition students.”

Whitman can be reached at cwhitman@campustimes.org.

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