Ben Valine has stayed busy since he arrived at Belmont University in 2016. Now with a Master’s Degree in Commercial Guitar Performance, Valine is on the guitar faculty at Belmont and is finishing his second Master’s Degree in Viola performance. A talented performer with multiple instruments (I’m not sure there isn’t an instrument Ben can’t play), Valine took a serious, professional interest in music as a young teenager. “When I was a kid I always enjoyed playing music, but it wasn’t until I was thirteen that I decided to pursue it professionally. Since then I’ve been working towards building a musical career. I was blessed from a young age to learn from many remarkable teachers, including professional symphony musicians, improvisers and scholars of music theory. I’m grateful to have been given a well-rounded musical education that included both instrumental technique and comprehensive musicianship,” Valine remarked as he explained how his passion for music was ignited, “I’m particularly thankful that my parents fostered that development by giving me these opportunities as I was growing up. Since coming to Belmont University in 2016, I’ve continued my musical education with a number of great musicians and teachers. I’ve studied guitar with John Pell and Mike Valeras, and served as a graduate assistant for Tammy Rogers King for a year. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to study fiddle with Buddy Spicher, who has become a wonderful friend and mentor. We have played and recorded together multiple times since we met two years ago, which has been a great honor for me.”
On top of his teaching responsibilities and his studies for his next degree, Valine is the bandleader for a great friend to all of us at Lula 1892, Trey Ackerman, who has his own fascinating history in the industry and has recently released his first EP, dedicated to his family and the session musicians he grew up watching in studios across Nashville. “I met Trey a year and half ago when Buddy Spicher included me on a session for Trey’s EP. Since then, Trey has formed a backing band, and we will be playing some venues in the near future. Over the summer we recorded a few songs at Cinderella Sound Studio, Wayne Moss’s place out in Madison. I’m particularly interested in a Dee Moeller song we recorded, “Most of All.” I wrote the string parts and played a few instruments on that one. In addition to doing sessions in Nashville, I regularly get calls to record sessions in the Midwest, as well.” If that weren’t enough, Valine plays in guitar in the Belmont Bluegrass Ensemble, plays viola in both the orchestra and the jazz string quartet, and is writing a book on improvisation. “I’ve met so many classical musicians that don’t know how to apply their skills outside of reading the notes, so the intent of this book is to remedy that situation. From a pedagogical view, it’s kind of like a new frontier. It’s very exciting.” Valine plans to continue his session work after he finishes his second Master’s degree, and is open to the possibility of touring. “In addition to that, I plan to continue arranging for sessions. Nashville provides an interesting opportunity to merge a variety of musical skills. I’ve been fascinated with orchestration, counterpoint, and harmonic analysis for years. Sessions provide an avenue where these areas merge with commercial genres like Country. It’s a fascinating and rewarding intersection.”
With such talent in so many areas, we had to ask Valine if he had a favorite. “People as me this a lot and I always say it’s like trying to pick your favorite child! It really depends on the musical context, and my mood on a particular day. Right now I’m most active on banjo, acoustic guitar, viola and mandolin, which are the instruments that people request the most for gigs. I also play electric guitar, dobro, and pedal steel, mostly for recording sessions. People sometimes call me a utility player, but I don’t really like that label. I invested a lot of time developing a specialty on each of these instruments individually. The amazing thing is that playing multiple instruments can make you improve your skills on all of them if you work at it. Knowing the technique and improvisational vocabulary on mandolin can give you new material to work with on guitar, and vice versa. It’s like a musical feedback loop.” As far as inspiration and process for composing on these instruments, Valine’s process is unique. “I have synesthesia, meaning that I see music in color. How that actually happens is somewhat hard to explain, but what it boils down to, is that for me, combinations of color have specific and almost inevitable musical counterparts. It also means that different keys have completely different sounds to me. All I need to create a musical idea is a word or phrase that’s evocative of distinct color. From there it’s just a matter of manipulating the “creative spark” into a complete musical composition. There is precedent for this; composers such as Scriabin have used their synesthesia to compose. For me it informs not only composition but also improvisation. Having a visual cue makes it easy to play fills and ideas that fit within specific harmonic progressions.”
Ben was kind enough to sit down at Carter Vintage Guitars with Trey Ackerman and play us a little tune, “Ground Speed” by the great Earl Scruggs.