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June 4, 2011

 

Bluegrass musician returns home to chat with, play for students

AlumJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Homer High School alum Ben Wright plays for students outside the school with his bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers Friday.

By SCOTT CONROE
Staff Reporter
sconroe@cortlandstandard.net

HOMER — Ben Wright stood in the sun Friday outside a back entrance to his alma mater and told students what his career as a bluegrass musician has been like.
“This started when I moved to Chicago and bought a banjo on a whim,” he told a small crowd while his band, Henhouse Prowlers, took a break from playing to the school picnic. “I was 23. ... We do about 220 or more shows a year. This part (performing) is about 10 percent of what we do. The rest of the time, we’re in a van, on the computer trying to promote our shows.”
The 1995 Homer High School graduate said a musician’s life is a lot of work, more than he imagined in his youth.
Junior Sam Tesoriero listened along with his brother Luke, a sophomore, and sophomore Tom Belton, junior Tom Horton and freshmen Lukas Pizzola and Jimmy McLorn.
Earlier, they had asked Wright and the other three members of his band about balancing their band as a business with performing.
Sam Tesoriero had stayed at the school for the day rather than join most of the junior class on its annual picnic day at Whitney Point’s Dorchester Park. He said he plays bass and mandolin, and he was regretting that he had left his mandolin home.
The four-member band performed on the school’s back patio, while freshmen and sophomores ate picnic lunches on the grass or stood, tapping their feet to the music. The senior class was on its annual trip to Hershey, Pa.
Wright, 32, spent the day in his hometown, speaking with intermediate and high school students. The Henhouse Prowlers performed Friday evening at the Homer Center for the Performing Arts, across the Green from the house he grew up in.
The band visited the schools at the invitation of high school social studies teacher Joe Cortese, who had Wright as a student in American history and spoke to him via Facebook. Wright remembered his class and the way Cortese used music in it, such as playing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song during a lesson about the Vietnam War.
“He’s one of you,” Cortese told the students in introducing Wright and the band.
Wright said his band is accustomed to teaching, whether it takes the form of lessons given in person or via Skype, or speaking in schools.
The band spent three weeks teaching in Evanston, Ill., schools before hitting the road for its current tour in Pennsylvania and New York.
“I would love to do this half of the time,” he said during another break. He said he talks to high school students on their own level but with younger students, he and the band focus on the elements of music itself, such as rhythm.
“We describe our instruments and how we build a song, then we talk about voice, the fifth instrument,” Wright said.
Wright said the band had answered questions for 30 minutes during a morning appearance at Homer Intermediate School. He said he’d squirmed as teachers described him to students as an example of perseverance and hard work.
He paused because while he and the band were eating lunch in the shade, Horton and McLorn were playing guitars and singing at the microphone where he had just stood. He listened and then called to McLorn that his voice was outstanding.
Wright said he sang in chorus at Homer High School but did not really try an instrument, after playing clarinet in intermediate school.
But his mother, Ginny — watching him perform from nearby — said Ben always loved music.
She is not surprised her son enjoys interacting with students since “he comes from a family of teachers.” She is retired from teaching fourth grade at Barry Elementary School in Cortland. Wright’s father, Don, is a retired SUNY Cortland history professor.
The Henhouse Prowlers came to Homer after performing Thursday in Pittsburgh. They were to perform tonight in Williamsport, Pa.
Wright admitted to some nerves over playing at his high school and then in the village itself. He told the students they were lucky to begin playing guitar or bass or mandolin at a young age.
Wright said he gives lessons via YouTube or Skype but they do not match playing with someone in person.
“You can’t jam,” he said.
“You can’t find a groove,” one of the students said.
“Yeah, find a groove,” Wright said. “You can jell but you can’t jell with YouTube.”

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