A! Magazine for the Arts

Youth Spotlight: Katherine Benson

June 28, 2011

Katherine Elise Benson, at only 17 years of age, is the prize winner of several local, state and national competitions. She has been invited to play with The Paramount Chamber Players during their 2011-2012 concert season and was one of only two dozen young pianists from around the world asked to audition last year for the Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Piano Program at Boston University in Massachusetts.

For Katherine, "The most exciting aspect of Tanglewood was that the Institute coincided with the Tanglewood Music Festival, an annual international festival where world-renowned musicians come together to perform and celebrate music. Fantastic concerts were held almost every evening. The entire summer was a musical feast of fantastic music and performances."

A nice surprise occurred during "amazing performances of Mahler's Second and Third Symphonies with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the complete Bach cello suites in a single concert, and Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, along with numerous other masterful performances." Katherine says, "Just before one performance began, I looked to my left and, lo and behold, Yo-Yo Ma was sitting just a few seats down from us. Though I did not get the chance to meet him, I was successful in getting a photo - albeit blurry - of him."

Katherine's musical awards include Knoxville Choral Society Competition first place piano and Lee University Piano Competition, both in 2009. She's a three-time winner of Tennessee Music Teacher's Association awards, and she's a four-time winner of Bristol Music Club scholarships, including first place in her age category.

As one of the scholarship winners, Katherine was among the young musicians who demonstrated their talents during the Bristol Music Club's annual fashion show and coffee fundraiser last November. Proceeds from the event went toward scholarships to help local youth pursue their education and their dreams in the field of music. To read all about it, visit www.artsmagazine.info (In Focus: Music Club 2010 Fundraiser).

"Having been born into a musical family, my fascination with music began when I was very young, long before I formally started piano lessons," Katherine says. "My mother, brother, and aunt all played piano and my father French horn. As soon as I was big enough to reach the piano, I started banging out melodies and tunes, several of which I developed into short but complete pieces with crazy names that I played over and over again." Katherine wrote her first complete composition when she was only three years old and named the short piece "Zereo Cramium."

Believe it or not, Katherine did not enjoy piano lessons when she started taking them at the age of six. "I refused to practice, denying the existence of my piano books and occasionally hiding them to escape the drudgery of piano lessons when I would rather be outside in the sunshine," she says. "Two years later, however, that piano suddenly appeared to me as something beautiful and satisfying."

The trigger was her mother practicing a piece called "Le Coucou" by Claude Daquin. "It was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard up to that point in my life," Katherine recalls, "and I was gripped with the desire to learn and master its technical challenges and charming character, despite the fact that its technical requirements far exceeded anything I had yet attempted. For the first time in my piano playing, I had an incentive to practice, and in all of a week I had mastered 'Le Coucou,' presenting it as a surprise for my piano teacher, who was utterly flabbergasted. For the first time, I had found a piece that I desperately wanted to learn."

Katherine currently is a piano student of Dr. Chih-long Hu at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). In addition, she studies composition with Dr. Maria Niederberger at ETSU and violin with Galena Timofeev, who teaches in Johnson City and Greeneville, Tenn.

Outside her musical studies, Katherine is a straight-A student at The University School at ETSU with a strong interest in science and math. She also enjoys writing, particularly poetry, and loves to draw.

The daughter of Dr. Paul and Betty Jean Benson of Jonesborough, Tenn., Katherine was born in Washington, D.C., and lived in the suburbs surrounding the nation's capital for the first 10 years of her life. She and her family moved to East Tennessee in the summer of 2004.

Katherine's father was a colonel in the military for 30 years before retiring into private practice as a dermatologist. Katherine says, "Several times he was sent overseas, and we would go as a family. Our vacations in both Germany and France took place when my father was stationed in Europe. Vacations to Bermuda, England, and Italy have been since my father joined a private practice and were family vacations."

She continues, "Traveling is a great love of mine, and I find the culture of China particularly rich, beautiful, and fascinating. Many of my friends in the ETSU Music Department are from China or Taiwan, and I would love to explore and become better acquainted with their native culture."

Katherine is getting a head start on that by studying the Mandarin Chinese language at The University School, where she is dual-enrolled in Chinese language and Physics.

Meanwhile, Katherine continues competing and winning awards. She says, "Competition provides an extra incentive to practice and expand my repertoire. The deadlines that competitions enforce make me concentrate on preparing and polishing works of music. Although competitions are initially stressful, I enjoy the opportunity to meet and talk with other young pianists who share my interests and understand what it means to be passionate about music, something that my friends in school have never been able to comprehend. I also look closely for competitions that will allow me the opportunity to meet and play for world-class pianists."

Katherine continues, "When constructing a program for a piano competition, I consider a variety of factors. Besides the obvious requirements set by competitions, I select pieces that not only complement each other but showcase my strengths in piano. For example, a Ballade by Chopin allows the pianist to exhibit lyricism and depth in musicality, while the intellectual works of Bach reveal technical ability and understanding of the basic harmonic structure within music. Perhaps one of the most important factors, however, in preparing a program is the selection of pieces that I am truly passionate about. It is much more enjoyable spending long hours in the practice room when I am enthusiastic about the pieces I am learning."

Her future plans have her considering multiple dual-enrollment programs across the nation where she can obtain a degree in a field of her choice while continuing her musical education in a conservatory. "I plan on making music a permanent part of my life and, following my advanced studies, I hope to compete and perform on a professional level internationally," she says.