Ben Folds recalls great UNCG mentor Robert Darnell

Posted on December 13, 2021

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Ben Folds, commencement speaker

Musician Ben Folds returned to UNCG last week to receive an honorary doctorate at Friday’s commencement. He addressed the graduates as well, during the ceremony.

The evening before, he gave the UNCG community a rare treat: a full hour of conversation and questions/answers about his approach to songs, his career, and his remarkable memories of UNCG in the 80s.

Folds enrolled in the UNCG School of Music in 1985.He lived in Guilford Residence Hall. He spent much of his time in Brown Building, home of the UNCG School of Music at the time. “It had all the names of composers surrounding the building. It was a really old-fashioned, old-school building.”

Robert A. Darnell, a towering figure on the School of Music faculty, became his mentor. As Folds put it, in starting his story, “The guy who I studied with, I didn’t really study with. Like, he told me stories, and he had me bring in my songs.” Darnell’s music studio overlooked Tate Street, he recalled.

How did he come to study under Darnell, who’d begun his career at UNCG (when it was Woman’s College) in 1949? As Folds laid out the tale, he’d been at the University of Miami. Now he was back in the Triad. He was in an entry-level piano course; he’d fool around and do a riff or a chord when all the students were supposed to hit a single note. But one day, a substitute instructor led the class; he appeared to be well into his 70s. 

“I thought, ‘Man, I really pulled one over this old guy.’ And then he goes, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘Ben.’ 

“‘Can I see you this afternoon – what are you doing?’ I went by his room and he has me try to sight-read something,” Fold told the audience – adding that he could not sight-read so well. 

“I was getting a kick out of what you were doing; it was pretty fun (back in the class). You know this song?” 

It was “Swanee River,” by Stephen Foster. Sure, Folds was familiar with that song. 

“He goes, ‘Can you just play the melody and you can harmonize any way you want to?’ So I reharmonized it three or four different ways; showed him what I could do with it. And he was like, ‘Would you like a scholarship to play piano?’ 

He would. And he reported to Darnell’s office overlooking Tate Street, with a wonderful piano ready for lessons. “We’re not going to do that. I’m just going to tell you some stories,” Folds recalled his mentor saying.

The stories for the rest of the year were about meeting Aaron Copeland, of going to Europe to study with Madame Boulanger, of his nervous breakdown earlier in life and encouraging Folds to take care of his own health. And they did work on piano as well, a lot, as the months went on.

As Folds says in “A Dream About Lighting Bugs,” a book of memories and essays, “The year of studying with Robert Darnell was formative, empowering, and inspiring.”

Folds’ story of his UNCG experience continued (he even ventured into media studies at UNCG and considered an English major, he explained – but moved on without graduating), mixed in with memories of the local music scene: of seeing Eugene Chadbourne play his electric rake (“He’s still alive!? That’s the best news I’ve heard all year!”), of REM playing on Tate Street, of his accompanying guitarist/songwriter Carlos Morales at Greensboro gigs. 

Once the highly produced pop/rock of the 80s gave way to the unadorned sound of the 90s, Folds was on his way. And after 9/11, his style fit what audiences wanted, he explained to the UNCG audience.

A multi-platinum recording artist, he also built a reputation on live performances. His recordings include pop albums with the Ben Folds Five, solo albums, and collaborative records. In recent years, he has performed internationally with symphony orchestras, and he now serves as artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

The Q&A’s moderator was Martha Bassett, musician and host of “The Martha Bassett Show” on WFDD. Bassett received her UNCG master’s in 1996. The final question Folds fielded led to his speaking about his style of songwriting, known for elements of humor and everyday scenes and situations.

“I like brave songwriting,” he said – but not false vulnerability. “Courageous songwriting is actually just what someone is thinking.”

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

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