New faculty: Ben Geyer

Mount Holyoke’s Ben Geyer loves music for its role as a window into people’s mindsets; he’s also written a foundational textbook focusing on equitable music theory curriculum and implementation.

Music theorist, bandleader and pianist, Ben Geyer said his love of music started at the piano as an eight year old in southern New Hampshire. While many kids balk at practicing, he couldn’t get enough of both the sound and the stories behind the music.

“I started being excited about music as a window into whoever wrote a piece. I had empathy for them. I wanted to understand where they were coming from,” he recalled.

Geyer auditioned as a classical piano major at the University of Miami, switching to studio music and jazz midway through. He went on to earn an M.M. from Purchase College (SUNY) in jazz studies and a Ph.D. in music theory from the University of Kentucky. His dissertations focused on the compositions of pioneering jazz pianist and master improviser Thelonious Monk and jazz orchestra leader Maria Schneider.

“Jazz has this aspect of groove to it, this sense of rhythm. I also find it interesting, challenging and rewarding that it’s an improvised music,” he said.

He also authored “Music Theory in Mind and Culture,” a foundational textbook focusing on equitable music theory curriculum and implementation. Along the way, he found time to record two subtle and moody jazz albums, “The Acadian Orogeny” and “The Narrative,” and perform live at legendary spots like New York City’s Cutting Room and Boston’s Middle East — and even on Norwegian cruise lines as a showband pianist.

All the while, New England and a life closer to home beckoned, and so did the allure of a liberal arts college. Geyer joined Mount Holyoke as a lecturer in music this fall.

“I’m used to studying and teaching in environments that are really intense professional training grounds. That’s very much not what Mount Holyoke’s music department is about. It’s emblematic of a liberal arts education; it’s about exposure to a number of different areas, lenses or perspectives while the faculty has diverse backgrounds and identities,” he said.

On campus, he’s particularly excited about Pop Song Jazz Tune, a music theory class analyzing pop and jazz.

“We’re studying different approaches to understanding each of those traditions, culminating with students doing creative projects in which they create a jazz tune and a pop song in each respective unit. I’ve taught this as theory, where there are exercises and texts, but I’ve never taught this material in such an applied way,” he said. “I’m really interested in how, within those frameworks, which really serve as constraints, people still find a way to be personal and individual and expressive.”

Off campus, he’s equally expressive. Geyer lives in South Hadley with his spouse, Samantha, and feline, Hermie, where he mixes more than music: He enjoys creating craft cocktails and cooking, giving himself over to artistic inspiration when the mood strikes.

That’s how he describes Mount Holyoke, too: “It’s resistance-free. Students go with you — they’re excited to engage,” he said.

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