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CCRI alumnus excels at London’s Royal Academy of Music
Sept. 6, 2013
Music conservatory programs are typically home to prodigies – men and women who picked up their first string bow as young as age 4 and who read music while their counterparts played with brightly colored, age-appropriate toys. This is the case at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where Community College of Rhode Island alumnus Joseph Bentley landed two years ago. And in an environment where exceptional students were the rule, Bentley, who held his first double bass when he was an 18-year-old student in his first year at CCRI, was no less impressive.
Now 27, far from the self-described “high-school slacker” he was when he entered CCRI in Fall 2004, Bentley seems preternaturally poised – most at home when holding his double bass, an 19th-century instrument that exudes rich notes that thrum from deep within its wood and seem to hang in the atmosphere. “I’m useless without it and it’s useless without me,” he joked.
It’s hard to imagine that it was less than 10 years ago that Bentley walked into CCRI and picked up his first double bass. Although he’d been interested in music since hearing Aerosmith on the radio at an early age after a summer picnic, he couldn’t read music – an unusual deficiency for music major.
Self-taught on the bass guitar since his parents got him and his brother guitars for Christmas when they were 13 and 15, Bentley was always an active musician, but not in any classical sense. He’d had other plans, in fact. A serious football player and wrestler, a shoulder injury sidelined both his athletic career and his aspirations of joining the Army Rangers. But around the time he decided to major in music at CCRI, something had changed inside of him.
“I thought I might as well give playing music professionally a shot,” said the Cranston native, who auditioned at Berklee College of Music but found that his lack of formal training was an obstacle. “I didn’t know what college was all about, but I knew I could figure it out at CCRI. I started taking music theory classes, sight reading classes and chorus, and really started to enjoy getting deeper into it. I knew I wanted to make music with more subtlety.”
That subtlety is what eventually attracted him to the double bass. Though he’ll always love rock ’n’ roll for its own merits, something about classical music resonated with Bentley. His philosophical appreciation for the arts is clear when he speaks of watching his father, a career employee at Amtrol who is a flautist and a gardener in his spare time.
“Creativity goes much further than the arts,” said Bentley, who also gave a nod to his mother’s creativity, which shines through in her cooking. “You can be a creative businessman, a creative teacher, a creative carpenter. It’s all about the imagination.”
That creativity, combined with what he saw as a supportive and flexible environment at CCRI, led Bentley to think of bigger and better things. “If I did what I did here and just picked up the double bass for the first time at age 18 without knowing how to read music, I would have gotten laughed out of any other school. I had the freedom to do what I wanted, and CCRI was a place that taught me that could happen,” he said, citing his professors Eliot Porter, Cheri D. Markward, and Drs. Susie Swenson and Joseph J. Amante y Zapata as crucial influences.
His professors encouraged him to look beyond the boundaries of the Ocean State, where he’d been all his life, save a few weekend trips here and there. “They’d all been other places or were from other places,” he said, “and they told me that I needed to get out of Rhode Island and see what the world is like.”
Looking to the future, he transferred to Rhode Island College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and began to think of his next steps. Between full-time classes, full-time work off campus, playing and volunteering at his church, and practicing up to four hours a day, Bentley’s time was stretched thin. “I definitely wasn’t sleeping enough,” he said, laughing at his younger self.
After earning his bachelor’s from RIC, he knew that his next step would be a master’s level program. “I needed to push myself; stretch to become my best musical self. I knew I needed something else if I was really going to compete and become the artist I wanted to become,” he said.
But Bentley felt that he wasn’t quite ready. He said his time at CCRI and RIC had helped him find his direction, but now he needed the tools to steer it. So he lived at home to save money, working full time at Starbucks and practicing daily, wherever and whenever he could. After a year of preparing, he auditioned for conservatory programs and awaited the news.
“I never dreamed I’d get into the Royal Academy,” he said of his eventual destination. “I was basically waiting for my rejection letter when the acceptance arrived.”
Two years in London opened up the world for Bentley, and not just musically. He said the global representation of culture represented in both the city and the school was wonderful, and he took every chance he got to question his fellow students about what it was like back home. Though he admits the cultural adjustment took a little while (“I always thought I was a funny guy, but the British sense of humor is very deadpan, very different. I’d make a joke and they would look at me like I’d just done something criminal”), it wasn’t long before it was smooth sailing, as he’d been counseled by former students to come with an open mind and be ready to work. And in the life he started living since his time at CCRI, no matter how challenging, work ethic has never been an issue for Bentley.
“I think the experience of knowing your roots is very important. There’s something to be said about putting your nose to the grindstone and doing your work and moving forward. Not everybody has a wonderful, glamorous job, and being a musician isn’t always wonderful or glamorous. It’s not even always fun. But my time at CCRI showed me that the most important thing you can do is find something that you love to do and that you can do that thing. It’s not unattainable,” he said.
Back home after graduation, Bentley is preparing for auditions again. Permanent symphony spots are exceedingly competitive and attaining them is rare. But Bentley continues to work hard, practice and scoop up freelance gigs where he can. He also garners much inspiration from his work doing educational outreach at the academy to ex-prisoners and children with developmental disabilities, and knows that, no matter the form, his work can take on a higher meaning if he keeps playing for the love of it.
“In addition to performing, the musician can have a very important role in the rest of society,” he said. “Making music is part of what makes life worth living. You can inspire people, and you can create experiences that will not exist anywhere else outside of music and art in general. And I think we can use that very powerfully. We can use it to change the world, even if it’s just one person’s world.”