Growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, Ben Macdonald’s earliest musical influence was his dad. “I got involved in music because my Dad has always had a huge passion and talent in music,” Ben told us in a recent interview. “My whole life he would always be playing/singing music and he passed that same passion on to me.”
That passion for music led Ben, now 18, to take music classes throughout high school (both vocal and instrumental), and eventually to begin piano lessons at age 15; since then he has taken lessons from Peter Shea, Stu Harrison, and Robi Botos. He feels strongly that youth should have access to music programs at school, and that music can play an extremely important role in young people’s lives. He believes that music has great value for youth, whether it is a future career, a hobby, a passion, or, as it is for him, an extremely meaningful way to worship.
Ben credits his music teachers, both inside and outside of school, for nurturing his development as a young musician. “I always had the most amazing music teachers,” he said. “My music teachers in high school, Eric Moccio and Jim Gay, are very talented musicians and two of the best teachers I have ever known. They always took an interest in helping me to excel and grow in my musical ability.”
Since beginning piano lessons in 2017, Ben has been an active performer in the Niagara region. That same year, he competed in the Niagara Jazz Festival’s Jazz 4 the Ages Youth Contest for the first time, and was named a runner up as a soloist in the 13-17 age category. In 2018, he was once again a runner up in the same age category, this time with the band, Disciples of Mountain.
In 2019, with only two years of training on piano, Ben was invited to participate in the official audio and video recording of the Music Monday Anthem, Oscar Peterson’s beloved “Hymn to Freedom.” For Ben, who lists Oscar Peterson as one of his musical influences, this was an incredible opportunity that he described as being “exceptionally fun.”
“I got involved in the Music Monday recording because Céline Peterson asked me to play piano on it. She heard me playing the song at one of my Dad’s shows in Toronto and then the next thing I knew, she asked me to play on the recording.” Though he’d never worked with either bassist Irene Harrett or drummer Worrell McFarlane in the past, he says they all got along well and that it felt natural to work together. “I had never worked with any of the other musicians before but it felt like I had. Considering how well we meshed together it seemed like I had played with them many times before. They were all some of the best musicians I have ever played with. It was such an honour to play with all of them and hear each of them make such amazing music.”
In addition to working with other talented young artists, the Music Monday Anthem recording gave Ben the opportunity to be mentored by award-winning jazz pianist Robi Botos. Though the two were in the recording studio together for only one day, the lessons Ben learned left a lasting impression. “The things that I learned from Robi during the time of the recording are some of the best lessons that I have learned for piano playing in my whole life. Even some little things that he taught me changed my playing incredibly for the better.”
Ben added that his admiration of Robi was twofold: for his skills as a musician and as a teacher. “He makes sense of everything so well when he is explaining it and teaching it… it was such an honour to have worked with and been taught by him.”
In March of 2019, Ben and his fellow young artists reunited to perform at the Youth4Music Toronto Leadership Symposium, where they treated youth delegates to a variety of jazz standards, including “Hymn to Freedom.” Since then, Ben had the opportunity to play in the Niagara Jazz Festival once again, and has been focusing on his role within his church.
“Music is one of the biggest ways that I worship… Most of my time spent playing music is either at home for personal worship and at different church services and events,” he told us. Ben regularly plays piano at his church (for Sunday services and for Youth Group), and in the last few months he’s focused on improving his skills as a pianist and singer in worship settings.
Up next for Ben, who attends Brock University, is an album of worship music, in collaboration with friends from his church. He describes this project as “an intimate worship album” that will consist mainly of piano, strings, and vocals. He’s been busy writing music that he plans to use both for this album and for future church services.
Highlights from Ben’s Niagara Jazz Festival performances can be found on Instagram.