Ben Gregg, Director of Academic Studies and a member of our Humanities faculty, has been part of the School community since 1999. With nearly two decades of Walnut Hill experience under his belt, Ben sat down with us to reflect on his time here on the Hill, as well as his outside interests.
1. You've been at Walnut Hill for nearly two decades now. How did you first end up here, and did you anticipate you were here to stay?
I came to Walnut Hill after three years at Beaver Country Day and one year at Falmouth Academy, as well as time spent earning a master's degree. Like a lot of young teachers, I was both building a career and going through a lot of changes in my personal life. I got married in the summer before coming to Walnut Hill, and those two big changes (marriage and WH) really set me up to be much more settled. I came to Walnut Hill as the head of the History Department, so there were some interesting leadership opportunities for me. Also, the mission of the School was really good for me, since I am a cellist and deeply committed to the arts for young people.
2. How has the School changed during your time here, and how has it stayed the same?
In many ways, the School today is the same as it was 18 years ago. The core schedule is the same, the key balance between arts and academics is the same, we have many of the same conversations about time and schedule and balance and international student support and student life, and all that. Sometimes I feel as though I'm in a time warp. On the other hand, a lot has changed for the better. The School has evolved to be more professional and more thorough in its program balance. We're still working on how this plays out in the life of the kids, but there is much more structure and support for students than there was 18 years ago, and much more strategic planning about program and student life. The beauty of the School then was that it was scrappier, more improvisational, and maybe more edgy. The beauty of the School now is that it is much more intentional, more engaged across the disciplines and with best practices, and more strategic.
3. Anyone who has watched our Telethon the past few years knows that in addition to your Walnut Hill duties, you are the inventor of an original musical instrument! Can you explain what the syphonium is, and how its creation came about?
I've slowed down in my instrument-making over the past five years, but for a while I was building a new instrument each year and performing with my inventions in Assembly before the Winter Break. I've played six or seven different new instruments over the years, some twice. I've recently stopped doing this because it feels a little attention-seeking. I think Telethon is a better venue for this, and I'm also looking for additional ways to connect with other inventors and players.
The syphonium is perhaps my greatest work. The idea came to me as I was washing some dishes and I noticed the tone created by water falling into water through a tube. I immediately tried out the basic principle using PVC, a bucket, and a garden hose in the backyard and discovered it worked extremely well. I knew I had to make a full instrument. That year, I put together my first prototype—the one I've played here several times. I have plans for a much more complete and complex instrument along the same principle, but we'll see when I find the time to build it. I've also built wind instruments and string instruments.
4. What is your favorite memory or experience from your years here on the Hill?
My favorite memories of my years here are all of students and student creativity. In my classes or in their art, I tend to cherish genuine invention over excellence. For example, when New Works brings student voices to the dance stage, I love that. I remember my first New Works when I saw student Kate Hutter's choreography—good lord, I thought, this is a high school? When Theater Department faculty member Naomi Bailis created NOLA and brought her political voice to life, I loved that and I wanted us all to talk about that much more. When Emily Smith was a 9th grader in my World History class, she created an entirely new writing system that used strung beads for phonetic sounds, and then she discovered that she could develop an entirely new form of poetry by creating chains and webs of these strung letters—whoa, a whole new idea never seen in the world before brought to life through thoughtful process, observation, and invention. These are the moments when the excellence and the creativity come together and really make the School and its mission shine.