Ben Darwish didn't achieve overnight success as a jazz pianist - he struggled, worked hard and finally persevered, reaching a level of success that surprised even him.
In his first year as a student at Mt. Hood Community College, he didn't make the cut for either of the school's jazz ensembles: the MHCC Jazz Band or Genesis Vocal Ensemble. He recognized that he would need to work hard and practice to make it into either organization.
In his second year, he was accepted into both the Jazz Band and Genesis. He later transferred to the University of Oregon and earned a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies, and the school's prestigious Outstanding Undergraduate Performer in Jazz Studies award.
In college, Darwish set his sights on making his living as a jazz musician. However, it took the diversification of his skills into composing, arranging, and musical directing; a move from Portland to Los Angeles; and lots of patience and persistence for Darwish to even come close. Nearly a decade after earning his degree, that college goal seems more of a realization as he tours internationally with singer-songwriter sensation Mike Posner.
Mt. Hood Community College: You've had a busy couple of years. What are you most proud of having achieved lately?
Ben Darwish: The first year I was in Los Angeles was pretty scarce. I blew through my savings and found myself still without a gig after eight months. Fortunately, I persevered and landed this gig with Mike Posner just when I needed it. Since then, I've been extremely busy having toured for four months straight at one point in 2016. I'm most proud of taking the risk and making the move down to LA. Just the change of location has allowed me to pursue my music career full time with no ceiling in sight.
MHCC: What spurred you to move to LA, and was it a difficult or easy decision to make this move?
BD: Being a native, I had explored the music scene in Portland to its fullest. I joined a couple of bands that went on tour and played big shows, but I still wasn't happy with the level I was at. The opportunities in LA were much bigger so I decided to make the move. The biggest hurdle was a huge increase in the cost of living, so I spent a couple of years saving up for the move.
MHCC: How did you end up joining Mike Posner and is there something unique about Posner's music that really attracts you to playing with his band?
BD: I was recommended by a bassist, Wayne Miller, who use to live in Portland and who I met when I got to LA. He ended up putting together the band - a group of five incredibly talented musicians and great people. No one had to audition, which is rare in the LA music scene. Mike is an incredible musician - he's written hundreds of songs, several that have become major hits for other artists, and he's an exciting stage performer. I really appreciate the core values he follows and maintains for his organization. We are truly a band in the traditional sense and he doesn't want to be treated as a solo artist with a backing band, which is refreshing and musically liberating.
MHCC: What would you say has been one of the most surreal moments from your career?
BD: We [the Mike Posner band] played at the Capital FM Summertime Ball at Wembley Stadium [London] in front of 85,000 people. The energy in the place was electrifying. That was definitely a surreal moment!
MHCC: How did MHCC's music program prepare you for your current career? What skills did it teach you or tools did it provide that you still use today?
BD: MHCC's music program, paired with my private piano lessons with adjunct instructor Randy Porter, was the most challenging and educational experience I've had in preparing for a career in music. The music department's instructors were top notch: I had the Mt. Hood Jazz Band with Susie Jones (MHCC Board of Education Chair), theory with Dr. [Marshall] Tuttle, aural skills with Dave Barduhn, and more. In fact, when I got to MHCC, I didn't make either jazz band and was forced to work my way up through the ranks. When I transferred to the University of Oregon, I received a jazz scholarship, probably because I was so well prepared going in.
MHCC: What would you say are some of the biggest issues and barriers that young, up-and-coming musicians face today and why?
BD: Lack of industry. LA is really the only place in the nation that still has a thriving music industry. If you want to get really good at jazz, move to New York - but you'll probably still need a day job. If you want to make a career in music, LA is the place to be.
MHCC: What advice do you have for other young musicians, like those also studying at MHCC, as they pursue their career goals?
BD: Find a unique voice in whatever your pursuit may be. It's more important to stand out than to have all the technical skills. It's still very important to build a strong foundation, but if you actually want to make a career in music, find a way to stand out. Versatility is also key if you want to be in demand. In addition to playing an instrument or being a vocalist, it's important to be able to produce, write your own music, and have some technical skills. Creating your own music on programs like Logic or Ableton will go a long way.
MHCC: What are you most looking forward to in this new year?
BD: I'm just taking it as it comes. We have dates added every day and I don't know yet what the year has in store!
Ben Darwish and Mike Poser just finished up an acoustic tour of India before playing with the entire band at RedFestDXB in Dubai. The band will play the HK Dragonland Festival in Hong Kong and the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Florida before beginning a full tour of Mexico and the U.S. in April.