UNCSA percussion professor and 'artpreneurship' mentor wins Ford Musician Award for therapeutic group drumming

John Beck facilitates group drumming in hospitals and studies therapeutic benefits for cancer patients


Winston-Salem, N.C., May 31, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- John Beck, a music professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), is a recipient of a Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras.

Chair of the Brass and Percussion Department in the top-ranked UNCSA School of Music and principal percussionist of the Winston-Salem Symphony, Beck was honored for his outreach activities and research into the therapeutic benefits of interactive group drumming. 

Recognizing the transformative power of music, the awards honor orchestra musicians who employ music for the benefit of the greater community. The awards will be presented June 14 in Chicago during the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. They are funded by the philanthropic arm of the Ford Motor Company.

Beck seeks to document how community drumming can be used as an adjunct therapy for patients undergoing chemotherapy. Previous studies suggest that improvised music-making and movement not only improve mood, cognition and overall quality of life, but also boost immune system response and relieve neuropathy.

He began group drumming in hospitals as community outreach in Indianapolis in 2013, when he was president of the Percussive Arts Society, and now facilitates weekly community drumming circles with patients at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where he also conducts qualitative exploratory research to support grant applications for a multi-year quantitative study with neuroscientists and state-of-the-art brain mapping instruments.

At UNCSA, an arts conservatory focused on performance, Beck created an electives course about interactive group drumming for his undergraduate students, part of a curriculum that emphasizes entrepreneurship by artists.

At UNCSA, that is called ‘artpreneurship,’ and it is emphasized in each of the conservatory’s disciplines -- Dance, Drama, Filmmaking, and Design & Production in addition to Music.

Chancellor Lindsay Bierman defines an artpreneur “an artist who is not defined by what is, but inspired by all that could be; who is business savvy and technologically aware; who is devoted to creating value and impact through their creative practice; who reaches beyond existing disciplines to create new ways to connect with others; who is willing to take creative risks in order to positively transform our world.”

School of Music Dean Brian Cole says Beck embodies artpreneurship and mentors his students to look for innovative ways to use their conservatory training.

“John has created four courses that help students explore broader opportunities for careers in music-making,” Cole says. “His vision and passion are an inspiration for his students and for the faculty. We’re happy to see him earn national recognition for something that means so much to him and has such a profound impact on his students.”

One of Beck’s students, Douglas Rowe, received his Master of Music degree this year and was awarded a $2,500 artpreneurship grant – part of the Chancellor’s Artpreneurship Initiative – to purchase equipment for his own community drumming enterprise.

Trained by Beck as a drum circle facilitator, Rowe will continue his work in communities such as retirement homes, parks, schools and after-school programs, and would also like to explore the realm of health drumming.

“I have always been interested with the concept of bringing drumming into the community,” Rowe says. “I feel that it is important to facilitate community gatherings in order to break barriers, whether it be race, gender, disabilities, etc.”

Beck said his students of every level from high school through graduate school attend interactive group drumming sessions with him at the hospital, the YMCA, and in local schools. One of his former high school percussionists is currently enrolled in a music therapy program at East Carolina University.

“A music therapy degree and a music performance degree are very different,” he says. “At UNCSA, we are not currently in a position to start a degree program in music therapy, but we can certainly help direct students better.”

Beck says the creative community must continually adapt to stay relevant in today’s marketplace. “Going to the concert hall to listen to the orchestra is no longer an important social thing to do. We have to reinvent ourselves, to explore different ways that the arts can intersect with society.”

Last year, Beck received a Faculty Leadership Grant from UNCSA’s Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts for his project titled “Community Drumming in Cancer.” The grants are designed to give UNCSA faculty opportunities to lead, engage diverse stakeholders, and explore creative strategies and initiatives for further study or implementation.

The Kenan Institute grant allowed Beck to visit seven universities that offer degree programs in music therapy to learn more about how to train students for careers in the field.

“It’s been educational for me to talk with these music therapists and learn about their struggle in convincing the medical community that music can be a viable, non-pharmacological treatment,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about how I can do it better, but also about the landscape of music in medicine.” 

For Beck, the work is quite personal. His first wife, a fellow musician, died after a struggle with cervical cancer in the mid-1990s.

“It is why I have a passion for it — because I have lived the cancer experience from the primary caregiver’s perspective and I know how helpless it feels,” he says.

Local arts leaders praise Beck’s community outreach. 

“An exceptional and highly respected musician, educator and leader in his field, John is dedicated to the power of music therapy for patients and families battling debilitating treatments and fighting terminal illnesses,” says Merritt Vale, president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Symphony. “His work helps transform circumstances that often rob people of all sense of control, dignity, and joy into a source of relief from anxiety and pain, and provides a ‘safe’ outlet for often intense internalized emotions.”

Corey Madden, executive director of the Kenan Institute for the Arts, says Beck is a role model for highlighting the contributions that artists can make to a community. “Artists like John who contribute their creative ideas, visionary leadership and novel strategies help to strengthen our culture. The partnerships he has formed with medical and educational organizations demonstrate the power of the arts  to transform lives and communities. We’re very proud to have supported his efforts, and we offer our heartfelt congratulations to him and to the Winston-Salem Symphony.”

The Ford Musician Award includes a $2,500 stipend for Beck and a matching grant to the Winston-Salem Symphony to support professional development focused on community service and engagement for musicians.

Beck has taught percussion at UNCSA since 1998. He performs with both the Winston-Salem and Greensboro symphonies and with Brass Band of Battle Creek and the Philidor Percussion Group. A former member of the United States Marine Band, for 10 years he also performed regularly with the National and Baltimore symphonies, Washington and Baltimore operas, and the Theater Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center. Beck has toured the United States as a xylophone soloist with the Jack Daniel's Silver Cornet Band, Brass Band of Battle Creek, and the New Sousa Band. He is a Past President of the Percussive Arts Society and presents clinics endorsing Yamaha percussion instruments, Zildjian cymbals, and Innovative mallets and is a Remo Endorsed Drum Circle Facilitator in the health and wellness community.

The UNCSA School of Music was ranked No. 5 by The Hollywood Reporter on its list of 25 “best music schools.” The list included 24 schools in the United States and the Royal College of Music in London.



John Beck (upper right wearing slacks) conducts a drumming circle for percussion students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. John Beck is chair of the Brass and Percussion Department of the UNCSA School of Music and principal percussionist for the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra.

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