John Nagy | February 1, 2017
Last in a series of portraits of the people behind the making of the new instrument in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Before moving into his rental house in Seattle last year, Ben Wooley felt he needed to give his future housemates a warning. “Just so you know,” he told them, “I have a lot of instruments, and not all of them are going to fit in my room.”
He wasn’t kidding. Taking a mental tour through the home, Wooley, 23, counts a drum set, a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Fender Rhodes to match, a Hammond RT3 that is “90 to 95 percent functioning the way it should.” He’s tinkering with that one, “Frankensteining” parts for the speaker to get it to where it needs to be.
Then there’s an acoustic guitar. A clarinet. Flute. Trumpet. A couple of harmonicas. A ukulele. “I’ve got a recorder. And then I have two Chinese folk instruments. One’s an unblown flute and one’s a kind of resonator-recorder type thing.”
He pleads with his friends to play them — the keyboards in particular — so he doesn’t feel bad taking up the space.
Wooley’s life in music began early. His mother jokes that before he was born, she knew she’d be raising either a gymnast or a percussionist. He started on piano at age 5 and by middle school was taking the “jazz route,” playing percussion in his high school band. In old blues records he found his “passion for musical instruments as the kind of machines that they are”: The different sounds you’d get out of this or that, and what you could do if you fooled around with them for a little while.
By 2015, when he’d graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in materials science and engineering, Wooley figures that he’d spent more time in collegiate music ensembles, the marching band, the Fighting Illini basketball pep band and side projects like the eight-man, New Orleans-style Sixth Street Brass Band than he had in the laboratories and lecture halls.