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Ben Houghton uses arts education to bring possibility to communities in need

04/22/2019

When Ben Houghton '10 enrolled as a piano major at Westminster Choir College in 2006, he jumped into campus life with both feet…and then some.

“One of my professors described me in that first semester as behaving ‘like a chicken running around with its head cut off,’” he recalls. “I wanted to do it all. I was a piano major, but I remember contemplating switching to music education or musical theatre early on in my first semester. I was in the fall musical, joined The Deaftones, the campus a cappella group, accompanied voice lessons, accompanied ballet classes at Princeton Ballet School, played viola in the Westminster Community Orchestra, and trumpet in the Princeton Scramble Band. I was hungry to do it all and I hadn’t learned how to say, ‘no.’”

When he was accepted into the musical theatre program at the end of his first semester, he paired down his extra-curricular obligations and set his sights on Broadway, while maintaining his dreams of being a concert pianist and a teacher.

After graduating in 2010, he headed to the Mt. Gretna Playhouse in central Pennsylvania for three months of summer stock. When the season ended in August, he moved to into a Harlem apartment, sight-unseen, and began auditioning and accompanying ballet classes.

He also carved out time to volunteer in Haiti with a church group from his hometown Richmond, Va., and in the Dominican Republic with Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP).

Art's Transformative Power

“I didn’t speak Spanish or Creole, but in both countries, I was surprised at the meaningful relationships I was able to develop with locals because of the connections we formed by singing or dancing together,” he recalls.  “I witnessed first hand the transcendent and transformative power art had on people living in extreme poverty. It provided a way for them to express joy and hope in a harsh environment that offered hardly any. The discovery that art had the ability to do all that made a profound impact on my soul. Art, for me, had primarily been about being correct or being the best. Now I saw a whole new world of what art truly was — an expression of shared humanity, a conduit for empathy with those with whom you thought you shared nothing, a possibility to imagine and create a better life.”

After returning from his travels, he was offered and accepted his dream job as a company pianist for American Ballet Theater, working with some of the greatest dancers in the world and getting to call the Metropolitan Opera House his office.

“But a part of me couldn’t shake the memories of the vast world beyond the crystal chandeliers and perfect technique,” he says. 

After 18 months of ignoring what he describes as a calling, he reached out to ASTEP to see if they had any positions available.  They did, and he quit his job and moved to India to teach music at Shanti Bhavan, a school that focuses on empowering children from impoverished backgrounds to take control of their lives and bring positive change to their families and communities.

His return to New York was emotionally confusing. “After spending four months eating simple rice and curry, bathing and washing my clothes in a bucket, and immersing myself in the stories and struggles of some of the poorest communities in the world, I was back in Manhattan — the mecca of wealth and abundance,” he recalls. “How could I justify the existence of both of these worlds in my mind? How could I continue living my life as an artist with great aspirations of fame and success, all the while remembering the 200-plus children I had just lived with whose great aspirations were to be able to provide for their families.”

Founding a nonprofit

Katy Pfaffl, another teaching-artist he met while in India, had the same reaction. She and Ben knew they had to do something to make sense of the two worlds now living inside of them, and they came up with Broadway’s Babies. It began as a concert of their Broadway friends that raised money to sponsor more teaching artists to travel to India.  The concert and other fundraising events were so successful that they were able to expand arts programming to more communities in need around the world, including the communities in Haiti who started Ben on his journey.

Inspired by the project’s success, Katy and Ben decided to establish Broadway’s Babies as a permanent nonprofit. But when they asked for advice from other nonprofits, they were told, “Don’t do it!” As pianists and teachers, neither had a background in business and they didn’t know the first thing about starting one.

So they started slowly and carefully. “We were a fiscally sponsored project of ASTEP’s for two years while we learned the basics of programming, fundraising, accounting, child-protection and nonprofit compliance,” he says.  “One of the most important pieces of advice we received was to focus on our strengths and delegate our weaknesses. We now have an accountant, bookkeeper, lawyer, and a board who help us tremendously and fill in any knowledge-gaps we may have.”

Since its start in 2016, Broadway’s Babies has grown to bring arts education to serve communities in Haiti, India and New York City with eight programs serving more than 400 students with 54 music, dance, and visual art classes per week.  The program provides consistent and cumulative programming led by teaching artists from within the communities they serve, partnering with administrators on the ground to create curricula that cater to the unique needs of each program. They find teachers through college workshops, posting positions online, and working with partner administrations to find qualified local teachers who are members of the community.

"Finding performers for our benefit shows in New York City is relatively easy,” he says. “Katy is a Broadway-veteran and voice teacher. She has countless students on Broadway, national tours and TV shows who all owe their success to her coaching and support. Their time and talent are usually no more than a phone call or text away. Also, our mission is very easy to get behind. Once people learn more about our programs and the stories of the students we support, they want to help in whatever ways they can.”

Finding balance

Managing a nonprofit can be a full-time job, leaving little time for his own work as a musician. How does he balance the two?

“I do what I’ve always done — play the piano,” Ben says. “I accompany voice lessons and ballet classes, have several private students, and I still work at American Ballet Theater a few weeks out of the year. There are so many eclectic performances happening at any given moment in New York that I am never at a loss for gigs. There was one month when I music directed WCC alum Cassandra Ruiz’s singing magic show starring, accompanied a drag queen in Sasha Velour’s Night Gowns, and performed 16 Brahms waltzes with a KMDM dance company.”

“I definitely approach performance and education in a whole new way — the priorities are in the soft-skills that can be gained: self-expression over technique, confidence over perfection, imagination over expectation, connection over acclaim,” he adds. “I used to lust after technical mastery, the best voices, the most celebrated careers, in a way that I don’t anymore. I still appreciate it and enjoy being around it, but the definition of what is “acceptable” and what is “good” is much broader for me now. Its all about sharing your story, being willing to take risks, being in community with one another, and if you can kick your face and sing a high C while doing it — more power to you!”

Learn more about Broadway’s Babies at www.broadwaysbabies.com.