Later this month, Pope Francis will make his first visit to the United States, and on hand to entertain him during the New York leg of his trip will be Polk State Music instructor Ben Pila.
“I’m going to play at my highest level,” Pila said. “But, in a lot of ways, it won’t be any different than if I were playing a local gig. When I play, I’m only focused on playing.” Pila is scheduled to perform for the pontiff on Sept. 25 at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
According to a release issued by the Memorial & Museum, Pope Francis will pay his respects to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and 1993 World Trade Center bombing amid the grove of oak trees planted at the site. Later, Pope Francis will lead a Multireligious Meeting for Peace inside the museum.
As of early September, event organizers had not yet informed Pila of the time or material he would be performing. Unnerving as that might seem, Pila does have one major advantage going into the papal performance: He’s played at that National September 11 Memorial & Museum on numerous occasions, and for similarly high-profile guests.
Between 2007-13, Pila was a mainstay performer during the Memorial & Museum’s annual anniversary event for families of Sept. 11 victims. During these years, Pila performed for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and shared the stage with the likes of James Taylor, Paul Simon, and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Today, Pila may be accustomed to performing for world leaders, but as a high-school student in Tampa, all he wanted to do was rock. Inspired by Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne, Pila, now 30, began his musical career by playing the electric guitar.
By his sophomore year, the school had a new music teacher, who taught classical guitar. Pila reluctantly switched instruments, begrudging the cumbersome finger-picking technique classical guitar requires.
For his final exam that year, Pila had to perform a classical piece. His teacher suggested he try Bourrée from Bach’s 1st Lute Suite. Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, used the opening notes of Bach’s piece in a song called “Dee” on Osbourne’s first album.
Pila learned the piece. Aced the exam. And converted to classical guitar.
“That piece really changed my life,” he said. “It was so difficult for me to learn — even though now I look back on it and it’s nothing compared to the other things I’ve learned to play. But it felt so good to learn it and accomplish something that seemed so impossible.”
From high school, Pila went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, his master’s degree from The Juilliard School, and his Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Southern California. In 2002, he also became the first — and to this day, only — classical guitarist to be named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
“I check every year to see if another classical guitarist has been selected, but so far I’m the only one,” he said.
It was through his Juilliard connections that Pila was invited to play at the Sept. 11 memorial events and for the pope.
Pila, even when he’s not performing for presidents and popes, stays busy with a constant stream of local gigs. At those events, he enjoys playing classical guitar versions of pop hits. His smartphone is full of recordings he’s made of himself strumming Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”
“When you play something familiar but in a totally different way, you help people to hear a different side of music,” he said. “You expand their definitions of good music. I’ve always thought a lot of people would like classical guitar, but before they can like it, they have to connect to it.”
For all the success he’s known on stage, Pila’s future interests lie in the classroom. The job opening at Polk State coincided perfectly with his planned return to his native Central Florida.
At Polk, he teaches a handful of novice guitarists to play, but also, he likes to think, to solve problems.
“In music, you’re learning how to get from point A to point B,” he said. “When you learn how to play music, you learn how to learn.”
Polk State Music Department Coordinator John Anderson said in addition to teaching students how to get from A to B, Pila is teaching students that anything in music — even playing for popes and presidents — is possible with hard work.
“We are thrilled to have him here,” Anderson said. “He is an exceptionally good teacher and to have someone his caliber here is a wonderful thing for our students. When you have students saying, ‘He’s really good,’ that says a lot.”
Prior to playing for Pope Francis, Pila will lend his talents to the Polk State College Foundation’s Wine for Wisdom event.
In addition to Music, Polk State Fine Arts includes Theatre and Visual Arts, all of which enjoy outstanding statewide reputations.