Handing Over the Keys: A Charitable Initiative from Ben Folds

Through a new funding project called Keys for Kids, the North Carolina-born pop star is creating opportunity for aspiring musicians.
by David Menconi

“Most rock musicians of my era would be doing a great service to admit where they got help along the way,” Ben Folds says. “I was lucky with the music teachers I had. They were great at encouragement, validation and teaching the right thing at the right time.”

It’s for that reason that Folds —a platinum-level pop star — started a charitable initiative called Keys For Kids this past May, using his fame to raise funds in support of arts education programs across North Carolina that provide instruments and lessons to young students who need them.

Folds has charted a highly unconventional course since his late-1990s peak, when Ben Folds Five were Chapel Hill’s biggest hitmakers. Since then, Folds has performed and recorded with everything from symphony orchestras to a cappella vocal groups, and even served as a celebrity judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off contest show.

Folds thinks enough of teachers that he dedicated a chapter of his best- selling 2019 memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons to remembering the best ones he had growing up in Winston-Salem. Of particular note was the legendary John “Chick” Shelton at Wiley Magnet Middle School (not to be confused with Raleigh’s Wiley Elementary School). Shelton taught generations of Winston’s finest aspiring musicians over the years, including Folds and members of bands like The dB’s and Let’s Active, and now the middle school’s band room is named after him.

“He could play any instrument in the band better than anyone, so he could show everyone in class how to do it right,” The dB’s co-leader Peter Holsapple remembers of Shelton. “He’s one of the three people who made me feel I could pursue music as a career and a life. I loved him dearly.”

After high school, Folds went on to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music on a drums/percussion scholarship, where he encountered a harder-edged class of teacher. (After seeing the 2014 film Whiplash, for which actor J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for his performance as a hot-headed jazz-drumming teacher, Folds even made inquiries to see if the character was based on one of his old Miami professors. The reply: “No, but a few people have asked that about him.”)

College was a high-pressure environment that ended with Folds throwing his drum kit in a lake after he had to perform his final with a broken hand. He flunked out.

“It was not the most positive experience, but I wouldn’t trade it, either,” Folds says of his brief college career. “They would turn students against each other, try to make you so uncomfortable that you’d push beyond what you’d normally do. In retrospect, I’m glad I got some scars to toughen me up.”

Within a few years, Folds was back in North Carolina playing in bands, eventually landing in Chapel Hill with the piano-pop trio Ben Folds Five. They caught on fast and had a hit single with “Brick,” plus a million-selling album with 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen.

Folds is still keeping busy, with current projects including a recurring role on the TV drama series The Wilds (in which he plays himself in hallucination form) and working on his first new album since 2015. But arts advocacy, especially Keys For Kids, is taking up a lot of his bandwidth.

On July 11, Folds played a livestream concert from Osceola Recording Studios in Raleigh, raising money in partnership with the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Arts Foundation. They, in
turn, will distribute the money to local nonprofits that offer both instruments and instruction of piano and keyboard to students who can’t afford them.

“It’s fantastic to have a musician with his track record and visibility wanting to help students,” says Wayne Martin, interim director of the North Carolina Arts Foundation, a Keys For Kids co-sponsor. “I do not know of anybody else at his level doing anything like this. Ben really remembers the teachers and mentors who inspired him, and he’s a deep thinker who wants to make the world a better place. I feel privileged to be his partner in this.”

For Folds, it’s less about creating future rock stars than the challenge, practice and joy of learning an instrument.

“I’m not trying to get kids to become musicians, necessarily,” Folds says. “But the discipline of learning to play music makes them better scientists, communi- cators, parents. The earlier you get kids playing music, the better it is.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.