“It Fueled My Fire”: How the Benenson Award in the Arts Fosters Artistic Growth

Each year, Duke University grants Benenson Awards in the Arts, which provide provide funding for fees, travel, and other educational expenses for arts-centered projects proposed by undergraduates (including graduating seniors). Ahead of the 2022 Benenson Awards application deadline, we spoke with Sophie Caplin ’18, who received a Benenson Award as a Duke junior in 2016. She used her funding to attend the summer Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin College, where she studied baroque music and performance. Since graduating from Duke in 2018, Caplin has received a master’s in music performance from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

learn more & apply

Caplin performing a scene from Nozze di Figaro with Thandolwethu Mamba ’20 at Duke Opera Workshop 2018.

How did your undergraduate arts experiences in music and theater influence your Benenson project proposal?

I became very passionate about music and singing my sophomore year. I broke my right arm right before travel season (I was on the fencing team) and suddenly had twenty-plus hours a week of time I wasn’t used to having. I started getting involved in the arts as an outlet to fill the void of training and competing while I healed. I put a lot of time and energy into voice lessons during that period, as well as performing with Antic Shakespeare and doing design work for Duke Players. This gift of time due to my injury gave me the opportunity to explore my passion for music and theater, and made me realize that I wanted to pursue music performance professionally. I sought out as many opportunities as I could to gain experience.

Why did you decide to attend a conservatory?

Duke has a very small music department. For example, I was one of four graduating music majors in 2018, and the only vocalist. The music department has amazing music and voice faculty, but very few performance opportunities. The focus is definitely more on composition and musicology. Duke is, after all, a research institution.

In undergrad, I had to really hustle to seek out and often create performance opportunities for myself. The Benenson Award is an amazing opportunity to do just that. I used mine to seek out specific training that was not available to me otherwise. I wanted the opportunity to train at a high level in an environment where music was the focus. I was especially passionate about baroque music, and Penelope Jensen (a voice teacher at Duke) saw that and encouraged me to come to Baroque Performance Institute (BPI) at Oberlin College, where she had been teaching for many many years.

“I would encourage applicants to find or create an opportunity that a) aligns with their passions and b) will clearly strengthen their skills in their given discipline.”

BPI is one of the premiere workshops for Baroque performance in the US. I wanted to take this opportunity to work with some of the leading instructors and musicians in historical performance, and I used my Benenson to make that opportunity possible. I would encourage applicants to find or create an opportunity that a) aligns with their passions and b) will clearly strengthen their skills in their given discipline.

What is your favorite memory from your Benenson summer?

My favorite memory was rehearsing our ensemble pieces. The faculty would create these small ensembles of four or five people and assign us a piece of music to perform by the end of the week for the concert. On day one, no one knows each other and we all see the music for the first time. The experience levels and backgrounds are very diverse. We are all from different instrument families. But by the end of each week, we have learned how to work together as a tight knit ensemble, bring the music to life, and share it with everyone else at the institute.

How did the Benenson factor into your arts trajectory, and how has it influenced your path post-graduation?

It fueled my fire for performance, and it gave me motivation to work hard. I had a relatively late start in singing, and so I felt like I needed to really grind to make up for lost time. I started the music major late as well, and those courses were not easy. I had never studied theory before, and it nearly killed me! But that passion for performance kept me going, and also led me to pursue a masters degree.

How did your experiences at Baroque Performance Institute — made possible by your award — help you grow and learn as an artist?

Oberlin BPI blew my mind. I had never before been in environment where everyone was so passionate about music in general, not to mention historical performance. The opportunity to simply hear baroque music on baroque instruments was amazing. It is such a special sound! The opportunity to sing with those instruments, and at historical pitch, made so many things in the baroque repertoire just click for me.

“My eyes were opened to what could be possible-both in terms performing baroque music but also just musicianship.”

The faculty was outstanding and getting to hear their concerts and lectures was so inspiring. I had the opportunity to attend and sing in daily masterclasses, attend lectures, receive private coaching, attend faculty concerts, and perform with other musicians in small ensembles at the end of each week. My eyes were opened to what could be possible-both in terms performing baroque music but also just musicianship. I gained so much valuable knowledge and experience and came back excited to apply everything I had learned. I am so grateful the Benenson Award gave me this opportunity.

What are qualities of an outstanding Benenson Award applicant?

I believe that the qualities of an outstanding Benenson Award application are the following: You can draw a clear connection between your career and your reason for applying for the award. Similarly, the opportunity for which you are seeking funding clearly aligns with your passions. Attending a pre-existing program is convenient, but if you are doing a project that you have designed yourself, make sure that it is structured and that there is a clear purpose and end goal. These should clearly be contributing to your pursuit of your passions. Some people apply for a Benenson Award because they want a free vacation or excuse to travel. It is very easy to tell if that is the case.

For performing arts students, the timing of the award can be tricky. Most auditions and applications are due much earlier, or much later, than when the award winners are selected, and it can be risky to accept some opportunities not knowing if you will have the funding. I would encourage performing arts students to take those opportunities anyway. If you can articulate how attending that training program or participating in a particular performance will benefit you, you will have a high chance of being given an award. Work hard to make your genuine passion come across in your Benenson application. Perhaps find a faculty member or mentor to take a look at it for you. Personally, I took advantage of the Career Center to meet with an advisor. I received some very helpful feedback about my application before I turned it in.

Samantha Streit is a senior pursuing a major in Theater Studies, a minor in Psychology, and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This year, she is a writer/content creator for the Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).