Fine-tuning his instrument: West Forsyth Senior Ben Valliere has rare ability combo — proficiency with a musical instrument and as a high-school swimmer
Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 18, 2024
By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier
CLEMMONS — Many swimmers feel as though what they’re doing as they glide through the water in a pool is like beautiful music.
For senior Ben Valliere of West Forsyth that’s literally the case for him. He’s not only a top-notch swimmer, but he’s also an elite trombonist.
In addition to being on the swim team at West Forsyth, both in school and out of school, Valliere plays in the marching band, West Forsyth Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band, orchestras, jazz bands, a brass band and concert bands. He also said he played in the Winston-Salem Youth Symphony and the Triangle Youth Ensemble.
“In middle-school band (at Hanes Magnet Middle School), I just picked band in middle school, and I had to pick up an instrument,” Valliere said. “So, I just decided on the trombone , and throughout middle school, the love for music just kind of developed. And I was just naturally talented on the trombone. And so, by the time I was finishing middle school and moving to high school, it was just one of the biggest things in my life.”
The trombone is not usually an instrument young musicians decide to pick up.
“I was taking band, so I had to choose an instrument and at the time, I mean my thought process choosing that over like the trumpet and clarinet and all those things, just I thought the slide was pretty fun,” Valliere said. “And I didn’t really know how much I would just love the instrument anyway.”
Even at his own admission, Valliere understands how difficult the trombone is to play.
“I would say it’s probably one of the harder instruments to play,” he said. “You know, I don’t play any like clarinet or flute, and I can only kind of play trumpet and some of the other brass instruments. It’s hard for me to say in comparison how hard it is to other instruments, but it definitely is hard to get to a very high level at it.
“There definitely like is a certain block that you have to get past.”
Playing the trombone isn’t just something fun for Valliere to do, or even just to put on a college transcript.
“I definitely just love it that much,” he said. “You know, I try to stay well-rounded in music. I currently am applying to music schools for college, too. And so, in addition to marching band I try to put myself in a lot of different settings. And I do love all the music that I do play, however different they are. I do love all those settings, but also, I just get myself into as many groups as I can and experience as many different settings as I can.”
All the while he carried the Valliere name in swimming. His brother, Alex, was a top swimmer at West Forsyth, and is now a sophomore swimming at William & Mary. Ben Valliere swam as a child, but he gave it up in eighth-grade, mainly because of his love for music, and partially because of burnout.
“I was trying to figure out music myself while also adjusting to what it’s like to be in high school,” Ben Valliere said. “You know, it was a lot and so, but then my sophomore year I was fairly adjusted, and when the idea was suggested, I felt ready to take it seriously again.”
However, after a short break, Ben Valliere resumed swimming at West Forsyth during his sophomore year at West Forsyth.
“I probably would’ve picked it up my freshman year, but that was the COVID year, and so I was stuck inside,” Ben Valliere said. “So, I didn’t really know the opportunities at West. And I didn’t really know about the swim team, but my sophomore year, my brother suggested — I’m not even sure if he was being serious to be honest — but he just kind of mentioned doing the West Forsyth swim team.
“And then I just kind of ran with it. And I ended up trying out.”
Ben Valliere said that he and former assistant Coach George Vlahos spoke about the possibility of getting back into swimming.
“I remember when I came back to swimming, I lost a lot of my speed to say the least,” Ben Valliere said. “And my brother was talking was talking to George, I was talking to George, and he took a bit of a chance on me.
“You know, I was able to look back at my times from sophomore year, the beginning of sophomore year, and they were, being brutally honest, they were pretty slow. That’s what you should expect, but you know, especially looking at the team, the West Forsyth team at the time, I was going to be the slowest person on the team.”
Ben Valliere is glad that his brother, Alex, stood up for him, and that Vlahos and Coach Sandy Thomerson took a flier on him.
“They took a chance on me,” Ben Valliere said. “My brother told (Vlahos) like you know, just get him in the water, and by the end of the year I was, I mean I wasn’t the fastest because that time usually belongs to the people who swim year-round. But I had definitely risen to like the upper half of the team.”
The only thing Thomerson knew about Ben Valliere was that he was Alex’s brother.
“Obviously, I knew Alex had a younger brother,” Thomerson said. “Ben never swam year-round, so other than knowing he had a younger brother I didn’t know much about him until he tried out.”
Both Ben Valliere and Thomerson give credit to the elder brother in that Ben came back to swimming after a brief hiatus.
“I knew Alex had something to do with it,” said Thomerson, who didn’t know that Ben took some time off from swimming. “But I wasn’t sure. And I know Ben is extremely talented musically, so I knew that was primary.”
There were two elements in play for Ben Valliere – going back to a sport he previously loved and coming back to swim with his brother even though Alex had clearly established himself on the team.
“I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” Ben Valliere said. “The team was (Alex) and his friends, and I felt a little weird coming to swimming after that much time had passed. And the culture by Ben was majorly ran by him and his friends. And so, it was definitely something to get used to. But he did a great job of making sure that I always felt included and felt appreciated at meets for whatever contribution I was making.
“And so, while it definitely was a bit weird for me, the brotherly bond definitely helped a lot.”
Thomerson noticed the bond right away.
“I think they like the camaraderie part, so if you can keep that part exciting for them the hard work in the pool makes up for that,” she said. “And Ben really seems to feed off the camaraderie and his teammates. He likes that.”
After having a full season under his belt, both his sophomore and junior years, he’s flourishing this season as a senior.
“The amount of improvement when he jumps in and starts practicing, he drops tons of time between tryouts and when he actually swims meets,” Thomerson said. “So, he’s a naturally gifted swimmer, too, And, if he actually did swim year-round the potential he has could be crazy.”
Ben Valliere is competing this season in the 100-yard breaststroke, 50 free and 100 free. He’s also adding the 200 free for this week’s Central Piedmont 4-A swimming-and-diving championship.
“I’m also swimming 200 free because it’s not just about what I can swim,” Bene Valliere said. “It’s about where I can score. Even though the 200 free isn’t what I’d call my best event I’m able to score in it pretty well, and Sandy knows that, so that’s why I’m getting placed in that.”
After CPC 4-A championships there will be a short break before the NCHSAA regionals, which are scheduled Feb. 1-3, and the state championships, which are scheduled Feb. 7-10. No matter when Valliere’s season ends, he and Thomerson are going out together. Thomerson has announced that she’s resigning at the end of the season.
“He’s a very talented kid, and he’s a good kid,” Thomerson said. “He’s a perfect candidate for captain and he does a good job with that. And leading those boys, he’s probably the biggest cheerleader on the team.”
It’s also Valliere’s senior year at West Forsyth. That means he’s knee-deep in college applications. He wants to continue his music career in college at either Michigan, Texas, or the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
While there, he wants to get into marching band. He was able to watch Michigan win the College Football Playoff national championship earlier this month, so you might see Ben Valliere playing “Hail to the Victors,” Michigan’s fight song the next time you watch the Wolverines on TV.
“Especially Michigan,” Ben Valliere said. “And that’s definitely something I’d want to be a part of. Even if I just do it for one year, like just being able to say I was a part of that band is something that is really cool and I’d definitely want the opportunity for.”
Ben Valliere is likely giving up swimming after the season, although he might swim club in college. However, he knows how much swimming has mean to him.
“I didn’t expect it to, but it just became such a vital part of like who I am and who I’ve become,” he said. “You know, not only has it been just this physical activity that I’ve done, but it helped develop myself so much. It allowed me to find such amazing friends. It taught me so much about motivation.
“…It does a lot for me physically and mentally and socially. This and music have been like the most defining parts of my high-school experience.”