New band director expresses talent

Dana Bennett has the passion – and ability – for the bagpipes that vastly outweigh her petite stature, though according to her, the instrument was originally intended for “large Scottish men.”

Bennett, 25, who is in her first year as director of the Gannon University band, has been playing the traditional Scottish instrument since eighth grade, and said her affinity for them has flourished ever since.

According to her mentor and former teacher, Dean Ekberg, Bennett is also an accomplished French horn player, which she said she began playing in grade school, and has additionally developed a familiarity with all of the typical concert band instruments in her career as a music educator. Bennett said the instruments she feels most comfortable playing professionally are the horn, trumpet and bagpipes.

Bennett said her desire to play bagpipes stemmed from her strong Scottish heritage on both sides and the presence of bagpipers at family events when she was growing up. In fact, the moment she decided to ask about taking lessons occurred at her grandparents’ 50th anniversary celebration.

She joined her first bagpiping group, the Gates Keystone Club Police Pipes and Drums, about a year after she started taking lessons at the town hall near her home in Rochester, N.Y. Shortly after, she joined another company called the Rochester Scottish Pipes and Drums, a sister group to the Gates Keystone Club – they share many of the same members – though she said it was overall an older company.

“The average age when I joined was probably 70,” she said. “I joined the group and gained about 30 grandfathers – it was a wonderful thing for me.”

Bennett said one of the most important lessons she learned early on in her piping career resulted from a traumatic experience that occurred when she picked up her pipes after not practicing for a while.

“I was playing ‘Blackbear,’ a fun, difficult tune,” she said. “I get to the second half, I’m playing on the high hand, and all of a sudden I feel something in my mouth.

“So I spit it out, and there was a beetle that had crawled inside my mouthpiece. It was so terrible, but I learned my lesson to never leave my instrument out, especially when the reed is moist.”

Fellow bagpiper Christa Sullivan played alongside Bennett during her time with the Gates Keystone Club, and said that Bennett was always willing to share her insight into the music and to help with any questions Sullivan had about technique.

“Dana is a sweet, wonderful person and an excellent musician,” she said. “She’s always willing to give the knowledge she has to help make another musician better.”

Sullivan also said she respects Bennett’s practice regime and her ability to lead a group of people in a musical ensemble.

“She spends hours perfecting her talent,” she said. “It’s her willingness to practice, practice, practice until it’s right.”

Bennett said that she chose to leave both piping groups several years ago because she no longer had the time to commit to them, as she has been living outside of Rochester for the last six years. However, she said that they told her she was welcome back at any time. Sullivan corroborated this fact, saying that she misses hearing Bennett play and marching next to her in parades.

Though Sullivan was quick to sing the praises of Bennett’s ability to bring out the best in her fellow musicians, Bennett said she didn’t always plan on becoming a teacher. She said it wasn’t until high school when she started working as a lifeguard and swim instructor for 3-year-old children that she started to think about how rewarding teaching could be.

“I helped take them from being terrified – to the point where they wouldn’t even put their toes in – to the point where they could swim on their own with bubbles on their backs,” she said. “That was the moment I thought, wow, I really like teaching.”

Bennett said that her passion for music had always been a part of her life, but it wasn’t until she found a mentor in Ekberg, who worked with her at both Gates Presbyterian Church and Gates Chili High School in Rochester, that she started thinking about combining her love for performing music with her love for teaching.

“He sat me down one day after a brass quintet rehearsal and asked what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “It led into a wonderful hour-long conversation of life and music.”

Ekberg, who is currently a professor in the Mansfield University music department, said he did suggest to Bennett that she consider going into music.

“I can’t imagine a better way to spend one’s life, and I was pretty sure she was on the same page,” he said. “We talked about performing and teaching and how both have meant to me throughout my life. I must have convinced her.”

Ekberg said that when he first began working with Bennett, he saw her potential immediately. He said the first time he really saw her shine was in a performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” which he directed during one of his last years at Gates Chili. The performance, according to Ekberg, features opportunities for the orchestra to play a prominent role, but he said he didn’t have any high school French horn players who would be good enough.

“One of my colleagues suggested this middle school kid who was really good and might be able to cover the horn parts,” he said. “It turned out that this kid in middle school was Dana – and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Ekberg said he attributes Bennett’s versatility to her passion and work ethic.

“I think she has found that the hard work doesn’t just lead to the reward, but that it often is the reward,” he said.

Bennett said one of her first experiences with teaching music occurred when she was in high school when her mother, who had no musical background, approached her with the desire to learn the bagpipes. Bennett not only successfully taught her to play, she also taught her to read music with weekly lessons.

“It was definitely eye-opening to teach my mom something,” she said. “She’s taught me so much and it was the other way around, me sitting down and telling her what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Bennett, who said she is now “living a life of music education and performance,” is a graduate of SUNY Fredonia in 2009 and Ithaca College in 2011, where she majored in music education and performance, respectively.

Clerkin said he appreciated Bennett from the moment they first spoke due to her obvious passion, knowledge, experience and sensibility, and Blaetz also said that he looks forward to seeing what she does with the rich legacy she has inherited.

“She recognizes and respects how music performance can integrate and enrich the lives of our non-music major musicians at Gannon,” Blaetz said.

The very fact that there are no music majors at Gannon is something that Bennett said is inspiring.

“I love the idea that they’re all here because they want to be here,” she said. “They’re not sick of music. A lot of music majors do burn out very quickly, so it’s very refreshing to see this group of people who appreciate music for what it is.”

Blaetz also said that Bennett’s ability to come into a program that lost such a beloved figure and to keep it moving is a testament to her personal character as well as experience.

Clerkin said he agrees that Bennett has done a good job with the transition, and that she recognizes Bruce’s legacy and is happy to continue his love of music.

Sophomore physician assistant major and flutist Lyndsey Walker said that Bennett makes her look forward to going to band rehearsals each week because she “keeps things interesting.”

“One minute she’s telling us to think about driving in a Mario Kart and the next she’s telling us to think of Scuttle from ‘The Little Mermaid,’” she said. “She always has funny examples and stories that help us make our music better.”

Walker also said she appreciates the way Bennett does little things to become closer with her students, such as playing her bagpipes for them after a Wednesday night band rehearsal and bringing in favors from her recent Oct. 15 wedding.

Bennett said that it was one of her fondest performance memories not only because it took place on an exciting day, but because she got to play bagpipes alongside family members.

Ekberg, who was in attendance, said that he will never forget the image of Bennett leading the pipe band in her wedding dress.

“The bride and both her parents playing together in a pipe band at the wedding – that’s pretty cool,” he said. “You’re not going to see that happen on an average weekend.”

Bennett said that one of her earliest memories of being moved by the bagpipes before she picked them up herself was actually at the funeral of her great uncle, who she said had always loved the instrument.

“It was heart-wrenching, but it was exactly what we needed at the time,” she said.

Bennett said that although it was a lot harder for her to play at funerals when she was younger, she has grown to appreciate the release music can provide for those who are grieving and that she does like to play her bagpipes at them when asked.

“I realize that a lot of people need music to help them get through things,” she said. “I think it can help them emotionally understand what has happened.”

Bennett’s experience with facilitating the grieving process was something that she brought with her to Gannon, where she immediately started to plan a memorial concert for Wright, a man she said she had never met but had heard a lot about. However, she said that she ultimately wanted to leave the decision to do the concert up to the band members, as she knew it would be difficult to perform due to the short notice and emotion attached to such a performance.

“I’ve performed at a number of family funerals and I know that it’s very difficult,” she said. “You have to separate yourself from what is actually happening to play successfully and get the message across because you’re not just playing for yourself.”

Blaetz said he thought Bennett handled the memorial concert with grace and style in what he considered “an extremely challenging and emotional first performance.”

Walker also said that as a member of the band, she thought Bennett did a great job putting together the concert.

“She picked meaningful music and let us to share our memories of Bruce,” she said. “I think it helped us find some closure.”

Ekberg said he is proud of not only the musician Bennett has become since he has known her, but also the caring, devoted person she is.

“I know it sounds corny, but when one does what one loves and loves what one does, it is almost certain they’ll be successful,” he said. “Dana doesn’t do things part way; she really is a terrific musician.”

CHRISTINE PEFFER

[email protected]