For decades this incredible teacher has inspired Petoskey High School musicians and brought joy to the Up North community—and beyond.
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If you’ve heard the popping Caribbean sounds of the Petoskey Steel Drum Band, you know you’ve witnessed something special and out of the ordinary in Northern Michigan. If you haven’t, please do yourself a favor and remedy that.
After being captivated by a steel drum performance at Central Michigan University back in 1994, Barry Bennett wanted to bring the instrument to the students and people of Petoskey and officially started the group in 1996. “In the beginning, there were only about 12 people in the band, and that included a few adults,” remembers Mr. Bennett. “The learning curve was very slow because no one in Petoskey had ever played a steel drum before, including me.”
Over the last 20+ years, the band grew from 12 members to about 45 members. They’re now one of the largest steel bands in the country. The band has performed in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Chicago, Hawaii, the Caribbean Islands and Disney World. This spring, director of the steel drum band Mr. Bennett is retiring after more than 30 years with the program.
Mr. Bennett’s influence goes beyond endowing students with musicality and self-respect that comes with being a part of a team. He’s also created influential experiences for the students by way of percussion. “Having been to Mardi Gras twice with the band, we’ve witnessed first hand the large dancing crowds when the trailer rolls by,” says Cindy McSurely, a parent of two children who went through the band program. “The parade routes of hundreds of thousands of spectators are about 20 times the size of our hometown.”
The performances can be incredibly fun and memorable, but they’d never happen without the work ethic instilled by Mr. Bennett. “He was one of those teachers who taught kids the discipline we really needed for the real world,” says former student Ean Greer. “I am thankful for all those summers with 14 gigs in two weeks. It gave me the performance stamina I needed to be successful in a performing arts college.”
The benefits of musical education are known to have a great impact on all endeavors, but in some cases, the time spent with Mr. Bennett translated directly into musical careers. The Michigan Rattlers is a great example of this, now a nationally known folk-rock band. “All of these kids performed in the steel band, the jazz band, the marching band and the concert bands,” remembers Mr. Bennett. “They did it all. It is great to see them have so much success doing something they love to do.”
Mr. Bennett knows retiring will be an adjustment, but he’s ready for the challenge. “It will be very difficult to walk away, having dedicated so much of my life to this program. However, I will be leaving the program in the hands of two of my former students, Patrick Ryan and Duane Willson. Both were percussionists in the Petoskey Bands. They know the program well, and will do a good job of moving forward.”