Dennis Benson is a man of many talents and is probably most noted for his involvement as director of the Prairie Winds Concert Band, as well as the major musicals at the Barn Theatre. That latest one he orchestrated was “Hello Dolly.” He is also a fantastic photographer, and designs websites. “I am involved in a lot of things. They keep me busy.” And he loves every minute of it. The Prairie Winds Concert Band is often times referred to as the Prairie Winds Summer Band because it’s the band that puts on the concerts at Rice Park in Willmar during the summer months. “We’re outside at Rice Park for five Wednesdays in June and part of July.” The concerts all start at seven, people bring their lawn chairs and sit back and enjoy the music. These concerts are free, water is provided free by Willmar Water and Spas and popcorn is provided free by Walt’s. “Some weeks we have other things as well,” he said, noting during West Central Dairy Days they had the dairy princesses at the concerts to meet the audience, and of course they handed out free ice cream. During Willmar Fest Week, the Willmar Fest Royalty helped them with the kiddie march, leading the kids around and helped hand out food and candy at the end of the concert. Another notable event was on June 29 when the Great Times Band from Whitney Music played in the park for an old time sing along. July 6 is the final concert of the summer. “That’s our patriotic concert so we do mostly all patriotic songs. Some you know and some you haven’t heard before but they’re still patriotic in nature.” They always have so many good things lined up, Benson said, and the best part of all is that the concerts are totally free. “The only thing you need to know is if it rains or there’s inclement weather, we cancel. We don’t postpone or move somewhere else. We tried that and it doesn’t work. So we just cancel.” That doesn’t happen too often, he said, and a lot of summers they go all five weeks and don’t have to cancel anything. In addition to directing the summer band, Benson plays trombone at the WEAC Performing Arts Center, where two concerts are put on, one in November and the other in March. Benson doesn’t direct for these concerts. “Those are wonderful concerts, but our attendance is always poor and we wish we could pump that up.” He said people who do come say they can’t believe the place isn’t packed.” It’s the best kept secret in Willmar, he said, and it’s just a fabulous group of musicians. “I don’t know what it is about band music, but summer band works. We get 200 to 300 people in the park.” During Willmar Fest weekend, he said, they always have up to 500 people attend. Benson took over as band director of the Prairie Winds Summer Band after its director of 22 years, Paul Baumgarten, died. Music has been Benson’s life. He taught high school band in the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (KMS) District for six years, four years in Murdock and two years in the consolidated KMS District. He has a major in music, and has conducted almost every major group in Willmar except for the West Central Singers. “I play when I’m not conducting,” he said, going on to explain he got started in the community band when he moved back to the area. After graduating from high school, Benson went to Willmar Community College and played in the community band because it was kind of tied in with the college and the community. “Then I went to college in the service and I came back and started teaching and then got back in the band again in 74. I directed a number of times throughout the course of the history of the band, most recently this summer.” In the summer the numbers in the band vary a lot because everyone has different vacation times. There are about 40 in the band, he said, and the ages range from Junior High kids to a member that’s 84 years old. “It’s a wide age spread.” They have a few additional high school students this summer, he said, because they weren’t marching this summer because the school’s marching program was cut. Benson said they used to be called Willmar Community Band and that went way back to 1930. “One of our band members looked in the historical society and found a newspaper clipping, which I have of the Willmar Community Band performing in Rice Park in 1930.” Of course back then there wasn’t a lot of other entertainment and going to hear the band was the big thing to do, he said. “Now the community band movement has kind of taken on a new resurgence, popularity. There’s getting to be a fair number of community bands again.” At one point, he said, probably 15 years ago or so, they decided maybe they could get more respect if they had a fancier name so they started kicking around different names. “The community orchestra became the Willmar Symphonic Orchestra. We thought ‘we’re in the prairie kind of, it’s windy, I don’t know how it all came about so we thought Prairie Winds Concert Band sounded better than Willmar Community Band. That’s how it came about.” It really hasn’t helped them a bit, he said, but it’s a nice name. They really need to get other people talking about their band and concerts, he said, and they are getting involved in the social media, including Facebook. “That’s helping generate a little bit more interest.” They also have a website, prairiewindsconcertband.com. “You can go there and see the schedule and learn more about the band, and can hear songs from our fall and spring season. You can hear how good the sound is.” All ages come to the park for their concerts, he said, and there’s a playground there. A lot of kids come, he said, and they take part in the kiddie march. “Somebody leads the kids around and we play Colonel Boogie and when we’re done the kids all get free candy.” They don’t sing during their concerts, he said, they just play and do marches. “We do almost all the Sousa marches, we do Broadway – things like Hello Dolly, the Sound of Music, Music Man, we do film scores like from the Lion King, some Henry Mancini Days of Wine and Roses film type songs. We also do patriotic songs, then there are a few other songs that don’t really fit a category and there are some songs that feature a person or a section.” He said they have one song they play called “Clarinets Allegro” and the clarinets get to play really fast and they stand up and everybody claps. There’s another song “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” where the trumpets get to shine. Another is called “Lasses Trombone” and the trombones get to stand up and slide around. The band includes flutes, saxophones, French horn, trombones, clarinets, tubas, and percussion. Reaction from audience is always great, he said, even in the summer when they play songs that are a bit easier for them. “In the course of a summer we go through 50 songs, so we can’t practice the songs as much as we do for the fall season. We spend eight weeks working on concerts so when we’re ready for those concerts it’s polished and ready to go.” Benson said it’s harder for him in the summer. “I really have to be on my toes as the director to get us through the songs because we haven’t rehearsed them that much. But they’re very listenable, pleasing songs and we have some wonderful musicians.” The response is great, he said. “We get standing ovations at almost every one, but not the summer concerts because the people are in their lawn chairs and sometimes they’re older and they don’t want to stand up. But in our other concerts we always get standing ovations.” The concerts are always at Rice Park. He said they tried moving around to the other parks one summer but nobody followed them. “We played for nobody.” The city owns a portable band shell, complete with a stage that they put up in the park for their performances. “It’s got a lighted canopy over it and it’s a nice place to perform. The community band helped purchase the original band shell – this is the city’s second one. They sold the original one to Spicer. The city has since purchased a new one and that’s what we use.” Benson has been involved since 1974. He said the most difficult instrument to play in the band is the bassoon and they have a bassoon player that’s a “steady eddy guy” and that’s John Mack of New London. “He’s always there and he’s great.” Mack also serves on the band board, Benson said. The conductor position is a paid position, but the members in the band are volunteers. Benson is president of the band. The band has been around for a long time, he said, noting it did cease to exist for a couple of years, but then made a comeback. “We meet primarily for the pleasure of playing. If we play for nobody we would still get together, but it’s fun when you work up a piece to be able to present that to people and have them enjoy listening to it.” That’s the main reason they like to have people at the concerts, he said, and not just ten people but 300 people. “It’s a good product and it’s fun to be able to perform. You just kick it up a notch, which you don’t do in rehearsal.” He described Rice Park as one of the most beautiful parks in the city, explaining it is the main park in Willmar. “Some people bring a picnic lunch (when they come to the concerts), and one church has their prayer meeting before the concert, then they come listen. “That’s kind of fun.” Benson said if someone wants to join the band there is always room for more musicians. “We have people who haven’t played for 30 years. They come back and it takes a little fingering and building the lip back up again, but it works.” He said they have kids fresh out of college, high school band directors, just a wide range of musicians. “We’re always needing more people and especially in the summer. I’m the only one that can’t take a vacation but everyone else seems to finagle one.” They’re a great group, he said, and they have a lot of fun. “Our trombone section is the goofiest section of the band by their own admission.” They have some tremendous flute players also, he said. They end every concert with “Stars and Stripes Forever” and at the end of the song they all stand and play and the audience stands up as well. “At the last concert we’ll pass out some flags, but at the end of “Stars and Stripes Forever” there’s a piccolo solo – its standard for that song. We have two gals that are wonderful piccolo players, one just graduated from high school and the other graduated a couple years ago from high school.” The band puts on fantastic performances, he said and people really need to come to the concerts and spend a relaxing evening listening to the great talent represented in the band.
Willmar man a long-time supporter of community band