Passing the baton
Dennis Benson puts musical magic in the hands of band and orchestra directors with his handmade batons.
WILLMAR – The same hands that directed high school bands in the 1970s and currently direct the summer seasons of the Willmar Community Band, are putting a little homemade magic into the hands of band and orchestra directors all across the region, the country and even on international music stages.
For the last three years – following a dream he’d fostered for nearly 40 years – Dennis Benson has been making delicate director batons.
The small, smooth-as-silk handles of the batons are crafted from mahogany, maple, walnut or perhaps zebra wood from India or cocobolo wood from Africa.
Some of the batons are made from colorful acrylic with swirls and designs embedded from end to end.
The baton starts out as a nondescript chunk of wood or acrylic that’s put into Benson’s lathe, which quickly spins as he uses a dozen different hand tools to shape it.
He sands each handle with special wet sandpaper pads as fine as 12,000 grit and then applies up to 12 coats of super glue to a wood baton as it spins in the lathe. The acrylic batons are sanded smooth but don’t require an extra finish.
By the time he’s done, Benson has created a perfectly weighted baton that’s “smooth as a marble” and ready to be used to transfer the musical thoughts of a director to the musicians in the band and orchestra.
During an interview in the workshop at his home at Independence Place in Willmar, Benson said his batons are being used by many high school band directors in west central Minnesota and by directors of bands and orchestras in 11 states and two foreign countries, including on the island of Malta.
His most famous connection is with Michael Bublé, the popular Canadian singer.
It’s all about who you know, said Benson, whose many talents and jobs have made him extremely well-connected.
An accomplished photographer, Benson photographs many community events, including the Stingers baseball team, and has designed web pages for many local businesses. Along with directing the summer Willmar Community Band he plays trombone in the band during the fall and spring seasons.
But Benson, 71, is perhaps most well-known for his work as a piano tuner. There are few tuners of his caliber in the region, which means he’s tuned pianos – including beautiful Steinways – from here to the Twin Cities to South Dakota.
It was during a visit with a man connected to one of those fine Steinways that Benson was put in contact with a musical director who works for Bublé.
When he first heard that perhaps this director would be interested in buying one of Benson’s batons his reaction was, “That’d be super cool. But that’d never happen.”
But the director did contact Benson and requested that five batons be sent to him to try out. He’d buy one and return the rest.
Instead, the director bought all five.
“Now they’re traveling all around the world using one of my batons,” said Benson.
The size of a baton can be as unique as the director’s interpretation of a musical piece, and Benson makes custom batons to fit those particular desires.
“Some people like them to be longer, some shorter. Some heavier, some lighter,” he said. “I’ve seen batons from this long (as he holds his fingers a couple inches apart) to this long” (as he stretched his arms nearly two feet apart).
The longest baton he’s made was 19-inches long. “It’s crazy,” he said. “You could hit the flutes.”
What’s most important is creating a baton that’s perfectly balanced, said Benson as he balanced a baton on the edge of his finger.
“When you’re directing you don’t want it to be front heavy or back heavy,” he said. “If it’s balanced, it just flows with your hand” and “you can almost direct without holding on.”
He prefers using the acrylic batons rather than wood. “It’s super smooth but it’s not slippery. When I direct it just feels great,” he said.
While most custom-made batons sell for around $90, Benson sells his for $45.
He said his goal isn’t to mass produce batons but to create an instrument that fits the exact needs of directors who work with the “universal language” of music.
But there are only so many batons a person can make – and with all of his other jobs and activities on hold during the pandemic quarantine – Benson is spending more time in his workshop making other wood and acrylic items on the lathe.
He has a collection of toys and tools, like pens, seam rippers, tea light holders, knitting needles, ice cream scoops, bowls, rain sticks, kazoos and a challenging kaleidoscope.
While the batons are largely sold by word-of-mouth, his other items had been popular sellers at a couple of craft shows he attended prior to the pandemic.
Working with the lathe, a skill he said he learned by watching YouTube, has been a great addition to his other activities and a “nice diversion from listening to ding, ding, ding, ding, ding” while tuning pianos, he said.