It's a star-spangled season when songs like "America the Beautiful" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" rise beyond their traditional homes in the nation's ballparks. Cheshire's Bennett Family will present their "Annual Tribute to America" concert Sunday at Elim Park's new theater, Nelson Hall.
Ray and Diane Bennett and their nine children are a familiar sight to thousands who have seen their musical float in the annual Cheshire Memorial Day parade and at holiday-themed concerts over the past ten years.
"They're a totally homegrown Cheshire experience, a very unique one," said Tom Hearn, who favors local acts when booking entertainment for the main stage of the annual Cheshire Chamber of Commerce Fall Festival and Marketplace. "It's really inspirational. The coolest thing is the bells."
"The bells" are handbells, which all 11 Bennetts use to play intricately arranged songs. The handbell tradition in the United States is over a century old and has inspired a 7,000 member national guild, but its place in the Bennett family's repertoire has a homespun origin.
"We home-school our children and there was a home school handbell group looking for people who'd be a part of their group. We went and ended up being most of the group that showed up," said Diane Bennett, explaining the ensemble concept. "Each person is playing two or three notes of the piano – imagine a big piano being played by different people. That's how we started. The group disbanded, but we kept on going with it. It grew over the years as the children became more proficient."
While Ray plays trombone and Diane's primary instrument is cello, everyone in the family plays handbells. The nine children – Carolyn, Daniel, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Julianna, Kathryn, Lydia, Matthew, and Susanna – switch between an impressive array of instruments, including viola, flute, piano, clarinet, violins, and trumpets. The family also has enough instrumental firepower for a seven-piece accordion ensemble, which will be featured at the patriotic concert.
The family band's busy calendar reflects a devotion to community service. In addition to holiday concerts, the Bennetts keep busy performing at nursing homes, retirement centers, campgrounds, and variety shows. While most of their shows are in Connecticut, they have made forays around New England, to Quebec, and even to a food drive benefit at a Florida retirement community.
The Bennett's relationship with Elim Park evolved from family volunteerism to a regular musical feature of services at the retirement community's chapel, on the fourth Sunday of every month.
"I believe that's been very strong, just being a family, just playing instruments together," said Diane, agreeing that there is a faith-based element to the group.
"We are Christians – playing together, praying together, working together. And we pretty much get along all the time, unbelievably," she laughed. "The kids really enjoy being together, which is one of the neat things. They think of each other as best friends, and really encourage and look out for each other."
Son, Matthew Bennett, who will return to Elim Park to give a solo piano concert in October, arranges most of the group's music, accommodating different talent levels within the family. Diane stressed, however, that the end result is a family affair. "They work on it all together and come up with final arrangements. It's not like a one man show. It's really teamwork."
Learning their instruments has also been a team effort. "Matthew had piano lessons when he was younger for quite a few years," Diane said. "Then he taught siblings what he had learned. Some of the string players have had private lessons. Everyone else has picked it up or had a friend who knew how to play something and got at least the basics and took off from there. We're not professional players. We haven't gone to Juilliard and all that sort of thing. We enjoy music and playing together. People seem to enjoy it too."
Admission to the Bennett Family's "Tribute to America" is free, but seating reservations are available. Click here for tickets