Niskayuna graduate returns to drum with students

Jim Benoit, a Niskayuna graduate, recently returned to the high school to speak with students. April 22, 2016.Jim Benoit, a Niskayuna graduate, recently returned to the high school to speak with students. April 22, 2016.

By Indiana Nash

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA- Jim Benoit, a Niskayuna graduate, returned on April 22 to his hometown to perform with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra and speak with high school students in a masters class.

Benoit graduated in 2005 from Niskayuna and went on to Boston Conservatory for a year. After that, he went onto the Berklee College of Music and majored in jazz. For his graduate degree he went to Juilliard to study classical music and graduated in 2012.

“People tend to have this idea of Juilliard, brought on maybe by that movie ‘Whiplash,’ that it’s a very scary or pretentious school. But it’s really not. They’re intense but the professors just teach and guide students, it’s up to the students from there,” said Benoit.

However, music wasn’t always his dream and it wasn’t always enjoyable to Benoit.

“My mom [Mary Benoit] is a pianist and growing up I was kinda forced to play. Of course, she could easily tell if I’d practiced or not because she gave me lessons at the house,” said Benoit with a laugh.

Now, he looks back on those lessons with a sort of gratitude.

“When I was able to pick what instrument I wanted to play in the school’s music program . . . I immediately gravitated towards percussion. Maybe initially because I thought it was the furthest thing from piano but now I realize that the two are part of the same music family,” said Benoit.

In his freshman year of high school, he began to prioritize music over sports and other opportunities. “I became a member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra and that really got me more involved in music. . . My teacher Mark Foster also really inspired me,” said Benoit.

Since those days, Benoit has made a career out of his percussion talents and training through a variety of venues.

“I work with the Pittsburgh Symphony, teach in Pittsburgh, Luzerne Music Center during the summer, and the Sarasota Opera in Florida during their season,” said Benoit.

That doesn’t even include all of the performances in between. He has also played with the Albany symphony orchestra, the malaysian orchestra philharmonic, a jazz band in Hawaii, among others.

One of the most memorable performances Benoit can remember happened a bit unexpectedly.

“I was playing at a wedding with some other people I went to school with and before we performed, they had us sign a waiver saying that we wouldn’t take any photos or post them on social media,” said Benoit.

At the time, he and the rest of the performers just shrugged, not really understanding why it was so important.

“Then, the groom was showing us where we could set up and told us where we could grab refreshments. It was kind of by the pool and as we got closer, we saw Dustin Hoffman swimming. . . it turned out that it was his daughter’s wedding,” said Benoit.

At this time, Benoit is content with all of the directions that his career is heading in. But he does want to expand in some ways.

“I’ve always taught sporadically and I’d like to do that more,” said Benoit. He’d also like to make more time for orchestra auditions. “Some people think that if they don’t get a full-time orchestra job, than they’ll just get of out the field,” said Benoit.

But he doesn’t share in that all-or-nothing perspective.

Benoit is rehearsing for about eight hours a day for his next audition, set for the end of April. The New York Philharmonic or the MET Orchestra would be his top choices, but he understands that there is an intense competition to get a position in either.

“There is always someone who might be better or who has had more training, and that’s something you have to realize and get through,” said Benoit.     

“Niskayuna has really great faculty who are always on top of their game,” said Benoit. Which is one of the reasons he wanted to come back and speak to Niskayuna students.