By Christopher Smith
When George “Smitty” Barnett’s sister went through a difficult time when he was growing up he said he became angry and felt unable to fully express that anger until he found music.
“My grandmother could tell something was eating at me at the time,” Barnett said. “She always told me, ‘Always count your roses.’ She told me that God had blessed us all.”
Music was one of those roses for Barnett.
“It’s about not letting your anger drive you,” he said. “It’s about remembering who you are.”
Barnett, who has been the Northwest Whitfield High School band director for 20 years and who plays the trumpet fluently, is going to get more than inner peace thanks to his love of music. He is set to guest play with the U.S. Army Band, called “Pershing’s Own,” this August in Washington, D.C. The date has not been set.
The band was started in 1922 by Gen. John Pershing after he saw European marching bands during World War I. The group has played for presidents and generals from generation to generation since its inception.
“I’ve seen them before a number of times. I’ve seen them live and had recordings,” Barnett said. “It’s a very honorable thing to do, to be part of. I’m just glad to be there with the best musicians in the nation.”
Barnett was sought out by former student Staff Sgt. Dean Woods in June about the prospect of playing at a “Sunsets with a Soundtrack” event on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Woods and his wife are members of “Pershing’s Own” and have played in Washington for several years.
“He always had a way of teaching,” Woods said of Barnett. “Even from an early age he influenced me a lot.”
Woods said he remembers when his family moved to Cohutta, making it difficult for them to drive to Eastbrook Middle School in Dalton where he was a student. Barnett, who was teaching band at Eastbrook at the time, invited Woods to ride with him.
That’s when the two bonded.
“Everyone has a teacher that stands out in your mind,” Woods said. “You don’t go out and say, ‘I’ll mentor this person.’ The opposite is true. You don’t say, ‘I want this person to mentor me.’ It just happens. Later on in life, I look back and I see how much of a major influence he was on me; how he took the time.”
Barnett said he’s never seen his career as anything less than “a blessing” because of students like Woods.
“These kids that come through here want to improve,” Barnett said. “And I enjoy watching people understand things and get it. So I thought, ‘You know. I think I’d like to teach.’ And if anyone can learn to do something to their very best level then I feel like I’ve done my job. As long as I know you’re putting in effort, you’re going to grow.”
That kind of perspective on teaching inspired Woods.
“I just saw how much he practiced,” Woods said of Barnett. “He kept up with music even with a crazy schedule and with a family.”
Most work days are anywhere from 10 to 12 hours long, said Barnett.
“Usually band directors quit playing on the side because of that,” Woods said. “It’s hard, frankly, to keep up with your personal playing because it’s not required of you.”
For Barnett, it was required, if only to express himself.
“That’s how God let’s us show we’re happy or sad,” he said. “I’ve studied music in the Bible: David’s Psalms. There were times when he was so happy or in the depths of despair. That’s how we express ourselves to God. Music has been there before us and it will be a part of human history after we’re gone.”
And that’s something worth teaching, Barnett said.
“Do I ever get tired of my job? No. Days that are difficult? Yes,” he said. “But that’s just like any other job. But these kids are great. I really do care about them a lot. They’re tremendous people. And playing for the Army Band is the highlight of a career.”