Mark Barnes: No Limits for Life

Features, Top Stories — By on September 29, 2010 9:00 am

A drummer learns to keep two beats to provide the rhythm, the movement to the music being played. The hands wielding drumsticks knock a staccato on the snare while the foot beats out a bass line.

Dedication to practice and hard work takes the drummer from a hesitant beginner to the flexible stylings of a jazz musician.

Mark Barnes

For 1981 Indiana State University graduate Mark Barnes that hard work and flexibility learned at a young age as a drummer is simply part of life. After studying music and marketing at Indiana State, Barnes has risen to the top of the automotive industry as chief operating officer and interim president at Volkswagen of America.

“I’ve learned you can stay flexible and apply what you know,” Barnes said sitting at a table inside his glassed-in office in Herndon, Va., as he thought back to his days on campus in Terre Haute. “Indiana State was a great launch pad to move up.”

Music as life

Born and raised in Terre Haute, music has proved a constant throughout Barnes’ life. His father, James Barnes, was part of the music faculty at Indiana State and served as the music department chair from 1964 to 1973. He also led the Terre Haute Symphony from 1940 to 1970.

Barnes grew up listening to his father create music by sliding his bow across the viola, filling the room with dark, sonorous melody. But it was an iconic moment in television history that moved the son into the music world. As he watched the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Barnes saw Ringo Starr keeping rhythm with the drum sticks as the Beatles performed “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” and “She Loves You” as female fans screamed in appreciation.

Professor James Barnes

Professor James Barnes

“I told my dad the next day that I wanted to play drums,” Barnes said. “He couldn’t get me up to ISU to sign up for lessons fast enough.”

Barnes continued his lessons and eventually played in the band at Terre Haute South Vigo High School, and competed on the state level playing the marimba. David Watkins, ISU emeritus music professor, played the piano to accompany him at the state competition.

“It would have been a group one solo for top students,” Watkins recalled, noting Barnes’ top-level skills. “He would not have been going to state contest if he had not placed in district contest.”

As Barnes prepared for his high school graduation, he wanted to go far away from the town where he was born and raised, and the university where his father taught.

“But, it kept calling me back,” he said, and he enrolled at Indiana State.

ISU as life

When Barnes enrolled as a music major at Indiana State, he dreamed of playing the drums professionally after graduation. He spent hours at an old house on the northeast side of campus called Percussion Palace, where percussion majors would hang out and practice.

Barnes found he enjoyed the diversity within the percussion family of instruments.

“There’s so much tonality to percussion, so much dynamic range,” he said. “It runs from the softness of the triangle to the big bass drum. I was always fascinated by that.”

During college, he played in bands that performed at the Eagles lodge, the Elks lodge and Simrell’s on south Seventh Street.

“I was in the orchestra, rock bands – whatever it took to keep playing on the weekends,” he said.

During his sophomore year, John Spicknall, Indiana State emeritus professor of music, selected Barnes to play in the ISU Jazz Ensemble.

“He molded me as a musician,” Barnes said of Spicknall.

Spicknall said that Barnes intuitively responded to music and direction.

“He could read my mind and know what was needed in any given situation,” Spicknall said. “He was an excellent player. There are 20 to 25 percussionists (in the music program) but we use only one in jazz band. That gives you a clue how wonderful he was.”

The jazz band’s music also reflected Barnes’ personality, Spicknall recalled.

“He made the band swing with a very buoyant feel,” he said. “It had a very happy feel. Other players could play on top of that.”

After his sophomore year, Barnes realized he might need a different degree to pay the bills after graduation as it would be difficult to make money as a professional drummer.

“I loved it, but I didn’t have the chops,” he said about making it professionally.

At one point, he thought about dropping out of college.

“My dad said, ‘Where are you going to live?’ I said, ‘Here,’” Barnes said with a smile.

His father soon brought those thoughts to an end by telling Barnes if he left school, he would have to move out of the house and get a job.

“He said just get the degree, once you get the degree you can validate yourself,” Barnes said. “He always pushed me and I’m so glad he did.”

At the time Indiana State had just started a music business degree. During Barnes last two years of school, he enrolled in marketing and business classes toward that degree – classes that would help him in the future as he moved from one passion to another.

As Barnes prepared to graduate, he didn’t know that another love that he and his father shared would soon become a major factor in his life.

“I loved music and music business, but I also loved cars,” he said.

Cars as life

“My dad’s first love after family was music. Then it was cars,” Barnes said. “My dad would always go look at cars. He was a horse trader. He loved his Lincoln Continentals.”

During Barnes’ senior year, companies visited Indiana State to interview the soon-to-be graduates. Barnes met with the Ford Motor Company representatives. The company then flew him to the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., for further interviews.

“It was a cold, windy, winter morning like you get in Terre Haute when I got a call that said ‘How would you like to go to Phoenix, Arizona,” Barnes said with a laugh. “I thought that sounded pretty good.”

Barnes started out as a parts analyst in Phoenix, helping find the parts needed to get customers’ cars fixed and back on the road. Eventually, Barnes left Ford and went to work for Nissan, where he stayed for 18 years and worked his way up to regional market and dealer operations. He then moved to Hyundai Motor America where he served as vice president for national sales. After five years at Hyundai, he became director of the western region business center for Chrysler.

In 2007, Barnes moved to Volkswagen of America as chief operating officer. In July 2010, he was named interim president. He is responsible for all of the sales and marketing as well as customer satisfaction for Volkswagen.

“It’s been an interesting couple of years with the automotive industry,” Barnes said about car manufacturers taking economic hits. “We were down 4 percent but the industry was down 23 percent.”

Business continues to look good for Volkswagen as its market share and sales have been traveling upward. Barnes said he expects that to grow as consumers continue to look for fuel efficient and ecologically friendly cars – something Volkswagen has long provided, he said.

Mark Barnes with the new Volkswagen Jetta TDi

Mark Barnes with the new Volkswagen Jetta TDi

“The future for a green Volkswagen is here now,” Barnes said, pointing out specifically the Jetta TDi, especially the new version introduced this fall.

With diesel engines cleaner burning than engines of old and providing high miles per gallon, Barnes expects sales to grow of Jettas.

“We encourage our sales team to put a white hanky over the tail pipe while the car runs,” Barnes said to show customers how clean the vehicle runs.

The company also plans to introduce a hybrid Toureg as well as other hybrids in the future.

He laughs when he thinks about his music dreams when he started Indiana State and his position now leading Volkswagen of America.

“All I wanted to do was play drums in college,” he said.

Barnes credits his climb to become an executive in the automotive industry to not thinking of himself as only a musician or to limit himself.

“I learned the aspect to keep your horizons open. Don’t stay focused on one narrow area,” he said of studying at Indiana State. “Don’t worry about your major. Even when you get out, stay flexible.”

But that flexibility comes through hard work and devotion to practice, like jazz musicians riffing and flowing through the twists and turns of the music. Barnes said studying music at Indiana State helped him to develop the discipline needed for the business world.

“In music, you practice, practice and then you perform,” he said. “In business, you prepare, prepare and then you incorporate.”

Barnes still plays his drums, though it’s an electric set now that he can play wearing earphones so as not to disturb his neighbors. Three years ago, he donated his old set to his daughter’s high school, which needed a set.

“The director sent me a note that said, ‘Your drums have played in Carnegie Hall,’” Barnes said. “That was a real high point for me.”

Barnes grinned as he reflected back on his career’s turn from music major and drummer at Indiana State to his climb in the automotive industry.

“I’m just a boy from Indiana who liked looking at and driving cars.”

Jennifer Sicking is assistant director of media relations at Indiana State.


Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. Bruce Lehman says:

    I remember Mark Barnes, and was a percussionist with him at ISU. Nice article on him, glad he’s doing well. I also have fond memories of his father.

  2. Donald G. Canedy says:

    It was fantiastic to read the article on about Mark Barnes. I was very close to his father and watched him grow up. He is so much like his father, first rate in every way a human being can be first rate. His father came to Indiana State Teachers College when I was a freshman. He was my first Music Teacher. He was GREAT! and mainly responsible for any successes I had in the music world. Mark is, and will always be “top of the line” no matter what he does because he grew up in a family with all the right stuff. We, all of us who knew the Barnes well, are so proud to have had them as teachers, friends, and advisors, with such high standards. It is simply wonderful that Mark is at this time is being given some recognition at ISU. Everyone is proud of both and thankful for Mark and all his family. Thank you again for the this piece on Mark Barnes. It makes us all super Proud!!! Don Canedy 760-776-8354

  3. Carol (Wolski) Pry says:

    I was a good friend of Mark’s in the music dept. during freshman and sophomore year, and I am so happy to see how well he has done! Nice to see that good, honest hard work pays off, and no one deserves it more than Mark!!! Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Comment