I’m sitting here tonight doing what I do nearly every night—listening to symphonic music on my Walkman while I write. And as I was writing and listening, I grew aware of my highly trained ear and its evolution. At the moment, it’s the soundtrack to the Sci-Fi* channel’s Children of Dune, the first cut, “Summon the Worms.” The piece begins softly with mournful strings and then begins to build until the strings and brass play point and counterpoint back and forth on the same theme. And then it bursts wide open with the tympani leading the rest of the orchestra into the billowing centerpiece. I play it over and over again because it, quite simply, makes my body tingle.
When I was in elementary school, my father would sometimes take me to his weekly orchestra rehearsals. He belonged to the local community orchestra which put on maybe three or four concerts a year. I would sit at the back of the rehearsal hall at the local high school with him and rejoice in the music that surrounded me. He played percussion. If it wasn’t brass, strings or woodwinds, he was your guy (except for piano and harp, of course).
The Pomona Valley Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal circa 1958
My very favorite instrument he played was the tympani—the big copper kettledrums. I loved, and still love, that deep-throated pounding sound, almost like the beating of a heart. You have to tune those, you know. There are usually two or more in the orchestra, and they’re tuned to different notes. Each time before my dad would perform, he’d spend many minutes with his ear within millimeters of the drumhead tapping it lightly with the padded tympani mallet, and as he did so, he would turn one tuning screw a skosh clockwise or counterclockwise to get the desired pitch. (The drums typically have a range of a perfect fifth, according to Wikipedia.) And then he’d repeat the process with the other one. He loved those drums, but they didn’t belong to him. The school district owned them.
The orchestra from my father’s point of view
Dad would also let me sit with him during performances. That’s when all the hard work week after week came together in a perfect whole. I would sit on a chair just like his chair—an angelic-looking little blond girl—and watch and listen as the orchestra gave life to black dots on paper. I learned to play the piano starting in first grade, moved on to accordion and then violin along the way, but I believe that the greatest music education I ever got was sitting in that orchestra absorbing the contribution of every instrument alone and then together. I can tear “Summon the Worms” apart and appreciate its soaring due to the time I spent sitting at the back of that orchestra.
My father, my younger sister and
myself in a publicity photo for the orchestra.
So, to my father who’s been gone for nearly six years now, I say thank you. Thank you, Daddy, for the music, all the music. My life would falter were it not for my love of music. And while rock-and-roll is great and I love it dearly, it’s the magic of an orchestra that never fails to take me places I’ve never been before.
*That’s what the SyFy network was called when the miniseries first aired.