Bang the Drums

Listening to the bagpipes played at the various events celebrating John McCain’s life this week left me in need of a bagpipe fix, so I downloaded an album from iTunes. There’s nothing like the sweet tune played on the pipes’ chanter accompanied by the rousing blare of the drones. If you’ve never heard them in person, you have missed an encounter that cannot be equaled. They kick the heart and churn the soul until you simply cannot help but stand up and declare yourself free of all earthly bounds.

My father played the drums in a bagpipe band when I was a teenager. As I began listening to this album I’d chosen at random, the first song, “Scotland the Brave,” moved from single bagpipe to a chorus of pipers to the inclusion of the drums, and I remembered with poignancy, awe and not a few tears my father’s struggles to master the damn technique of those Scottish drums. I don’t understand the intricacies of the differences between any other percussion style and those of the Scots, but I do know he did a fair amount of swearing as he practiced for hours on his little homemade drum pad. But master them he did.

Every Wednesday night, our family—Dad, Mom, little sister and I—would head to the military industrial complex where my father worked. While my sister and I took Scottish dancing lessons in one of the out buildings, outside the pipers and drummers would practice both the mastery of their instruments and marching, both fast and slow. And every Christmas, band and dancers together would march in the local holiday parade. We’d wear our little dancing slippers which really weren’t meant for marching, but the magic and joy of following the band led by its drum major lives on in my memory forever.

I miss my daddy. I listen to the drums on this bagpipe album, and there’s a part of me that wants to squeal with a child’s delight. If you ever hear a bagpipe band, whether recorded or live, pay attention to the drums. They’re the best bit of percussive work you’ll ever experience.

My Daddy in all his glory


Dear JoAnn,

Today is the first anniversary of your passing, though you’d passed away from me a while before that. We got all caught up in the political, and I didn’t understand until you were gone where you were coming from. Not that that would have made a difference. So I’ve spent the last year thinking about how I didn’t miss you because I’d already begun grieving the loss of you months before.

But today, as I set out for my walk, I plugged my earbuds into my phone and pulled up Sticky Fingers, and when the first licks of “Brown Sugar” hit my ears, I recognized reason for celebration. Those two concerts in one day at the Forum where we jumped up and down and danced like maniacs.

Those nights spent exploring our insides with Anita.

That early morning when you and I rode up to the top of Lookout Mountain and orchestrated the sunrise. Anita had fallen asleep on us . You, as you always could, had taken a two-hour nap earlier under the influence of something that should have kept you from doing so. We did a damn good sunrise that day, and we spent the entire day proud of our work.

Canasta. Oh, my god, we played canasta every chance we got. And we were brutal—all of us—you, me, Neal, and the others in your crowd.

The house in Pasadena. Your brilliant idea to strip all the kitchen cabinets of paint in the middle of summer before you moved in. Nearly killed us with the fumes. And gloves don’t work if your hands are sweaty because the sweat mingles with the fumes slipping and your hands burn anyway. Then later, you completely remodeled the kitchen, replacing the cabinets anyway. You told me you’d owe me forever, and I held you up to that, didn’t I.

The good times. Time to remember the good times. We laughed and had fun all over Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. And I will remember forever. Thank you for all of that. It never would have been the same without you.


Hart (whom you refused to call Hart because you couldn’t get used to calling me anything but Debi—are you up there still calling me Debi? Stop it. Right now.)

Thank You for the Music (A Father’s Day Orchestration)

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.