My experience with the timpani and an early sense of failure

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the other night. Apart from the feeling like my head had just exploded, the use of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra struck a chord with me as well (yes, that was intended). It reminded me of the one time in my life when I played the timpani, in 6th grade, in Mr. Baker’s band class at Oakdale Christian school.

I remember Mr. Baker very well. A heavyset man, the act of moving his arms all day to direct the band would cause him to sweat profusely, with constant stains in his armpits. A constant source of entertainment for those of us in the band, especially as when one directs a band, one’s arms are in the air and one’s pits exposed. That and his extremely short temper. He took band extremely seriously and when we were up to various shenanigans or were flat, sharp, off beat or what have you, he would erupt like Mount Saint Helens. Raining spit on the poor flute and clarinet players as he enunciated his disappointment in us. Bright red as a beet except for those yellow pit stains.

Mr. Baker liked to dress the part as well. In the spring he was the coach for the Creston middle school baseball team and we looked forward to the day they played Oakdale so we could see Mr. Baker in his other element. He wore the Creston uniform as he coached from the sidelines: jersey, pants, hat, stirrups and all. A middle aged heavyset man squeezed into an 8th grader’s baseball uniform, we weren’t quite sure how he was able to do it, but it amused us to no end. That and finally we were on the opposite side of his tantrums. We could watch the other team being belittled for their failures, laugh at the spectacle of it all without any of the shame.

But that was baseball. Band was Mr. Baker’s true passion. The school year would start with preparations for the December concert. All the schools would come together in the high school auditorium for a concert right before the Christmas break. Over the next few weeks, we would learn 5 new songs or so and Mr. Baker would choose the best 2 or 3 and we would learn these for Festival, which was the highlight of the year for Mr. Baker.

I never really understood festival. Why it was called festival, I never really knew. It was some sort of competition between all the Grand Rapids Christian Schools, I think, but I don’t know how people won or if people won or what. It was like a concert, except it wasn’t in the gym with all of your parents in the audience, there were just a few judges. You were scored, as well. You could get a 1, a 2 or a 3. I think the orchestra got a 1 once, which meant that they were really good. We always got 2s in band. I don’t know what happened if you got a 1, maybe you advanced to the next round or something.

I just knew that it was a day in late winter/early spring when we got to have half a day off of school because the band all piled into Oakdale’s rusty vans with holes in the floor where exhaust fumes came in, and drove to whatever school was hosting festival that year. We had to wear white shirts, black pants and black shoes. Once we got to the venue we unloaded all of our instruments, were told what time we would play, got some time to warm up and tune our instruments, and sat around for a while. After playing, we had to wait around for another long while as the judges tallied our score, and then with a demoralized director, pile back into the vans and drive back to Oakdale.

This particular year Mr. Baker chose a song that would require someone to play the timpani. I played the alto saxophone, and I think that year we had 4 saxophonists, so Mr. Baker chose me to play the timpani on this one song. I liked the timpani, it was fun. I stepped on a pedal to tune them, one in C and one in G I believe, and then I beat the crap out of them at various points in the song. It took a while to get the hang of it and Mr. Baker was patient with me (I was always fairly well behaved and not the target of Mr. Baker’s tantrums), but I finally got it to the point where Mr. Baker would even praise my timpani banging prowess.

And then it was time for festival. Mr. Baker dressed up for festival, too. Just as for baseball games he squeezed himself into a tight baseball uniform, for festival he squeezed himself into a tiny suit which he somehow managed to button and his head bulged out of the top like a bright red turnip. At least his pit stains would be covered by his jacket so we wouldn’t burst out laughing in the middle of a song. Festival was always tense because Mr. Baker would be so worked up about it. But he couldn’t explode or yell at us with the judges present, all he could do was stare us down, eyes flickering with hell-fire, head shaking with fury, fingers tapping his chest savagely between songs to remind us that we needed to stay on beat.

Before we played, we had to set up the stage. Getting the correct number of chairs in their respective rows, the right number of music stands, and the right percussion instruments out there, and in the case of the timpani, they had to be in tune and in place. We took the stage and played our first song. I forget how it went. Then for the second song I had to get up and go back to join the percussion. As Mr. Baker raised his hands to start the song, I realized that I had left my sheet of music on the stand where my saxophone was.

When I think of this particular episode my head is full of the curses my eleven or twelve year old self should have been thinking, but it’s hard for me to think what curses were running through my slightly more innocent brain at that moment, eyes wide in terror at my mistake. I believe I wanted to cry. I remember thinking that I knew the song well enough, I can probably play it from memory, but just to be safe I’ll not bang the crap out of them, I’ll have to play soft. But then, what was this? It didn’t sound right at all! I must have tuned them backwards! Mr. Baker’s hell-fire eyes burned through me as I tried to play it cool, looking as if I knew what I was doing. Quickly I tried to retune them, trying to make the C a G, and vice-versa. But trying to do this in the middle of a song with the band playing of course meant that now neither of them was the right note, and I realized that they probably had been tuned correctly before, but since I had left my music on my other stand, that I had just started playing the wrong one. I was now utterly screwed and basically could not play either one, but needed to make it look like I was playing them to minimize the damning looks I was getting from Mr. Baker.

At the end of the song I walked back to my saxophone for the the third song without looking up at Mr. Baker, managed to get through the it without looking up and not crying. We waited around for a while as we put our instruments away and loaded up the vans, got our 2 and Mr. Baker again was demoralized on the way back to school. We never did get a 1; I think that was Mr. Baker’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I believe I eventually told Mr. Baker the story of what happened that day, but I held off until I was ready to graduate 8th grade. I think by that point I had learned to laugh about it and he had as well. Whenever I hear music that has a powerful timpani part, though, it always reminds me of my one failed attempt to play the timpani as Mr. Baker once again, failed to get his band to get a 1 at festival.

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