My Musical Career| Part Sixty-Seven

Have Drums, Will Travel – How I managed to get around with my drums

The subtitle for this entire blog site is called “Have Drums, Will Travel. It is a tip of the hat to an old western entitled “Have Gun, Will Travel”, which starred the actor Richard Boone as “Paladin”. Eighteen or so years of schlepping instruments from gig to gig in a van made me feel just a little like Paladin, hence the title.

From Provided Support System to No Support System

I think that this blog post would be a good time to pause in my description of my time with the DMMO and talk about how I made the transition from being an orchestra-supported musician into becoming a traveling timpanist/percussionist – having to rely on my own means to get to the venues as well as supply my own instruments.
For twenty-one years I managed to play my orchestral jobs without the need to provide my own equipment, other than mallets and small percussion. The timpani and large percussion equipment were owned by the orchestras and institutions I worked for and were most often on-site. I only had to get myself and my mallets to the venue.
There were a few exceptions, but even with those, my orchestras helped out. In Albany, I had access to their timpani for the season’s rehearsals and concerts, and the orchestra was very helpful in letting me use their old 1950s version of the Ludwigs for Capitol Hill Choral Society’s “Messiah” performances – as well as for my first summer seasons with the Lake George Opera. From my fourth season, I was able to use their 25-inch and 28-inch Hinger timpani – the pit at Queensbury High School – the opera’s venue – was so small that two timpani were all that could be fitted into the pit, and the percussionist and I were literally on top of one another. However, that made it easy to double when needed. The Vermont Symphony had its own Ludwigs, and the biggest hurdle for me was to get to the venues, which I did via Vermont Transit, the goodness of staff and colleagues to pick me up, and the orchestra to house me (the VSO travels round the state). During this period, I also performed with the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra which was based at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Since many of the Albany Symphony’s members also played with the orchestra, I was generally able to hitch a ride with one of them. (Note: I did not own a car until 1981, after I had moved to Evansville, Indiana.)

In Oslo, I had the support staff of the orchestra behind me for rehearsals, concerts, and recordings, and it was nice to have everything to hand in one venue. On tours, that same support staff was indispensable in making sure the instruments were in place and ready to go for the tour’s rehearsals and concerts. I thank stage managers Ove Brun (from 1983 to 85) and Atle Opem (from 1985 until I left the orchestra in 1998) for their unstinting support. Occasionally, I would play choral concerts around the city, and my stage manager would arrange to loan me the timpani for the event and arrange for transport to and from the church, for which I was ever so grateful. When I toured with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, that organization arranged the instruments and transport, with the help of the OPO’s stage manager. Atle was my main man for nearly fourteen seasons, and I owe him a lot. Susan Westwood, the orchestra’s librarian from 1988 until 2000 assisted Atle, and I will include her in the kudos!

Transition – to the USA – 1998

All that ended when I went on terminal leave in June 1998. From that time on, I was on my own. Everything that I would do in future, had to be provided by yours truly, and at the time, I had nothing. I sold my pair of Leedy-Anheiers to my former assistant, so I had to start from scratch. The transition was made a little easier by the fact that I had to be in Indianola, Iowa for my first DMMO season about five days after landing in Illinois after the close of my final OPO season. The instruments were provided – I just had to get myself, mallets, and household equipment out there, and with the help of my wife, we packed up what I needed into our Cutlass Sierra and drove out to Indianola, where I set up house for the season. I have already discussed this in a previous blog post, so suffice it to say that all went well, and I returned to Illinois, where my wife and I had many discussions as to how we would proceed going forward.
I had already decided that I would mix whatever freelance gigs I could get with substitute teaching, while my wife already had a job in the local market. To join the freelance circuit, I would need two things: a car of my own (preferably a minivan of some sort), and instruments.
We solved the first of these items by purchasing a minivan. With the help of my father-in-law, we located a 1993 GMC Safari with 85,000 miles on it in Morris, Illinois. It was in excellent mechanical condition at the time, and the price was right, so we purchased it without too much ado. It was white, with a red interior – with normal seats in the front and a bench seat in the middle. It was an all-wheel drive which was excellent for winter driving. So that was one problem solved. Next, my wife and I discussed what instruments I would need, and a set of timpani were at the top of the list, so I shopped around – and through a local music store, ordered a pair of Yamaha 6000 timpani – sizes 26-inch and twenty-nine inch. Rather than depending on the vagaries of having them shipped, I was able to contact the nearest Yamaha warehouse, which was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and arrange to pick the drums up personally. In one sense, it was a hassle driving all that distance, but in another, and to me more important way, it was a chance to get used to my Safari and to see how the drums would stand up to being transported, and believe me, there was to be a lot of that over the next eighteen years. The trip went well, and I was now the proud owner of a pair of a pair of Yamaha timpani and a GMC Safari.
The rest of 1998 was spent getting me into the free-lance pool in the Chicagoland area. I was living on the fringe of that area – about forty-seven miles southwest of Chicago, but close to I-55, which leads directly up to Chicago. This was fortunate, as much of my eventual work was pretty much off that interstate, and I was able to get to where I needed to go. The story of my freelance career will await a later blog post as this post is devoted to how I managed to get around with my instruments.

The 1993 GMC Safari lasted from September 1998, until February 2002. I started hauling timpani and percussion equipment with the Safari in the spring of 1999 when I started subbing with the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra until December 2001 – the last time I used the vehicle was my third Christmas gig at old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago. I only took my instruments out to the DMMO for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and by the winter of 2002 (read February), the van, which was working pretty well up to that point, decided to stop working. The transmission acted up when I was on the way home from my day job at Joliet Junior College – I was working as a computer lab monitor for the Academic Computing Department at the time – I was not anywhere close to a repair shop and could only drive it no faster than 25 miles per hour. As it happened, when I finally got it to Morris, Illinois where we were living at the time, and pulled into the repair shop, the van just quit. The engine was blown. I wound up selling it for scrap value. So, that was that for the Safari.

The Accursed Pontiac Transport

The failure of the GMC Safari put a dent in my musical activities for several weeks until we could replace it. Without a minivan, my drums would remain in our apartment unused, and I would not play many freelance gigs. Fortunately, or so we thought at the time, with the help of my wife, I was able to locate a vehicle for sale that would fit our purposes. It was a”fsbo” vehicle. Fsbo means “for sale by owner.” The vehicle in question was a 1993 Pontiac Transport. It was champagne gold in color with a matching cloth interior. I don’t remember the mileage, but it seemed in excellent condition, and we bought it almost on the spot. We made two mistakes, which weren’t apparent at the time. Mistake number one was not running it past our mechanic, and mistake number two was being too eager to buy it, although we needed a vehicle. As I wrote, these mistakes were not apparent at the time, and for a while, the car served fairly well. Although not as big as the Safari, I was still able to get my drums and equipment into the car without too much trouble, and for a while anyway, I was back in business. I was able to haul instruments to local gigs and take my Yamahas and equipment to Savannah, Georgia for what was supposed to be a one-year contract with the Savannah Symphony. I was to substitute for an ailing timpanist for the 2002 -2003 concert season, and I went down there with high hopes and expectations. It was then that the Transport showed its true colors. Before leaving for Savannah, I had noticed intermittent problems with the windshield wipers. Nothing serious, just a little slowness in getting started. When I got to Savannah, the car took vengeance on me big time. I will tell the story of that engagement in a later blog post and confine myself to the lousy Pontiac Transport. I was able to get to where I needed to go for the most part, but the windshield wipers continued to malfunction, and then one day, the car just quit on me. The electrical system failed, and I was stranded on Abercorn Street right in the middle of traffic. Fortunately, I wound up on the median, out of the way of traffic and was able to get a tow to a repair shop. $1200 got me a new electrical system and I was able to function. The car was never really that great. When I got back to Illinois, I had a few months of relative peace, but the coolant system started to act up, and while I was still able to get around, I could never trust the car. In early 2004 we purchased a 2003 KIA sedan, and we sold the Transport to a friend for one dollar. We were glad to get rid of it. As my wife was driving a 1993 Voyager by then (small model – not the Grand Voyager), I was able to get at least three drums into it for gigs, so that is what we did. I am grateful that we were able to make lemonade out of that lemon! NB! For the 2003 and 2004 DMMO Summer Festivals, Jim Holland drove the drums out and picked them up – these were the Light drums, and we convoyed there and back. I with my household items in the KIA, and Jim with the drums in his van.

No to KIA – and hello, Dodge Grand Caravan

The 2003 Kia served one purpose and one purpose only – to get from Point A to Point B. As an instrument hauler, it was nothing doing. I could get household items and mallets into it, but no drums. The KIA didn’t last long. In the spring of 2005, while I was on the way to a substitute teaching job in Oswego, Illinois, I was t-boned by a woman who had put her foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. Needless to say, there was an accident. Fortunately, no one was injured. However, the car was totaled, and we were again forced to look for another vehicle. This time around, our luck changed, and we were able to locate an eggplant colored 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan. It was in excellent mechanical condition, with only 35,000 miles on it. It turned out to e a keeper. I drove everywhere with that van. Several DMMO seasons, all of my freelance gigs, my ESO and IPO gigs, and it served me well for six years. It was comfortable to drive and easily held my drums and equipment. I took it on a long road trip with the Chicago Gargoyle Brass to Minnesota in 2010, among other road trips. It was a great vehicle and gave us relatively little trouble over the years. It became a family vehicle in 2011 after I upgraded to what turned out to be my last minivan.

My Last Minivan

In 2011, I was looking to upgrade to a slightly newer minivan, and with the help of our mechanic, was able to purchase a 2005 Chevy Astro. This was a dark blue in color, with gray interior and captain’s chairs all around. It had Dutch doors and a swing up back window in the rear. My younger daughter named it “The Blueberry”, and it fit. Mechanically it was also in good shape, although it had 103,00 miles on it. But it had been well-cared for, and it served me well for nearly nine years. I drove that car even more than I did the Dodge, and was able to haul my equipment practically everywhere. Among some of my longer road trips were two trips to Lincoln, Nebraska; another road trip with the Gargoyle Brass to Wisconsin in 2012; and the rest of my trips to Indianola for the DMMO Summer Festivals until my last one in 2016. We traded it for a SUV in 2020, as it was getting long in the tooth, so to speak, and I no longer had the need to transport instruments.
That, in a nutshell is how I got my instruments from Point A to Point B for nearly eighteen years.

Here is a photo of two of my Yamahas inside the Astro, just after a service at Old St Patrick’s Church in April 2015.