The best part came first. You drove to the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, rolled right past the main entrance and pulled up in back by the stage door--your door. Not general admission for you. On this night you would be a percussionist with the Ventura County Symphony.
"The cool thing about being a percussionist," said Mark Zimoski a few minutes later, "is you're sitting back among a bunch of other percussionists, and there's no problem just leaning back and whispering, 'Where are we?' We do it all the time. Well, we don't do it all the time . . ."
At least Zimoski doesn't. He is the principal percussionist, having played with the Ventura County Symphony for nine years. He is also an optimist. While a few early string players sawed their bows under the harsh stage lights, he spread some sheets of music on a kettle drum and offered choices. A waltz? A march? You, a retired garage-band drummer, dithered.
This was only a rehearsal but a full one: 85 professional and semiprofessional musicians under the direction of a baton-wielding conductor, with just a few hours together to prepare for a performance five days hence. If a newcomer succeeded here, whole new opportunities in rhythm could lie ahead. Zimoski got his start, after all, in circumstances even more modest. There he was, an undirected youth, pounding out rock 'n' roll drum exercises in a San Fernando Valley suburb, when two members of the Mothers of Invention moved in next door.
The Mothers of Invention, of course, was an intellectual rock band led by Frank Zappa and influenced by such far-flung composers as Muddy Waters and Edgard Varese. Yet when Ian and Ruth Underwood heard Zimoski practicing rock 'n' roll drums in the next house, they sensed something they liked.
They invited Zimoski to turn pages at a rehearsal--"it was all I could do to keep up with the measures, let alone what was in them"--and made some introductions. That was two decades ago and now Zimoski, 37 years old, lives in Van Nuys and makes his living by driving around Southern California and banging on things.
Maybe that's why he gave you the benefit of the doubt. He believed you when you said you could read music, took it in stride when you opted for the triangle part in Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Tales From the Vienna Woods." And he cheerfully placed before you a gleaming chrome triangle and a pair of metal swizzle sticks. Triangle beaters.
Now things were happening fast. The straggling players had congealed into an orchestra. Conductor Frank Salazar had appeared up front and you stood behind a big black music stand, snare drum at your right elbow, bass drum at your left.
"Tales From the Vienna Woods," your showcase, was in waltz time, with an introductory section of about 20 measures before the triangle's appearance. You would beat half a dozen whole notes, followed by a four-measure roll and a few more whole notes. Then later on, after a few twists, turns, repeats and rests, a few quarter notes.
You eyed the sheet music, fingered your triangle beaters and the music began. Brass, woodwinds, violins--all sounded at the appropriate moments. In the percussion section, too, it was business as usual.
Zimoski assaulted the timpani. Bill Ricketts, a calm, 27-year-old from Montebello, boomed at the bass drum. Marie Matson, a 31-year-old Panorama City resident, stood alertly at the snare drum. And Wade Culbreath, a tall 25-year-old from Sherman Oaks, stood at the end of the line, cymbals in hand.
As the music bounced along, they rolled, rattled and rumbled, occasionally stealing glances your way and counting aloud for your benefit. On the page before you, the notes swam like dazed guppies.
Then came your piece and your moment. A sudden, ugly moment it was. Time expanded and contracted. Immense and indistinct ideas seized your mind. Onetwothree.... Onthebeat.... AmIsweating? HowdoIread ... andwatchtheconductor? Onetwothree.... Aretheystaring? HaveIrepliedtothat weddinginvitation ... fromMichaelandDonna? Onetwothree.... Isthereabreeze? Evenstrokes Wait . . . .
You started early on the half-dozen whole notes.
You came in late on the four-measure roll.
You abandoned entirely the idea of coming back in with whole notes.
And the orchestra played on, like seasoned commuters roaring past a spin-out in the slow lane. The conductor ignored you.
You assessed the damage. In theory, that roll would have included some 192 16th notes. No one expected that. But had they bargained for the sound of a 3-year-old child, set free among the wind chimes at The Nature Company?
You were still useless when the next passage arrived. Again you started early, only this time, in your haste to silence the resounding triangle, you rattled the music stand. Now you imagined the erect hairs on the back of every neck in the violin section. On the last pass, when nothing mattered anymore, you entered and exited properly.
"That's it," whispered calm Bill Ricketts at your side. "Now you're a star."
Optimism, it turns out, is endemic among percussionists.
There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present. This week's Reluctant Novice is staff writer Christopher Reynolds.