Leon’s Song

In high school, I played the drums and enjoyed playing in the band. As time went by I learned to read melody notes and a metamorphosis occurred–I changed from a drummer into a percussionist. In the orchestra, I was in the company of two other percussionists, Gary and Leon. Gary could read melody notes too, but Leon had not yet ventured into that domain. In fact, at times even the rhythm notes actually seemed to confuse Leon as well. Nevertheless, he was a great guy–very good-natured and always gave his best in everything that he did.

One day our musical director and teacher, Mack Pitt, a famous man of note in his own right, came to us and told us that we were going to perform the theme from “Around the World in Eighty Days.” That was music to my ears, because I knew that it had some real meaty parts for the drummers, I mean the percussionists. We would have a chance to play instruments such as the Marimba and the chimes–instruments that actually produce melody notes.

Shortly after reviewing the musical score, we determined that there could be a slight problem for us. Since Leon did not play any of the melody instruments, that meant that Gary and I would have to share the honors in that department. It was not long before we devised a workable plan. Gary would start out on the Marimba; Leon would play the cymbals and I would be on the Tympani drums.

Around the World in Eighty Days” starts with a roll on the Tympani’s that builds to a crescendo capped with a cymbal crash whereupon the rest of the orchestra joins the musical tour. The horns in the brass section trumpet majestically; the woodwinds create orchestral energy, and the string section softly binds it all together.

For reasons that escape me now, it was determined that after the opening crescendo I would move quickly to my right to play the chimes and Gary would take over the tympani. This should have been an easy maneuver except that Leon and the cymbals were standing between us.

At the first rehearsal, we came up with a plan to make it work. Gary would come past Leon first then I would repeat the process in the other direction. To allow us to pass, Leon would turn the cymbals sideways and hold them against his chest during the move. At the rehearsals, we perfected the drill; our timing was perfect. It should be, after all, we were drummers, I mean percussionists. On the other hand, good old Leon sometimes marched to the beat of a different drummer. (Pun clearly intended.) In fact, he had the strangest sense of timing I have ever encountered.

In those days, I was really into complicated rhythm and syncopation, but try as I might, I could not match the esoteric time signatures that Leon’s mind invented. He would occasionally stick in beats where it was hard to fathom they would fit. Conversely, he sometimes lost track of the count and would miss an important cymbal crash. Gary was mindful of this and always set a cymbal on a stand just in case Leon missed the timing while counting to four and 13/32nds or some other strange time signature. If Leon actually made the cymbal crash on time, the effect of the two cymbals resonating together made a rich stereophonic sound. If, on the other hand Leon was a tad late, this produced an echo chamber effect caused by the two crashes coming slightly out sync. Either way we seemed to be covered.

After several weeks of practice, our high school orchestra was ready to present “Around the World in Eighty Days.” In anticipation of the grand performance, we carefully setup the percussion instruments on the highest tier of the risers. As we made our final adjustments, we could hear the sounds of the audience filling the seats. Once everything was in place, we did the final run through of our movements to verify that we have it down pat. It worked like a charm. Now the three percussionists were ready for a command performance.

For most of my life, I have been pleased with that fact that I had broad shoulders. However, it gave my mother fits trying to buy clothes for her teen-age son. On the night of the performance, my large shoulders would present an unintended problem.

Finally, the big moment had arrived, the instruments were tuned, and the signal went out to open the curtain. Even before the applause died down, I received the cue to start the roll on the timpani drums. It is a powerful sound and I felt good producing the smooth roll that lead to the crescendo and the famous cymbal crash that would ignite the rest of the orchestra. At the precise moment, Gary reached over, and with a drumstick and hit the cymbal on the stand. Leon was about 11/32nds of a beat late, so in actuality there were two cymbal crashes that resulted in the echo effect of which I spoke earlier.

As you may recall, Gary and I had to change places right after the cymbal crash. Unfortunately, neither Gary nor I were aware that Leon was upset about missing the cymbal crash and was preoccupied with reliving the past four bars in his head. Consequently, he forgot to rotate the cymbals 90 degrees and pull them into his chest. Gary slipped by, but as I rushed past him, my right shoulder made a direct connection with the still outstretched cymbals. I was clearly aware of what just happened, but I could not dwell on it. I had just seconds before I had to play some important notes on the chimes, and no time to contemplate why Leon did not turn the cymbals sideways.

As I played the notes on the chimes, I looked up at the conductor. I would later regard that as mistake. He was still waving the baton, but he had a look of terror in his eyes. I did not understand his expression, and for a second I averted my eyes to the audience. I focused on the people sitting in the first couple of rows, which was also a mistake. With the exception of the young boy with blond crew cut hair, and the sly grin on his face, everyone else had the same look of terror that I saw on the face of the conductor. I finally summoned the courage to turn around and to this day, I regard that as a mistake as well.

I can honestly say that I have never before been witness to what was transpiring behind me. When I bumped the cymbals in Leon’s hands, I forced him to take a slight step back, and the heels of his shoes went over the edge of the riser. To regain his balance he was now moving his arms in big circles. At the end of each arm was of course, a heavy metallic cymbal. The resulting motion made him look like one of those big ungainly birds you see from time to time on the nature channel. You know, the ones that can’t seem to figure out how to land.

In a way, Leon was preparing for a landing of sorts, and I could already tell that it would be just about as graceful as the birds on the TV show. I thought about attempting a rescue but with those cymbals in motion I would have been risking life and limb to get anywhere close to poor Leon. Suddenly, with his arms still in full swing, Leon disappeared below the riser making contact with the floor. I am sure that the resulting cymbal crash was heard in the farthest corners of the auditorium. I was afraid to look down or even contemplate Leon’s fate, but for dear Leon this was actually a watershed moment because the cymbals crashed precisely on the beat. Leon had finally mastered the music.

The show must go on, as they say, and so it did. The conductor was still waving the baton and the band played on—sans Leon. Did I already mention that Leon had just soared almost five feet down to the floor? This may have had something to do with the moaning emanating from below. Thankfully, the sound of the music prevented the audience, indeed even the rest of orchestra from hearing Leon’s moaning. They were very involved with the wonderful rendition of Around the World in Eighty Days or as I have since dubbed it—“Leon’s song.”

Leon was up and around even before the last notes of “his” song had died out. Thankfully, he was not seriously hurt. However, I was clearly unhappy that he had taken the plunge because of my shoulders. When it was all over, Leon received more attention than ever, and as it turns out, in a way, I may have helped him become the star of the show.

It has been a very long time since that fateful performance, but I shall never forget that evening. All that is left now is to cue the cymbals one more time then fade out. Leon’s Song” is over.

Jim Sayers

Copyright © 1999/2016

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