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A Song For My Father

Words By Andy DeVilbiss

You know an instrument you rarely hear in funk, if anywhere outside of classical music? The oboe. Other than Mitch Miller, can you even think of a halfway popular oboe player? That's IF Mr. Miller could be considered "popular." The oboe is fickle. Finicky. The clarinet's cranky cousin. It's listed with the French Horn in the Guinness Book of Stupid Human Tricks and Occasionally Interesting Facts as the most difficult instrument to play on the planet. It require a lot of practice, a lot of finesse, and a lot of control. When it all comes together, it's beautiful.

The shrieking squelch of an oboe reed, however, is unpleasant. I'm talking about the reed by itself, unattached to the oboe. It sounds like accidentally stepping on a hyperactive asthmatic goose. Growing up, I was awakened many nights by that sound. My dad practicing late at night. After a day with his main job in a military band and usually working another part-time job, practice time had to be late night.

Like most oboists, he made his own reeds. That required testing. Of the reed. Then of the reed in the oboe. Then repeat. Then repeat LOUDER. He was trying to get the right feel - the response he wanted. Squeaks and blurts interrupted by shaving and shaping pieces of cane, like he was creating a magic wand that would cast exactly the spell he needed. The contour, the touch, the tone and timbre. Everything mattered.

Even the materials. He told me the story of visiting Paris in his younger days and trying to purchase a particular cane from a shop-keep. Dad asked him in his best broken French if he spoke English. The shop-keep asked in French if Dad spoke French. Non. Then asked in German if he spoke German. Nein. On it went - Spanish, Italian, Dutch - and Dad shook his head every time. Finally the shop-keep fluently and snootily said something along the lines of, "Well I guess we will have to speak dirty English then." Dad stuck out the shabby treatment and got his cane, though (and an increased dislike of the French).

He was a musician in large part because his mother was a musician. She was a church organist and piano teacher. She also played accordion at parties. She nurtured his love and appreciation of music and made it ok for him to believe it could be a viable profession. Because of her my dad became a musician, and the social outings of my formative years were his concerts. In the summertime they were outside on the City Dock of Annapolis. They would always play the "1812 Overture" as the last song of the last summer concert, complete with Navy cannons from across the river.

We didn't turn out to be professionals, but my brothers and I played when we were growing up. I took piano and played saxophone all through college (mostly bari). My brother plays a little guitar, bass, and drums. My other brother who has special needs is currently excelling in his piano lessons.

Grandma passed about a month ago. Last weekend I watched as her piano and organ were delivered to my brother's house. Luckily we had the means to keep them in the family. My dad was there too, as a grandpa, holding my 18-month-old nephew, Miles, who has experienced several Phish shows from the womb and already shown a healthy interest in his father's drum kit. Grandma passed music on to Dad. He passed it on to us. You'd better believe we're going to pass it on to Miles and the rest of the fourth DeVilbiss generation. It's a family affair.

Thanks for helping me love music, Dad. Happy Father's Day.


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