The Middle Ages: My secret to conducting an orchestra: Flail my arms and close my eyes till it’s over

The columnist conducts the Burbank Philharmonic during a recent concert. “Your baton death march,” one friend described it.
(Burbank Philharmonic)

I do that “dad thing” where I insist my son let me finish out the Dave Brubeck song during carpool, instead of immediately tuning the radio to the drivel and crud he prefers. Nothing against drivel and crud, of course, or the breathless idiocy of the very talented Ariana Grande.

It’s just that Brubeck — like Miles Davis, like the Beatles, like Bach — will endure. There is a sophisticated bounce to his music, an aural crossover dribble. For hundreds of years, dads and sons will share the jaunty lyricism of the great Dave Brubeck.

“Really?” my son grumbles.

“Really,” I insist.


I’m not just a dad; I’m a nostalgia machine. I miss Hugh Grant movies and pop hits you could hum. I miss the tater tots they served in fifth grade at Grove Avenue Elementary.

I miss drive-in theaters and “Gunsmoke” and ma-and-pa Italian joints.

Basically, I miss everything.

We Irish, huh? We laugh when we should cry and cry when we should laugh. Really, we shun any sort of sensible reaction. My poor son is now being schooled in his ancestors’ counterintuitive impulses.


I’ll make a discerning man of him yet.

The columnist-conductor stabbing at something during rehearsal of the anthem.
(Michael Stanley / Burbank Philharmonic)

Of course, like most sons, he will discard everything I preach, then circle back and pick and choose when he gets a little older. They admit that dads get smarter over time. But when you’re 16, a dad seems only a Brubeck-loving goof.

“Look at that,” I say.

“What?” he asks.

“Bald guy in a Bentley.”

“Where?” he says.

I explain that I’d rather have a full head of hair and a Honda than be a bald guy in a Bentley. That’s just me, though. I am, by nature, secretly envious of almost everyone.


“Ah, spring,” I say with a sneeze, as the convertible zooms by in the pollen and the sun.

“You’re so weird,” my son says.

“Thank you,” I say.

Another dad (Steve) was telling me the other day how his dog laps at his coffee when he isn’t looking, more evidence of the deceit that is rampant in most American homes.

Last week, our own White Fang — not quite a wolf, not in any sense a dog — suddenly tore into the basket of pine cones we keep by the fireplace. These pine cones had been there forever — for so long, we no longer really saw them — yet all of a sudden, Fang deemed them chew toys.

Makes you wonder whether, in the middle of the night, your dog suddenly mistook your bare toes for cocktail weenies. Would you ever dance “The Nutcracker” again?

Still, I’d rather have a dog than a Bentley.

Dogs love you no matter what, and they share many of the same valuable traits as dads. They nap a lot. Nothing really rattles them.


Of course, White Fang — fierce and fit — is deathly afraid of the dark, as we all are. Our biggest fears are the things we cannot see, yet are still able to destroy us.

At those times, it pays to have a reliable dog, if such a thing actually exists. I kind of doubt that it does.

Finally, I’d rather conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner” than win a Grammy. By all accounts, Grammys require incredible skill, agents, managers, pyrotechnics, gee-tar players, roadies, luxe buses, accountants and, worst of all, lovesick groupies.

To win a Grammy, you’re on the road a lot, which interferes with a normal life. We don’t mention it much, but a normal life can be a great gift (Ask Elvis. Ask Michael Jackson).

So, to live out a dream, I actually conducted “The Star-Spangled Banner” recently, and I cannot tell you what a thrill it was. I clutched the baton the way I clutch a daily newspaper, as a lifeline to a more enlightened era.

My buddy Steve, the one whose dog steals his coffee, invited me to conduct the Burbank Philharmonic in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because, presumably, no one else really wanted to.

So I stepped in with my crumpled sheet music and fragile understanding of time signatures.

“Your baton death march,” one friend described it.

It was frightening; it was fun. Turns out that orchestras play the anthem in three-quarter time, not in four-four time, as I sing it at ballgames.

What’s the difference? One beat per measure. It is the difference between a waltz and a ballad, a bird and a Batmobile, a cupcake and a Camaro.

“It’s always three-quarter time,” Steve assures me.

Yeah, right.

Still, I manage to plow through it, which is how I handle most challenges — I flail my arms and close my eyes till the difficult moments pass.

No roadies, no pyrotechnics, just the throaty acoustics of a first-rate community orchestra.

My stairway to heaven.