Dawn Harms, Ward Spangler, and Rebecca Roudman of the East Bay Oakland Symphony Orchestra Discuss Their Alternative Musical Careers

Music in all its forms inspires symphony members in their alternative capacities.


Cellist Rebecca Roudman, percussionist Ward Spangler, and violinist Dawn Harms with their instruments.

Photo by Chris Duffey

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A violinist who dresses in a yellow canary suit and hires a pianist (dressed in a cat outfit) to chase her around the stage. Or a percussionist who performs for 10-year-olds at 8:15 a.m. on instruments ranging from a plastic plate holder to a mop bucket to a typewriter. Or a cellist who plays an instrument Bach made holy as if it were “rock and roll dirty.”

Who are these odd, seemingly subversive musical misfits? Are they desperate wannabes, or renegades clever enough to know that stoking their creative juices requires more than simply a paycheck?

Dress them in black, seat them under the soaring, Art Deco ceiling of the Paramount Theatre, and you can call them longtime members of the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Concertmaster Dawn Harms, principal percussionist Ward Spangler, and cellist Rebecca Roudman represent the tip of a flame, a hot, burnt-orange explosion of divergent creativity spiraling through OEBS’s ranks.

Toss aside the image of stodgy string players or deadpan drumming, no disrespect to classicism intended. This trio collectively represents more than 60 years playing professionally as classical musicians. They hold college degrees, teaching positions at conservatories and universities, and multiple contracts with Bay Area, national, and international orchestras and opera companies. But underneath the fine technique, layered throughout formative years of demanding training and hard practice, sheer joy of creating sound has prevailed.

Harms, 54, has a full calendar performing with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, New Century Chamber Orchestra, and as co-concertmaster with OEBS. Splice into her busy schedule playing for Skywalker Sound movies and video games, joining cousin Tom Waits’ CD recordings, teaching at Stanford University, guest conducting, solo performances, and the one-woman family show that feeds her passion for music education and a mind-boggling life with music raining down like confetti is the portrait.

In an interview, Harms set a rapid pace.

“I’ve always been vocal,” she said. “I wanted to quit violin when I was 12. Everyone was trying out for basketball, and there I was, squeaking on the violin.”

Realizing she could use humor to angle recital introductions into brief, stand-up comedy routines, Harms interjected off-the-cuff remarks into childhood performances. In some ways, she was carrying on the family tradition: Her mother put strings in the pancakes on April Fools’ Day, or blasted Florence Foster Jenkins (“An opera singer who couldn’t sing two notes well,” Harms said) to wake her up in the morning.

“For a while, I played with a symphony where everyone was 80, except for me. When they would tune, they’d be tuning their hearing aids, not the instruments,” she recalled, delivering the punch line with perfect timing.

Harms has taken her boisterously enthusiastic one-woman show to more than 500 schools around the country but said she’s in the wrong place when she visits a classroom. Instead, she believes tomorrow’s symphony audience will be established by bringing kids into the concert hall with their parents, charging only $5 a ticket and opening their minds with jaw-dropping music. At Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Neb., in front of 2,000 kids, “I felt like Madonna,” she recalled. “Once they heard the first piece, they were mesmerized.”

Spangler leads a different, but equally eclectic musical life. Active with large groups like OEBS and Berkeley Symphony, the 60-year-old Oakland resident also operates as a member of Supercussion, four percussionists presiding over an array of “things to bang on” to perform everything from Mozart to Michael Jackson for elementary and middle school-age audiences.

“We want them to learn that anything you hit that makes a sound is an instrument,” he said. Although he doesn’t say it directly, it’s clear that having fun is as vital as having a formal music education.

Spangler’s career flows on the multifarious ether of formal classical ensembles, throw-together apartment jam sessions, Sunday morning church gigs, and standard academia. Even so, playing without sheet music is a crucial element. “You can become too picky and lose your natural ability if you go without free improv,” he warned. Asked about the danger of the digital world overtaking audience’s appetites for live performances, he said, “Fortunately, people will always want to play music, and other people will always want to go see them play.”

Arguably, Roudman epitomizes the revolutionary spirit of the trio—and of the current that runs sub-surface in OEBS’s culture and programming. She and guitarist Jason Eckl co-founded Dirty Cello, a San Francisco-based band that started off playing blues, then added bluegrass, gypsy, jazz, and folk music while retaining a firm grip on classical foundations.