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Tom Heimberg: Another Story Worth the Telling

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In November of 2006 we learned of the death of a dear friend and colleague. Tom Heimberg was an active violist in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past forty-five years, and our musical community has reaped many rewards from sharing Tom’s unique sense of life. We all have reason to thank him for lessons of one kind or another, among which were his absolute delight in being alive and his penchant to search for a better solution, regardless of the problem. These lessons were the threads woven throughout our experiences with him, as a colleague, manager, teacher, and fair-minded negotiator; as a friend, story-teller, and champion of our traditions.

He loved the viola dearly, and his approach to his instrument was always infused with the joy he found inherent in music. Tom actively promoted anything related to die Bratschen, even extending to practicing, a subject not always embraced with open arms by all musicians. Many of us enjoyed his workshops on The Art of Practice, where he shared this positive approach. That he relished every moment spent coaxing sound from his beloved viola is reflected in a story his wife Rosalyn tells of one of his last days, when she was straightening up the room. She reached to move the viola from the bed, and Tom said, “leave it, I may play later.”

Tom was a valued comrade in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s viola section. The pleasure he found in discovering a more elegant fingering, or creating a more ergonomically balanced shoulder rest touched everyone around him. These efforts at times seemed Quixotic to those of us outside the workings of his creative impulse, as when — more than 40 years into a successful orchestral career — he excitedly shared yet another way to play the opening phrase of The Marriage of Figaro. His glee may have seemed inexplicable to his tired colleagues, but his own enjoyment of the new solution was genuine and infectious.

Tom was the designated backstage driver at the San Francisco Opera whenever a viola d’amore was called for, and the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly will always carry a special poignancy for those of us who heard Tom play it. As did so many of his explorations, these beautiful performances inspired another of his passions, one for words and language. He wrote “Puccini’s Viola of Love” along with many other musical commentaries. His writings were diverse, and included tributes to colleagues, musical reviews, tips on negotiating techniques, audition preparation, and effective practice methods. He was intellectually gifted and enjoyed focusing his philosophical microscope on the complexities and marvels of the life of an orchestral musician. His love of words shone in any chance encounter, where his pleasure with and mastery of the English language captivated his audience on a variety of subjects, often prefaced with “that’s another story worth the telling.”

One of Tom’s favorite challenges was posed by inconvenient orchestra parts. If we were to read a new work that had a clumsy page turn, we could be sure that by the next rehearsal there would be an elegant solution — either a photocopy of the relevant measures conveniently inserted, or a few measures handwritten and annotated. And Tom was never personally invested in his ideas. If, as was often the case, his solution didn’t meet another violist’s personal preference, he wasn’t offended if we reverted to the original, nor was he hesitant to offer the next solution that occurred to him. He was always, humbly, one of our fellow musicians, and referred to the orchestras he played with as his “hometowns.”

Our annual outdoor concerts in Golden Gate Park offered another opportunity for Tom to tweak the equipment, and one particular contraption would have elicited a chuckle from Rube Goldberg. Tom encouraged us to use a device that allows for page turns on a windy stage without the need for massive clothes-pinning. A description of the fishing line hung with aluminum O-rings would leave the reader baffled, but anyone who has successfully attached one to a stand on a windy stage will attest to its ingenuity. He wrote in Senza Sordino about another solution to this problem, crowing “rubber bands make great wind clips!” and going on to describe in detail how best to put these tools to work.

His quest “to make playing easier and more informed” led him to endless experimentation. Many of us benefitted from his advice on how to customize our equipment, as he often discovered new material that solved a slippery shoulder pad, or an uncomfortable chin rest; or he would bring in a new mute that would make us laugh. His viola wore a leather “falcon’s hood” over the scroll as protection against pit collisions that was an example of the reverence in which he held the tools of his craft. He carefully customized his Fiorini’s fingerboard, adding a piece of ebony in front of the nut, thereby shortening the string length by half an inch. This unusual experiment came with a witty defense: “If I save 1/64th of an inch on every interval, by the end of the season I should be miles ahead.”

Beyond the realm of performing, Tom’s agility as a diplomatic liaison could defuse potentially combative encounters among high-strung musicians. I recall many tense pre-curtain standoffs between pit musicians jockeying for elbow room before settling in for a four-hour operatic journey when it seemed that at least one of us was destined to be in a musical straitjacket for the rest of the evening. If Tom were anywhere around, he was often able to calm jangled nerves with the phrase “it’s a matter of inches,” and help restructure the insufficient space so that everyone could feel, if not comfortable, at least able to breathe.

Tom served the wider musical community as an ICSOM representative, a union board member, and president of the Northern California Viola Society. Through his active participation he reminded us of the necessity to nurture our profession, and of our indebtedness to prior generations of musicians who helped bring about the favorable conditions we now enjoy. His memory of earlier labor struggles informed each new challenge our orchestra tackled, and his voice was often heard in orchestra meetings. Tom’s deliberate, careful words carried the weight of our collective history and helped us keep the most important precepts at the forefront of our considerations.

When Tom learned of the melanoma that eventually was to take his life, he approached this thorny problem with his trademark inquisitiveness. The idea of settling for lemons when lemonade was available would never have occurred to him, and he was determined to learn from whatever crossed his path. Although cancer was a sobering diagnosis, his forthright approach to sharing new knowledge with friends and colleagues helped us transcend the fear we all felt for his future. Through the progression of treatments, remission, and recurrence, he was always willing to speak about his experiences, particularly about the spiritual path he was traveling. He willingly took up the challenge of learning to pass from life with elegance, and we all benefitted from his example.

The San Francisco musical community came together to celebrate Tom’s 69th birthday with him eight months before his death, and while clearly physically challenged, he gave the impression he felt himself the luckiest man alive. We are fortunate indeed to have had him in our midst, and will cherish his memory. His deep reverence for music, his love for the viola, his utter joy at being able to participate in the nuts and bolts workings of humanity’s journey — these threads woven through our lives make Tom Heimberg’s story well worth the telling.

February 2007