The Liberty Gazette
January 24, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Blame it on airplanes and Bolero, and a recent double date dinner with Mark and Katherine Griffith that led us, two classical music fans, to our first-ever Houston Symphony Pops Concert, “Cirque Goes to the Movies”.
The Griffiths were college sweethearts and fellow percussionists. The sweetheart part remains, but Katherine changed her major, earning a degree in industrial engineering. Mark, on the other hand, persisted, pursing professional percussion positions.
After graduation Mark joined the New World Orchestra in Miami Beach, Florida which offered a blend of professional and educational experience while auditioning for professional gigs. There was a three-year limit with summers off, like an apprenticeship. During his first year he auditioned for the Louisiana Philharmonic. Competition was high, pay disappointingly low, and as percussionists, like pilots, don’t sit still long, he began to pursue his other dream: flying.
Mark’s grandma was nervous about him flying but loaned him the funds for lessons. Katherine snagged a summer job playing “a rip-off version of ‘Stomp’” (percussion with trash can lids) at Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio while Mark waited tables at TGI Friday’s at night and flew and studied during the day. Focus and determination paid off and he earned his Private Pilot License by the end of summer, with the minimum required 40 flight hours, a rare feat. Katherine was his first passenger, in a Cessna 150 the day after getting his license.
Upon returning to the New World Symphony for his second season, equipped with options, it was time to face the music. Mark thought carefully, and chose to let flying be a hobby.
A week before the end of his three-year apprenticeship he auditioned for the Jacksonville Symphony. Audition opportunities are rare, typically one or two nationwide per year, so even making it as a finalist is an accomplishment. He stayed in Jacksonville three years, until May of 2004, one week shy of his 30th birthday, when he was selected as the Houston Symphony’s newest percussionist.
Among his greatest flying adventures thus far, are his first solo cross-country flight (a hallmark for all pilots), taking friends on flight-seeing trips off the coast of Florida, and flying newlyweds to Bimini – “The beauty of the Bahamas is not overstated. To fly over it is unbelievable. To see the blue green water and the coral underneath it is spectacular” – but with a growing family what top it all are the more recent trip to Austin to take their children to the Lego kids’ festival, and a sight-seeing flight he donated for their son’s pre-school fundraiser.
“We flew over the school and they all came out and watched us overhead. It was exciting for everyone. People who aren’t part of the aviation community think this flying thing is pretty neat!”
He envisions flying as a family vacation vehicle and some day when the kids are grown he’d like to donate his time and talent to helping others, such as Angel Flights. Meanwhile, aviation still appears on occasion in his musical life.
“Once, just before playing vibraphone as part of a jazz trio, a stomach virus hit me. We were playing film music by John Williams and being a featured performer, I was up front. I hid an airplane ‘sick sac’ behind my pouch of mallets, just in case.”
Neither Mark nor Katherine had seen Tone Deaf Comics' cartoon strip of the snare drum player’s thoughts while playing Bolero, but my asking resulted in this reply: “I’m playing the lead part on Bolero this weekend, in Cirque Goes to the Movies. While I’m playing, one of the Cirque Strong Men does a one-handed handstand on the head of the other! You’ll have to come see it!”
We are now Houston Symphony Pops veterans, thanks to airplanes, Bolero, Mark and Katherine.