What do Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma, Audra McDonald and Soupy Sales all have in common?
They’ve all been on stage with Don Donnett.
Now, at age 78, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal timpanist is wrapping up a musical career that began when he was a senior at Colonel White High School and will conclude when he performs “Beethoven’s Second Symphony” at the DPO’s Masterworks season finale May 19-20, the DPO’s free Memorial Day concert at Carillon Park May 28, and the orchestra’s Stained Glass performance in Huber Heights June 11.
Donnett’s drums have taken him on a wild ride that includes circus bands and pit orchestras, operas and nightclubs, recording studios and dance bands. He served as a band director for decades — first in the Huber Heights City School district, later at Vandalia-Butler. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he worked with dozens of big-time celebrities as a musician for Kenley Players, the popular summer musical theatre shows staged at Memorial Hall.
Over the years, Donnett has played under the baton of all four DPO conductors. He chokes up when asked about his upcoming retirement. “I’m getting a little emotional right now,” he admits. “It’s hard for me to talk about it.”
Maestro Neal Gittleman says Donnett has always played with great skill, high standards and total commitment. “He is loved and respected by all of us on stage and by everyone who’s ever played with him.” Gittleman says. “And he’s an amazing role model for his talent, his professionalism, his dedication, and his deep love of music — to say nothing of all the young musicians he’s inspired over long career as an educator.”
Gittleman says Donnett has done it all. “At the kettledrums, he’s played tonics and dominants in countless classical works over the years. He’s played fiendishly difficult pieces like Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ and Holst’s ‘The Planets.’ Put the ‘highbrow’ stuff away and take out a jazz or big band chart and Don turns into one of the best, most stylish drum set players you’d ever want to hear.”
Gittleman was only 6 years old when Paul Katz, the orchestra’s founder and first conductor, invited Donnett to join the Philharmonic as a high school senior. “Now he’s the senior member of the ensemble and about to hang up his timpani sticks after what would have to be more than 2,000 performances!” Gittleman says. “It’s amazing that someone could play at a professional level both as a teenager and as an almost-octogenarian.”
How it began
Donnett had never thought much about music until he accompanied a neighborhood buddy to their high school football game. His friend played in the band. It was a life-changing experience for Donnett. “Wow!” he remembers thinking. “It just struck something in me!”
He approached the school’s band director who suggested he learn to play an instrument. “As luck would have it, my first and only teacher was Chuck Gastineau who worked as principal percussionist of the DPO and taught at a music store on Main Street,” says Donnett. ” I took the bus downtown every Monday from Riverdale for a lesson through ninth grade and then got in the band as a sophomore.” By his junior year he was the high school’s head drummer.
“Back in those days, Chuck would have his better students play when they needed an extra percussionist in the Philharmonic,” Donnett recalls. “I was in the Colonel White band, played in the musicals and became the third percussionist in the orchestra in 1962.”
When he heard about a scholarship being offered by the DPO to keep young musicians in town, he decided to apply. “I enrolled in the music education department at the University of Dayton and the scholarship paid half of my tuition,” says the appreciative recipient who then earned a graduate degree at Wright State University.
After trying out three or four timpanists over the years, Katz suggested Donnett give it a try. He’s been playing kettledrums ever since. Timpani plays with special drumsticks called mallets. They can be more challenging than other drums because they are tuned to specific pitches.
“You could call me a percussionist/drummer/timpanist,” Donnett explains.” I am my own section, nobody else plays timpani in the orchestra but me. I usually need four drums but depending on the piece, there are sometimes two, sometimes six. I’ve even had as many as seven!”
His wife, Judy, likes to say her husband is “the heartbeat of the orchestra.”
Donnett enjoys sharing stories of his many adventures and the people he’s met along the way. “Doc Severinsen was one of the nicest guest artists and Yo-Yo Ma was also super nice. I played for ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic at the Fraze Pavilion and it was a totally fun show!”
After Joel Grey performed at a DPO pops concert, the singer was slated to headline the opening of Springfield’s Kuss Auditorium along with actress Teri Garr. “His drummer couldn’t make it and they asked me to come,” recalls Donnett. ” I couldn’t get to the rehearsal in time because it was senior night at the football game for the high school marching band and I wanted to be there to recognize my students. They held the rehearsal for me and I was able to get there late and play the next night.”
Donnett has the “highest regard” for his boss. “Neal has been very supportive and wonderful for the community, the most influential since Paul Katz,” he says.
Gittleman hadn’t been in Dayton very long when Donnett had a nasty accident at band camp. “Some scaffolding fell over, I broke my back, and also my right foot and I was paralyzed from the waist down for a while,” he relates. “I was out of school for the entire year.”
Returning to his beloved orchestra provided the motivation for healing. “Neal was very supportive,” Donnett says. “I was in a wheelchair for one of the Halloween concerts. My wife wheeled me to Memorial Hall, the stagehands took me up to the stage and I was able to perform. I spent months in physical therapy learning how to walk again.”
Gittleman says he and his colleagues will all miss having Don as a member of the DPO. “But we know that he’ll still be with us — in the audience, listening critically and cheering us on, just as decades of audience members have cheered him on over the years.”