He radiates talent – McKinley teacher finds music in (of all things) his heating system

October 6, 2010
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To some, the groaning and creaking of an old steam heating system may be a painful reminder of how much heating oil costs these days, but to others like Travis Ramsey, those sounds are the sounds of music.

The McKinley Elementary School teacher and musical composer has taken inspiration from the old boiler and steam heat radiators at his Malden home, turning those sounds into a new musical composition.

That newest piece, ‘The Lost Art of Steam Heating,’ will make its Massachusetts premiere this Sunday, October 10, at 3 p.m. with the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra under Conductor Max Hobart.

It will take place at Mass Bay Community College in Wellesley.

“Our boiler is a 1937 model,” said Ramsey in an interview at the McKinley on Monday. “It was originally built to burn coal and it was converted to oil. It’s just a beast. My wife and I, this is our first home and we bought it in November 2007 [during the heating season]. I would always wake up in the middle of the night hearing these noises. I kept asking, ‘What is that noise?’ I had never experienced anything like that.”

It wasn’t long, though, before those awful noises became music to his ears.

“There were radiators that hissed like demented teapots, pipes that banged loud enough to shake the floors and that old 1937 steam boiler that roared like a lioness in heat,” said Ramsey.

Connecting those everyday, old-house sounds to music was just a natural reaction for Ramsey.

“I think that’s just the way I operate,” he said. “It was the perfect inspiration for a new piece.”

And inspiration works quickly for the McKinley teacher.

He was done with the entire composition by February.

Ramsey – who majored in music education at the University of Southern Maine (USM) – began composing music in middle school when he was growing up in Vermont.

He said he was always interested in music and, especially, in creating new music, and studied composition at USM.

“It is something I’ve always done,” he said. “It’s one of those things I do all the time. If I have a day off, that’s what I do.”

Such a pastime is not easy, as composing music is just as difficult as writing a novel, and there are more failures than successes.

He said he combines a great deal of study with good, old-fashioned trial and error.

“Basically, it is mostly trial and error – but mostly error,” he said with a laugh.

He said he also brings his passion for musical composition into the classroom at the McKinley; teaching kids how to make their own music.

“Kids in just about every age group do at least one composition project every year,” he said. “It’s all tailored to their age group, but I like to think it opens their minds to creativity.”

Ramsey has taught at the McKinley for seven years, as well as teaching part-time at the Lincoln, Garfield and the old Paul Revere Schools.

Ramsey’s composition has been performed previously by the USM orchestra, conducted by Robert Lehmann – who is well known in Revere for directing the North Shore Philharmonic. The directions call for a standard orchestra, but there are also some twists. In the percussion section, it calls for two real radiators and someone to make the sound of a lion’s roar.

He said that it was his wife, Gisela, who actually came up with the idea for using real radiators within the orchestra.

“After I finished the composition, I was in the basement hitting several old pipes that were left over from a previous project,” he said. “I was trying to find just the right sound. She came down to see what I was doing and suggested that I just use a real radiator. I went over an tapped on it, and said, ‘Oh yea.’ So, I have to give her credit on that.”

Ramsey said that he actually borrowed the name of his composition, ‘The Lost Art of Steam Heating’ from a book he and his wife used to tune up their boiler, which, unfortunately, took away the interesting sounds.

“We’re happy to report that the entire system – radiators, pipes and all – purrs like a kitten,” he said.

And, while the boiler and radiators in the 100-plus year old McKinley School are pretty musical in that respect, he said it was the creaky, old wooden floors that interested him.

“I love the creaks in the floors here at the McKinley,” he said. “They make some pretty strange sounds. I don’t know if that’s another composition. We’ll have to see about that. You never know.”

Tickets to the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Ramsey’s composition are $20 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. Children are free with an adult paid admission.

A pre-concert talk is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. For more information, call (781) 235-0515.

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