When I was seven and my brother was nine, our parents moved us from north Omaha to the tiny village of Avoca, Nebraska. In this article, Dad tells the story of how the gym in an old school building won them over. The construction company is Ulmer Construction from Elmwood, Nebraska.
- Django Greenblatt-Seay
By David Seay
My senior year in college (’75-’76) I lived in a small house in Montevallo, Alabama about 6 blocks from the campus. As I walked to and from class I would take a parallel route 1 block over from the main streets that had no homes so that I could practice harmonica on the way. In the process I made up songs which reflected the pace at which I walked.
A couple of years later I moved to Nebraska, joined a band, and married the fiddler. We lived in a real house for 12 and a half years in Omaha. It seemed to get more and more cramped as our two young sons got bigger and more active. There just weren’t enough rooms, much less large enough rooms, for us to squeeze both of us teaching private music lessons, operating a mom and pop desktop publishing business, rehearsing with bands, hosting jam sessions, and raising a family.
Gradually we started paying closer attention to any domicile with a for sale sign that looked like it had potential to handle our expanding needs.
Whenever we had the opportunity to actually take a tour inside a likely liveable, workable structure I would carry a harmonica or two to test the acoustics of each room. The tunes I played were often ones I had developed while walking to and from classes at college.
It quickly became apparent that a traditional house wasn’t gonna cut the mustard. Either there was no column-less space large enough for rehearsals, performances, or recitals, or no rooms with acoustic spaces that knocked our socks off. So we started checking out old churches and very small rural schools.
Then a friend handed us a real estate circular that advertised a two story 1925 school building for sale in Avoca, Nebraska.
Each room in the schoolhouse had unique acoustics. My old harmonica tunes never sounded better to my ears. Especially in the gym where the luscious reverb tails lasted longer than seemed possible.
Unfortunately when our family moved into the Old Avoca Schoolhouse in 1990 the hard rock maple tongue-and-groove floating gym floor was badly warped. The baseball field was right behind the building and during the two years the school had been closed a few of the gym windows had been broken, allowing rain water to come thru and eventually badly warp the floor. Although this is likely why we got such a good deal on the building it long loomed as yet another project that would need to be dealt with eventually.
The sunken gym (roughly 10 feet above ground level and 10 feet below) is approximately 60 ft x 30 ft. Over time we removed the warped wood and replaced it with plywood. Unfortunately, we had recurring white mold problems and the plywood would deteriorate.
At some point we decided to quit spending money, time, and effort dealing with those problems and removed the plywood completely so we could have concrete pumped in.
There came a time when I realized that too many days slipped by without me playing a single note on an instrument. So for the past several years every morning that I have without a gig scheduled I practice an instrument for at least half an hour before breakfast to ensure that I at least play something each day.
A couple of years ago, with a little encouragement from my loving wife, I determined to sit less and walk more.
Debby has developed a ritual of walking laps in her 815 sq ft hardwood floor teaching studio multiple times a day for set lengths of time. That inspired me to combine my early morning practice with walking laps in rythym to the beat of whatever musical instrument I was playing that day. This routine has been working quite well. I have actually lost a few pounds and improved my musical chops considerably.
As my playing has improved I am inclined to pick up the pace. The problem is that in a fairly small space, made even smaller by tables and potted plants positioned around the perimeter, my gait can only increase so much and my stride can only be so long or I have trouble managing the four curves per lap. The turns can get pretty tight.
The gym floor is 1,800 sq ft which means turn radiuses can be wider so I can increase the speed of my steps and the lengths of my strides allowing me to play faster and get a better workout.
Removing the plywood, thereby exposing the dirt, robbed the harmonica’s echo of it’s warmth and shorted the tails of the reverb.
The addition of a concrete floor means more hard surfaces for the sound waves to bounce off of. The reverb tails go crazy making conversation with someone more than 5 or 6 feet away is all but impossible.
But the sound waves produced by a single acoustic musical instrument played from the floor sounds amazing. I find myself playing for considerably longer periods of time thereby increasing the amount of excercise I’m getting.
It is great fun experimenting with the direction and intensity of the sound waves I am producing as I strive to cultivate the magicalness of the ambience.