Dennis Yarnell, Trumpet


“Music has always been there.  It’s something I come back to.”


I grew up in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles.  I was one of three boys.  My brother Steven was four years older than me and five years ahead of me in school and my brother Tom was thirteen months younger.   Our house was on a large lot with about ten or twelve different kinds of fruit trees.  It was idyllic.  I could walk to school and I had all these places to play.

I had the same friends until I went to college.  We were involved in Scouts and I was in musical groups from the time I was in the fourth grade until high school when I got busy being a teenager.  The first school band had twelve members.  In the fourth grade you could only play the violin but I wasn’t interested.  Kids in the fifth grade were allowed to play whatever instrument they wanted to.  My mom was very outspoken.  She really liked being a mom and she was very proactive, 100% Irish.   She said to the school people, “My son wants to play the trumpet.  Can you find a way that that can happen?”  And so they did.  And I was the only trumpet.  So, hey!  I must be doing the right thing.

My mom and dad were opposites in a lot of ways.  They embodied the two polarities of my own personality.  My dad was a mixture of French and German, probably more German than anything else.  He was a CPA and very much a technician, extremely good at writing and numbers and he excelled at his occupation.  My mom was very outgoing, a real people person, had a lot of friends and loved to celebrate.  She was raised Catholic.  Dad was Seventh Day Adventist.  Quite different approaches so they settled on taking us to a Presbyterian Church.  Kind of a white people’s solution to all that.  (laughs)

I was drawn to music right away.  My mom loved music and it was a big event when we got a stereo.  She was a stay-at-home mom so she would be cleaning and music would fill the house.  After I’d been playing the trumpet for maybe a year at school they got me lessons.  The first trumpet teacher I had played the clarinet.  He sent me home with a C major scale and he said, “Here, kid, learn this.”  It’s funny by contrast because years later when I was teaching music to elementary school kids, we would get them going on little song books or maybe three to five notes in the song.  But I didn’t know any different; I just played the C scale and came back the next week.

So I was in that small band in elementary school and then in junior high we had a proper marching band, played at the football games, the basketball games.  It gave me a lot of confidence.

And I played my trumpet when they raised the flag before school.  That was kind of fun.

I was in a Civil Air Patrol band when I was in middle school.  My teacher was the director of that band.  It was more serious and he had very high standards.  It was a good experience.

And I was also in a Boys’ Club Band that was taught by one of my band teachers on the other side of town.  We had to take a bus to get there.  That was my first introduction to diversity because that band was made up of white kids, Black kids, Brown kids, Asians—you name it.  And it was all boys.  The band director (laughs), he was a patient man.  The trumpet section was pretty strong because he was a trumpet player himself.  He played in the LA symphony.  He had his best students in there and all of a sudden I was pretty far down from the first parts because I was in middle school and they were in high school.  That was my last band before Berkeley.

I was always pretty confident, especially in sports, and did well in school without really trying that hard.  In junior high I played basketball and gymnastics and track.  In gymnastics I did the floor exercise and the rope climb which in those days was still an event.  It was fun.

In high school I was into tennis and swimming.  Stan Smith was on our tennis team.  He was a two time grand slam winner.  He was one year ahead of me in school.  My brother Tom was on the tennis team too.

I was really in great shape.  I remember taking this physical exam that Kennedy had promoted.  Out of a school of 1500 boys I scored number four.  I think that’s why I’ve really liked watching the American Ninja Warrior programs on TV in the last few years.

I continue to like sports.  I get a lot of value out of it.  Today it’s golf.  It’s the hardest sport I’ve ever played.  It’s ridiculous.  Most people who have never played golf don’t realize is that it is an extremely creative game.  There’s this exercise that people do.  They say, “If you could go around the golf course with only three clubs, what would they be?  Would you have a putter, would you have a driver, would you have an iron?  What would you have?”  Then they up the ante.  “How about one club?”  I mean really!  That’ll twist your brain.  You can actually putt with a seven iron and do a lot of chipping and get the ball down the fairways.  But people putt with woods.

Music has always been there.  It’s something I come back to.  I didn’t play in high school but when I was at Berkeley I thought, “Hey, it would be fun to play with the UC band.”  So I did for one year, enough just to get a taste.

I was at Berkeley from ’65 to ’69.  That was just after Mario Savio and in time for the strike.  African-Americans promoted this idea of striking.  People didn’t go to classes but they held classes off campus.  People’s Park–I was in favor of People’s Park.  I thought these were reasonable issues.  The Vietnam War was going strong.  I got comfortable with being at Berkeley and smoking pot and going to demonstrations.  I wasn’t a leader but I was curious.  It’s shocking when you see National Guard with automatic weapons standing on the street corners.  I was in the art building one day and I looked out the window at a demonstration and there was a helicopter spraying gas over the campus.  That was some experience!  “What is happening here?”

I didn’t really have a direction.  The first two years I took a lot of breadth requirements, signed up for math and science classes and accidentally signed up for some engineering classes and realized that I was over my head.  I thought, “Well, I really like art.”  In the art department there were more people I could relate to.  It worked out much better for me.

A lot of people in those days were talking about moving to Canada so I got the bright idea, I’m going to go up there to take a look around.  I spent a summer in Vancouver living in the YMCA.  I fell in love with Vancouver.  It’s such a wonderful city.  The winter would be pretty hard for me although it’s pretty mild by Canadian standards and the days are short.  But in the summer, the days are very long.  At 10:30 at night you’re still up!  But I came back and got my teacher’s credential at Humboldt State.  Such a great change–5,000 students, a small town and I could walk to school.  It really appealed to me a lot.

I thought, “Gee, if I’m going to be teaching art, I’ve got to know something about sculpture.”  The class I took was held in an auditorium.  The teacher had an overhead and he was talking about screws and dents and I thought, “What the heck, what’s going on here?”  It turned out to be a metal sculpture class where you cast aluminum, bronze and iron by using a oil sand method.  What a fantastic experience, the best art class I’ve ever taken.  We built a cupola.  We melted the iron and poured over 3,000 pounds of molten iron in one day into all these molds.  Oh my God!  Pretty neat.

The summer after I got my teaching credential I went to Europe like a lot of young people were doing at that time.  I was in Ireland for about four days, hitchhiking around the southwest.  My mom’s family was from around Cork though at the time I wasn’t so intent at looking up my ancestry.  I’ve become more now.  When my mom went to Ireland, she was looking for the ancestral home.  She asked a local, “My father’s name and my grandfather’s name was. . . Where is the mountain they were on?”  And they said, “Oh, that was quarried away.”  The landscape had actually changed and she couldn’t find her ancestral home!

I was in Europe for 82 days.  It was fantastic.  I met Americans and then English people.  I would travel with people for a while and then I’d be on my own again, the best mix you can have.  I was trying to cover a lot of ground so I would not typically spend a lot of time in any one country.  The body is working fine; you don’t mind sleeping on floors, picnic tables.  I had a backpack.  I went to Greece and Italy, Switzerland.  I had a friend in Germany I stopped and visited with.  France and a little bit of Spain.  More Mediterranean than anything else.  Riding the train was fun, a great way to get around.  And whatever group I was in I was usually the more grounded person.  “Where is the youth hostel, where are we staying tonight?”  Some of my traveling companions were imbibing various distractions that didn’t add to their abilities to find places.  I enjoyed it a lot but after a while, “This is not home.”  I spent the last week in an artistic corner of London.

At that time there were a lot of Baby Boomers like myself coming out of college so the job openings for art teachers tended to be down in the Central Valley.  It seemed like a long ways to go and not exactly what I was used to.  So for a few years I did a variety of jobs.  I worked for Cost Plus Imports as a manager.  I sold a bookkeeping tax service.  Then in 1973 I heard that they were interviewing teachers to go to Australia.  While I was at the interview, the woman got on the phone and I heard her say, “Well, I’ve got our last person of this batch.”  And within two weeks I was in Australia.  This is how easy it is to do things when you’re single and young.

The night before we left I went to the consulate and they had little flags on the map of Australia.  I could see my name and where I was going but I didn’t know or really care.  I ended up in a town of 350 people about 130 miles west of Melbourne in the state of Victoria.  The area is a lot like Oregon, sheep country like the Willamette Valley–real green, a little rainy in the winter, pretty warm in the summer, about 60 miles from the coast.

When you live in a small town and everybody knows everything you’re doing.  If I went into the local bakery, the next day the kids would be talking about what I ordered.  (laughs)  I couldn’t believe it!

The art I taught was pretty down to earth stuff.  It was a high school—very conservative.  The assistant principal used the paddle and he got a lot of respect from the kids as a result.  The principal was working on his PhD so he was in his office and pretty much nonexistent.

The kids would say to me, “Mr. Yarnell, are you going to come out to the shearing today?  Y’know, all the kids are going to be there.”  And I’d say, “Well, I didn’t really know about that.”  People had sheep to take care of and looked upon the whole idea of going to school as amusement.  The kids are just going to come back and work on the land anyway.

It was fun because there was a whole community of teachers and we were all in our twenties and single.  We would take trips during the breaks to New Zealand.  I spent a month there.

But there were not a lot of people in the town that I could relate to.  And there were not very many outlets for stress that builds up when you’re teaching.  When you’re living on a ranch, there’s not really any place to run or exercise.  It’s a pretty strange experience.  You work hard, you go to school and work with the kids, come home, go to bed . . . round and round.  I was ready to go.

I took some time off after I finished teaching and drove my VW and my tent to the beaches and up to northern Australia where it’s really warm, kind of like Los Angeles without the people.  Brisbane is up in the north.  It was idyllic.  There’s a little river running through the town and there were no tall buildings.  Now it has gleaming skyscrapers.  The town is very near The Gold Coast which is a popular tourist destination now.  I met a young couple from Sacramento when I first arrived.  I was dumbstruck.  “I came all this way and now I’m meeting you guys from Sacramento?”  I’d go to their house for dinner and chop wood.  I shared a house with three Australian guys and the rent was $16 for the four of us.  (laughs)  The guy that owned the place, he just wanted somebody in there so no one would ransack it.  I had some great experiences there.

When I came back from Australia I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do.  I had been able to save money so I didn’t have to get a job right away.  I took a room in a boarding house in Pt. Richmond and met a guy there who had been to Vietnam who was wanted to build a ferro-cement boat.  He said, “Do you want to help me build this boat?” and I said, “Sure.”  We went to Mexico because he was scouting out a place to build it but he would do really stupid things.  He was fighting with the people at the hotel because they had his clothes in the laundry and he wanted to leave town and they said they weren’t not done.  And about every third person in the street was carrying a gun or wearing a uniform of some sort and I thought to myself, “Y’know, this is not a good place to get in any arguments.”  I said to my friend, “Look, you can argue with these people but I’m taking a bus back home.”  And I did.  He was NOT SMART.  So that was the end of the ferro-cement boat venture.

Eventually I got involved with computers because that seemed to be the smart thing to do.  I went back to school and got the necessary training and got a job with the phone company in ’81 working on main frame programming, pretty cushy.  It wasn’t a design job.  It was maintenance and from that standpoint it was okay but boring.  I went to my boss one day and said, “I haven’t had any work for a while.  Is there anything coming soon?”  He said, “Well, with 90,000 people in the company, we’re usually spending a fair amount of time waiting for the work to come to us.”

One guy would come back from lunch and stick his feet up on his desk and go to sleep all afternoon.  A colleague and I would take long walks around San Francisco because we had nothing to do.  It was fun dressing up in a suit and was commuting from Fairfax in Marin by bus and then the ferry but I don’t care how good the pay is, when there’s no work, I’m out of there.  You don’t feel good at the end of the day.  You’re more tired than anything else.

Behind the scenes I was getting back into music.  I went to the music store and got a new trumpet.  Within four days after I quit the phone company I had four new part time jobs involved in music—a before-school band, an after-school band, just a whole variety of stuff.  I was making about one tenth as much money but I felt a lot better.  And the parents were very supportive.  They were busy trying to get me a music position in Marin County full time but it just wasn’t going to happen.  Everything was already sewed up.  People were nice and everything but . . .

It was also about 1981 when I met Cecelia.  A friend of mine who I was sharing a house with ran into her car.  They exchanged information and he asked her out for a date.  (Laughs)  But there were no sparks.  But he set up a backpacking trip and invited me along.  Cecelia and I ended up in the same car.  We got to the trailhead at about five o’clock in the afternoon and started hiking.  Cecelia was taking her time and  I was trying to help her because there was no trail.  We had a really nice time and when we got back to town we started going on bike rides and hanging out together.  We moved in together within four months and got married within six months from the time we met.  I think this is our thirty-ninth year.  We’re pretty happy.  She’s a little like my dad because she’s very organized and very meticulous about detail and very frugal.  So we are echoes of my own parents because I’m very much like my mother, very outspoken, sometimes to a fault.  (laughs)  That’s the way it is.  But I’ve learned to try to keep my mouth shut more as I get older.

We got a place to live and we were real happy.  CC had made a list of all the things she wanted like southern light, a fragrant vine, a wood burning stove, attached garage.  This place had everything.  It was San Rafael, Crystal Park, and it was in our price range.  But then we wanted a larger place because her brother was looking to move in with us part time because he was on the road a lot doing his filming.   And really wanted to get a full time music job.  So I went for an interview and got a job down in the Santa Cruz area in 1988.  We lived down there for ten years.

My dad had suggested, “Maybe you should have a minor in math and a minor in music because you like both of those things.”  It was good advice so I got them and frequently throughout my teaching career the principal would say, “Oh, we need somebody for so and so’s classroom, would you teach a math or science class?”  And they would have me do that as well.  When we had a big layoff down in the Pajaro District where I taught near Santa Cruz, I did not get laid off because I had some seniority and I could teach math and art and music.

I enjoyed Santa Cruz.  I got into singing and joined a choir for a while.  I really liked that.

And I was in a men’s group, a nice experience.  It was small, about nine members, mostly guys who were having issues with relationships.  I’m not sure why I joined but I wanted to make some friends besides the people I worked with.  And I was interested in finding out what a men’s group would be like.  I really liked the leader, Tim.  He did a good job and it was inexpensive, about $15 a night.  We did that for about three or four years with him and another three or four without.  We had retreats twice a year.  We used to take camping trips, car camping mostly.  But people started moving away from Santa Cruz.  I’m still in contact with a couple of guys.

In the meantime Cecelia was not happy down there.  She was going through menopause and had a lot of issues with the humidity in a beach town that contributed to her migraines.  So I thought, “I’ve had ten years here; it’s her turn.”  I asked her, “Where would you like to live?” and she said, “Marin.”  She loves Marin but I said, “That’s a little bit impossible.  How about Sonoma County?”  And so I got a job in Healdsburg teaching math for the first year and then teaching music the second year in the Oak Grove School District on the west side of Santa Rosa.

I really enjoyed teaching music.  I’d go to the elementary school in the afternoon after spending the morning at the middle school.  And I had bands before school and then some during but mainly the kids would come out of classes and we would have sectionals.  Being a music teacher is a very curious thing.  In the summer I would go in to see which kids and how many kids were signed up for band in the fall.  I remember going in one time and the secretary said, “You’ve got 85 kids signed up for band.”  I said, “That’s great!”  What’d I do?  I didn’t know.  And then the next summer I’d go in and she’d say, “What are you doing to those kids?  There’s only 23 in band.”  So one time you’re a hero and the next time you’re not and I did the same thing both times.

But I enjoyed it.  We were in the Apple Blossom parade a few times.  I had award winning jazz bands.  It was a new challenge.  There were readers and nonreaders.  I remember telling a bass player, “This song is in the key of G.”  And he said, “Don’t bother with that.  Just start the song and I’ll come in.”  We had a lot of good ears.

One year we had a bass player whose father was a pro.  We had a clarinet player whose father was a pro.  We had a lot of musicians who would come and help the band.  We put together a little rhythm and blues band that was half local pros and half teachers and the kids went nuts.  They saw their fifth grade teacher up there singing “Summertime.”  And we did an old James Brown version of “I Feel Good.”  It was a lot of fun.

90% of the kids were great.  I was pretty good at getting the kids to cooperate.  Most of the teachers I got along with.  Usually the only person who would be difficult would be the principal or the superintendent.  This micromanaging thing, I didn’t like that.  I liked being more independent.

At the time I had inherited almost three quarters of a million dollars in property and cash from my parents and I thought, “Do I really have to do this?”  I was 55 and I could retire early and get a pension, so I took advantage of that.  That was a nice change.  CC and I were able to pay off our house and pay off our cars and pay off student debt.

It was ironic because I was a bit of a black sheep in the family.  Both of my brothers became physicians.  One was a psychiatrist who made $250,000 a year and the other was a radiology MRI expert who made $400,000 a year and this is back in the ‘90s.  But my older brother died at the age of 45 and my younger brother–I was close to my younger brother–passed away at the age of 52.  So I ended up getting two thirds of my parent’s estate and one third went to my younger brother’s two children.   They didn’t want to manage property so we took it and gave the cash to the kids.

My older brother Steve was distant, probably because he was four years older and he was gay.  We knew he was gay but it was still a very unspoken thing.  When my mom was dying, she would say over and over to me, “Did you know your brother was gay?”  I said, “Mom, didn’t you notice that he would bring his boyfriends at Christmas and Thanksgiving?”  “Oh, I thought that was his roommate.”  My dad particularly had a hard time accepting him being gay.

He had a very successful life.  Everywhere he went he was the tops.  He was Phi Beta Kappa, Golden Bear.  Everywhere I went the teachers would say to me, “Oh, you’re Steve Yarnell’s son.”  “Oh wait, no, that’s not me you’re thinking of.”  And my younger brother went to Stanford, got a PhD in organic chemistry and then went to medical school.  He was pretty smart too.

My older brother died of AIDS.  He was only 45 at the time.  He had a beautiful house in Bernal Heights.  I tell people he was like Herbert Philbrick, that TV show “I Led Three Lives.”  (editor: Philbrick was recruited by the FBI in the 1940s to infiltrate the Communist Party.)  He had his family of origin life, he had his East Bay life in San Leandro where he worked as a psychiatrist and he had his San Francisco gay life.

One time when we were playing chess he said to me, “The best defense is a good offense.”  That’s how he was as a person.  He chose to be on the offense about being gay, about a lot of things.  That made him a hard person to be around.

My younger brother Tom was very much like my dad, an extremely hard worker.  He would just plug away and plug away.  He did the same experiment once a week for five years at Stanford until he finally got it to work.  That was his PhD.

But my mother would meddle in his relationships.  Wouldn’t keep her mouth shut.  That’s what I mean about talking to a fault.  My brother put up with it for years but when he wanted to get a job after Stanford, he chose to move to Kentucky.  He met a girl back there and they had two kids.  My mother never really approved of Joan so that made it difficult.

Tom was involved in a very contentious divorce with Joan.  He was very conservative—a doctor, a good father.  I think she just wanted to have some freedom so they argued.  My brother was under a lot of stress.  He had an read an MRI and hadn’t seen cancer but the woman developed cancer later and wanted to sue him.  It’s a very difficult field, literally shades of grey that you’re reading.  So there was the lawsuit and the divorce and he was smoking and overweight.  He inherited my dad’s bad heart and he had a heart attack in the shower getting ready for work one morning.

Cecelia and I hopped on a plane and went back to Kentucky to sort through his affairs and I remember going to court and the judge said, “Are you and Cecelia willing to resolving his estate?”  And we said, “Yes.”  That was the biggest mistake of my life.  The attorney for my brother, who was actually a divorce attorney, had volunteered with the estate stuff but she didn’t know what she was doing.  She instructed us to pay all the creditors and then pay the taxes.  And that’s completely bass ackwards.  So she had to pay $12,000 out of her pocket for that mistake.

Cecelia had been doing graphic arts but she had these chronic headaches that people never understood.  They thought, “Well, take an aspirin and you’ll be fine.”  It was hereditary in her family.  When she had a migraine she was down either vomiting or in bed with the curtains closed for a week.  She couldn’t hold down a full time job.  As a consequence she became a contract worker.  She’d work real hard for a week or so for a company that needed extra help and then she’d collapse and have a migraine.

When we moved up here she stopped working altogether.  She’s four and a half years older than I am, just turned 78 though she doesn’t show her age.  She was never that athletic before but now she’s lost weight and caught up with me and she’s encouraging me to exercise more.  I’m really impressed.

Shortly after I quit my teaching job in Santa Rosa, I was playing in a dance band in Petaluma.  We played swing music from the 40s on up and we did a lot of gigs so that made it fun.  I enjoyed it but the leader was another reflection of my dad.  She would mumble a lot and if you even spoke in a talking voice, she would be upset with you.

The other trumpet player, a woman, said, “Hey, have you thought about playing in the New Horizons Band?”  I didn’t know what she was talking about.  I went to a practice back when they were on Sonoma Avenue at the Methodist Church in this tiny old room with about twenty-four people in it.  The sound was bouncing off the walls and I thought, “Oh my God!  Pretty awful.  This is perfect for me.”

I joined in ’03, the third year, and I enjoy it more and more all the time.  Just great people.  Where do you meet this caliber of person?  Someone told me that when Syd passed out at a concert they asked, “Is there a doctor in the audience?”  Well, three hands went up in the band.  (laughs)  Don’t you love it?

I’ve been playing a lot of golf and riding my bike when the smoke’s not bad (editor: Northern California fires have been raging.), taking hikes, being in nature.  I’m learning the guitar again, doing a lot of work on YouTube.  I’m really enjoying it but with the guitar I always feel like I am a beginner.  My brain has been trained to think of one note at a time.

I became a counselor for a while.  Counseling was a perfect fit at the time because it taught me that it was more important to listen to people than it is for me to be beating my gums.  I thought counseling would be a little bit like teaching because you’re talking to people.  Boy, was I wrong.  There is teaching involved but listening was a real good thing for me.

But now I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m 73.  Do I really want to spend all my time and energy thinking about other people’s stuff?”  You don’t know how long you have here.