The following post is a walk down memory lane. I wrote this piece for a class several years ago, when Maxine Holler was not only alive but her trio played in a restaurant called the Gun Club. The Gun Club has burned down since and I moved away from Beloit. I sincerely hope that Bob DeVita and his saw are still bringing music to the people and a faraway look into their eyes.
The manager at the Ace Hardware store heard some strange sounds coming from one of the aisles, sounds he could not identify. He walked back to make sure everything was all right, and turning the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. “What on earth is going on here?” A man was sitting on a canvas chair surrounded by several saws and a boy. He had a saw on his lap, its handle wedged between his knees. With his left hand he grabbed the end of the blade, manipulating it to curve into various “s” shapes; with his right hand he moved a violin bow up and down the back of the blade producing the otherworldly sounds. He looked up and flashed a happy smile at the manager. “Oh, we’re just picking an instrument for my student here. I think this will do fine.”
The man, Bob DeVita, is a percussionist educator and performer. Every Saturday night, he plays drums at the Gun Club in Beloit, Wis. as a member of Maxine Holler’s Trio. Their repertoire includes a wide variety of golden oldies. At a certain point of the night, Maxine introduces “Bobby” (Maxine, the piano player, is a good three decades his senior and so is the third member of the trio, Val, the base player) for something a little different. Out comes the saw. The conversation in the bar dies down; the regulars know that they are in for a treat, and the newcomers have an expression on their faces much like the ACE manager’s: “What on earth is going on here?” As the bow releases the notes from the steel blade and a melody wafts off into the smoky air, the smiles still linger but gradually, the bemusement turns into a faraway look in the eyes. There’s something about listening to the saw sing that touches you just so.
It is hard to describe the sound of the saw. Some say eerie; most say “different.” I say it’s the music of the spheres. It’s ethereal and vibrating. For Bob DeVita, it is a perfectly normal melody that requires a great deal of practice to produce. There’s nothing otherworldly to it but rather patience, sweat, and thumb muscle. DeVita, a Rockford, Ill. native, started to play the snare drum when he was 12. He soon moved on to a drum set, a gift from his parents, and by high school, he and his brother, who plays the guitar, were in a number of rock bands. Not that he considered himself especially talented. “I had to work my tail off,” he says. “That’s why I like to teach. Some musicians can practice an hour; I have to practice three hours. But I tell the kids “With patience, you’ll get the lick.”
He has had both the patience and the dedication; he got his Bachelors degree in music education from Northern Illinois University and his Masters degree from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. College years are the time for students to experiment, and DeVita, too, decided to experiment, to pick up something fun on the side. Looking at a mail order musical instrument catalog, he narrowed it down to a bagpipe or a saw. The saw, being only 25 to 30″ long, seemed to be easier to carry around.
It arrived just before winter break, and by Christmas, he taught himself well enough to play “Silent Night” for his family. The family, in turn, stared at him with amused disbelief – a first response he has since grown accustomed to. Soon, the saw played its magic on all of them, and he has had several friends and relatives requesting that he play at their funerals. Sadly, he had to fulfill a few of these requests already. “I definitely played the saw at more funerals than weddings. I think I only played at a few weddings. But at funerals, it’s always the “Amazing Grace,” he says.
While DeVita earns most of his income teaching and playing percussion (he runs his own business, Ace Percussion, from his studio on the ground floor of his Loves Park house), he has been an active member of the saw-playing circle as well. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra both invited him to perform in Khachaturian’s “Piano Concerto,” which has a flexitone/musical saw solo part.
Although saws were used as early as 10,000 years ago, it was probably not until the 18th or 19th century, when consistently high quality steel could be produced, that conventional handsaws had the properties to be used as musical instruments. The particular characteristic that allows music to happen is the “springiness” of the steel; that it returns to the same position after bending. Most likely, the first instances of saw music indeed simply happened when a metal piece or a small pebble hit the blade and it gave off an interesting “ping.”
This was enough inspiration for the folks in the Ozark Mountains and elsewhere on farms around the world to start experimenting with how to coax a melody out of the steel for their own entertainment. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were public saw player performances, and it became a popular instrument in the vaudeville circuit. The first well-known saw player, Leon Weaver, still played the saw sitting on its handle, hitting the blade with a mallet.
It took a woman’s refined touch to bring out the ethereal sound we associate with the saw today. Weaver’s sister-in-law, June Weaver, invented both the lap-style playing and the use of the bow. Perhaps it is because of its origin that the saw is considered a percussion instrument, although DeVita believes it is not categorized correctly. He says: “If you don’t know what an instrument is, you give it to a percussionist.”
He’s padding barefoot around his studio among the many drums; he doesn’t like to wear shoes. Drums are everywhere, even in the laundry room. From a shelf, he pulls a beautifully hand-carved box with the first few notes of “Amazing Grace” engraved on the lid. It’s a gift from friend for whose woodcarving circle DeVita plays occasionally. Inside the lid, the signatures of all the wood carvers and the wait staff of the restaurant, where they meet, are engraved. His saw fits into the box perfectly.
He spends most of his mornings practicing one of his instruments, then, at about three in the afternoon, the children start to come. Most weekdays, he teaches until 9 p.m. On weekends, he plays where he is invited to: churches, restaurants, clubs. “Sometimes I wish I could just say no. I would like to be less busy,” he sighs wistfully. He doesn’t really mean it. His hazel eyes light up when he talks about teaching the kids, when a particularly difficult piece “clicks.”
It’s another Saturday night down at the Gun Club. Behind his drum set, DeVita executes a series of slick, fluid movements. His smile is both warm and mischievous as his glance sweeps over the audience from time to time. He nods towards Maxine, then to Val; there’s an unspoken camaraderie among them. They are a team. They finish the song; it’s time for his saw solo. As he pulls a chair into the foreground and takes his seat, he gradually becomes very formal. There’s a poise and concentration radiating from his backbone, his shoulders, the way he extends his left hand. You can feel the muscles in his body fine-tuning themselves.
“Watch him,” murmurs Matt Goodwin, a friend and fellow musician. “He is transformed when he plays the saw. When he is playing the drums, he provides a context for the others to shine. But this is his time to create the melody. Creating melody is powerful.”
The melody is all around us, vibrating in the air. I have a wistful and faraway look in my eyes. The saw is singing.