Remembering Bill Vits (1957-2022)
By Alexander Miller
Photo Credit: Terry Johnston
This past October, our symphony family tragically lost one of our most-loved members, Bill Vits, to cancer. Through six different decades, Bill carried himself through rehearsals and performances with precision and sensitivity. With his hair cut short, his appearance neat and his posture formed from sharp angles, he was like a colonel among us. As our Principal Percussionist, it was his job to oversee the backbone, the pulse of the music, and we relied on him. People remember his unshakeable snare drum chops for pieces like Ravel’s “Boléro,” or his vigorous tambourine every year during “The Nutcracker.” Yet it was also the single strokes of smaller instruments—the passing glance off a suspended cymbal or gentle notes on a glockenspiel—that always felt so right. His keen ear and his desire to blend into the surrounding textures was his greatest musical gift.
Bill was a versatile musician, completely at home in just about any genre. His surf rock band, The Concussions, was probably his preferred escape from the hallowed structures of the classical world. Any physical object that could be fashioned into a percussion instrument and then applied to some genre of music was an occasion for which he would always turn up. Inside his body, the beat never stopped. He was always looking for music around him that he could get in sync with. (Link to Aloha: Farewell)
If you search on YouTube, you can find some very entertaining videos Bill made over the years. He produced a few segments for "Sesame Street", and his music videos such as “Pop Up” and “Fun City” are full of Bill’s energy, merrily exuding the 80’s vibe from whence they emerged. These online memories of Bill are a great way to be reminded of how positivity radiated from his soul. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vG2ex5in5qg
In Bill’s final weeks, he turned to writing. In what I personally find to be an astonishing group of tightly composed essays, Bill documented important moments from his life. Among them are “The Man Who Wears the Star,” about the origins of the vintage Texaco sign that adorned his studio for decades.
Photo Credit: Alexander Miller
A small sample: “Under my feet I saw a rounded edge with a hint of gray primer. It was a shape that caught my eye, so I followed it with my dirty boot to reveal a circle. Isn't a circle the most important shape of life, from our planet to cells? But my mind thought of drums, cymbals and gongs. It was face-down and covered with protective mud. I stood the 42” disc on end. It was a hand-painted porcelain TEXACO sign. To me it was a gong, which in America is a punch line while in Javanese cultures an instrument worthy of worship and offerings.”
There are also the essays “Welsh Civic Auditorium Memories,” “Blues Freezer,” “The Opening of the Ford Museum,” and many others. Day and night, Bill wrote prolifically, emailing these engaging remembrances to old friends, often in obscure text formats. Tracking down a complete set of these essays remains a work in progress, but one day I hope all of them will be available to anyone. They are priceless. It is plainly obvious that Bill wanted little else than to share wisdom in his final days.
The last time I saw him (about two weeks before he died) was outdoors during a cold, starlit evening. We were bundled up under his tent. This was the chosen place where he (as he put it) could drink in the natural world around him — the trees, the deer, the squirrels, the plants — and then peacefully expire. That night, several of us stopped by and hooked up an outdoor flatscreen TV. We leaned it against a lawn chair and played old videos with him in them. At one point, despite the pain, Bill found something so funny it sent him into an uncontrollable belly laugh, the kind that overwhelms your entire body and has you gasping for air because you can’t stop. That minute of hysterical delight was about the purest life force I have ever witnessed. Even with advanced cancer, his humor remained razor sharp at the end. In a year or so, perhaps during an orchestra party, it would be a great tribute to Bill if everyone watched exactly what it was that had him in stitches. It was his own educational video, the one he made during the pandemic for school children. What made it so funny was how he had altered the playback. Fittingly, it was set to the same ratio of how much more he loved life, how much he loved others, how much he made the people around him better, and how heartsick we remain every time we are reminded that he is gone. The playback was at 2X speed.
Photo Credit: Terry Johnston