Composer David Alterman ’83 is adept behind the keyboard—and the microscope
by Matt Getty
June 29, 2010
David Alterman ’83 relaxes in his Frederick, Md., home that he shares with wife Theresa and two stepchildren. For the last year he has worked as a consumer safety officer with the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine—another job for which he says his Dickinson education prepared him well. “It’s a great job for a liberal-arts graduate because you have to be able to do a little math and science, but you also have to be able to communicate well,” he explains.
The music first crept into David Alterman ’83’s head when he was just 6 years old. Trapped and looking for a way out, it drew him to his parents’ piano, where his tiny fingers searched the keys for the melody.
“Back then I would just figure out stuff I heard on the radio,” says Alterman, whose journey toward becoming a classical composer has traced a winding path from the family piano through Dickinson and into the unlikely world of cellular biology. When his parents noticed his talent, they signed Alterman up for piano lessons, but he quit after just a few years. “I just didn’t like to practice,” he recalls with a laugh.
The music didn’t care. It came back into Alterman’s head when he was 12—only this time the songs didn’t come from the radio. “I started to hear original melodies in my mind,” he explains. “They just wouldn’t go away. So I would try to sneak to the piano on the sly and figure them out, because I didn’t want to have to take lessons again.” Without proper training, however, he struggled to get the music out, the melody flitting in and out of his mind’s ear as his hands searched the keyboard. “It was a very fragile thing at that age,” says Alterman. “It was a much harder door to open back then.”
In high school Alterman began to find the key to that door as he studied music theory for the first time, discovering terms for things he’d only sensed before. He refined his skills at Dickinson, where he majored in music and learned to appreciate the repetition of practice, which had pushed him away from the piano as a child.
“I learned what it takes to reach a certain level of musicianship,” explains Alterman. “I learned that you can’t be a slacker.”
That discipline stayed with Alterman after he graduated, as he continued to try to get the music from his head to the page by studying with the Philadelphia composer Harold Boatrite. Though Alterman developed as a composer during the next 10 years, he faced a bigger problem.
“You know the old joke—what’s the difference between a composer and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s true. If you look at most renowned classical composers of the modern age, they all had a day job or they were independently wealthy.”
A decade out of college, Alterman grew dissatisfied with his day job doing software support for a record store. So the budding composer enrolled in a one-year program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine to become a certified cytotechnologist, a medical specialist who studies cells for signs of viruses. Though cellular biology was a world away from classical music, Alterman says his liberal-arts education prepared him well for the new field.
“Dickinson gave me the confidence I needed,” he says. “Having that broad education made me feel like, ‘OK, I can do this because I did that.’ I’d learned how to learn.”
As he built a career as a cytotechnologist at Quest Diagnostics in Rockville, Md., however, Alterman had no way of getting the music out of his head. Other than listening to Bach through headphones as he scanned cells for hours on end through a microscope, his life left little time for music.
“That was frustrating,” he admits. “And when I got back into composing, it probably took about four years to retrain myself, but again there was that idea that I’d done this before, so I could do it now.”
Last year, when one melody kept coming, Alterman submitted it to the Nashville Double Reed Ensemble. “I just couldn’t stop hearing it, so I figured maybe that means it’s pretty good,” he says.
He figured right. The piece, “Pavane for Double Reed Quintet, Opus No. 59,” was accepted, performed six times and aired on Nashville National Public Radio’s “Live in Studio C.” The exposure has since helped Alterman make contacts with several other ensembles that are interested in playing more of his compositions.
Though he’s happy at the prospect of hearing his work performed, Alterman is most proud of his ability to simply put music onto the page exactly as he hears it. Today, in fact, he’s able to bypass the piano entirely, transcribing the music from his head directly into the music-notation software on his laptop.
Looking back on that 5-year-old trying to coax “Love is Blue” out of his parents’ piano, Alterman is sure that the journey—no matter how winding—was definitely worth it.
“At this point I’ve been working at this for 35 years, so it’s like a muscle that I’ve just exercised and exercised,” he explains. “Now, when I hear something in my mind and get it down on paper it’s almost like dictation. But it took a long time to get there. … Music is supposed to sound like a walk in the park, but it takes a lot of work.”
Listen to some of David Alterman’s recent compositions.