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Meet a Member 2022-23

Gail Thomas traverso flute.jpg

Traverso flute player Gail Thomas has been playing with LAB since 2021. LAB's Managing Director Joan Lounsbery caught up with her during rehearsals for the opening concert of the season in Fall 2022:

JL: I am fascinated by your dual life as a space engineer and musician! Tell me a bit about your early years and influences that led you down those two paths.


I grew up in Glendale. My grandparents lived next door and watched us kids often. My grandfather was a huge influence on me. I loved sitting on his lap and drawing pictures. He was an electrical engineer by education, and he sang baritone professionally in the Portland Light Opera and Portland Grand Opera. He also played piano in silent movie theaters. His interest was radio, and he had a radio show at the local radio station, where he was the “Voice of KOIN”. He eventually ended up in California working as a music mixer at Warner Brothers. He had a Hammond organ and a piano and when he played and sang, I thought he was wonderful.  He taught me to play a C Major scale. I thought: “I want to do music like him.” I played that C Major scale endlessly. 


JL:  When did you start lessons?


In 4th grade I talked my mom into letting me have piano lessons. I heard the Glendale High School band concerts because I had an older brother who was in the band, and I wanted to play flute, so I started in 7th grade. In my mind I divided people into those who played instruments and those who did not. I played in the junior and senior high bands, and then when a junior I played in the Glendale High School orchestra.


JL: Did you spend your college years locally?


Yes. I majored in music performance at Cal State Northridge and studied with David Shostac, then at UCLA with Sheridon Stokes, all the while thinking I was not good enough to be a professional musician. My dad wanted me to take math classes. I didn’t like math but did well academically with it. I told Sheridon that my dad worked in the sound department at Universal Studios and they became acquainted because Sheridon was a studio musician.


After graduation from UCLA with a degree in music performance I joined the Glendale College Orchestra (where my LAB colleague Ted Stern was the conductor). I did some freelance work and played for operas at an Italian Community Center in downtown L.A., which I loved. Ted formed a group to play at Renaissance Fairs and I gladly joined the group as a recorder player.


JL: How did you come to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)?


I started taking electronics classes at Glendale College, because I saw that engineers were getting jobs, and I needed to work! And part of my interest goes back to my grandfather’s profession. I met my future husband Kevin there. In the fall of my second year a classmate was starting a softball team – they needed girls! So, I joined the team. One of the team members was a JPL manager and he got me a job there in the Radiation Effects Section. Kevin also got a job there. I started taking calculus and physics classes at Cal State Los Angeles. Eventually I moved to the Spacecraft Telecommunications Group at JPL.


I worked in test and integration for the Mars Rover Telecom subsystem before it launched in 2002. After the Rovers landed, I worked in Telecom Operations. Watching the radio telemetry come down, sometimes I’d be the first one to know what had happened on the Rover that day, even before other team members or the media. However, much of the work was tedious, so I would put on earphones and listen to music. That’s how I heard traverso (wooden) flute for the first time and fell in love with the sound. I had a plastic traverso and would blow on it from time to time. I retired from JPL in 2017 and moved with my husband to Sammamish, Washington where he took a job. I now split my time between California and Washington. In Washington I found Joshua Romatowski, a great professional player, and began to study with him. I bought a Martin Wenner wooden flute and joined LAB in 2021.


JL: How does LAB fit into your life now?


The traverso is much harder to play than I imagined. Baroque music on a period instrument is quite different. LAB members are quite serious about the study of historically informed performance practices, and Lindsey does a great job of making it challenging but never overwhelming. She strikes the perfect balance with us. She’s so good at making sure that everyone is always a little bit challenged. LAB members are a fascinating bunch of people to hang out with. It’s also nice, after spending so many years at JPL, in retirement to now be part of the LAB community.     

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