By Sam McDonald

David Walker, a master lecturer in music at Old Dominion University, remembers the moment when he realized his son could follow in his percussive footsteps.

His son Michael, a toddler at the time, had already revealed himself as “a pots and pans kid” — a youngster who loved making things click, bang and clang.

“But it really started with ‘LarryBoy,’ which is a VeggieTales song,” said Michael’s dad, ODU’s director of percussion studies. “He was noticing when the cymbals should be choked and when they should be allowed to ring. That’s when I knew he had something.”

Today, Michael Walker is an Old Dominion student who plays drums, gong, mallets, cymbals, bells, etc. — whatever’s needed — with the Diehn School of Music’s Percussion Ensemble, Wind Ensemble and the Symphony Orchestra. He’s also bass drum section leader for the Monarch Marching Band. He is preparing to finish up his undergraduate degree in music with an emphasis in sound recording technology.

"A recital is a big moment for anybody in the music department," said Michael Walker, the son of ODU master lecturer David Walker. "I wanted part of that to be with my dad.”

Until graduation, he’ll savor musical moments with his father, who has doubled as his percussion instructor throughout Michael’s studies at ODU.

The student said any negatives of having a father-professor were far outweighed by the positives.

“The word that comes to mind is passion,” Michael said, describing his dad. “As a teacher, he’s passionate about showing students how to perform. Even if it’s something as simple as crashing cymbals or hitting the triangle once in the entire piece, he doesn’t take it lightly.”

He obviously loves what he does, Michael said. “That’s definitely a quality I want to strive for.” 

David Walker, foreground, directs the Old Dominion University Percussion Ensemble, including his son Michael Walker.
David Walker, foreground, directs the Old Dominion University Percussion Ensemble, including his son Michael Walker. Photo John Toomey/ODU

Even though it wasn’t required for his degree, Michael opted to do a senior recital this past spring. One of the pieces he performed was a duet titled “Fear Cage,” written by Kirk Gay. For that, he asked his father to join him.

A video from the recital shows father and son surrounded by nine timpani. The duo strikes them in perfect synchronization. With so little space to move, it’s a marvel of choreography as well as music.

“Playing in Percussion Ensemble the past few years, Michael was used to performing around me, with me,” David said. “Sometimes I join the guys. Sometimes I’m conducting them… What was different about the recital was we were one-on-one working together.”

To prepare, they would meet in the music school’s percussion room and rehearse — often from 10:30 p.m. into the wee hours.

In this case, David Walker was Michael’s collaborator as well as his teacher.

“I had to keep reminding myself, oh, yeah, this is with my son,” the father said. “So, this is pretty cool. It was awesome.”

His son loved it, too. “I wanted to end with a bang, so to speak,” Michael said. “But I also wanted to end with a piece I could do with my father. A recital is a big moment for anybody in the music department. I wanted part of that to be with my dad.”

Professor Walker said that when his son originally applied to Old Dominion’s music school — and passed an audition with flying colors — some colleagues wondered if it would be wise for him to study with his father.

Professor Walker replied, “Yes, I think that’s a great idea because I’m the main percussion instructor here and I want him to get the best education he can get,” he recalled. “And Michael knows, if anything, it’s sometimes harder for him. The drive home can be really long if rehearsal hasn’t gone well because of him.”

He wasn’t worried about showing favoritism. Instead, he reminded himself not to be overly tough on his kid. Michael turned out to be devoted student who rose to the occasion again and again.

In the end, father and son both said Old Dominion was the right choice.

“It’s been wonderful just to see him grow as a musician,” David Walker said. Michael evolved from being a member of the Percussion Ensemble to being one of its lead performers.

The teacher remembers watching his son perform during a master class with So Percussion, a beloved group that visited Old Dominion a few years back.

“Just to think, this is the same kid who was banging on pots and pans and now he’s playing with Grammy-award-winning, international musicians.”

His son was in his element.

“Michael is always willing to step in and help the school musically,” he said. “It’s not just for me. Also, for Wind Ensemble, or Symphony Orchestra or the Commercial Music Ensemble. He loves playing… I see that he absolutely loves it.”