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Classically Trained: Couple shares a life — and their passion for music

BREA — Quite literally, theirs is a harmonious relationship: his and her instruments, his and her practice rooms, his and her daytime teaching gigs.

What's more, for professional musicians Tony and Cindy Ellis, they're on the same sheet of the musical score while playing in the same orchestra.

The married couple and Brea residents are longtime members of the Pacific Symphony. Tony, the second trumpet, has been with the Costa Mesa-based orchestra since 1981. Cindy, the solo piccolo and a flute substitute, joined in 1979.

Both are Southern California natives: Tony, 53, grew up in Anaheim near Disneyland; Cindy (whose age is "younger than Tony") grew up around SoCal before eventually graduating high school in San Clemente. Both received their bachelor's and master's from Cal State Fullerton. It was there they met and became friends.

It wasn't until Tony needed Cindy's help with an English term paper that a relationship bloomed. That's because Tony's request for support included dinner.

"I didn't mean it to be a romantic date or anything, but it turned out to be," Tony said.

Some years later, Tony proposed to Cindy — at that same restaurant.

They've been married 27 years.

"As a musician, I think it's great to share your life like this," Cindy said. "We understand what's going on. We get it, and to share that at this level is pretty special."

Even their normal schedules are similar: teaching music in the morning, afternoon practice time, then occasional night performances.

Tony teaches at Santa Fe Middle School in Monrovia. His 25-year tenure there is starting to show true seniority.

"I'm now starting to teach students of students," he said with a laugh. "That's an eye-opener."

Cindy is a Cal State Fullerton music department adjunct faculty member who's taught a wide variety of subjects there. Among her many accomplishments is also serving as principal flutist for touring ballet companies on their O.C. stops, and for the Opera Pacific before it disbanded in 2008.

The Ellis home in Brea is retrofitted to meet their practice regimen — usually a few hours daily — with soundproofing measures like double-pane windows.

Their two individual practice rooms face different directions of the house that's strategically located on a corner to have only one next-door neighbor and nobody behind the backyard. All this helps so their high-pitched instruments don't bother neighbors when they practice at home, which had been a problem in their other homes.

Both have done recording in the studios. Cindy's favorite was playing for '90s cartoons like "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs."

"They're fun and they're fast," Cindy said. "Sometimes the movie calls can run pretty slowly in the scope of all things ... but with cartoons you just get in there and it's really fast music. The day just flies by."

Tony has done less studio work but likes to tell of his hurried adventure getting to the recording session for the 1991 Steven Spielberg film "Hook," with music by John Williams, the composer behind "Star Wars."

"Hook" was his first "real big movie call." He left at 6:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. session but got stuck in traffic after a jackknifed glass truck closed the freeway. Eventually he made it to the studio. It was 9:50 a.m.

He precariously parked, put his trumpet on the fence and hopped over just before a security guard noticed. Tony ignored the guard's calls to stop and followed a violinist who was equally in a hurry to get the stage on time.

"I walked in at five minutes to 10, out of breath, and the other trumpet players were none too kind," Tony recalled. "They had me play the very first cue, and I wasn't even warmed up yet."

It involved some exposed, high-wire playing for the film's alligator clock tower scene. He got through it, unscathed, and left the session soon after with the résumé note of playing with maestro Williams.

As longtime orchestra members, the Ellises remember the Pacific Symphony's humble beginnings playing in such venues like Santa Ana High School, as well as the horrible acoustics of the Knott's Berry Farm Good Time Theater. Back then there was a continually varied personnel roster, with little continuity among the players and, consequently, the sound. In those early years, concert to concert, nobody knew if they would have a job.

"It was very, very low pay, but it was the experience," Cindy said. "As the orchestra was growing, I got to continually re-audition and keep my position in the group."

As Orange County developed, so did its orchestra. Eventually the Pacific Symphony got to call a venue home — Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa — before upgrading in 2006 to the $240-million Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Tony, originally a jazz player who calls himself a late bloomer to orchestral-style trumpet playing, remembers one unforgettable moment with former Pacific Symphony principal pops conductor Doc Severinsen.

Severinsen, best known as the trumpeter and longtime bandleader on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," called Tony into his dressing room. When Tony showed up, he noticed Severinsen was standing in front of the mirror, practicing the score and dressed to the nines — except for his pants.

"He was wearing a nice white tie, winged shirt and vest — and boxer shorts and black socks," Tony said.

Severinsen then asked Tony to try his new trumpet design in the bathroom, where he assured Tony "it'll sound great."

"This is the guy I've idolized my entire life and now he wants my opinion on an instrument," Tony said.

Severinsen later started making those trumpets, which Tony later bought and used.

The Ellises also agreed that the Pacific Symphony's European tour in 2006 was among their favorite times.

That's no wonder when considering the two saw, firsthand, how the symphony went from an O.C. high school to the sacred concert halls of Europe.

"It's been a dream come true to have an orchestra where you grew up, I think," Cindy said. "The artistic level of the orchestra has grown, the stability, the infrastructure, the support and having wonderful patrons and a community build a new hall like ours."

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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