Mark Griffith says that when people ask what he does for a living, they are always delighted by the answer.
Since 2004, Griffith has been one of three percussionists with the Houston Symphony.
“They are always like, ‘That’s so cool,’” said the Ella Lee Forest resident.
Cool might be a good description for Griffith’s life beyond his profession. He also is an amateur pilot who flies shelter animals to new homes, is a car buff and competes in triathlons.
A career in music had been a goal of Griffith’s ever since he was growing up in Duncanville, near Dallas. He started playing the piano at age 7 and then started as a percussionist in his middle school band.
“The band director told me that I was better off playing the trumpet, and even though I was a reserved kid, I told her, ‘No, I have to (do percussion) instead.’”
As a high school junior, Griffith set himself on a music career.
“I thought I’d be in an orchestra or teach music,” he said.
He went to Wheaton College in Illinois and then on to graduate school in music performance at the University of Michigan. It was there that he met future wife, Katherine, an undergrad percussionist, who would later switch over to industrial engineering.
After graduate school, Griffith headed to the New World Symphony, an orchestral training academy in Miami, where he spent three years as a member of a professional orchestra.
“In addition to playing music, they also taught us all about the business,” Griffith said.
It was during one of his summers away from the orchestra that Griffith pursued another one of his passions, flying. He did 40 hours of training and passed a written test as well as a test ride to get his pilot certificate, which certified him to fly a single-engine airplane.
“You could take passengers (with this certificate) but not fly through clouds,” he said. “And you can’t be paid.”
The time off reinvigorated his desire to make music a career. After many auditions, Griffith ended up winning an audition to be a percussionist with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Now married, the Griffiths set up shop in Starke, Florida – home of the state penitentiary – where Katherine could commute to graduate school in Gainesville and Griffith could play in Jacksonville.
Still, Griffith had his sights set on a bigger-city gig with a more competitive salary. He continued to audition and made progress – going from making it into the top 15, and then into the top four.
“I practiced four hours a day for seven years,” he said.
Right before his 30th birthday, Griffith got the job in Houston.
“It’s hard to describe how exciting that was,” he said.
They first lived in an Oak Forest rental after the area was recommended by a friend and then moved to their current home in Ella Lee Forest. Son Ben was born in 2007. Daughter Katie and son Adam followed.
In regular times, Griffith performs with the orchestra about 300 times a year. He plays drums, cymbals, tambourines, hand drums and mallet instruments like the xylophone. He says he finds the experience of performing for an audience “amazingly rewarding.”
While COVID-19 has presented challenges to performing, the orchestra has done a televised concert and is currently livestreaming regular performances of smaller orchestral ensembles.
“It’s been a nice change of pace to play some of the smaller, more intimate pieces,” he said.
Man on the move
One thing that older children, a slower schedule and better finances have allowed Griffith to do is revisit the pilot bug.
“It’s been there all along,” he said. “For many years I put it on the shelf.”
Last year, he got his instrument rating, which Griffith said is the “next logical step.” It allows him to fly through clouds, but he still can’t be paid.
He says he loves the freedom of flying, lack of traffic, and the disciplined routine involved in aviation. He and Katherine recently bought out another pilot’s share in an airplane that four pilots share. They look forward to quick trips to see his parents in Dallas and family vacations, minus the hours in the car.
One way he is enjoying time in the air and giving back to the community is through the Pilots and Paws program. For no fee, he flies dogs and cats from shelters in this area to places where there is a greater demand for them.
He has done about five trips with 10-12 tethered animals each trip.
“They fall asleep when they get in the air,” he said.
In addition to planes, Griffith also has a thing for cars. He bought and remodeled a Toyota MR2 four years ago.
“It was a car that was popular when I was a college student,” Griffith said. “I thought it was the most beautiful car I’d never seen, and had been thinking of it ever since then.”
Griffith says he has always liked fixing and building things ever since he figured out how to repair his brakes in graduate school. He has remodeled the family’s kitchen, too.
Oh, and he’s a triathlete to boot.
“We were living with another family after our house flooded in Hurricane Ike (in 2008), and they invited me to join them for an upcoming short-distance triathlon,” he said. “That got me hooked.”
Griffith said he loves the Oak Forest area even though it’s not the “best kept secret” it used to be.
“It’s the family atmosphere,” he said.
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