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Updated 10:00 AM October 25, 2004
 

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Spotlight: The music of the night


Just before sunset on a warm day, bats will start flying out to feed, a timeless ritual in the cycle of nature. The sight of hundreds or thousands of bats flying against the darkening sky may sound spooky to most people, but not Ronald Torrella.

"People in general are afraid of bats because of popular myths," says Torrella, a piano technician at the School of Music.
(Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Torrella's birthday is Oct. 31, and he's always been fascinated with things tied to Halloween. A few years ago, he became seriously interested in bats when he heard a talk at a local bookstore.

"I didn't realize before how important bats are for our environment," Torrella says. Since then, he has started learning more about bats by doing research on the Internet, and he has become a member of Bat Conservation International.

Bats in Michigan primarily eat insects, but some bats in other parts of the world also eat fruit. In a single night, these mammals may eat as much as their own body weight's worth of insects—up to thousands per bat—and thus serve as a natural means of controlling the insect population.

They also naturally spread the seeds of the fruits they eat, helping in reforestation and cross-pollination. Bananas, mangoes, cashews and figs all rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.

Torrella notes that the agave plant, used to make tequila, would not be pollinated at all without bats. "No bats, no tequila," Torrella chuckles.

In recent years, bats have lost some of their natural habitat due to an increase in the popularity of winter cave exploration, as well as the clearing of entire forests and dead trees, causing the numbers of bats to decline. For his part, Torrella has built several bat houses, including some at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens that are being used for research purposes.

The other thing that has fascinated Torrella since childhood is music.

"I started taking piano lessons when I was 5, and I wanted to be a concert pianist," Torrella says. "As I grew up and discovered what it took to be a concert pianist, I realized I didn't want to do it because I wanted to have a wife and a family. But I still enjoy giving small concerts once in a while."

He sometimes gives up to six performances a year, usually in private homes, and he has performed at several Steinway piano dealerships. Torrella recently was featured at the Museum of Art in a "piano summit" marking Steinway's 150th anniversary.

Torrella started learning about piano repairs when he was young. "I always had to deal with sticking keys, dampers stuck in the air and the like. I would pull the piano apart and fix it."

Whenever a professional piano technician came to tune his piano, Torrella would keenly observe how the technician went about his work. Today, he is part of a two-person team in charge of maintaining some 230 pianos that the School of Music owns, including the one at the president's residence.

This weekend, tuning pianos takes a back seat as Torrella prepares for the dual holidays of Halloween and his birthday. He will help his children dress up as they go out trick-or-treating.

As they, and millions of other people—even some dressed as bats—go out in a timeless American tradition, Torrella hopes that people realize that while bats make great symbols for Halloween, they are not really scary or menacing at all. They are actually friendly, beneficial creatures, he says, that need human understanding for coexistence.

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