Scott Fearing at 25 is one of the youngest members of the National Symphony Orchestra. When he isn't playing the French horn, he may be looking through a telescope.
An avid amateur astronomer, Fearing has been known to stay up all night counting meteors -- the way some people count sheep, but with his eyes open. One summer night while vacationing in Colorado, he counted 350 meteors during the annual Perseids meteor shower.
"That was kind of a perverse thing, but something I just wanted to do, just stay up all night and count them," Fearing says. "I could see some of the dim ones you couldn't have seen in Washington."
The problem here is too many street lights. So, for local stargazing, the deep, dark Shenandoahs are the best bet. And there are other obstacles.
"I have frozen many times," says Fearing. "There was a lunar eclipse, when it must've been 20 degrees with the wind blowing 40 miles an hour. I was with this group out in the sticks, and after a while the eclipse didn't seem that important. I just sat in the car with the heater going full blast."
Fearing keeps track of the planets the way some people watch the stock market. When Mercury is a morning star, Fearing gets up early to see it.
He uses the same J.C. Penney 60mm telescope his parents bought him in seventh grade. When Mars made a close approach to Earth in 1973, he was able to see some markings. "Remarkable for a small telescope. That's the best I've been able to do," he says.
As a kid in Florida in the early '60s, he used to watch rockets blast off on TV, then run out in the back yard and watch the rest of the launch until the rocket trail disappeared in the sky.
The launches probably ignited his interest in stargazing, but another thing, he says, was "just lying on my back looking up at the stars. You wonder how many you're looking at -- those just at the edge of vision. You think about the vastness of it all."
It follows that a favorite weekend haunt in Washington is the Air and Space Museum, with a pit stop at his prize discovery, the cafeteria under the National Gallery of Art.
Though Fearing's wife, Leslie, doesn't totally share his fascination with the stars, he taught her the constellations. He says, "It's a great line: 'Let's go out and look at the stars, baby.' I used it on her when we were dating. Astronomy has accomplished a lot for me, I should say."
What links astronomy and music for him, Fearing says, is an appreciation of beauty, "the music of the spheres."
The Fearings arrived in Washington in September, when he started his job with the National Symphony. His wife, a violinist, sometimes sits in with the orchestra.
Fearing has been playing the horn since sixth grade, but didn't become serious until he was a senior in high school. "This is a major symphony job, just what I worked for," he says.
Even on weekends, Fearing practices several hours a day.
"Playing in an ensemble you can lose your individual competence faster sometimes than by not practicing; your playing will actually go downhill. You have to keep up your chops, as they say. Some players have been able to not practice and still play very well, but I've always had to work real hard for everything."
After a demanding concert, his wife gives him a backrub; he exercises to relieve stress; plays racquetball with a trombone player, and likes Ping-Pong. Having lived in Texas, he's a diehard Cowboys fan, who wishes there were a professional touch-football league he could play in.
On Saturday nights when there's no concert, the Fearings may go to the Kennedy Center to hear a friend in another orchestra or a premier violinist, such as Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman. On Sunday mornings, they do hymns in the Barcroft Bible Church in Arlington. The French horn's majestic tones lend themselves well to an offertory solo.
The National Symphony's schedule includes at least one practice every weekday and four concerts a week.
"At times it can be great," says Fearing. "It's funny, when you're playing sometimes you can't hear yourself. What I try to do is to match the first player, when we're playing the same note, like one instrument. There's a lot of satisfaction to know that it was right in tempo, with the right level of loudness, with the right tone.
"Yet, on top of that, there's an intangible thing. You hear it happening, especially in the solo winds. The oboe, clarinetist or first horn may add something to it, and that's when it's really exciting. Because it's possible to play perfectly and still be bland. But when you add that personal element of the musician's experience, phrasing and connecting of notes -- that's what you're hoping to do.
"And you hope that the audience will recognize it, too. Usually people can tell. The notes are always the same. But the interpretation, that's what we're talking about."
The ancient Greeks thought the planets made music as they orbited around the sun, and that applies to at least one amateur astronomer behind one French horn on one planet.