Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Advanced Placement

This morning, whilst unwisely doom-scrolling through my Twitter feed, I happened upon a Tweet that kicked loose a memory or two.

The author of the Tweet noted that during their high school time, when they had been a student in their AP US History course, the teacher had shown them the movie “Gone With the Wind”. Not as an extra; during class.

The Tweet did not explicitly say whether the showing of that movie was done as some sort of genuine attempt to teach about the Civil War. If you’re going to use video to teach, at least find yourself some Ken Burns. If this is a Media Studies sort of class, conceivably you might use that movie to spark a little class discussion about Hollywood’s racist past, and how it was a reflection of American society’s as a whole, or something similar maybe. At the very least, note that a movie like “Gone With the Wind” is, famously, fictional.

For an Advanced Placement class – and let’s for the moment set aside the question of whether AP courses are in fact merely a moneymaking effort for the College Board, which has come up lately – but for an AP class, surely there are more substantive texts and resources to draw upon?

And I would be hypocritical if I threw shade at the idea of a teacher ever cueing up a video in a moment of “I need something to get me from here to the beginning of school vacation or I might not make it.”

(I like to think that the video choices of my fifteen-year teaching career were a little bit more on-topic and educational than “any old random ‘Home Alone’-esque piece of fluff entertainment, unrelated to the curriculum, to keep the children pacified”. One Friday afternoon before a school vacation week, I showed my sixth-grade general music classes a double-feature: the “Ride of the Valkyries” chorus from the opening of Act 3 of Wagner’s Ring-cycle opera Die Walküre, back-to-back with the Phantom Regiment drum and bugle corps’s “Spartacus” competition field show, from summer 2008.)

Meanwhile, the abovementioned Tweet’s comment section contained mainly one-word responses of horror or disgust at the use of “Gone With the Wind” as some sort of historical record – along with, predictably, some more-than-occasional “person-vomiting” and “person crying” emojis.

But interspersed with all those relatively knee-jerk reactions (for which Twitter is famous) were anecdotes of other people’s similar experiences: “my teacher showed our class this movie to teach us about that subject; how inappropriate/inadequate/racist/sexist/etc.”

I fought hard not to see it as an indictment of the entire American public education system. I know plenty of teachers who are figuratively killing themselves to get it right, to teach well and thoroughly and accurately, in spite of everything that is being inflicted on public education – and has been inflicted on public education for the past four decades – and these teachers and legions of teachers like them are fighting the Sisyphean battle to get our kids ready, not just to be members of the “21st-century workforce” (whatever that really means) (I know what it means) (good little obedient worker drones), but to be wholly-educated people who can think for themselves, who can take in information and review it critically rather than just mindlessly taking whatever Fox News hurls at them as the god-danged gospel truth.

And yeah, I know that there are teachers who are mailing it in. There are plenty of members of other professions who are mailing it in, as well. Sometimes it’s their fault; sometimes they just don’t have the requisite remaining bandwidth to do otherwise – many times, in their lives in general, they’re just barely keeping their heads above water, and sometimes “special orders DO upset us”.

No, instead I got actively exasperated with the folks in education who are doing their jobs not with inadequate materials and resources but with actively inappropriate or misleading or (fill in the blank: racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc.) materials and resources.

(One of the comments described how a teacher had shown the 1992 Disney movie “Aladdin” as part of teaching Arab history. … Face. Palm.)

And with the administrators and school boards who are aiding and abetting this mis-education effort. I remember, probably twelve or thirteen years ago, reading about how the Texas state education leaders rewrote their public-education standards descriptions – omitting any mention of critical thinking. In that moment, I remember thinking, this is an Archduke-Ferdinand-getting-shot moment … it’s a little tiny event that we’re going to look back on and realize was the beginning of the downfall.

And, equally, this all has caused me to look back with fondess and gratitude toward the teachers I had, during my time as a public school student, whose teaching styles and tactics caused me, forced me, to be a hard worker and a critical thinker and a perceptive consumer of media and all the other things that fascists and authoritarians hate, because an educated and discerning electorate is less easily hoodwinked into giving up their democratic privileges in the service of a mere dictator.

Therefore I have remembered back to the classes I took, and had to work hard to get decent grades in … taught by the likes of Frank Smith and Helene Mensh and Shirley Lowe in the classical-language world; by the likes of Serica Luther and Ken Altshuler in the sciences; by the likes of Elysse Price, Dave Meoli and Diane Minarsky in the fine-arts realm; by the likes of Barbara Howe and Pauline Natale and Russ Tornrose in the area of creative writing …

… and in the field of social studies and history, by the likes of Esther Markman and Frank MacKenzie-Lamb and Larry Hines, and (I would judge) the very most of all, by the Benevolent Dictator, the great “Rex”, hands-down the toughest teacher I ever had, whose standards were ferociously high and whose positive feedback felt like a trophy to be raised high above my head:

Joseph P. McCoy, teacher of Wayland High School’s AP US History class.

I’m not eulogizing him. He’s still, thankfully, amongst us … long since retired to Florida, but with all his marbles still firmly in place. I know this, in part, because we’re connected on Facebook.

Every once in a great while, a Facebook Friend is not merely a happy connection, but wanders into the territory of Achievement. I don’t know whether Mr. McCoy felt it reciprocally, but I clicked the “accept Friend request” button with cheeriness and humility in just about equal measure.

Mr. McCoy ran a tight ship: in terms of classroom deportment, in terms of timeliness AND content of assignments, in terms of intellectual rigor. He assigned us a three-page paper every week, due on Friday in class, and told us explicitly: I will read only three pages per person. If you make your grand final point on the top of page four, I will not read it, and I will grade your paper accordingly. Be concise and to the point, and don’t pad your paper with extraneous cutesy stuff thinking “length is noble”; follow directions. Good lessons for the classroom, and for the rest of your life while you’re at it.

And, simultaneously and significantly, he made us laugh uproariously. He held the characters in American history to account just as firmly as he held us to account. We learned that Roger Williams was a bit of a loon, as he moved his pack of fellow quirky comrades to “Rhode I-i-i-i-i-island.” We learned that H.L Mencken was right to note that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. …We learned who H.L. Mencken was.

And as the AP exam date drew closer and we all knew that there was more American history than dogged study from September to late-April would let us learn, Mr. McCoy set up voluntary Saturday-morning extra session so we could at least get in the vicinity of the Korean War – and this was in the 1980s, long before Iran-Contra and Operation Desert Storm and 9/11 and Iraq and Obama and the recent unpleasantness – and to those extra Saturday sessions we flocked. Not just because it might be worth knowing all the American history we could, so we could get more than a 1 or 2 on the AP exam … but because a McCoy extra session was going to be worth it.

It was. He was. Again, happily, he still is. And if I post a thought on Facebook about current events or current politics or the state of American things, and Mr. McCoy clicks the “like” button … again, it feels like a trophy to be raised high above my head.

“McCoy graded my paper highly. I am worthy.”

It’s not a coincidence that AP US History was the hardest class I ever loved. There’s a not-insignificant tie for second-place – thank you, Il Professore and Magistra Lowe – but Rex’s benevolent dictatorship was ample preparation for the fight against the actual dictatorships, and for the effort to be a properly functioning, thinking human in the rest of the world.

So that Tweet that I read this morning ended up having one positive and uplifting result, after all … it kicked me into gear, taking advantage of the opportunity (which really is available to me anytime, after all) to salute somebody while they’re still on this good Earth.

Still, or perhaps because of all that, it kills me that somebody is teaching AP US History using “Gone With the Wind”, though.

The battle continues.

February 3, 2023 Posted by | education, teachers, Twitter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thy Honored Name Shall Never Die

Twenty-eight years ago, I looked up at the metal tower near my college band’s practice field and wondered, among other things: what would it be like to be the director of this sort of thing?

Twenty years ago, I found out the answer to that question.

That discovery … and any band director success that I ever found … can be traced back to the gentleman whose passing, twelve years ago, we mark tonight.

Let me back up …

One summer day in 2002, a friend forwarded a job posting to me. Said it might be something to consider.

I was already a public-school music teacher of some years’ experience. So on the one hand, as I read the job description, I thought I might just be able to carry it out … and on the other hand, I already had a full-time gig.

“Director of Athletic Bands (marching, pep) – College of the Holy Cross”. Part-time. Short money. But: something of a dream job, no?

Especially since:

[1] the College of the Holy Cross was located in Worcester, Massachusetts – as was my house. What are the chances that a college band job opens up and it’s a ten-minute commute with no relocation necessary?

[2] I knew that band pretty well. When I marched with UMass, my first football away game was against none other than the Crusaders of Holy Cross.

[3] the Holy Cross band wasn’t exactly one of those bloated juggernaut bands with a thousand moving parts, but rather averaged three dozen members. And that was fine with me.

I sent in my application. I scored an interview. I was then faced with the reality of needing to be prepared for all those questions they ask. Not just the administration interviewers, but the student interviewers.

What’s a fellow to do, in order best to be ready?

Fall back on your training.

Starred Thought: … well, all the Starred Thoughts.

I might have predicted, but in that moment didn’t truly realize, how very often during my eventual four years at HC that my decisions would be made, and find at least a little success, #becauseofGNP.

Starred Thought: Realize that band members have different priorities.

Years later, one of the student interviewers (now one of “my” band alumni) noted that, based on our interview conversation, he felt that I “understood what Holy Cross wanted out of the band, what the students wanted out of the band, and what the band was capable of being.” Some students decide to attend certain colleges because of the band. No disrespect intended: Holy Cross isn’t one of those. Students decide to go to Holy Cross because it’s Holy Cross … and then they notice, hey!, they’ve got a little band, and I love band enough to want to join a band that (at first blush) looks fairly modest.

Turns out: those are exactly the students you desperately want in your band. And I had them, in spades.

Starred Thought: There are no problems; there are merely opportunities for creative thinking.

I was hired on the last day of August. My first rehearsal was on the first day of classes, a week later. (Happily, there was a very strong student leadership team to deal with lots of details. Starred Thought: Surround yourself with good people.) There was no pre-season band camp week. And our opening football game was just two weeks later.

At Harvard University.

Drawing on my own marching experience and Mr. Parks’ (ehem) management of the Harvard home football experience, I outwardly worked to get the band fired up for this exciting way to open our season … and inwardly wondered whether I would need to protect my new ensemble from hurled objects, or even avoid being hauled off to the local clink.

As we marched in to Harvard Stadium, the quite sizable purple-clad throng of traveling HC football fans erupted in applause before we’d played a single note, and I got my introduction to HC’s particular reassuring version of fan support. We took the field at halftime, dropped a couple of tunes on the visiting-side fans, and never looked back.

Starred Thought: The more difficult the conditions; the more you have to seem to like what you’re doing.

The last game of that first season was on the road, too: at Lafayette College, in eastern Pennsylvania. The weather was awful: rain all day long; and because it was November, it was forty degrees out; and because it was football season, a prevailing north wind that blew directly in our faces, in the visitors’ bleachers, all game long. Only 1,500 Lafayette fans even bothered to show up. My band made more noise than they did, I would judge.

By the time the fourth quarter started, though, my band charges (clad only in band uniforms and purple ponchos) were becoming a pack of popsicles. Some of them were so cold they were actually weeping. I told everybody they were allowed to retreat into the adjoining athletic center … still, a number of them stayed out there with me, rooting for our team like leaping loons. To no football avail: a frigid 42-13 loss. But I learned a lot about my band that day … a lot that I liked.

Starred Thought: As a leader, the big secret is that you have absolutely no power over anyone. The key is not to let them know that!

Starred Thought: The best-disciplined group is the internally-disciplined group.

Throughout my time at HC, I found that I needed to appeal to my band members’ innate senses of commitment, fairness, and individual responsibility, as they related to attendance and punctuality. If bandos were late to practice, or had to miss a game (gasp) … I couldn’t lower their grades; the bands were an extracurricular activity. I couldn’t dock their pay; there wasn’t any. I couldn’t take away their scholarships; there weren’t any. But I tried, as best I could, to compassionately and respectfully hold their feet to the fire.

After one home game, one of my trombonists looked at me and said, “you know what the motto for this group ought to be? ‘Zero tolerance … zero consequences.’” He said it with an understanding smile on his face. And I smiled back. He wasn’t wrong.

Starred Thought: The real leader is the one who congratulates everyone.

At the end of my first HC basketball pep band campaign, the men’s team hosted its league tournament final. Out of nowhere, ESPN decided to televise the game. Shortly before gameday, Thom Hannum sent me a stereotypically brief eMail: “Have fun… and win!” Mr. Parks sent me an eMail that could only be read in his voice: “It’s exciting to see you in that position! Make it Crazy!!”

And a fellow band alumni friend of mine sent me an eMail which got me to imagining that Mr. Parks had assembled a great big band of supporters behind me: “GNP forwarded your message to (I think) everyone in the Alumni Band listserve.”

Starred Thought: If you’re here [in band] for the best time of your life, you found it. If you’re here to find something to complain about, you found that too.

Starred Thought: Adopt, adapt, and improve.

One recurring theme of my HC marching band time was participation in High School Band Days.

During my second football season, Thom and Mr. Parks agreed that it would be fun to include the HC band in UMass’ band day festivities. As always, the day was lengthy; it was the kind of controlled chaos that is naturally a band-day event with three thousand participants – and many of my HC bandos found, as the saying goes, lots to fret about. Lots of “go here! now go there! unpack instruments! pack them up again! eat lunch –fast!! we gotta go over there now!” At halftime, we were lumped in with a football field full of high school band kids, and the PA announcer slipped up and called us the Holy Cross College High School Marching Band. Can we go home yet?

It was a tiny bit of comfort to be able to play a segment of our field show at postgame, with UMass on the sideline and all the high school kids in the stands … but I did take quite a bit of guff for a gameday experience that didn’t seem, to my band, to have a lot of immediate payoff.

At the end of that season, we traveled to Bucknell University for a game that happened to be Bucknell’s high school band day. We turned out to be really helpful to the Bucknell athletic department, since they had scheduled it for the same day as a major Pennsylvania high school marching competition, so very few bands came to Bucknell.

Their assistant athletic director eMailed me afterward with some details that we hadn’t known, in the moment: “While you did a great job supporting Holy Cross, you also put on a wonderful show for Band Day. We received tremendous feedback from our fans, who were all impressed that you would travel the six hours to Lewisburg. While we are still finding it a struggle to revitalize the old tradition of Band Day, we’re glad that we had a high class marching band participate. Your group was clearly unparalleled and even your performance on the ‘visiting’ side was a hit with the Bucknell crowd. … any time you want to make a road trip back to Bucknell, you will be more than welcome.”

By the time my fourth and final football season was underway, we were on our way to a football game that managed to rescue the concept of the high school band day – at the University of Delaware. I’ve blogged about this extensively before, but suffice it to say: the Delaware band director was my UMMB drum major colleague Heidi Sarver, and essentially we got our two bands together for a play-date. It was an insane single-overnight road trip from which we returned to Worcester in the wee hours of the following Sunday morning following a Saturday night game … the HC band was exactly one-tenth the size of the UD band … but the two bands socialized merrily before the game, their postgame performances were mutually appreciated, and a number of “my” band alumni have since pointed to that event as: “best band trip EVER!”

Starred Thought: If we don’t support each other as bands, who the heck will?

During that last football season, the Marist College band traveled to Worcester for the HC/Marist game, and we managed to orchestrate a joint rehearsal, a joint post-rehearsal touch football game, a joint Star-Spangled Banner, and a joint postgame performance involving the two bands. The eMail sent to our students by Marist’s legendary director, Art Himmelberger, nailed down for me just why I loved Mr. Parks’ knack for combining UMass with any other bands that were willing to play nicely in the sandbox together (most notably Delaware, of course):

“Thank you so very much for all of your wonderful hospitality and the opportunity to have fun with music with you. The national anthem and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ were truly superb renditions and I felt, as well as did my students, that the halftime performances of both bands were indeed top drawer. If in the future Holy Cross comes to Marist, we sincerely hope you will consider bringing your band for the day trip. If the game were to be played at Holy Cross we would certainly appreciate the honor of coming there again. Sincerely, for the members of the Marist Band – I again compliment you for being the fine band that you are, but more than that, for being the fine young adults that all of you are.”

Starred Thought: As long as I give audiences their favorites, I can do anything else I want for me. (–Kenny Rogers)

The HC band is nothing if not respectful of its own traditions. There are songs, cheers, and activities that have been part of the band’s schtick literally since it took the field for the first time more than a century ago. One piece of wisdom that Mr. Parks imparted during a meeting of his Marching Band Techniques music-ed class was, “in a new job, you’ll find a dozen things you’ll want to change immediately. Pick one … and then don’t change it for a year.”

Wisdom indeed. And not easy. I had already had experience in graduate school with a band that did things a little bit differently than UMass, in some ways, so I was in practice, to some extent. I say with love and affection that the HC band world had a whole lot of features that, left to my own dangerous devices, I would have adjusted instantly … and lost half the band instantly. So held my tongue, and came to understand a lot of those traditions … even if a few of them did get left behind over the course of those four years (but gradually, so nobody noticed!).

So this was perhaps my favorite eMail of all the messages I received after I announced my resignation from the band director position after four years – from a band alum whose informed opinion I had paid close attention while they were an undergrad:

“You could always balance the traditionalists (those who wanted to play one song at the same EXACT minute of EVERY football game because we always had) and the reformers (those like me who wanted to completely redo things to make them ‘better’). That’s not an easy job for a new director … especially one coming to a band full of traditions.”

Speaking of which …

Starred Thought: Look for past traditions to uphold.

One of Mr. Parks’ great strengths was his obvious love for the bandos who spent a year or two or four (or more) with him, and then became “his” band alumni. It was always with barely-contained glee that he spent Homecoming mornings helping band alumni resurrect their chops and their roll-steps, to prepare for halftime later that day. And when the alumni got out on the field, in the years when they would take the field on their own, it was clear that he had impressed upon his undergrads the importance of being the best audience that the alumni had ever seen. The “baby band” would cheer and whoop and laugh and applaud, as Mr. Parks would conduct his “older kids” and occasionally grab a mace and chuck it from within those older kids’ midst.

And much more often than not, when Mr. Parks would cross paths with one of those “older kids”, smile broadly, and greet them by name – regardless of how many years had passed since he’d had cause to recall that name.

One of Holy Cross’ grand band traditions is its alumni. On the list of college band alumni who keep in touch, visit frequently, treat Homecoming as a “high holy”, and remember all the songs and cheers like it was yesterday … HC alumni rise to the top of the list. For me, it was a thrill to meet band alumni from decades past … it was a priority to keep them connected via our newfangled eMail technology … it was a delight to march the band past the Class of 1948’s tailgating tent on our way to Fitton Field … and as much as this admittedly verbose remembrance of my time at HC has been a tip of the cap to the gentleman who trained me well for the experience … it’s equally a fond tribute to “my” band alumni.

A great many of those alums are connected with me, and continue to be in touch, via Facebook. I’m pretty sure they know how responsible they were for a brief but glorious period of my professional life; but it’s worth expressing that thought, intentionally, this moment.

As usual, twelve or twenty years ago can feel like forever-ago *and* just-yesterday, simultaneously.

As usual, there are experiences from years ago that we miss, because we know they’ll never happen (quite that way, or at all) again.

But those experiences are never wasted. They often speak to our present moment. And it’s never wrong to appreciate them, or to appreciate the people who made them real … no matter how long ago they happened.

March on, as knights of old.

Make it crazy.

September 16, 2022 Posted by | band, GNP, HCMB, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, teachers, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Embrace the Silliness

If there’s one thing that both is and is not a characteristic of the marching music activity, it’s dignity.

On the one hand, when that band block rounds a corner in perfect step, spacing, and alignment … when those drums are cranking out that booming, crackling cadence … when the breeze is helping all those flags unfurl in the exact same fluttering way … impressive. The breath catches in the throat of the appreciative spectator. At the very least, anything done in unison by enough people with enough of a serious look on their faces will inspire onlookers to straighten their own spines, just a little bit.

And then we go and ding up the effect by, as our longtime Drum Major Academy friend Jamie Weaver once drawled, “wearing CHICKENS on our heads.”

Five seconds after the band arrayed on the field plays the pregame rendition of the alma mater, its brass and woodwinds offering their sonorous and serious and sentimental hymn of devotion … sousaphones literally run around the field. Sousaphones which themselves have a shape that goes this way and that before curling around and up and over. And that’s before we even get to the sousaphone players.

More often than not, it’s musicians who have invested serious time and effort and money (for lessons) (and proper instrument care) to learn to play wind and percussion instruments at the highest technical and artistic levels … breaking out into pop tunes intended for windmilling guitarists and autotuned vocalists anyway.

And ya know? … Not a dang thing wrong with it, at least to us fans of the marching arts. But even when we, the purveyors and former purveyors, take a figurative step back and look at it from the imagined perspective of someone who actually comes to the football games for the football … we marching artists have to admit: the whole thing can look pretty absurd from a certain point of view.

Today is the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the late director of the Minuteman Marching Band. In that time, many tributes have been written. We’ve memorialized his ability to inspire, to encourage, to motivate … to make people’s lives better whether it was over the course of a halftime show or a lifetime. But one thing about him that I’m not sure we’ve addressed properly — but which was an equally important part of his skillset, and frankly of his charm — is this:

The guy was not afraid of silliness.

American children are brought up, at least by popular American culture, to believe that the last thing you want to do is to be seen as silly, or foolish, or cheesy, or goofy, or absurd. You will be called out for being uncool, which leads to unpopularity, and we cannot have that.

Ya gotta be bad, ya gotta be bold, ya gotta be wiserYa gotta be hard, ya gotta be tough, ya gotta be strongerYa gotta be cool, ya gotta be calm, ya gotta stay together…

And playing those sometimes-goofy fight songs, wearing those feathers on your head, skipping around in the middle of a football field … represent none of those things, most times.

But before quite a number of performances, Mr. Parks was apt to call out, “MAKE IT CRAZYYYYYYY!!”

He convinced legions of band members and drum major students that answering questions about how your feet, stomach, chest, shoulders, elbows, chins, and eyes were … and answering those questions LOUDLY … was an impressive thing and could be done in such a way that a group could get applause for it.

He imagined that Batman and the Joker, the Phantom of the Opera, Sebastian the Crab, Captain Hook, Maximus Decimus Meridius, and Captain Jack Sparrow could run around in the middle of a field show … and that people would buy into it.

Equally, he worked to make that sort of thing happen. And people bought into it.

He climbed up on fences and retaining walls and ridiculously tall ladders and scaffolding and scissor-lifts to conduct his band.

He swam in murky ponds, after promising his band that if they raised JUST enough money with candy sales, he would.

He agreed to be carried away from rehearsals in squad cars and helicopters, because his graduating seniors asked him to.

And if we’re being honest, there were those occasional times when we would watch Mr. Parks do something, hear him say something, and shake our heads in part-embarrassment, part-affection, and murmur, “…oh, George.”

Through a whole lot of planning and teaching and leading and caring, he convinced legions of band kids that no matter what anybody said, what they were doing with their brass and woodwinds and drums and mallets and flags and rifles and batons was just as cool or cooler than anything else that was happening in that stadium that day.

The best leaders are the ones that SET THE EXAMPLE. You want to believe that your leadership is willing to do the things they ask you to do, whether it’s in committees or in combat.

So … is our band director willing to make a fool of himself, to sacrifice his own dignity once in a while, to appear a little or a lot silly, in public, in uniform … to lose himself entirely in the moment … to “put everything he has into everything he does”?

Then okay. We’ll learn to do the same. And we’ll take that philosophy with us, out into the world. Even after we’re out of college — which is kinda where people are supposed to do silly crazy things and not worry about what they look like, yes?

If our cause be just, what matter if our manner be silly? (I’m sure Shakespeare wrote that someplace.)

“Have fun, go crazy … –THINK! Don’t play too loud,” George Parks said to his band before their first BOA Grand Nationals performance in 1993, “…but have a ball.”

He knew when it was time to be somber, and when it was time to be silly … when it was time to stand at attention, and when it was time to dance like nobody was watching … when it was time to play pretty and when it was time for Kishtissimo.

When the time was right … he was willing to embrace the silliness.

May our lives never get so dire that we lose sight of that part of what he taught us.

September 16, 2021 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment