Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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

Collective Heroism

[Ed. Note: here’s a piece that I posted yesterday, as part of Sudbury UMC’s Lenten Devotions blog. (The whole blog is accessible here.) It’s a memory that seemed appropriate to bring up yesterday — International Transgender Day of Visibility.]

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend an August pre-season band camp week with a high school band out in western Massachusetts. I was expecting the usual: lots of sweat and sunblock; lots of learning of notes to play and places on the field to stand; and the relatively rare chance to hang out and in fact collaborate with my good friend the band director.

I got what I expected. Holy heck was it hot out there on the parking lot. But what I also got was … a moment.

That moment involved an example of what I can only call quiet, collective, unconscious heroism.

A few framing questions:

Who are some of the most put-upon people who are younger than college age?

High school band kids.

What was the problem that had recently earned this particular high school some very dire headlines that it absolutely would not have wanted?

Bullying.

What was that “starred thought”, that catchy and useful phrase, which was offered to us by our college band director (the fellow who taught and inspired both my high-school band-director friend and me, all those years ago)?

“Band is a place for everyone.” Very often, band is the most helpful place to be, for those kids who feel like they have no other place to be.

So: back to the parking lot, and the rehearsal room, and the auditorium, and my work with the kids who played the brass and woodwind instruments, helping them learn and perfect their parts for that year’s halftime show.

There were about twenty wind players, if I recall correctly. Small band, big sound. And my band director friend had given me a tiny heads-up about one of them. Not a behavior thing; not any kind of neuro-atypical thing (por ejamplo) that would have any impact on the rehearsals we were going to run.

But that flute player, the only blonde one? What was her thing? Not much, really … only that she was going through everything a high-school kid goes through when they’re working out a new gender identity.

Okay, I said. Truthfully, the only things that I really needed to know about any of these kids ahead of time were: what are their names, and can they play?

I’m embarrassed to tell you that I cannot at this moment remember that flute player’s name. But, at the time, “oh yes,” my band-director friend said, “that one can definitely play.”

Okay then.

The week began … it progressed … and it neared its ending. All the flutes could play the notes, and hit their drill sets, and move and play together quite well indeed.

And then it came time for the “friends and family show”. That’s when the pre-season camp’s work is done; the show is on the field in some condition or other; and the band would now like to show parents, and friends, and anyone else who happened along, the fruits of the labor.

So an impressively large contingent of parents, and friends, and former band members too, gathered on the edge of the parking lot under the shade … and waited for the Mighty Marching Whatevers to make their entrance from the band room across the way.

In the band room, the band and gathered and made a big circle, so everyone could see everyone else. One last pep talk from the director and instructional staff. If this had been an athletic team, it would have been: one last “defense on three; one, two, THREE…”

In this case, though, the band was led by its fine director through an exercise to which she had been introduced at a professional development activity of her own, some years before.

Ordinarily I am wary of these “team building activities”, these “ice breakers”. They can be anywhere from inspirational to an utter waste of time. And even the useful ones can end up being, well, just kind of “meh”, if there’s not buy-in from the participants.

This one was interesting.

First, the kids all counted off — one, two, one, two, all the way around. Each group would have a role to play; then those roles would be reversed and we’d play the game again.

The first group stood facing away from the center of the circle, eyes closed. (To be clear, they had been well-prepared for this; it was not a surprise. Also, they had just spent a week getting to know each other very well. These were important factors.)

The second group then walked slowly around the inside of the circle, stopping at each outward-facing person and doing one of three things for them, each of which signified something specific about the band camp week just finished.

It’s been awhile; but I think the idea was something like: gently placing one hand on the person’s head meant “I’ve been pleased to meet you for the first time, this week” … gently tapping fingertips on each shoulder meant “you and I were friends before, and are better friends now, after this week” … and gently pressing hands down upon each shoulder meant “I’ve come to care about you, this week”.

Yeah: in the wrong metaphorical hands, very squishy. Very “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Heaven help us if the participants don’t take it seriously. And in these days of being very very careful about physical contact, it could have been anywhere from risky to just plain wrong.

But in the case of this particular band, I thought as the exercise began, it might just work out.

The exercise finished; my band director friend gave her charges one last word of advice — “have fun” — and the band collected its instruments and flags and began to head out the back door toward the parking lot.

And I noticed that my new blonde flute player friend had tears streaming down their face.

I looked at my band-director friend, near whom I happened to be standing, and pointed at our blonde flute player, and asked a question with my face only.

My band-director friend smiled. She’d been watching specifically during that exercise.

“Every single person pressed down.”

I had gotten to like that band, that week. They had just the right sense of “band hype” without being fake about it; they actually seemed to enjoy working hard to accomplish something; they always made sure no one felt left out, on or off the field.

But from that moment on — a moment which I really, really doubted they’d planned in advance — a moment that the entire band collectively may not even have realized they’d created — I really, really, REALLY liked that band.

It was a moment of quiet, collective, unconscious heroism.

Again, I’m willing to believe that they might have had zero collective understanding of what they had collectively done — but for all they knew, they might have turned a kid’s life around. Maybe even saved it, conceivably.

Do people really think I’m okay? that flute player may have been wondering.

Or are they all just humoring me, and then talking behind my back?

Are they all putting on a good show when they’re really lying to me?

Before that afternoon, that flute player may have had no very good idea what the answers to those questions were.

They did now.

And even if they didn’t have answers to those questions regarding the entire rest of the student body who weren’t in that band … they knew what these forty-odd kids’ answer was, individually and collectively.

We’ve got your back.

Those kids played a heck of a show that afternoon.

April 1, 2021 Posted by | band, current events, friends, GNP, heroes, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Devotions Blog … Anyone Feeling Like Writing?

(not so much an Editorial License blog post as a guide to writing for Sudbury UMC’s first-ever Advent Devotions Blog, which is up and running and NEEDING WRITERS QUICK! You don’t even need to be a congregation member!) (<*pleading grin*>

ADVENT DEVOTIONAL WRITING 2020
“THE MEMORIES, THE HOPE, THE JOURNEY, THE GIFTS”

For many years, our collections of devotions during the Lenten season have been that much more meaningful for having been written by members of our own congregation.
This year, we’re gathering Advent Devotions in online form, posting one each day throughout Advent.
These Devotions will be inspired by writing prompts aligning with the four sections of Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Light of the World, which will be the basis for SUMC’s Advent-season discussion activity.


Frequently Asked Questions!…

WHEN IS MY DEVOTION DUE ?
As soon as possible, at this point!

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE ?
Choose one of the “writing prompts” from later on this document; see how you respond to it.
If you like, include a Bible verse which perhaps inspired you, or helps amplify your response. To avoid copyright violations, DO NOT include passages from other publications.

WHAT IF I CHOOSE THE SAME WRITING PROMPT AS SOMEONE ELSE?
No problem. We have benefited from having more than one perspective!

WHAT IF I’VE WRITTEN SOMETHING NOT BASED ON THESE PROMPTS?
(Please note: as always, publication is at the discretion of the editor. But it’s often been great!

HOW MUCH SHOULD I WRITE ?
No minimum length … and approximately one 8.5 x 11″ page is a reasonable maximum.

IN WHAT FORM SHOULD I SUBMIT MY DEVOTION?
Electronic document (e.g. MS Word document, text file) or hard copy (typed or handwritten).

HOW SHOULD I SUBMIT MY DEVOTION ?
By eMail (text within the eMail, or attached document): rhammerton@earthlink.net.

MAY I CHOOSE A SPECIFIC DATE FOR MY DEVOTION TO BE PUBLISHED?
Yes, and we’ll do our best to accommodate requests. (We’d like to publish Devotions in or near the week their chosen writing prompt is associated thematically, but we can be flexible.)

IF THIS WILL BE AN “ADVENT BLOG” … DO I NEED BLOGGING EXPERIENCE?
No! You provide the words … we’ll take care of the formatting and other tech wizardry!


Feel free to contact me (Rob) with any other questions you may have! eMail: rhammerton@earthlink.net.

Thanks for helping launch this NEW tradition! Looking forward to seeing how the Spirit moves us all!

ADVENT DEVOTIONAL WRITING PROMPTS

Week of NOVEMBER 29 – DECEMBER 5: “The Meaning of Memory”

• Think of an especially memorable Christmas gift that you’ve received. Why was it so special?

• Think of a favorite Advent/Christmas decoration in your home.
What does it look like? What’s it made from? Where did it come from? How long have you had it? Why is it a favorite? Why is it special to you?

• Recall a time when Advent or Christmas seemed more difficult than joyous.

• Think of a time when you spent Christmas away from home …
Where did you go? Who was with you? Were you with family, or not?
How did you feel? How did you celebrate? How was it different from home?

Week of DECEMBER 6 – 12: “The Promise of Potential”

• How do you feel when you sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve?

• What is the moment when you feel as if “the Christmas season has really begun now”…?

• Do you have a favorite Advent- or Christmas-themed book? What brought that book to you?

• Think of a favorite Advent or Christmas hymn? What makes it special? The text? The music? Something else? • Do you feel like it’s better to be a child or an adult at Christmastime? Why is that?

Week of DECEMBER 13-19: “The Journey to Joy”

• Recall a time when you shared Christmas with someone who didn’t have anyone else with whom to share it.

• Recall an Advent/Christmas season when a particular person became a Christmas gift for you. How did they do that? Or did they even know they were doing that?

• Recall a time when someone was determined to make amends with you during Advent or Christmas. Or … a time when you were determined to make amends.

• Imagine that you were given the opportunity to choose a gift that would be given to every child in the world (with no limits on expenditure). What gift would you choose? Why is that?

Week of DECEMBER 20-25: “The Gifts of the Gentiles”

• If you could invent a new tradition for Advent and/or Christmas, what would you choose?
What kind of tradition would it be? (e.g.: solemn or superstitious? educational or quirky?)
What would the tradition involve? (e.g.: a ritual, an object, decorations, clothing, food, music, games.) How widespread would it be? (Your family/friends, your city, your country, an imaginary country?) Who would it involve? What roles would they play? … What would be the meaning behind it?

• A new twist on the old question, “How was your life different this Advent than it was last year at Advent?”: Are there ways in which you might make this Christmas season just as celebratory as any other? …
… even in the midst of a pandemic that is threatening to increase in intensity again?

• Finish this sentence in one or more ways: “This Christmas I hope …”

December 13, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment