Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Change, and Related Topics

What a week.

For my kind readers who are not connected with the marching band at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, you have homework! … in order to have a clue what I’m writing about.

First, this current event from last fall (or read these blog posts from September 2010).

Then, this, about Mr. Parks’ interim successor. Or, if you prefer, this.

Then, this, about the naming of Mr. Parks’ permanent successor.

With the exception of just two little tiny quotations, I’ve not posted online about the selection of UMass’ new band director this week.  If I had a dime for every time this week I’ve physically held my hands up over this keyboard, and then said to myself, “no.  Not now, not yet”, I’d be able to take my whole extended family out to dinner for a month.  I wanted to “get this right”, to express myself utilizing actual facts, rather than going on just knee-jerk emotion (thus avoiding opportunities for misinterpretation that no emoticon can solve).  But I didn’t want to betray the confidences of a few people who knew more than your average observer and were willing to share what they knew with me.  About which I am more than humbled, so I endeavored to shut my yap.  I didn’t want to step on toes, to break news that wasn’t meant to be broken.  There might be more important things in this world than relationships, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

As the week went on, more news broke without my help (I used to be a journalism major, but still I was OK with this), and it wasn’t sweetness and light.  By week’s end, I was as coldly furious as I have ever been with any institution or agency or person.  There are great huge open plains of wrong out there, which either I’ve gotten my first look at, or I’ve been re-introduced to, or I’ve discovered by putting two and two together and getting about five and a half.

So, now, here’s the upshot: Thom Hannum deserved better.

Some personal experiences inform this next:

I’ve been “the new band director” at two schools.  At one school, I had no immediate successor (in fact it was my job to re-build the membership from scratch), so I didn’t experience what I’ve called the “Mr. Hoffman did it THIS way” effect.  This can be helpful – with all the work one has to do to get a music program up and running, one just doesn’t have time to put out all those brushfires.  So, my students and I lived in ignorant bliss, and had a great time doing good work!

At the other school, I was the successor to a gentleman who had been the band director for more than 20 years and was basically the only director anyone in the “modern era” of that band could remember.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately for me, Robert A. Principe, the former director of the Holy Cross Crusader Marching Band was helpful, gracious, supportive – even though he was still on campus, in another role, when I came on as “the new guy”. That could have been very very weird, or worse.  But he made himself constantly available as a font of information, advice and assistance; and in a gesture that I’m not sure I could achieved, he didn’t come to a single rehearsal, and the first game he did attend was the last home game of that first season.  Throughout the season, I said to him, “Bob, come to a rehearsal!  Your kids miss you!  They’d love to see you!”  And he consistently replied, “nah, Rob, they’re your kids now.”

When I reached out to the band alumni, the alumni that responded were unfailingly gracious and supportive themselves.  I got to know a lot of them quite well via Homecomings, eMail exchanges, and the fact that they loved to come back and play with the pep band during winter break.  For a group that can often appear extremely tradition-bound (and I say that with love and respect, I promise!!), they were willing to embrace the change… to welcome the new guy.

Here’s the major difference, I think, between that college band “new-guy” situation and UMass’s current one, though:

My predecessor didn’t die.

Not to be blunt … oops, too late … but: Holy Cross band members and band alumni were warned well ahead of time that their director of many decades was going to retire from the position; they knew he was still going to be on campus, so they could go and visit his office anytime; … and he was still alive.  The separation anxiety and trauma happened over the course of a school year.

The 2010 Minuteman Marching Band went through that trauma over the course of a weekend.

And it was left to Thom Hannum (and his staff) to pick up the pieces, to help the band survive, and thrive.  And he did.  In spades.  In ways that impressed even those of us who thought we knew Thom pretty well.

But despite the phenomenal performance in Michigan, despite the fact that the UMMB completed all its performances last fall in its usual glorious fashion, despite the vast show of support from more than 900 marching alumni at Homecoming, … I imagine that that band still feels pretty shaky.

Monday it was announced that (after 30 years of service to UMass, with the thirtieth being a monumental challenge well met) our colleague and friend Thom Hannum was not selected to be the new band director, and the reaction was… strong.  Reportedly, at least a few UMass band members reacted emotionally and strongly. Many members of the band alumni community have, as well; some in a more measured way than others.  Under the circumstances, should we have expected anything else?  We claim to be “the power and class”, and have ever heeded George Parks’ emphasis on “class”; but we also are human beings.  So is it possible we could be forgiven for having a moment of disappointment?  (A moment which doesn’t necessarily have to encompass whoever it was who was chosen instead, which I’ll get to momentarily.)

Humans react to change instinctively.  In ancient days if we didn’t react to change we might have become dead at the hands of saber-tooth tigers or new and poorer planting conditions.  More recently, humans have invented terms like “going outside our comfort zone” to describe this; but change is upheaval, whether it’s a change in
who’s the band director or a change of dinner plans.

For some Holy Cross people, I represented a new variable in the equation and Bob Principe represented their comfort zone.  The people who remained active band members, and the band alumni who gave the new guy a chance, were great people to have around as I began my time at Holy Cross.  As for the people who stepped away from the organization, I could never blame them for being humans.  (A few of them even came back.)

This all has nearly nothing to do with Tim Anderson.  ANYONE from outside the UMass community who had been named the new director would be dealing with the same challenges that Dr. Anderson has already faced and surely will face.  The last thing we as a band community need to do is beat on the new guy before he’s even set foot on campus, for heaven’s sake.

I do hope Dr. Anderson (or whomever else had been selected as the new band director instead) experiences the kind of hospitable and supportive reception that I got at Holy Cross.  If he does, he’ll quickly grow to love the organization and the people who make it up.  So, in this analogy, I suppose Tim Anderson represents the new variable in the equation and Thom Hannum represents the decades-long comfort zone.

Except for one tiny but crucial detail: Bob Principe got showered with accolades, receptions, press releases, and the like; and at this year’s celebration of the 100th year of the Holy Cross Band performing on the field, he got a special award from the College.

Thom Hannum got two sentences at the bottom of a University press release about someone else.

He deserves more than that.

Perhaps it’s not yet time for the University to issue a separate, dedicated press release that expresses gratitude for, and extols the virtues of, Thom’s 30 years of service to the University.  But somehow I doubt it will be forthcoming.

The UMMB completed its 2010 season looking for all the world like a band that had not actually lost its director mid-season.  They did so in large part because Thom Hannum offered leadership, inspiration and comfort to them in a very difficult moment, and because he was the one person who had the best chance to do so successfully.  But the UMMB still must be a very fragile group of people.

And it doesn’t look to me like the right people – the people who were charged with determining who was the right person to lead, not just any band, but this particular band – cared about that, not a bit.

Based on admittedly second- and third-hand reports that I have heard from a small number of very trusted associates this week, I remain very suspicious about the integrity of the hiring process and the motivations behind the decision not to hire Thom Hannum or Heidi Sarver (a UMass band alumna), or [and this is my own conjecture] potentially to consider anyone remotely connected with George N. Parks.  Recent news of the UMass Music Department asserting a claim on the newly-constructed George N. Parks Marching Band Building, a project which was funded partly by contributions from people who were of the understanding that it was to be dedicated to the operations of the Marching Band … does nothing to dispel this impression.  I suspect that the hiring process was more than tinged by a history of antagonistic relations between certain institutions and persons at the University of Massachusetts; and I am most saddened that this is even now having an impact on the most important people in this equation, in this moment: the band kids.

Finally, I guess, this is what is making me the craziest, and what is being passed over in some quarters:

There are plenty of people who are now trying to play the part of the grownups in the room (admirable), posting messages online that say “the decision has been made, and we should support the new guy” – which is true! But a lot of these messages neglect to note that people are still struggling with the fact that Thom Hannum is not the new guy – which is no less true.  Thom should not be merely collateral damage.  The part that Thom has played in the events of this past week – and the effects of this week on Thom professionally and personally – assuredly should not be just swept under the rug or forgotten or set aside.  In terms of human feelings, we are not the most important player in this little subplot.  I think we come off as arrogant if we think that if WE come to terms with the fact that the University didn’t name Thom as UMMB director, then the issue is settled.

If you were in Thom’s shoes, would that settle the issue for you?

I understand that change happens.  I understand that we don’t always get what we want, or what we think would be appropriate for a given situation.  I understand that someone else may consider a decision that I find mystifying… a perfectly reasonable decision.  I understand that I may have to wait for awhile to discover whether life will go on and everything will be okay, or whether it won’t.  I understand that sometimes, protesting or moaning or writing angry letters or stamping my foot and crying “but it’s no FAIR!” won’t change a thing.  I understand that life is not always fair.

I understand all that.

But I don’t have to like it.


May 15, 2011 - Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, social media, Thom Hannum, UMMB, writing


  1. I think what might settle this for me is to hear what Thom has to say about it, but at the same time, Thom needs to take care of Thom right now, not me or anyone else. The most important thing to me right now is that I’ll be supportive of whatever Thom decides to do. As for Dr. Anderson, I accept that he’s the new director and wish him well, but as you say Rob, I don’t have to like the situation.

    Comment by Steve Robinson | May 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. It’s time for a “change?” Hmm… I’ve always thought it’s best not to fix something if it isn’t broken…

    Comment by Kristin | May 16, 2011 | Reply

  3. […] previous post here, about the tumult surrounding the announcement of the UMass band’s new director, has met […]

    Pingback by Sphere of Awareness « Editorial License | May 24, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] with nearly unprecedented success and national influence for thirty-three years. In one of those posts, I described my own experience as the guy whose job it was to follow another local college band […]

    Pingback by A Hard Act to Follow « Editorial License | May 11, 2013 | Reply

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