Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Year Later

Readers of this space … or UMass band members, alumni, parents and fans … or people who fit into any of a great number of other categories … know quite well what happened on September 16 of last year.

If you should need a refresher course, it’s okay … visit these blog posts, websites, online articles and YouTube videos, and recall the fall of 2010, and I’ll meet you back here in a moment.

“You CAN learn from any situation. Successful people DO.” –George N. Parks

The best things I’ve learned in the time since Mr. Parks’ passing have come from the insights of other people. … As often as I blather on, in this space… I swear the best applications of the English language regarding last fall’s events ALL came toward me, not from me. Here, I’ll quote some thoughts that were sent to me in what were understood to be private eMails or Facebook posts or conversations … but I won’t identifying who wrote what; and I do hope that the purveyors of these thoughts won’t slap me for publishing their fine work.

It’s a weird day for me, because I didn’t really know Mr. Parks, or formally meet him, but he’s a part of ‘home’.”

Today I taught the freshmen ‘Eyes with Pride’. I hope someday they can really understand it.”

Even knowing nothing about him until the other day, the way that all of you have responded through Facebook alone is a remarkable tribute to him and to the deep effect he had on so many people’s lives… he was clearly an amazing man and I’m sorry I didn’t know him.”

I never even met him, but even I knew how great he was just because of knowing his students and having seen the marching band in action.”

Everything we did, and everything we continue to do, will be to make Mr. Parks and our alum proud. … We didn’t make it through this weekend, he taught us so well, we knew no other way!”

…by chance my mother’s cousin has season tickets at UMichigan and was at the game. He and his wife said they had never ever heard the stadium as quiet as it was for a moment of silence for GNP…”

Definitely ready to cash in all the virtual hugs we’ve all been sending back and forth with real ones.”

Good to be with my second family.”

I would travel to any end of the earth for George. To see the lives he impacted gather to celebrate … speaks volumes. That was exactly where we all needed to be.”

It will be so good to be surrounded by so many great people this weekend. It’s interesting – it’s been so long since I last marched with everyone but they all still mean so much to me.”

What a legacy to leave behind when you depart this world — to leave legions of people committed to spreading love (can’t think of a better way to say it) on the planet.”

GNP was infectious and there is no cure.”

George did make UMASS and all the special band places safe for all of us to be ourselves….. Our best selves!”

Amongst maces flying how many stories into the air? Drill moves that had to be done exactly right or ruin a brass player’s career? Battery percussion learning to ‘spin out’ to avoid pile-up collisions when things went bad crabbing at a tempo of 160? A team of drum majors holding a challenging piece of music together with the band spread all over the field? Yes, even amongst all that and much more, we were indeed, safe.”

[Homecoming 2010] A rollercoaster of emotions and you’re strapped into the front car!”

Amazing how the UMass band just spans generations yet, I bet most of us could name most of those people on your list [of band alumni at Homecoming].”

Thank you so much for sending me the links to the videos for GNP’s celebration of life. I am amazed by the beauty of the ceremony and the magnitude of sound from the band. What a fitting tribute to such a tremendous person!”

I remember saying out loud ‘I don’t think I can’ when My Way started but then, and twice later, I felt something come over me and lift me up so I could sing loud and clear all 3 times…”

How awesome is it that ‘Silly’ band tunes like Gloria, Phil, or Madonna hit that spot in the heart that makes want to be 20 again and tear the roof off a stadium with the Best Band Anywhere!?!?!”

I’m just having a hard time with the reality of all of this.”

We’re blessed to have been brought together by such an incredible personality. And we’d be remiss to ever let those things that he taught us go to the wayside.”

I was thinking the other day about 6 degrees of separation – and the number of people George touched and in some small way we got to enjoy the experience with many of them. Now it’s time to BE Santa.”

And finally, see if this doesn’t sum it all up, make you smile, and choke you up in one fell swoop … this, from the UMMB alumni newsgroup:

I will be eternally grateful for the welcome I received on August 31, 1989, on the first day of band camp when Mr. Parks had the entire band sing Happy Birthday to a 18 year old teen from south central Los Angeles who never thought she deserved to make it that far. … Mr. Parks you are my hero and I will always remember to ‘think the note…..’ Everything I ever learned about music that mattered I learned from my two years as a member of the band. I do not know if I ever thought I deserved to accomplish what I have in life but for one beautiful humid summer day in August on the rehearsal field so long ago I KNEW I had become a part of something that truly mattered. I pray that the Angels in heaven have given you the welcome you gave me so long ago.”

What it comes down to, I think, is this: Mr. Parks created a community, a massive family, and taught them in such a way that they’re strong enough to make it through a year like this, for the very most part, with Power and Class … With Pride … and with each other.  And I think it’s revealed the UMMB family as a group of people who are capable of expressing themselves with insight, dignity and, many times, beauty.

Starred Thought®: A band is a reflection of its leader.

September 16, 2011 Posted by | band, Facebook, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Music Therapy

So, this week there has been and, I expect, will continue to be a great wave of remembrances of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And here I am, contributing to the great wave.

Already there have been a number of “special television events” commemorating and analyzing that horrible day, and what effect it had on the ten years that have followed.

From one cable TV news network came a remarkable three-hour examination of the events of 9/11 which focused much more on the armed conflicts the government of this nation subsequently pursued, and the terrorist organization it was claiming to pursue, and the lasting effects of 9/11 on our society: how we view the wider world, and how the wider world views us, among other issues.

From another cable TV news network: a documentary about the re-building of the World Trade Center, the end of which made clear that the plan was to replace the twin towers with a complex full of commercial and retail locations (in essence a giant shopping center), and the tone of the piece seemed to be, as soon as this place is finished, it will mean America has somehow won. Like they told us not long after 9/11: defeat the terrorists. Go shopping.

In September 2001, I was beginning my third year as the music teacher at a small high school in the Blackstone Valley. On the morning of Tuesday the 11th, my first two 85-minute class periods were each a separate section of a class called “Instrumental Music”. Originally I think the plan was for this to be when the band met, but not nearly all the band kids could be scheduled into the course, even though we offered two sections of it every semester, so it became a chamber ensemble class – several students and I making various volume levels of music every day. So we were playing tunes. All morning.

My first class ended just before nine in the morning, so my second class was full of students who knew little or nothing about what was happening in New York City. My tenor sax guy, Sean, came into the auditorium, set up for class, and said, “hey, Mr. H, did you hear? A plane hit the World Trade Center.” But he didn’t know much else, so I filed it away, perhaps to investigate later.

The third out of four class periods that day was my prep, and by chance that day I ate lunch alone in my office, rather than in the teachers’ room — desperately working to stay one chapter ahead, as they say. I ran up to the second floor of the building to use the photocopier in the library, and when I got there, I saw a TV set up in the corner and about twenty students watching it. It looked like your standard “must watch this video and the only working video machine is in the library” deal. Then I glanced at the TV picture, and noted that it was CNN, it was live, and a large building was on fire. I stayed there just long enough to put two and two together and get, “ah, so this is what Sean was talking about.” I made a mental note to watch the news and see if I could catch up with that current event later that night and returned to the auditorium, to set up for my last-period class. I’m pretty sure a PA announcement was made not too much later, about what was going on, but I don’t recall specifically what it said, other than to confirm that this current event was getting to be an even bigger deal every minute.

This I do remember though. Last period began, and my singers came in. The “Choral Music” class usually began with me at the piano, and the eight kids in the class ranged around it, warming up and singing from lead sheets. Privately, I called the class “Intro to Music Through Singing A Lot Of It,” with a subtitle of “Songs I Can’t Let You Graduate High School Without Knowing.” The majority of the students either had never sung before but would rather like to try, or had never sung before and needed the elective credits. (Whatever gets you in the door.) At that early stage of the semester, I had handed out only perhaps five or six tunes – I tried to mix up the repertoire, so it was the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, Sting, and Rodgers & Hammerstein for a start.

I said to the kids, “I’ve been hearing about what’s been going on in New York, and you guys have probably seen more than I have. If folks want to take a few minutes here to chat about it, we can.” When you’re a teacher, you might become a therapist at a moment’s notice; well, I thought, here we go, shrink: let’s see what you’re made of.

They all, all of them, looked at me and smiled thinly; and one of the girls said, “Mr. H, we’ve kinda been staring at it all morning. Can we … just sing?”

Music turned out to be the best therapy that day.


I’d be okay with that being the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Not long after we’d gathered around the piano and started singing the tunes that we’d learned so far that school year, one of the main office secretaries came into the auditorium and pulled me aside. “Could you put together a song with any of your students? That we could maybe have you perform over the PA at the end of the day?”

If I’m in a particular mood, sometimes I will quote one of my summer-arts-camp colleagues, who once said sarcastically, “Music is Magic! It just Appears!” Non-musicians often assume that a musical selection is easy to put together on the spot, no preparation required; just put a bunch of people on a stage or a field and say, “perform!” and you’ll get the University of Nebraska Cornhusker Band instantly, or the cast of “Glee”, or whatever. Magic! (And sometimes, as another wise colleague of mine once noted, music teachers are our own worst enemies: we find a way to Make It Happen, thereby making it look a little easier than it might really be. So people might be forgiven for the misconception.)

But in this case, I wasn’t feeling sarcastic. This was one of those instances in which music can accomplish things that perhaps no other school activity can. I relayed the request to my singers, some of whom had never sung in public before. “Well, gang, what do we know? These seven things, I guess. Is there something that makes sense?”

And one of the kids looked at me squarely and said, “Obviously. ‘Imagine’.” I’d handed out that John Lennon song only just the day before. So we threw out my lesson plan, made sure we were good at that song, dragged a portable keyboard into the main office, gathered around the telephone handset that the secretaries used when they read the morning announcements, and … just sang.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religions too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

The kids’ sound was quite nice; the nice singing went into a telephone and out into the building via PA loudspeakers that were not exactly made by the Bose company, so we might as well have been performing from low Earth orbit with NASA as our sound guys, for all anyone knew. But five students made it through their first ever public choral performance safely.

And we felt like we’d done our little bit to try and help the world get sane again.


[Lyrics © 1971 Lenono Music]

September 7, 2011 Posted by | choir, education, music | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

All Those Who Gain Power Are Afraid To Lose It (or, Taking Things for Granite, Part 2)

This has been a year full of moments when I was forced to realize that, all things considered, I’ve got it pretty good.

This last week or so … another moment. Hurricane Irene came barreling out of the Caribbean as a Category 3 hurricane, and every single one of the National Weather Service’s computer models had this thing smacking straight through Cape Hatteras, Virginia Beach, Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and central Massachusetts. There was no doubt. Here comes a whopper.

The forecasters were right about the whole thing except for two details: Irene was “just a bit outside” and went over the top of Tanglewood on its way to Vermont; originally, the forecast middle of the strike zone was much closer to my house. By the time it hit the mid-Atlantic cities, it was only … “only!” … a Category 1. A “mere” tropical storm did a number on Vermont – such that I asked a colleague if she knew of any towns in Vermont named Berlin, because they were sending airlifts to the Green Mountain State now.

My own house didn’t lose power during the Saturday evening/Sunday morning storm and did not flood. No trees dropped branches or their whole selves on top of my house or car. I *did* spend Monday evening and the first few moments of Tuesday morning without power, and therein lies the tale.

I found a number of things not to take for granted.

Monday afternoon, when I arrived home from my first teacher-prep day of the school year, I walked in the front door of my house, looked left to check the time by looking at the cable-TV control box in the living room, and noticed none of the usual red numbers upon it.

Ah. Power out. Well, it’s not ten below and an ice storm, or 115 degrees in the shade, so I’ll live. I’ll just check my…

Email. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just fire up a…

Leftover piece of pizza. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just practice the hymns for next Sunday’s service on my…

Electronic keyboard. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just start work on cleaning out the…

Basement. Very few tiny windows. Can’t turn on the lights. All together now: no power.

Okay, I get the joke.

I was forced to sit close to a window and read a book. Horrors.

So, Thing Not To Take For Granted #1: living in a part of the world where there is available electrical power for the great majority of time.

Thing #2: having running water in the house which is not powered by some sort of electricity, therefore if the power goes out I can still, you know, bathe.

Thing #3: having a house, at all. With a roof. Which, for the past five years, has not leaked.

There are parts of the world where any or all of these things are not likely to be in place.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to imagine how “The Settlers” (as they were termed in elementary school social studies class) did it. Let’s jump in a boat (powered by wind only), cross the ocean, plant our flag on the first land we find and live there. If we’re lucky, it’ll only be New England winter for seven months out of the year, and there are no supply lines to refresh our provisions; and if your winter coat is damaged or stolen by woodland creatures, you’re bang outta luck. Oh, by the way, before you grow your own food and build your own shelter, you’ll need to clear a lot of land. Many trees in the way. Did you remember the axe? Oh, and the land has lots and lots of rocks in it and they will kill the shovel you brought. Okay, whose job was it to bring that? … Whose great idea was this again? …

And, for modern Americans, well beyond sheer survival issues … oh, the comforts, luxuries and toys we’ve grown used to. And most of them plug in somehow.

After the sun went down and I was forced to go to bed – at 8:30 at night!? (…good idea, actually) – I had lots of time to wonder, “what if…?”

This kept me awake awhile, partly because a few days before, I’d been watching TV (powered by electricity) and saw a little tiny piece of one of the “Die Hard” movie sequels, the one in which techno-terrorists take control of most of the technological and electronic elements of American life. Traffic lights are all made to go green all at once, causing lots of car wrecks; and it all goes to heck and downhill from there.

So what if? What if cyber-terrorists take down the power grid? Or, more innocently but no less destructive, what if a big storm does the same? What if an earthquake does a number on one or more power plants? Hello, says Japan, been there, done that. What if Irene had hit New York City and the rest of the northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, as had been predicted? The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” may have been a little over-the-top, but what if…?

This blog goes dark, that’s what!

But beyond that horrifying prospect… as a society, we’re spectacularly dependent upon technology that runs on electricity. We’ve placed ourselves, over the course of many many years, into a remarkably fragile latticework: if suddenly we don’t have enough (or any) electricity, then this and this can’t happen, which means this and this can’t be done, which will keep us from being able to do this and this … it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story with no happy ending.

Brings up all kinds of issues. Upkeep of energy infrastructure (government or private-sector?), energy resource exploitation and development, conservation or lack of… And for the moment, I’m going to swerve around the topic of climate change, which for the moment will save about 17 paragraphs.

Makes my head hurt. And lots of the people in corporate America, particularly in the energy industries … and lots of the people running our government, particularly the newer people but also the veteran lawmakers whose political careers are funded (thus heavily influenced) by energy industry lobbyists … ought to have their heads hurt at least as much, about this subject. They’re the people who could do something about this, if they tried hard enough. If they tried. If they wanted to try.

I’m lucky enough (this moment) to have some nice things. Plenty of people aren’t this lucky, both around the world and in the American city in which I live. For the moment, on the spectrum that has the Haves on one end and the Have-Nots on the other, I’m closer to the comfortable end. And I’m trying not to take this for granted. But if the power goes out, whether for man-made or natural reasons, a huge number of things – from the little refrigerators that keep the Have-Nots’ food from spoiling, to the devices that allow the Haves to play “Angry Birds” – work equally poorly. And if the power goes out for a longer period of time than a couple of hours, people go from cabin fever-y to antsy to impatient to yelling at power company trucks as they drive by.

And if the power goes out for a really, really long time … ?

September 4, 2011 Posted by | government, news, politics, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment