Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Voice

There are lots of famous speaking voices in the world. They’re usually famous because they’re distinctive, either because of their tone and timbre or their unique cadence … distinctive enough that you wouldn’t mistake them for anyone else.

Such as?  Right off the top of my head, I think of people like Groucho Marx … John F. KennedyWoody Allen … Carol Channing … Johnny Carson … William Shatner … James Earl Jones … probably most of the cast of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” … and for those of us in the marching band world, there’s nothing quite like the voice of Chuck Henson.

And, certainly in western Massachusetts, there was nothing like Jim MacRostie.


Jim MacRostie passed away this weekend.  He was a lot of things (I certainly learned some things from reading his obituary!), but perhaps his most public “gig” was, during the 1990s and much of the 2000s, as the voice of the UMass marching band. “Annnnd nowwww… please welllll-come… the POWERRRRR [just a bit of a growl to that word] and CLASS! [an ascent of at least a major sixth, in pursuit of that word] –of New England … … the University of Massachusetts .. Minuteman .. Marching .. BAND!”

There were those of us who thought his “AND NOWWWWW…” could be a wee bit over-the-top. Certainly, any time anyone holds forth in a booming voice, any mispronunications or halting turns of phrase are similarly amplified. Occasionally, particularly if it sounded as if perhaps MacRostie was improvising a bit toward the end of his post- postgame remarks, I would find myself murmuring with a combination of sympathy and embarrassment, “…ah, Jim…”

But if ever there was an organization that was a bit over-the-top itself, it would be the Minuteman Band. One might be forgiven for getting stentorian. When MacRostie began his UMMB intro, you couldn’t miss it. Sometimes it seemed he didn’t need amplification, so large was his voice.

The Jim MacRostie memory that makes me smile the most … is in fact a MacRostie impersonation. On a Drum Major Academy summer afternoon, one of my learned DMA staff colleagues unleashed his MacRostie impression on a dorm hallway full of other staff members — and it was so good and so funny that it cracked everybody right up, and caused one particular staff audience member to laugh in such a way that she almost literally couldn’t draw a breath. Part of the ferocious impact of his impersonation was thanks to his own rather humorous self — and surely part of that impact was due to the fact that the impersonator looked NOTHING like his source material — but if Jim MacRostie’s voice had been less distinctive, the impersonation might have fallen flat.  Or … he might never have ended up as the Voice of the Minuteman Marching Band to start with.


Perhaps when we next hear a rumble of thunder in the distance … it might be the start of a marching band show, up yonder.

March 26, 2012 Posted by | band, DMA, entertainment, marching band, UMMB | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How To Choir

Sunday morning, as I led the “Prelude Hymn Sing” prior to my church‘s Sunday worship service, I paused to note: recently I overheard a couple of conversations in which people were saying they’d thought about joining our church choir, but were reticent because they weren’t sure they read music well enough, or perhaps at all. And my (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) response to that, yesterday morning, was: “don’t even worry about it! Singers can get away with not reading music!”

I suspect that the volunteer choir that I conduct is no different from any other: the majority of singers are not conservatory-trained. In fact, the majority of singers, if asked “are you a singer?”, would answer, “no, not me … but I’m in the choir.” In fact, there are probably four sorts of choir members: people who went to school to study music; people who didn’t study music in college but read music reasonably well; people who learned to read music (well enough to get by) while singing in the choir; and people who don’t read music but have perfectly nice voices and fake it very elegantly.

Our choir has at least one of each! If you were to sit in with our choir and try us on for size, you’d probably fit into one of those four groups … and there are lots of people in each of those groups who would be happy to welcome you aboard and help you out (or throw you a life preserver!).

For our church’s weekly newsletter this week, I wrote a brief article that continued thusly:

Also – our choir often sings (I’m happy to say) in a way that makes it sound as if it must be very hard to do. I don’t mean to say they sound like they’re struggling to make it work. I mean they often make the music sound harder or more sophisticated than it really is, or very polished – in a way that may make listeners think, ‘wow, I could never do that.’ Sure you can. Give it a shot! We each of us don’t do it alone, and that’s the point – we sing and make those sounds together. There is, after all, safety in numbers.

And any choir directors who don’t think of themselves as music teachers … are basically kidding themselves. What does that mean for new choir members, or any choir members, for that matter? It means that one of my big jobs, maybe my most important one … is to help you!

Tell you what: let’s make the month of May ‘SUMC Choir Open Rehearsal Month.’ The door is always open for people to try us out; but specifically during May, we’ll prepare some items that newcomers may be familiar with. You can come to Thursday evening (7:30-9pm) rehearsals and you don’t even have to sing on Sunday mornings (unless you’d like to). We’ll bring snacks (‘choir treats’) too!

Starred Thought: Choir is a place for everyone.”

And I invited people to visit this very blog post, where I pledged to include a couple of concepts that might ease potential newcomers’ worries about this music-reading thing.  So here you go!:

With due respect to some very skilled and knowledgeable choral music educator friends of mine, I think there are a few crucial differences between the making of choral music and the making of instrumental music that might make joining a choir a less threatening idea.

When instrumentalists (flutes or trumpets or violinists or guitarists or pianists) read music in a band or orchestra, they have to know what note they’re looking at (A? B flat? C sharp?) and translate that into the correct combination of fingers depressing keys or valves, or pressing down on frets or fingerboards on top of the correct strings. There are very specific physical requirements that depend on the music-reader knowing whether that note is an F-sharp or a regular ol’ F, for instance.

In contrast, when singers look at a note, if it’s high-up on the staff they sing high; if it’s low-down on the staff they sing low. If the splotches of ink go up, the sounds go higher; if they go down, the sounds descend. Ideally we’d love our singers to be able to look at those notes and know things like, “oh, that’s a whole step up followed by another whole step up followed by a half step up followed by a perfect fourth down” – and know what that sounds like and how to produce that sound all by themselves. A University chorale full of music majors will operate that way. But realistically, in our volunteer choir, if people can follow along as our learned accompanist plays the voice parts and everyone sings along with him, we’re pretty happy.

Yes, this is perilously close to being “dumbed down.” Again, I apologize to the choral educators I know, who will cringe at just how simplified I just got. But if I’m going to convince prospective choir members that this activity is really “not scary! not scary!”, it’s not in my best interest to get too complicated too soon, is it?

Here’s a graphic (which I can’t get my blog technology to show in a reasonable size; it’s either too tiny or much too big … ARGH!! … so you may wish to open it in a new tab or window on your browser, or better still save the foolish thing to your hard drive) … which describes a few ideas that are helpful to understand in order to properly pretend to read choir music:









Most importantly, we have plenty of people in the choir who at one time were in the very same boat as potential newcomers – and who, rather than snicker at them (“silly non-music-readers!”), are happy to lean over, point to a thing or two, whisper helpful things, and smile non-threateningly. We’re not scary. We want you to stay! We want you to enjoy singing as much as we do.

Come on in. Everybody in the pool. The water’s fine.

March 25, 2012 Posted by | choir, music, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Minority Report

This evening I ventured out into the St. Patrick’s Day-saturated world – but not to carouse so much as to get a little culture.

There was a choral concert being put on, and I had gotten the heads-up about it from my friend Yuh-Rong, one of the folks who sings in my church choir. “You are cordially invited to my Chinese singing group’s annual concert,” she eMailed me awhile back; and as she does appear to be of Chinese descent, I suppose it made sense! It struck me as a good thing to go listen to – because it’s good to go support the people I work with or sing with (or both), and because I can always stand to acquire a little culture. And, in my case, because I really enjoy the occasions where I can sit and listen, while someone else takes care of the conducting or playing or organizing or whatever. I can function in the spotlight; I can lead an ensemble; but I’m not addicted to it. (It’s sometimes more of a challenge to mute my error-detection and -correction, music-teacher self and just listen for enjoyment, but that’s an occupational hazard and a tale for another day.)

So I spent a good portion of the evening listening to the Greater Boston Philharmonia Singers, which is an ensemble of 19 singers, few of whom are probably conservatory-trained (which is okay!), all of whom were clearly enjoying what they were doing (also good), and all of whom were happily presenting a repertoire which veered wildly from sacred anthems to Chinese folk melodies to Stephen Foster to African-American spirituals to Gershwin. And all of whom were of Chinese or at least southeast Asian descent.

The audience was large — to the point where in the middle of the second tune, there was some desperately muffled shuffling noises in the back which turned out to be the Singers’ support team frantically setting up more chairs in the back of the room – always a good thing to have more people come to your concerts than you anticipated!  And, as you might expect for a group of fans of a Chinese choir … the audience was very predominantly Chinese. I would judge that I was among the perhaps three or four percent of the room who didn’t look terribly Asian.  (Okay… okay… at all Asian.)

Which got me to thinking – not during the music-making, but during the intermission! … I’m a middle-aged white guy. I grew up in a town that was a bit diverse, but not very. I did attend a university whose student body could look like the United Nations if you walked past the graduate research building but often looked a hell of a lot more white than “ethnic”. And the towns in which I student-taught, and now teach, and do my church-music-making, are each, well, not overly diverse.

About fourteen years ago, I worked in Boston as one of the instructors for a summer band program for Boston high school students, sponsored by the Boston Police Department. The Crosstown Band consisted of about thirty high school kids from the city: two were white, one was Asian, two were Hispanic, and the rest were African-American. It was the first time I’d gotten to spend extended time as the only white guy in the room.

I was, in actual fact, a minority.

And when the three white guys who were the instructional staff chanced to venture across the street from the school where we held daily rehearsals, and grab a bite to eat … it was really obvious. We were in the minority, all right. We certainly didn’t have to imagine that people were taking a good hard look at us.

The band kids played well, performed successfully in front of a few important audiences, and were really fun to work with, but it was a worthwhile thing to do, just for that experience.

And again, tonight, I sat with a few other folks from my church, doing “silent cheers” for Yuh-Rong … and kinda sticking out as the only people in the room who weren’t part of the majority. I don’t think people were staring us down, giving us suspicious looks, or anything like that. We came to their concert; yay.

But there are people in the world – lots of people – average everyday people, but also lots of decision- and policy- and law-making people … who would really benefit, I think, from experiencing what it’s like to not be in the majority. It’s a useful perspective. It would inform some of the decisions, policies and laws that are proposed and made and implemented, a bit better, I think. It might keep certain decisions, policies and laws from being made in the first place. Whether it’s average everyday people, or people who happen to be selectmen, or mayors, or Congressmen and -women, or CEOs … we all could do with an experience every now and again that perhaps might enable a little empathy.

It’s worth it to know what it feels like to be in the minority.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment