Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The End is Near

I have a bad habit.

Well, I probably have more than just the one, but that one is what I’ll focus on this evening.

Brief background: I’m a school teacher, and as such, I have been on summer break since the last week of June.

At the beginning of most summers, I figure out how many weeks of summer vacation I will have – usually nine. Then I take those nine weeks and make my math teachers very proud of me: I divide them up into three sections of three weeks each. I do this so that I will know whether I’m in the first, second or third segment of the summer.

Why do I do this? Probably so that during the first third of summer, I can think, “ha! All that time left to go.” And in the second third, I can think, “still quite a nice amount of time to go.” And in the last third, I can think, “… drat. Summer’s over.”

Which is not to imply that I don’t enjoy teaching. It’s an occupation that I’m both proud and pleased to say is mine. Plenty of people out there who aren’t teachers look at the eight- or nine-week break that we have, during the summer, and wonder if it’s really necessary (or think we’re slacking off, or some such) … about all I can say to that is, if you’ve been any kind of a teacher who remotely cares whether you’re doing a decent job at it, you desperately need those summer months to recover and recharge, so as to be ready to be appropriately caring about it when it all starts up again. The best teachers I ever had, who clearly couldn’t wait to get into that classroom and get after the business of educating the little ones, or the mid-size ones, or the grad students … still had that look in their eyes as summer approached. The look that said, yeah, I’ll still enjoy sitting on my backside and assessing the clouds as they roll by!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes! I was psychoanalyzing …

Many moons ago, I compared notes with my dear mother, and we both realized that very often, on the Fourth of July, we each have had the brief thought: “wow, the summer’s flying by.” When, according to the calendar, the summer is usually only two-sevenths complete. According to my previous metric, at least. Who in the hell [Hey. We’re keeping your diploma, guy. -Ed.] sits watching fireworks and listening to the “1812 Overture” and gets all melancholy?

Me, at least until recently.

My particular summer features a couple of events that fall in just the right moment to help delineate the summer. The band director workshop in New Hampshire which I’ve attended for the last eight summers tends to be held at the end of the third week of my summer. So, in hockey terms, that’s the first intermission. OK. Still lots of hockey to be played. And the nine days of Drum Major Academy clinics that I get to be part of usually are complete at, same analogy, the second intermission. So at the very least, my summer doesn’t slip away totally – there are signposts that remind me, okay, you are here.

But I hit each of those signposts with a slight but real sense of sadness.

Of course, there’s usually some preparation that needs to be done between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. Regardless of how much … usually I get to within about two weeks of the oncoming school year, realize that I’ve done squat, or close to it … and I hit that signpost with a sense of disappointment. I had all that time to accomplish things, and I didn’t. Behold! I am the King of Procrastination! So, my last two summer weeks are generally full of scrambling to plan and fruitless moping about the house wishing there were more time left.

There’s something wrong with me, I think.

Fella! – You’re on summer break. It’s lengthy. Not many people in the American workforce get one of these. So quit ‘cher moping, and jump on a bike, or grab your golf bag, or throw on some sunblock. Frittering away the summer is what summer is for.

Easy to say. Harder to do, at least for me, at least sometimes. (Heck, there used to be a time when, about 24 hours into an average weekend, it would be Saturday evening and I’d think, “the weekend’s just about over now.” Well–! … I’m a church musician. I work Sundays. But how sad a statement is that to make, at six o’clock on a Saturday?)

I’m working on it. I have until next June to figure out how best to work on it again. Meantime, I’ve set my golf clubs by the door for tomorrow morning.

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August 21, 2012 Posted by | teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Olympic Withdrawal

The upshot of this piece may well be this: this very moment, in a room near where I am currently writing, I have one of the NBC’s lesser-known networks on the TV. They’re running edited-together highlight packages of the recently-completed Olympic Games. London 2012 lives on, seemingly. And I like it.

Just the sound of the Olympic track and field events, swimming races, volleyball games is enough to take the sting out of the truth: the Closing Ceremonies are over, and all the athletes are now at Heathrow Airport trying to get out of the UK. And when I swing past the TV on my way to fetch something or get something to eat or whatever, I’m comforted by the sight of the pastel decorations all around whichever venue is being featured; color schemes and logos that would be laughed out of the planning rooms of most other sporting events are embraced and encouraged in Olympic brainstorming sessions, and that alone can make watching the Olympics that much different from any other event.

And so, with that as backdrop and backstory, I continue to live in the recent past. More accurately, a few moments from the Olympic fortnight are still reverberating in my head, and not all of them were top headlines. Here are some entries from my Virtual London Olympics Spiral-Bound Reporter’s Notebook…

 

[] “Never mind the gymnastics tonight … this afternoon I watched the women’s judo final: the US woman won the gold medal; she climbed onto the top medal platform; and at the first very note of the Star-Spangled Banner, her composure just dissolved. Confession: I had to get up and make a sandwich.

Meanwhile, the TV cameras showed the fiance of said gold medal winner, and he was very very happy. A gentle note to this fine young man: behave well. You are marrying someone who can flip you.”

[] “There is controversy in badminton. (That alone is a sentence I never thought I’d type.) Seems a Chinese doubles team was been removed from the tournament because they were playing with a strategy of positioning themselves well for the medal round, which appeared to all observers to be, in certain circumstances, playing not to win. I saw highlights: these people were blatantly serving into the net, repeatedly. On the one hand, they were interpreting the official rules correctly, which probably means someone needs to go back and edit the rules a tad. On the other hand, if you’d paid ridiculous money to see an Olympic event, you’d want to see athletes appearing to try to go higher, faster, stronger (louder); thus the ferocious booing is understandable. Apparently no one outside the US knows the phrase ‘Black Sox’.”

[] “I like National Public Radio fine, and Susan Stamberg particularly. This morning, though, their reporting and commentary this morning about the Olympics is unbearable in its snark and holier- or hipper-than-thou attitude.”

[] “Watched a bit of two-man kayaking. A couple of these guys were paddling so hard, I would swear I saw the top edge of their boat actually get below the level of the Thames River. Could’ve been an optical illusion, I suppose, as no one drowned all week.”

[] “I’ve had a great time watching springboard diving, because of many of the divers’ approach to the end of the board, to wit: stand ten feet from the end … take a step forward and launch yourself (one-footed) in the air … come down on the other foot and similarly launch yourself yet again … NOW hit the end of the board with both feet and do the voodoo you do. Splatsh!”

[] “I’ve had a miserable (and short) time watching platform diving, though, because I am desperately afraid I may watch one of these wood sprites crack her head on the platform. It’s not (*PUBBA-dubba-dubba-dubba*) springboard diving anymore.”

[] “Memo to Conan O’Brien: usually you are a funny man. However, is it worth the laughs you may have gotten, to make fun of US Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold’s weight? That’s 350 pounds she’s lifting. Can you lift that? She’s at the Olympics. Are you? Will you ever be? Sorry, Conan, but let’s face it: Ms. Mangold can lift, what, three of you?”

[] “In the last 24 hours, I have watched: men’s doubles badminton, men’s field hockey, women’s team handball, women’s water polo, women’s 8s rowing, and women’s weightlifting. Why? Because [thank you, network execs who decide what kind of sports are popular] I won’t be able to watch these interesting sports for another 3 3/4 years. (Yeah, yeah, men’s basketball, whatever.)”

[] “Hands down, the most tolerable NBC Olympics announcer is long-time Celtics TV guy Mike Gorman, over at the Team Handball venue. Understated is appreciated.”

[] “Follow-up to yesterday’s Olympic media criticism: the Most Tolerable Studio Anchor Award goes to Michelle Beadle (Costas a distant, distant second). Whoever NBC had to trade away to get her from ESPN, the deal was a slam dunk. Humor that’s actually… funny; and if she’s reading copy off a teleprompter, you wouldn’t know.”

[Postscript: upon further review, the referees have decided that the name “Costas” needs to be excised from that last paragraph, and replaced with either “Dan Patrick” or “no one”. -Ed.]

[] “It’s the women’s-eight crew competition, and the US wins gold again, and AGAIN, at the helm is the mighty Mary Whipple!”

[] “With water polo and team handball, I appear to have chosen the two Olympics sports where whistles mean something but they don’t stop play — and there are approximately 42,000 whistles per game. Sounds like a pack of drum majors or something.”

[] “Thanks to my being a political junkie, for the first time ever, I was actually aware that there was an equestrian event that didn’t involve logical horsey things like jumping over stuff without knocking it over. So I watched about five minutes of the dressage event. I didn’t get to see the Romney Horse, but I saw enough to make me wonder: how in the living heck can they (and how in the heck long does it take them to) train a horse to move like that?! And, with regards to judging these tap-dancing equines, … I suppose if humans can be judged on floor exercise and figure skating, I guess horses can be evaluated on their dance moves.

[] “Confession: I will watch the US women’s soccer team play anywhere, any time. If I were a soccer coach coaching anyone other than the US women, I would be completely terrified of Alex Morgan. Go to the dictionary and look up ‘explosive acceleration’ and you’ll find a picture of Ms. Morgan’s feet.”

[] “For the record, before either the US or Canada wins this one [women’s soccer semifinal match]: this has been a nasty ol’ soccer game. Very entertaining. It’s Bruins/Canadiens of the early ’90s out there.”

[] “So the US women beat Canada in soccer in an epic match, and afterward the Canadians creeb and moan about two missed calls. I am tempted to trot out the ‘life ain’t fair’ meme, but that was really close to an American handball. So, in the bronze medal round, statistically France is all over Canada – something like 23 shots to 4 – but Canada prevails, on a goal in the 91st minute. Here’s the thing: I’d love to see the replay of that goal, because I would have sworn a Canadian striker was about ten feet offside on the play. But if the linesman had made that call, would it have destroyed the Canadians psychologically?”

[] “My favorite quirky thing of the whole 2012 Summer Olympiad is from Greco-Roman wrestling events: the Challenge Brick!!”

[] “The balance beam event, in women’s gymnastics, still makes me very, very, very, very, very nervous. My not-too-overactive imagination imagines one bad step and a head hitting the beam on the way, inevitably and inexorably, to the ground. And the sound that would make. And sixteen thousand spectators inhaling sharply.”

[] “One of the pre-recorded pieces that NBC showed, to kick off an evening broadcast, was about the US women’s gymnastics team from the Atlanta games in 1996. Much was made of Kerri Strug’s early-career struggles, but her eventual ankle-bending, pain-induced-grimacing final vault, which clinched the gold medal for the US team. Inspiring story, but there was one thing I wish they hadn’t included so much of, for the sake of my very young niece and nephew, with whom I was watching this. They showed archival video of an injury which Strug incurred while training several months before to the US Olympic trials, in which she came off the uneven bars (I think) all wrong and landed splat on her head, neck and back. The landing was bad enough; but what was truly awful to watch, and I swear they let this video clip run for 25 horrible seconds, was Strug lying there, writhing in pain (and yet trying not to because as it turned out she dinged up a couple of actual spinal vertebrae in the fall), with a look of mingled pain and disbelief, and making sounds that no ten- or six-year-old should be forced to hear, on prime time television.”

[] “Your instructions are simple: go to YouTube, find a world-class doubles match in the sport of table tennis, and watch. This is not the sport I played in the basement as a kid. It ain’t all slam-bang (that’s singles). It’s actually intricate.”

[] “In the Beach Volleyball gold medal match, it’s Misty May and Kerri Walsh (the latter seeming like a genuinely fun person, even in the midst of dogged competition) put on what can only be described as a volleyball clinic. However, in the end, I much prefer volleyball with a floor that you can actually jump off with some oomph.”

[] “And that [US/Japan gold medal final] entirely entertaining (if stressful) soccer match is what the world [of sport] could use more of: full-tilt competition with precious few whistles, no cheap fouls, and one largely ceremonial yellow card. If the US’ semifinal match v. Canada reminded me of a Bruins/Canadiens slugfest of a playoff hockey game from the early 1990s – a chippy affair played with cheerful bad attitudes – then the gold-medal game v. Japan was Borg/McEnroe minus the yelling at the chair umpire. It was almost elegant. The red-jerseyed Japanese team’s offense was so mesmerizing that I found myself admiring it and not remembering that I was supposed to be pulling for the navy blue US people.”

[] “Women’s team handball final. Rough-and-tumble, physical game all afternoon long. Norway heavily favored over Montenegro, but Montenegro never trails by more than two goals. Fifteen seconds left, Norway ahead by two, with the ball. Norway holds the ball; Montenegro certainly appears to genuinely applaud Norway players. Sportsmanship. … Time runs out: Norway sheds tears for gold; Montenegro smiles wildly for the silver they weren’t expected to achieve. … Good game.”

[] “If you, as a TV announcer of track and field events, are hoarse before the end of the evening’s broadcast? … you are yelling way too much. Period. The end.”

[] “Checked into the Closing Ceremonies briefly, just in time to hear 80,000 or so people do the world’s largest ‘you-hoooooooooo’ in the midst of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. This is truly tolerable!”

[] “Oh. George Michael. Never mind.”

 

I used to think that shifting the Winter Olympics by two years was just a craven attempt by Committees and TV networks to make more money more often.  Now … I think it’s the best idea ever.  When do the Winter Games start again … ?

August 13, 2012 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, heroes, media, sports, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Swagger

If you’ve been near a television in the past two weeks, you may have noticed an athletic competition happening. We’ve seen many examples of extraordinary physical and mental achievements – fast running, heavy lifting, graceful spinning; teams of people scoring more points than other teams of people, folks hitting heights that most of us will never attain.

After a 100-meter dash, the winning runner will often look up into the sea of spectator faces and smile or shout; chests will be thumped, fists will be raised. At the Olympics, it’s a special sort of demonstration. In professional sports leagues, it happens also; sometimes I react well but other times I wonder if the accomplishment was quite so cataclysmic as to warrant all that strutting.

Usually a baseball player has an idea how far he’s just a hit a ball, and when the ball ends up 500 feet away from home plate, well, how many people can do that? A little strut might be called for. (Sometimes, as the hitter admires his work, I’m righteously amused when the ball merely scrapes the outfield wall and the home run trot turns into a desperate scrambling bid not to be thrown out at second base. That may be just hubristic, but not fatal, miscalculation of scale.) Occasionally, on the other hand, a hitter may take what seems like an hour and a half to approach the plate, execute his preparation routine, and stare down the pitcher and the world – only to swing wildly at consecutive three pitches and head back to the dugout. And often, on the way back to the dugout, the hitter stares defiantly at the world anyway. I was just called up from the minors. That should be enough for you all. The Pinch Hitter Rises.

So, a couple of examples of swagger. The first is earned. The second is unearned.

In music, for me, earned swagger is the conductor of a major symphony orchestra striding to the podium and leading the ensemble through a masterful performance of a challenging work. Afterward, the audience stands and applauds and at least subconsciously muses, “Gotta hand it to her: she knows that piece inside and out, and she’s got that outfit hitting on all cylinders.”

Unearned swagger, conversely, looks like the garage band guitarist who muscles his way to the edge of the stage, looking like he thinks he’s the second coming of Pete Townsend … and after he takes his solo, educated listeners have no doubt that he’s not. And he yields the spotlight to the lead singer, still looking like he thinks he’s the second coming of Pete Townsend.

More concisely: earned swagger looks like Chuck Barris hosting “The Gong Show”. Unearned swagger is a good number of “Gong Show” contestants.

So. Which people in the world, performers or not, have I been briefly tempted not to give the time of day? The ones who strut down the street or the school hallway, preening and barking like the unearned-swagger-laden pop culture icons we’re all constantly exposed to, daring the world to question their cool. I am Da Bomb, y’all.

Last night, I made my annual pilgrimage to a movie theater showing the live satellite feed of the national quarterfinal competition of drum and bugle corps. I was in time to see the last eight groups, and therefore saw the pinnacle of ability and achievement in American marching music. There are great college bands out there, who prepare fine musical and visual shows in between bursts of academic work. The United States military contains ensembles that, as you might expect, do what they do very well. But in the summer drum corps activity, organizations take many fall and winter months to design a musical and visual program, prepare that program on many weekends in the winter and spring, and rehearse and perform the program nearly constantly, for many hours a day, every day, late June to mid-August – such that when it’s time for Quarterfinals At The Movies (or, as Drum Corps International calls it, “Big Loud and Live”), the envelope has been pushed hard, and the very skilled performers are hugely polished.

So. There’s this drum corps called the Blue Devils. They’re a perennial favorite and winner of 14 of the 39 DCI titles handed out so far (this year’s competition will be decided tomorrow night). For a considerable chunk of their history, they’ve played mostly jazz, and have only once in 39 years finished lower than fourth place (fifth, one single time), in an activity that begins its final tournament week with a field of 25 corps. For the past several years, though, they’ve presented programs that have caused some audiences (myself included) to appreciate their talents but to question how effectively their performances have connected with their audience from an entertainment (“general effect”) perspective.

Drum corps is evaluated on seemingly shifting sands: corps “A” can play music of, say, the Beatles, perform very well, light up the crowd, and place in the lower half of the finals-night top-12. And then corps “B” can play music of, say, Bela Bartok … strike an audience as impressive but not wildly “jump-out-of-your-seat-and-dance-and-clap-along”-grade entertainment … perform at a higher technical level than corps “A” … and win the night.

(Collectively, the various corps perform such different styles of music that it isn’t fair to judge on content, except to note whether a particular style or repertoire is either too ambitious or not challenging enough for a corps’ talent level. A judge shouldn’t score a Phantom Regiment classical music show higher than a Madison Scouts show full of the music of Gershwin just because s/he likes classical music better.

(So, in spite of recent DCI attempts to increase the effect of “general effect” scores on the overall results, and thus give a nod to its fan base – paying customers – drum corps get judged largely not on what they do, but how well they do it. Seems fair.)

Lately, the Blue Devils have been corps “B”. When you can’t think of any more drum corps tricks to invent, you have to start pushing the envelope of program design. The general perceived average fan response to the Devils’ envelope-pushing (excluding, of course, lifelong Blue Devil fans and alumni, who have the perfect right to love their corps unconditionally) seems to have been a collective head-scratch. Three years ago, the Devils’ show title was “Constantly Risking Absurdity”, which may give you an idea of the direction they’ve taken. But they’ve gone through the vast majority of the last few years undefeated. As in, next to nobody can score higher than they do on any given night. The level at which they play is such that any corps that wants to beat them has to be at the absolute top of its game, in design and execution. Last year they placed second, and it took a Herculean effort by a little group called the Cadets to make that happen.

This year their show was a musical examination of the “Dada” philosophy. Huh? On a football field? Dada, the philosophy described as having rejected reason and logic, and prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition? That Dada? Well … okay. We’ll give it a try, I guess. (Or, for drum corps fans: did the Velvet Knights corner that market decades ago?)

To be fair, there were some genuinely entertaining Blue Devil moments last night. The opening music, from the movie “Apollo 13”, would have been utterly grand if it hadn’t been accompanied by a pre-recorded Frenchman describing Dadaism. And for about 45 seconds midway through their show, they planted themselves in the middle of the field and laid down a big-band-orchestrated set of Charlie Parker-esque licks that made me think, “that’s the Blue Devils I miss so much.”

I admit it. I was rooting hard for the corps that placed second last night. If any group had a chance to slip past the Blue Devils, Carolina Crown was it; but they couldn’t quite. And through all that rooting, I had to concede: the Devils do what they do – whatever the hell it is – very, very, very well. But I couldn’t quite articulate it until the announcer of the show used one very apt, relatively simple word.

Confidence.

The Devils take the field, and perform their show, with an air of confidence. Not that other corps don’t go out there and do their thing with authority … but the Devils silently say “we are going to play, and dance, and throw, and maneuver, some challenging stuff, and you may not grasp all of it, and you may well be entertained by some of it, but no matter what, we got this.” I bet they do that at their very first performance of the season, when the show is new and the bugs are still being worked out. It’s swagger. And I guess if you’ve won 14 times out of 39, that winning percentage earns you a bit of swagger.

As I left the theater, I thought, “whether I like their show or not, it’s going to take more than a mere mortal drum corps to beat them this year.” And then it hit me. With all respect to many of the excellent corps out there (and the friends and colleagues of mine who labor on their behalf), of course …

The Devils may well be the X-Men of drum corps.

They look like the rest of us. They have instruments like the rest of ours. They perform on the same football field as the rest of us. They … well, they used to wear uniforms that looked like the rest of ours. (This year they started out wearing some very, well, Dada outfits, let’s just say that.) But for whatever reason, they perform at an almost supernaturally high level.

Maybe it’s their organization’s philosophy, or design strategies, or rehearsal tactics, or recruiting standards, or the way they simultaneously push (hard) and value (greatly) their members; maybe their long and storied and successful history plays into all this. (And I know nothing of the specifics of any of these, nor do I say this to downplay the operating principles of any other successful corps.)

Last night, a technical problem with the satellite feed caused theater audiences to miss two of the earlier performing corps, so their shows were replayed after the Devils performed. It was a make-good for the paying customers, but it turned out to reveal a stark contrast. The two “make-up” performances were terrific, well executed and well planned, enjoyable to watch, with many entertaining moments. Even seven or eight years ago, they would have been title-winners. In the game of drum corps, they were performing at a high level.

It’s just that the Devils may be playing a slightly different game nowadays.

There’s an air of quiet confidence that the X-Men series’ character “Magneto” exudes when he walks into a room and knows, knows, that no one in the room can stop him from succeeding. This analogy falters a bit because the Blue Devils aren’t an evil supervillain here, but perhaps you see where I’m going …

The Devils move with confidence. With earned swagger. We got this.

August 10, 2012 Posted by | arts, drum corps, entertainment, marching band, music, science fiction, sports | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments