Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


It would be pointless, I suppose, for me to waste any time at all on the news story to which I was alerted earlier today.

Actually it might be pointless to call the thing a news story. But you can be the judge.


Alerted by what he termed “an irate parent”, an online columnist named Todd Starnes held forth today about the latest Very Grave Threat to American Values:

A high school marching band field show.

But not just any high school marching band field show. No indeed. This one, “complete with red flags, olive military-style uniforms, and giant hammers and sickles”, commemorates the Russian revolution. Or at least that’s what Mr. Starnes got out of it.

And, since Mr. Starnes works for the organization for which he works (whose webpage I will not award any easy hits; if you Google “Todd Starnes marching band”, trust me, you’ll find the article) … he accepted that football, looked for his blocker, and ran that sucker toward the end zone for all he was worth – however much that really is. The headline on his article: “American High School Band Marches with Hammer & Sickle”. Un-American, more like!


Mr. Starnes, who has more than a passing acquaintance with Missing The Point, listed the “theme” of the New Oxford (PA) High School Colonial Marching Band‘s field show as “St. Petersburg: 1917”. It would be pointless, I suppose, to mention that this high school band’s field show (according to the band’s website) was actually entitled “The Music of Shostakovich.” Pointless, perhaps, to point out that although Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote music which met the surface criteria of acceptability by the Soviet government, scholars concur that at deeper levels, his compositions reveal an artist who was quietly pushing back against repressive rulers and maintaining his artistic integrity.

Pointless to hope that people might understand that the design of such a performance, featuring music of such a composer, would call for some historically accurate and evocative visual representation of the government against which the composer secretly railed.

Pointless to suggest that perhaps this band’s performance might have encouraged students (both in the band and not) to investigate the work of a composer, whose music they might otherwise have passed over as being not rock ‘n’ roll enough, too orchestral and therefore too staid, too square, too boring.

Pointless to propose that it’s the height of jingoistic, knee-jerk, unthinking non-logic to deduce that a pack of American high school students who are performing Russian music must obviously be committing an un-American act.

(From Mr. Starnes’ article: “’It was Glee meets the Russian Revolution,” [the irate parent said]. ‘I’m not kidding you. They had giant hammers and sickles and they were waving them around.’” Pointless to ask if this parent has seen any drum corps shows lately. Heck, it’s only a couple hours’ drive from New Oxford to Allentown. Santa Clara Vanguard 2005, hello? … Oh hell, never mind.)

Pointless to be disappointed that many people (not least those brave anonymous online commenters) should have so swiftly descended upon this field show and these students, hurled invective and veiled (and not-veiled) intimations of political agendas and conspiracies, and – dear Lord! – made connections between this Communism-loving performance and those horrible public schools with their socialist Marxist Communist (what-EVER) America-hating educational aims, which of course are being pushed relentlessly by that fellow in the White House who is himself socialist Marxist Communist and secretly bent on bringing down our great nation from within …


People! … … Get. A. Grip!

It’s a school band show!

Perpetrated by (horrors) a group of students who just want to do their thing on the field, and get a little applause from an audience that mostly came to see large boys in shoulder pads hit each other.

Woe, I suppose, to the band’s instructors, who tried to design a show that would feature challenging music, that might entertain a football audience, and that could slip in some historical context and education under the radar, to boot. We should all just play frickin’ “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at every halftime and aspire to nothing more thoughtful.

Shostakovich could have taught all those people a little somethin’ about integrity.

By now, of course … it would be pointless to even need to note that Mr. Starnes writes for Fox News. Pointless to try and note that there is precedent within that organization for taking footballs in the form of stories like this and running with them. Pointless to note that somewhere, someone will read this piece and conclude that I have a liberal bias for even mentioning that. Pointless to point out that we live in an online Internet world of basically wide-open, publish-anything-no-matter-how-fact-free, jump-to-absurd-conclusions non-journalism … so any yahoo with a computer and a pair of opposable thumbs can take a perfectly innocent school band show and blow it up into a national crisis. Or try awful hard. Just because they can.

Pointless … but I’m going to say all that stuff anyway. Because I can.

September 24, 2012 Posted by | band, blogging, drum corps, education, entertainment, Internet, journalism, marching band, media, music, news, politics, social media, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comfort, If Not Joy

This is really not a political commentary.


At least, I don’t think it is.


A couple of days ago, some SECRET VIDEO!!! was released to the Internet world. You can watch it here, but the upshot of it is, “Mitt Romney speaks to an audience of high-dollar campaign donors at a private fundraising event, has some (at first blush) rather contemptuous things to say about nearly half the American population – and it’s all recorded by a hidden video camera.”

After I got through watching the video for the first time, I sat, slightly stunned, musing that the result of this released video might be anywhere from “a minor media stir that will shortly die down” to “the crashing end of a Presidential candidate’s candidate.” Given the media culture of the early 21st century, I honestly don’t know which is more likely.

The content of his talk, I suspect, is enough to drive (for example) the Occupy movement faithful into flailing, foaming fits of indignant “–see? See?! Detestable! Wealth has blinded him! Awful person! Contempt for his fellow Americans! Vote progressive! Hope and Change!”, and etc.

Although I do see that my offensive linemen have opened up a hole as big as a 747 for me to run through and spike my editorial football in the end zone of Political Commentary … please, I invite you, feel free to pause a moment, stand back and admire that metaphor … nonetheless, the video made me focus, as I watched it a second time, not so much on what Mr. Romney was saying, but how. And it made me think of how we all, all of us, speak to different audiences in different ways.

When I stand in front of middle-school general music students, I speak in a certain way.

When I stand in front of middle-school general music students who are members of the school band, I speak in a certain slightly different way. (I can use different terminology, or at least I don’t have to explain things like “what’s a crescendo?”)

When I talk to my mother on the phone, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to a telemarketer on the phone, I speak in a certain other way.

When I talk to someone I’m just meeting for the first time, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to someone I’ve known since I was in junior high, I speak in a certain other way.

When I talk to the TV, after having heard or seen something ridiculous upon it, I speak in a certain way.

When I talk to the police officer who’s just pulled me over (which, for the record, hasn’t happened in years), I speak in a certain other way.

When we’re in our comfort zone – wherever that is, and whoever else is in it with us – we naturally say certain things in certain ways (and with certain body language). We almost can’t help it – or if we can, it takes work.


As the Presidential campaign has gone on, through primary season and into this last push before the general election, plenty of people have hurled invective at Mitt Romney. When one runs for President, one gets this treatment. Hopefully the invective has much more to do with one’s policies than with one’s person, but invective does get hurled. Gov. Romney has heard a lot from his critics about both his policies and his person. When his person is the target, the critique tends to be about his stiff demeanor, his seeming inability to “connect” with an audience. One of my favorite political radio commentators has nicknamed him “the RomneyBot 2000”.

During 2011, the New York Times described Gov. Romney’s persona as facts-driven, cautious, formal, socially stiff, and “spare with his emotions.” Whether he’s making stump speeches or meeting individual people on the campaign trail, the media have commented on his body language and speech patterns – he’s sometimes halting, sometimes awkward, sometimes slightly detached; sometimes his chuckle seems more the product of nervousness or uncertainty than the product of being amused; and sometimes his off-script remarks seem borne of a genuine lack of experience with anything but the environment created and fostered by his rather formidable wealth. This leads to the predictable but understandable accusations: he’s out of touch with the middle class … he’s insulated from everyone except rich people … he’s in the “one percent” of the American population who get to play by one set of financial and societal rules, while the rest of the population has to play by a different, less advantageous set of rules.

But, if we can agree that Mitt Romney is in fact a human being, then we can agree that he must be subject to at least one characteristic, the same as any other human: again, we all speak to different audiences in different ways. Up to this point, we perhaps had not seen incontrovertible proof of this, although I remember thinking once, “you don’t get to be a multi-gazillionaire corporate CEO type if your persona is that of a seventh-grader presenting an oral report in front of his Social Studies class.” He must be able to talk in a relaxed, comfortable manner to someone outside his own family… mustn’t he?

Apparently he is. This SECRET VIDEO!!! certainly seems to offer the impression that there are indeed people outside the Romney family that the Governor is entirely comfortable speaking with.

Successful politicians usually either are naturally able to speak, or are trained and practiced in the art of speaking, to just about any audience – s/he needs to convince that audience that s/he understands them and their concerns. (Whether or not that’s true. As Billy Crystal’s “Fernando” character used to say, “It’s not how you feel; it’s how you look!”)

Businessmen and -women need to be just as good at that as politicians do – they have to convince people to come around to their views or buy their products or agree to deals with them, and they have to do it (hopefully) in a way that makes their audiences think, “s/he’s one of us, or understands where we are, and it almost feels like it makes sense to agree with them because we now feel like we understand them and where they are.” Remarkably often, in political speech situations, Gov. Romney hardly looks like a seasoned politician.

In the recently-released video, Gov. Romney is relaxed. Confident. There’s the sound of a smile in his voice, and it’s not a feigned one. He very rarely stumbles over a single word, even though he’s not reading from any script. There are no nervous chuckles, no verbal “gaffes”. Every word is targeted and clear, and in fact Romney is practically speaking in complete paragraphs. And who is his audience? With whom is he entirely comfortable?


Up to now, it’s been practically cliché – a meme! – to characterize Gov. Romney as a member of the upper class who doesn’t experience, understand or relate to people of lesser means, or their way of life. And commentators have done this, very often, without really offering concrete evidence to support this assertion.

But this video is a lengthy one, not a quick-hit sound bite that can be thought to have been taken out of context. It’s conceivable that now, with the release of this video, there is at least a little of that concrete evidence to hold up.

And all because in fact, Mitt Romney really IS a human being; and he has to play by that human-being rule, just like everyone else:

We human beings are comfortable (and express themselves most comfortably and honestly) around two groups of people: people we like … and people like us.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | Famous Persons, Internet, journalism, language, media, news, politics, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friends on Earth, and Friends Above

I’ve been thinking a lot about friends lately.

Twenty-five years and a few days and a few hours ago … as much as it pains me to consider this … I was taking my first steps onto the field as a senior and a drum major in my college marching band.

Twenty-five years. Zoiks.

A few times during that fall season of cowboy tunes and Latin jazz chopbusters (not that I used my actual chops that fall – but someone did use my sax, so maybe that counts?), I mused that I had friends that I could imagine still being friends with, a few years after I graduated. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen – they really were that much fun, that trustworthy, that good. Five years out? Yeah, I bet.

Because I was lucky enough to hang out with that band for a few more years in various capacities (not least of which was my role as “oh, you’re Kristin’s brother!”), I managed to make a few more friends, whom I also thought were pretty swell.

As tends to happen, a great many of these people stayed on my mind quite frequently, although we only saw each other infrequently (Homecoming or other alma mater football games, usually). And, as also tends to happen, although we only saw each other infrequently – or traded letters or occasionally picked up the phone and spoke – whenever we did see each other, the years fell away and we were just exactly as silly as we had been in, or near, band.

And now, twenty-five years have passed, and I’m struck by just how many of those friends from the late ’80s and early ’90s are still “with me” … and to my eyes and ears, they haven’t changed a bit. The years fall away.


Funny … or actually not funny at all … how sad circumstances seem to do the best job of getting friends together, and reminding them – us – how much we mean to each other.

Bad news, says an online post. Didn’t get that job. Hang in there, says a comment, they didn’t deserve you anyway, and let’s go get lunch and commiserate. Or, as is going to become more and more common for me, parents of college friends pass away, and we offer sympathy and support. This weekend I drove across state lines to shake my friend’s hand and give him one of those manly hugs, the ones that have a little impact. Thanks for coming? That was so thoughtful? No, no assignment of super extra credit called for – this is what friends do.


My little corner of the online world is gently exploding again today. Today is the second anniversary of one particular sad circumstance, and friends are paying tribute … and re-connecting.

I imagine that there are those who are worried that with each passing year, the impact of the anniversary of George Parks’ passing will fade, and somehow there will be less and less recognition of just how much of an effect that gentleman had on so many people’s lives.

And I can also imagine that there are those who are worried that the impact won’t fade – and who worry about the people who may be caught in a spiral of mourning that will simply never let them look up and realize that in spite of events that can’t be controlled, they can honor that gentleman’s memory by living life the way he taught us to do.

I was in that second group today – except for the moment when a not-quite-random tune came up quite randomly on my computer, and I had to pause briefly. Deep breath, short walk, head-shake … and back to the task at hand with (mostly) fresh vigor. Otherwise, I was indeed one of those people.

A particularly wise friend of mine – of, yes, twenty-five years, and then some – made an online suggestion this week on this smaller facet of this larger topic. It was a suggestion that was characteristically up-front, and I imagined some readers misinterpreting it – or thinking it perhaps too blunt for this weekend, the anniversary of a very (and for certain people, a very very very) traumatic event. It’s worth taking a look for yourself, here, so you can make up your own mind. I took some time with it and tonight I see exactly where she is; and I think I’m there too.

To summarize, the thing that may have caused some heads to snap back was her assertion that “we have not moved on.”

Thereafter, she and her thought process concluded that “grief is a process – but when the year of mourning has has concluded Judaism teaches us that our primary obligation is not to the dead. It is to our self, to our community and to life. We are obligated to live.”

Some have moved on. Some surely haven’t. Some are on a tightrope somewhere in the middle and couldn’t tell you how far they actually are from one circus-tent ladder to the other. It may not be of any use to compare where I am to where you are. Every person deals with this in their own way, or doesn’t.

So here’s how I deal with it: I consider that most of my friends from college … and a good many of them from after college but connected with that college … and more friends since, from the ranks of the Drum Major Academy teaching staff … collectively form a community of friends that I treasure, and which has been assembled and nurtured by the presence, and the influence, and now the memory, of a remarkable college band director.

A month after that frightening weekend in 2010, of course, there was a rather loud and enthusiastic scene that illustrated the scope of that community: the Homecoming halftime featuring a performance by 925 band alumni. While the whole day (morning rehearsal, Mullins Center event, and every moment of the football game aside from halftime!) offered opportunities for friends to re-connect, the enormous scale of the day probably made conversations and reunions brief and basic.


For me, the day that began my journey from dumbfounded shock to that sense of being perhaps able to “move on” was during the weekend after The Weekend. Plans were developed, pretty swiftly, for Drum Major Academy staff past and present to gather in Amherst. Not everyone was able to get there, but I imagine we were pretty close to comprehensive – people came from all over the United States, and from a number of places outside the US, and oh, did we gather. That Saturday morning was spent communing, swapping stories, and laughing (a lot) at a diner near campus … and to this day I wonder what it was like to go to that diner, walk in, and unexpectedly find that herd of boisterous people there. At midday, we paid our collective respects to Mr. Parks at an informal graveside ceremony that was, by turns, solemn and humorous, wrenching and comforting. Late in the afternoon and well into the evening, we sat on the lawn next to Old Chapel, the longtime home of the Minuteman Marching Band – communing, swapping stories, and laughing. A lot.

Sitting near Chapel, I thought about how remarkable a collection of friends it was. When I saw all the photos from the day, posted on Facebook, I continued to think the same thing. When I chance to see any of the photos, even two years later, I still marvel at that assembly, that community of friends. As I briefly stood near Chapel this weekend, I looked down at the patch of lawn where we all had sat and shared precious time, and I could almost see all the people, on lawn chairs, on blankets, on the bare grass, all together. I expect that the way I feel about that day now … will be the way I feel about it until whenever I’m done here: “it was a wrenching and wonderful day that I would never ever want to go through again,” as I wrote to a great friend of mine, “–except oh yes I would.”  With those people, those friends?  Sign me up.


Mr. Parks himself is gone, and regrettably so. His impact is lasting, and impressively so. The people he brought together – UMass band, DMA staff, and all the “extended family” that are linked to those people – are a community, and a lasting one. Thankfully so.

Everyone deals with this in their own way. I consider what monumentally great friends I’ve made, all because Mr. Parks got us all together. And I consider what my alternate-universe life might have been like, had he not. And I think I’m comfortable with dealing with it this way. Not a bad way to move forward – by building upon the work of the past.

A lifetime’s not too long…

September 16, 2012 Posted by | band, DMA, Facebook, GNP, marching band, social media, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment