Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Welcome to Band

Several weeks ago, one of my teaching colleagues and I struck up a brief conversation. “Oh! Are you doing beginner band this year?” Yes. “How many kids do you think you’ll have?” Well, if the early figures hold up, probably around sixty.

She visibly blanched, and said, “God bless you,” with a look that was one hundred percent pure, genuine pity. She didn’t say that to be mean to the kids who would be starting instrument lessons that week, not at all. I think she was just imagining 60-plus fifth-grade students on a stage the size of our schools – with just one staff member present. Most student/teacher ratios aren’t quite that ridiculous. Perhaps she was also imagining the sheer volume.

Well, no, I wasn’t sure where exactly I was going to put them all … but what I didn’t get a chance to say was, hey, a bunch of people with instruments in their hands in a relatively enclosed space, and thirty-five minutes to get something accomplished? Thanks to my life’s experiences, and the people who taught me Band – when I was a beginner, when I was a college student, and since then – relatively speaking, (nearly) no sweat. This is one of the things I can do.

Back in June, as chronicled in this space, I participated in the instrument demonstration that eventually led to our fifth-grade students taking up band instruments. At the time, I felt this rather firm weight of responsibility settle upon my shoulders.

And I have been known to say things like, “there’s a special place in heaven for beginner-band directors.” Again, utterly without sarcasm. I will admit that a year ago, I wasn’t counting on using that occupation as a means of punching my ticket. But in the last few weeks, I’ve been recalling the gentleman who taught me music, and especially how to play my band instrument, with a certain extra fondness.

 

My first elementary-school band director – also my small-group-lesson trumpet teacher in the fourth and fifth grade, and my band director in the seventh grade – was the late, great George V. Doren. He was a portly trumpet-playing gentleman with a half-wreath of white hair circling around the back of his otherwise bald head. He was physically intimidating but possessed a gruff air of very thinly-veiled kindness. This air made it reasonable that even when he would positively bellow at the All-Town Elementary Band when we would play blindly through a rest, we still knew that he really thought the world of us. “Trumpets!!! Rest in peace!” his sentence would begin, in a shout to shake the rafters … and then his face would curl into a dangerous sneer with just the right tiny hint of a genuine smile as he purred, “or rest in pieces….!”

“WRRRRRRRRRONG NOTES!!” he’d holler (easily audible over said wrong notes), and that was all it took to convince us to practice said notes before next week’s rehearsal. And this was the first thing any teacher had ever said to me that I knew was a joke, and was funny, and made me snort right in front of the teacher, and it was okay: pointing to the ceiling, he raised an eyebrow and said, “Hammerton, if you play that note like that again, there’s gonna be a Rob Hammerton Memorial Window right … up … there.” I never played that note like that again; but I also knew Mr. Doren had exactly zero plans to ever create that Window.

He retired just before I turned into an eighth-grader, and sadly I only saw him again once. When he passed away in early 1999, I very belatedly saw the obituary in the newspaper. Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention,” but I can think of (at least!) one regret to mention – I never did get to thank him properly for his particular shade of encouragement – and his forgiveness when I put down the trumpet, mid-seventh-grade, and took up the saxophone instead.

Except: during a few beginner lessons this year, I’ve told that Memorial Window story. And my students have chuckled a bit. I hope it’s because they know I have exactly zero plans to use them to create a Window, either.

 

So this afternoon, I ran the first beginner band rehearsal of the year that involved kids carrying instruments. Last week, we pulled a non-instrument dry run – one thing at a time. First, where you all sit, and a few activities to get you used to “how to do band”, … THEN, a week later, we give you the opportunity to accidentally whack each other with your horns as you get to your seats.

The weight of responsibility didn’t settle on my shoulders this afternoon, though, because it had no chance, or at least I had no chance of noticing. I was too preoccupied with seventy-one grade-five students (yeah, we picked up a few more) playing somewhere in the neighborhood of a concert E flat, somewhere in the vicinity of together, to notice if it had. But I did get a strangely warm thought as the rehearsal approached its end: these kids are having their very first band rehearsal.

One of my trombonists raised her hand and asked me, “Mr. Hammerton? I know I’m playing, and I think I’m playing … but I’m not sure I can hear myself play all the time,” with a facial expression that said, is that wrong? Am I crazy? A couple of other kids gently agreed: “yeah. Can you even hear me?” (I hear everything.) And from the back row: “Yeah. Mr. H, I forgot my sax, but when the band plays together, I can still feel my body vibrating.”

“Audrey … Sam [not their real names, in this appropriately hyper-protective age] …” I chuckled just a bit, raised an eyebrow, and (happily) got the same kind of snicker from my gang that we used to give Mr. Doren … when I said:

 

“Welcome to band.”

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October 25, 2012 - Posted by | band, education, GNP, humor, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. You’re forgiven for your saxophone. My father was George V. Doren. Big Daddy Gonna Spank!! Was another example of how to non menace a group so large to get their seats. I enjoyed reading your short story and with your permission I will copy and paste it to my family’s facebook. I can be reached via the email above. Take care and enjoy the band.

    Comment by Keith David Doren | July 27, 2015 | Reply

    • Keith,
      What a genuine thrill to read your comment! I first read it while I was in the middle of my summer band clinic teaching job (just got home from, so therefore only now catching up on important communications) … coincidence? I think not.
      And by all means … copy/paste or link away! My greetings to the family of the gentleman who was the first one to prove to me that band was a great thing to do. Thanks again.

      Comment by rhammerton1 | August 6, 2015 | Reply

  2. Thank you so very much for sharing this story of my grandfather, George V. Doren. Though we were raised several hours away in Ohio, I always looked forward to our visits with Grandma & Grandpa in Mount Pleasant. My grandfather inspired us all to play & sing music & to live life in a silly but serious manner. I’m so glad he made this huge impact on you. Thank you again.

    Comment by Dani Doren | March 10, 2017 | Reply

  3. That was a great trip down memory lane I was not in band but I had the pleasure of meeting George he was definitely a force to be dealt with. Good luck with the following in those footsteps

    Comment by Joseph | March 10, 2017 | Reply


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