Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Speed Bump in the Road to Journalism

Crash helmets, please: the latest kerfuffle in Band Alumni World.

We former college band people are a passionate lot – we care about the activity, and the organization, to which we committed so much time and energy and, yes, love. If we didn’t love what we did, and love the organization that we hope other people will also have the opportunity to participate in, then we probably wouldn’t react to certain stimuli so strongly. Swearing is caring, sometimes, I guess.

So, when something happens that gets our attention, and not in a good way – when some decision is made that we think is maybe not the best one, or when something is broadcast or printed that casts what we may perceive as a cloud over the activity, or the organization – we are prone to be less Spock (objectively logical) and more Kirk (emotionally driven). With luck, extending that analogy, we quickly settle into being more McCoy than anyone (a measure of passion, grounded in country-doctor reasoning), but sometimes the warp core containment field goes critical and enough with the Trek references already!

(Speaking of people who can get a bit, um, worked up when you get somebody’s rank insignia wrong…)

This week, in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, a student journalist published a piece on the op-ed page having to do with Old Chapel. This UMass-Amherst building has been widely seen as a visual symbol of the University for many years – it’s one of the original campus structures, and has shown up prominently on many a greeting card, poster, Alumni Fund mailing, and video promotion. For those who know its significance, you almost don’t have to print or broadcast the word “UMass” near it. We get it.

It was also, as has been well-documented, the home of the Minuteman Marching Band for many years, until the University decided it was unfit for human habitation and closed it, in 1998. Other departments, notably the Continuing Education Division and the music department’s Chapel Jazz Ensemble, had also used some of its space; but on any weekday afternoon around 4 o’clock, or many fall Saturdays around 11:30 in the morning, an observer could not help noticing that Chapel was where the marching band worked, stored its stuff, played, … lived.

When any home is spoken of, its inhabitants take notice. If someone comments on my house (or appears to) in a way that I think is accurate, or positive, or constructive, I am probably glad to hear those comments. If someone comments (or appears to) in a way which is not those happy things, my ears do perk up. Hey – that’s MY house you’re talking about. You don’t like that porch? I do. Get your own house.

And oh, if someone suggests that I don’t take care of my house well enough … oh dear. Kirk here.

Anyway, back to the Collegian column. It was a rather long piece, and its author clearly wondered whether the Old Chapel, which hasn’t been renovated or even touched up beyond its bell-tower chimes since it closed 14 years ago, was “an empty symbol of a University that would rather demolish its past than save it, in its quest for a more prestigious future”.

This, to me, is a perfectly valid question – especially in light of the recent move of UMass’ football program into what used to be called Division I-A. That’s an issue for another time; but it, too, is symbolic of a philosophy which may be focused very much on future financial opportunities, to the possible detriment of other elements that make a state university campus more than just a cash cow, a PR device, or a Commonwealth revenue machine.

The piece was perhaps a shade long. It had the potential, as one commenter noted with snark, to seem like a high-school essay that wanted to use lots of long words in order to impress. [Come to think of it, this very blog post might strike you as just exactly that!] As with any piece, this one aspired to deep thoughts on weighty matters, and trust me, I perused far less enjoyable pieces in the Collegian while I was a UMass student.

Also, notably: it was written by a college student.

Before you go off all offended at THAT:

I have had the great pleasure, in various contexts, of working with some very fine people who happened to be ages 18 to 22. Many came from the UMass band, or other bands I’ve been able to work with. As is the case with all of us, no matter what age, they were very wise in some moments, and very silly in others. Every generation looks at the up-and-coming generation and thinks, “they don’t yet have all the perspective they need.” (If you look carefully, you’ll find a nicely pithy line in George Parks’ drum major textbook about high school drum majors with all of 17 years of life experience thinking they know more about what’s good for their band than their band directors do!) Frankly, when I think of what I didn’t know at age 23, I’m relieved that I got into teaching at age 33. And when I think of what I didn’t know then … sometimes I shudder. More in embarrassment than in remembrance of mortal peril, but still. How young was I?…

So by no means am I taking shots at this, or any, collegiate journalist. One of her functions on the staff of the Collegian is to help produce a newspaper that reports events, addresses issues, and expresses opinions – and her other function is to learn how to do it. At the same time.

College papers are full of relatively young adults who are amassing the experience they’ll need in order to do journalism for a living. As with any occupation, very few people are born knowing how to be writers, editors, and great journalists. There are ideas and skills and tactics and techniques to be learned, and no one starts out as a Great Purveyor of Words, or a Master News Analyst. Cronkite was a cub reporter once. And trust me, you don’t want to read most of the stuff that my 13-year-old self wrote for the Daily Double summer camp paper. You just don’t.

Again, back to this article. I only found out about it because it went somewhat viral amongst my Facebook community, many of whom are UMass band alumni. To read some (not all, but some) of their assessments, I wondered if perhaps this writer had suggested knocking Chapel clean over. So I gently clicked the link and began to read.

Halfway through, I spotted the single sentence (!) which had lit the fuse on this little powder keg. It was this:

Though the building had been loved by the band and used by many departments, I felt that somehow they didn’t truly appreciate what they had, nor do the students who pass by the Chapel’s stone facade every day.”

Ah.

I can’t speak for today’s students; but as a band alum, I could imagine a few possible reactions.

First, if you were a band alum from the 1960s, or ’70s, or ’80s, or ’90s, and you loved the place – maybe it wasn’t in great shape but it was where you and your band lived – then it’s conceivable that this phrase might seem like an uninformed slap at YOU and your friends. How do YOU know whether I didn’t appreciate it? You weren’t there then. (In this case, the writer hadn’t yet been born. Oh, ouch.)

Or, if you weren’t there then – if you were a band alum who marched with UMass but never knew Chapel as a “home”, only a symbol and a source of alumni tales and service organization trivia – then it’s conceivable that you might read this phrase with less affront but a moment of concern for those who did remember it very fondly and concretely.

Or perhaps, if you were a recent band alum or a current band member, this phrase might or might not have caught your eye at all.

Band alumni have utilized the comment section beneath the column’s online text, with varying degrees of passion and reason. They’re all human beings, so it was inevitable that all degrees of the passion spectrum might be represented there. And the Internet is the kind of technology that allows us, practically encourages us, to respond to something in the heat of the moment – often seeming to encourage us to do so without stopping, taking a deep breath, or observing a waiting period. (You think guns are the only dangerous weapons we have?) Our urge to Rise To The Defense – justified or not – has gotten less and less temperate as time has gone on. I sometimes read political blog comment sections … and always regret it.

And, of course, columns and comments that may not have been purposefully incendiary (the piece’s writer has since said as much, and I tend to believe her) … may be interpreted as entirely that, anyway.

So, the column got a little flame activity. “How dare you,” or words to that effect.

And then the commenters took a little flaming of their own. “Wasn’t our band’s nickname The Power and CLASS of New England?,” or words to that effect.

To the point that I don’t know how many people discerned that the writer was actually very admiring of, and concerned for, this building which – *gasp* – we band alums are very admiring of, and concerned for.

It’s possible that the writer didn’t do quite enough research, or didn’t truly grasp the significance of some of the years’ worth of chalkboard graffiti that she spotted inside Chapel, or that the offending line was a relatively toss-off remark. Chalk it up to a relatively nascent journalism career, one which will benefit from learning experiences like this.

It’s possible that the band alum commenters, in their perfectly understandable zeal to let the writer know that they indeed did care very much for the building, got a bit more verbally aggressive than was probably necessary. Chalk it up to afternoons spent sitting on the couch in the front locker room with people who would become lifelong friends.

It’s possible that the people who rather nastily told the band alum commenters to pipe down – because the memories of Old Chapel aren’t, the article about Chapel’s symbolism and deterioration wasn’t, the whole University atmosphere isn’t, all about you, all about the #$#@* band … also succumbed to the need to instantly put in its place a group of people that is very close-knit, clearly has strong connections to each other and their school, and whose activity was big and loud and colorful and did kinda rudely wake people up in Southwest on game days (hee, hee, hee). Chalk that up to some need they had to satisfy, some itch they had to scratch, that band alums can’t do anything about, certainly not now that we’re, y’know, graduated ‘n’ stuff.

In all of this, I haven’t gone the Starred Thought route. Our late, great director amassed a bunch of really wise sayings, and some of them could be flung at this situation. I avoid going there partly because someone else already has; and partly because … well … in spite of the fact that I just committed more than two thousand words to it, ultimately this is just not that big of a deal. Some may recall other less recent moments that have been bigger, more momentous, less “blurb-in-the-local-paper” and more “about-to-have-genuine-impact-on-many-people”.

[Side note about perspective: sadly, far more passionate online ink has been spilled while defending the honor of flippin’ Honey Boo Boo than in the defense of generations of UMass band alumni this week. Perhaps in a small way, we can stand on this slightly wobbly bit of principle: ain’t we got some sense of proportion?]

So okay: it may be seen as presumptuous for me to assume the role of omniscient overlord who Knows What Is Best For People … hey, I read that “didn’t truly appreciate” phrase and got at least a little twinge of “–excuse me!”, same as you. But in this case, I have the luxury of working from the point of view of both a UMass marching band alum and a former journalism major. It’s still always better to express ourselves in a way that’s classy “without a K” … and deep breaths are never, ever bad for you. And there are larger issues to deal with, and bigger offenses being conveyed upon people all over the world, that do tend to slap a little perspective on us.

As the ’80s beer commercial lizard said to his fellow lizard: “Let it go, Louie.”

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December 6, 2012 - Posted by | band, Facebook, Internet, journalism, marching band, news, social media, technology, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. This is awfully $#@%!^& reasonable, Rob. Well done, as usual.

    Comment by Steve Robinson | December 6, 2012 | Reply


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