Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Heads Up

Last Sunday, I parked myself happily in front of a good-sized TV and prepared to watch the AFC championship game. My hometown New England Patriots were sure to meet a valiant challenge from the Baltimore Ravens, but I was fairly sure they would prevail in the end.

Oh well.

I have a number of friends, Facebook- and otherwise, who live in parts of the world that cause them to root rather harder for the Ravens than the Pats; and in the last few years, I have discovered what it’s like to root for a professional sports team that a great majority of the American electorate despises. Yankees fans, Cowboys fans, Canadiens fans … Soviet hockey fans! … I hear ya. So, this essay has nothing whatever to do with what I think of the team that sent my beloved Patriots to the golf course for the rest of the winter.

Needless to say, I turned away from the game after the final whistle and was a touch dispirited.

I think it’s absurd to say that one team “wanted it more”. The Ravens just played better. They may not have played harder; I’m not enough of a football analyst to be able to tell that. Everyone on that field was moving at full speed, or at least as full-tilt as their bodies would allow, following a full regular season of professional football. Which implies a lot of crunch, bang, smack and other comic-strip syllables.

As it turns out, though, my dispirited mood after the game was not totally inspired by the Patriot offense’s inability to move the ball when they wanted to. All that institutionalized banging and smashing, those comic-book syllables, the ferocious nature of the game … that was part of it, too.

 

When it comes to watching college or pro football, I have not historically been a shrinking violet. Big plays get big reactions from me. “Watch it watch it watch it watch it behind you man watch it uh oh watch it oh crap!!” Sack. “Over the middle, complete to Welker –OH!!! That had to hurt.” First down, but at what cost!

When you march in a college band, you get to see up to four seasons’ worth of live football, which always contains controlled violence. The point, for the defense, is to stop the man with the ball, as quickly as possible. The ball-carrier is running. The defender must run toward him. The collision will be firm. You are constantly reminded of why you joined band. If collisions happen in band, something is seriously wrong, and it gets fixed before we get in front of people. Hopefully.

This week, the family of former San Diego Chargers (and New England Patriots) linebacker Junior Seau sued the National Football League, saying that brain damage he suffered during his 20-year pro career was the cause of his decision to commit suicide, and that the NFL had ignored the dangers to its employees – or covered them up.

The Daily Telegraph reported, “Seau’s children and ex-wife, along with the trustee of his estate, also claim in the San Diego Superior Court lawsuit that the NFL has long concealed from its players and the public the risks of neurological injury in the sport.” The Seau family says that the suit is intended to “send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations.”

Independent researchers discovered that Seau was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – a debilitating brain disease that has been spotted in at least two other former NFL players who also committed suicide. CTE used to be known as “boxer’s dementia”. It also has been found in members of the armed forces who suffered concussive injuries from blast waves.

Recently, there has been an increasing amount of concern expressed about the risk of brain injury from repeated concussions suffered by NFL players. Referees now routinely throw personal-foul penalty flags in response to helmet-to-helmet hits. Traditionally, players have been coached to lead with their shoulders when tackling. But as the size and skill requirements of pro (and college) football players have grown larger and faster, respectively, over the last couple of decades, the game has grown faster and fiercer, with expanding opportunities for more serious injuries, such that classic, “safer” tackling techniques may not be as easy to execute or control. When the defense’s lion is tracking down the offense’s gazelle, the velocity involved tends to limit the ability to consciously consider issues of safety.

Certain positions in the game of football by their very nature involve less handling of the actual ball, and more repeated slamming into other people. If an offensive lineman ever gets his hands on the football, it’s probably because one of his teammates fumbled it. It’s never a designed play.

And certain other positions invite sharp, violent collisions. Very romantic to be a wide receiver, floating across the middle of the field, leaping into the air and retrieving a perfect spiral of a forward pass lofted by the quarterback. At least, until the strong safety comes from the other direction at the same speed and reminds the receiver about the laws of physics. Science tells us that the brain is nominally protected by the skull, but there’s just a little bit of wiggle room between the brain and the skull, and although the hit to the head is the “ka-”, the brain knocking against the skull is in fact the “-boom.”

Adding to the problem is: money.

Players are constantly auditioning to keep their (high-paying) jobs; therefore faster, stronger and harder-hitting are the adjectives that are key to impressing coaches and owners. They have been encouraged to play through pain, in part because otherwise their job may not be waiting for them when they return to health (hello, Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, who will not be the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl next weekend) (come to think of it, Patriots fans, hello to Drew Bledsoe, whose injury opened up a spot in the lineup for some late-round draft pick, number 199 as I recall, name of … oh heck, I’ll think of it … oh yes … Tom Brady). They also play through the pain because to admit weakness has not traditionally been machismo-laden males’ “top thing” in our society.

As a corporate entity, the NFL makes a ridiculous amount of money on advertising, merchandising, television contracts and (oh by the way) ticket sales. It needs to put an exciting product onto the field in order to maintain this level of revenue. Big plays and hard hits sell – and in a reality-show-oriented entertainment environment such as These United States, impact beats out finesse every time.

But the recent medical research that points to some level of brain injury being a near-certainty following a career of playing professional football – or college football or high school ball, for that matter, since controlled violence is an integral part of the game, without which the sport ceases to be itself – is enough to cause one to watch the games with a very different level of enjoyment.

At least it did me, Sunday night.

Every hit in the first quarter brought forth the usual reaction from me – oh, WOW was that a stop. But a split-second after those hits, I did think, and consciously so – “oh. That hurts now, and it’ll hurt later.” Junior Seau. Ray Easterling. Dave Duerson. Three big and loud examples of extreme bodily responses to repeated head trauma. But what will be the effects of repeated head impacts that don’t qualify as concussions, but which, over time, wear down the brain’s ability to heal properly? Does the brain ever heal properly? I’m not a brain researcher, so I’ll make no assertions that I can’t back up – but it can’t be good for ya. Even the kids who play in college, or high school, or Pop Warner games … are they going to reap this dubious reward, as well? And is this, down the road, going to impact the ability of long-term health-care systems to deal with it? There aren’t many pro football players in the world. There are lots and lots more school kids who play, though.

My response to every hit from about the second quarter on went directly to thinking about the cumulative effects. And it got less and less fun to watch.

[Aside: And don’t get me started about the helmet-to-helmet hit, late in the game, that literally knocked Patriot running back Stevan Ridley out, and out of the game – which was not reviewed or even penalty-flagged, and there have been no fines levied in response, because of some arcane interpretation of the NFL rulebook. I do not say this as a Patriot rooter. I say this as someone concerned about equal enforcement of what are purported to be the rules: if the NFL is cracking down (an unfortunate phrase) on helmet-to-helmet hits, why are they only limiting themselves to protecting quarterbacks and receivers? “The play was not reviewable” is making a play for “Hammerton’s Least Favorite Football Referee Phrase”.]

Admittedly, even if the NFL were willing to go all-out to address the neurological dangers of its sport, it would be caught between a rock and a hard place. To eliminate the institutionalized, controlled violence at the level at which it currently exists would be difficult to begin with, for reasons previously cited. “More injuries are caused by players playing over-cautiously,” goes the conventional wisdom, which may or may not be so … but mere rule-changing efforts by the league would at the very least slow the games down (more referees needed, to throw more flags, about penalties which take time to sort out). At current player salary levels, fines that would need to make an impact would have to be in the high five-figures or possibly six-figures (to a player making a million dollars a year, a fine of $5,000 is a pittance). And by its nature, the sport of football is predicated on contact – otherwise we’re playing flag football and all the offensive linemen are looking for work.

And, the television networks will argue – possibly correctly – how many people are going to plan their Sunday afternoons around flag football?

 

So, I watch football still. I’m not one of the folks who has sworn off the stuff cold-turkey, although there are those out there who have (read this intriguing snippet by writer Ta-nehisi Coates and catch your breath). But I watch it differently now, and not entirely comfortably. The NFL stands at an interesting and crucial crossroads here.

And I have the feeling that I’m not at the end of whatever road I’m on, either.

January 26, 2013 Posted by | entertainment, football, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Do It Live! We’ll Do It Live!

Being as I’m such a choir director and all, this post may not go in quite the direction you’d expect.

But I could not ignore the confluence of online events … namely, two separate people posted to my Facebook wall this graphic, and on my news feed (all full of band musicians and such) the item has gone seriously viral:

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Another Presidential Inauguration has come and gone. People have found lots in it to get themselves knotted up about, and lots in it to praise to the high heavens. Sometimes these “lots” are in fact the same event! Amazing! We Americans are such a versatile bunch.

As you will have guessed, one event that will generates opinion is the performance of the National Anthem, difficult musical item that it is. I always await the Banner with trepidation, except in the cases where I’m standing in front of a group that I know will perform it in such a way that it doesn’t make anyone’s “top ten worst” list. When I attend public events that require the Anthem to be played – sports contests, graduations, town meetings, whatever – that sound you hear is usually my teeth gently grinding.

Could be a lyric foulup (once I heard “through the perilous night” and I couldn’t stop myself from whispering, “…close”). Could be a poor choice of starting pitch: if you start too high, your airplane will end up in close Earth orbit and airplanes don’t do that very well. Could be “o’er the land of the freeeeeeeeee”, which is plenty high on a good day, thank you (and how many singers then take it up a perfect fourth for show? More than ought to. And usually the ones who are least qualified to do so … are the most likely to try anyway). I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only musician in the assembled throng who wishes they could get out there and help somehow.

I’ve also previously suggested in this space that I wish it could be returned to sing-along status. In spite of how hard it is to sing. That seems unlikely (although the fans of the MLS Portland Timbers soccer team doggedly try to buck this trend).

So, at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, Beyonce Knowles approached the microphone; and I wished her well.

The Marine Band struck up; the wind kicked up; and Beyonce held forth.

I like Beyonce Knowles. (Carter? Knowles-Carter? I’m so behind.) I don’t know whether I’m the first person people would think of when constructing their list of “People Who Like Beyonce, Because Well Obviously”, at least maybe not to look at my music collection, or in fact to look at me at all.

I’ve heard her sing, and I’ve liked it. She does well. Seems like lately, well, forgive me, but … one pop songstress can sound like ten others. If you blindfold me and play a bunch of recent “pop diva hits” at me, I will probably not be able to identify many individuals, let alone answer correctly the question “okay, which one was Alicia Whatsername?” The pop music industry seems to churn them out at a pretty high rate of equivalence than it used to. I can tell the difference between Aretha and Diana; starting with the early ’90s, I begin to have more difficulty. (On the other hand, plenty of people wonder how I can tell the difference between the Blue Devils, the Blue Knights and the Bluecoats. So I listen a little more closely to that world. So sue me.) But I do like the Beyonce voice a lot.

The first time I really paid attention to Beyonce was when she played secret agent Foxy Cleopatra in the third Austin Powers movie. (Had to do a little Destiny’s Child homework, thereafter.) She seemed to be having such a blast playing the role – and she had actual comic timing! (Next time “Goldmember” is on TV again, don’t watch Mike Myers – watch Beyonce playing off Mike Myers. Trust me.) Ever watch an actor or actress in a movie and think, even though s/he was just playing a role, “I bet s/he – not the character, but that actual human who was paid to be in that movie – would be a kick to hang out with”…? That was me, thinking about Ms. Knowles. She just looked like fun. I hoped it was really true. I’ve been fooled before.

So, I carried this into yesterday’s observance of her Anthem performance. I wanted her to do well, and perhaps it colored my thinking a bit. But after the thing was over, I raced to the social media world and posted!…

I like Beyonce Knowles. I’ve liked her ever since she appeared to be having such a good time beimg Foxy Cleopatra. And now I have a new favorite National Anthem singer from Famous Pop Star Land. She hit that thing out of the park.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. (Um, yeah.) Maybe just relief that it was, basically, good. Online commenters have wondered if she was ripping off the Whitney Houston rendition, from the 1991 Super Bowl pregame (just after the first Gulf War began – so in that moment, patriotism seemed inextricably linked with volume).

I can see the family resemblance; but I would submit that the Whitney Houston version, for all its bravura turns, did more to amplify Ms. Houston than it did the national song. One can make a case for that arrangement being wildly overblown – right from the get-go, anything less than forte singing would have been overwhelmed by the accompaniment.

Heresy!! I know. Speak no ill of the fallen, and all that. But it’s the way I’ve always felt about that 1991 version – singing like a howitzer has its place, but I don’t know that the National Anthem is it. Even if we are singing about rockets’ red glare.

Beyonce’s rendition yesterday included some vocal ornamenting, which I’ve railed against; but a limited amount. Her singing, in many places, was actually on the healthy side. When she went for the aforementioned (and lamented) extra perfect fourth up, she got it, with an effortless sound as opposed to the Vocal Apocalypse. And for the very very most part, her musical presentation, her choice of stylistic turns, and even her body language as she arrived at the microphone, all hinted that the performance might not be just For The Greater Glory Of Beyonce.

Perhaps we’re using that late-twentieth-century / early-twenty-first-century sliding scale here, but all things considered: nicely done. Ya done good.

And that, up till early this afternoon, would have been where this finished up.

 

More and more, I get my news from social media. Someone posts a reaction to something, and I gotta go dig around and see what that something is, because 140 characters is not enough to include all the journalistic Who, What, Where, When, How, and most importantly Why.

Rumors began to circulate that … uh-oh … Beyonce may have lip-synched the Anthem.

At first, my heart sank. (Gawker.com posted a fluffy but humorous piece today about the Seven Stages of Beyonce Grief.) As a music professional, I’d like to think that I can spot that sort of electronic jiggery-pokery a mile off. Maybe Beyonce is that good of a performer that she can lip-synch to the point that you don’t know … and make you maybe not care, even if you did suspect. Maybe. Was I taken in? Did Foxy Cleopatra cloud my professional judgment?

Drama sting.

Perhaps more conclusively: a spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Corps band said that Beyonce “did in fact lip synch. ‘We all know Beyonce can sing,’ Master Sgt. of the U.S. Marine Band Kristin duBois told ABC News today. ‘We all know the Marine Corps Band can play. We do not know why she decided to go with the pre-recorded music at the last minute.’”

(A statement from a different spokesperson, Captain Kendra Motz, Media Officer of the U.S. Marine Band, said that the Presidential Inaugural Committee requested they accompany Beyonce in her performance, but “there was no opportunity for Ms. Knowles-Carter to rehearse with the Marine Band before the Inauguration so it was determined that a live performance by the band was ill-advised for such a high-profile event.” And, in what seemed to be a rebuke of Master Sgt. DuBois, Capt. Motz continued, “Each piece of music scheduled for performance in the Inauguration is pre-recorded for use in case of freezing temperatures, equipment failure, or extenuating circumstances. Regarding Ms. Knowles-Carter’s vocal performance, no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded.” Hmmmm. The plot thickens, if anyone cares to be interested. There was no opportunity for a rehearsal? Before the Presidential Inauguration? – an event that is rehearsed more thoroughly than any other event on planet Earth for security reasons alone? I’m suspicious, and I don’t even know what exactly about. At the very least, am I to understand that there are two Marine Corps Band spokespeople having an argument in the press tent?!)

Shortly thereafter, I regained my equilibrium and began to consider all those lists of top ten worst Banner renditions ever. Or top thirteen, or top twenty – which might cause one to think, “good Lord, there are that many memorably awful performances from events that would invite an official video record.”

Most of the really bad ones? Done live.

Without linking to any of them, because this blog wants to leave you with a positive experience … right away, the names Roseanne Barr, Carl Lewis and Steven Tyler come to mind (and that’s before this past weekend’s AFC Championship game). Whether the culprit was bad performance choices, forgotten or mangled lyrics, or “personal touches” (as has been mentioned in this space, this song is not for you to “make your own”, please), you can bet it’s the live performance that is the most fraught with danger, especially when some performers don’t even know what they’re going to do until the moment hits.

A couple of years ago, here, I addressed Christina Aguilera’s Super Bowl Banner-singing issues, which included all of the above issues. In a big event such as that, witnessed by billions of people worldwide, it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to screw up. You’d certainly think so, anyway.

In a big event like a Presidential Inauguration, any performer – musician or speaker – is similarly being observed by a great many people all over the world. But an Inauguration is vastly different. A Super Bowl might be historic, if the game behaves. An Inauguration will be, no matter what. An Inaugural performer’s surroundings are draped in dignity, and a sort of pomp and circumstance that is in its own way more intense and assuredly more intimidating. (You’re being watched by all three branches of government simultaneously, live and in person.) There is no confetti or fireworks. There is no booming announcer (there is only Chuck Schumer, and his voice don’t boom).

Given this, I think one can be forgiven for accepting the opportunity to have an ace in the hole – an insurance policy. (No doubt Beyonce Knowles, as a singer, was vetted right down to the soles of her shoes. Even live, there will be no surprises, please and thank you, says the gentle request from the Office of the President of the United States.)

Music projected into vast open outdoor spaces (Super Bowls are routinely indoor events now) is problematic sometimes. And don’t discount the cold. Brass valves freeze; bass strings break (I have personal experience with this). No less an authority on live performance than James Taylor – who did sing live rather than lip-synching (because let’s face it, even JT would have a hard time lip-synching JT and his guitar) – told ABC’s Good Morning America program, “It’s always hard for a guitar player to play when it’s cold because your hands sort of stiffen up and you know nerves tend to do that to you anyway. So I was, you know, very relieved to have gotten through it without any major train wrecks.”

Still, there was one moment which might yet call the whole lip-synching question … into question. Beyonce reached up and pulled an earpiece out of her left ear. Now … if that were to be revealed as an act of theater, I admit I will be disappointed – was it necessary? If not, it distracted from the performance, and that’s surely not the point.) On the other hand, if it were revealed to be a mid-course correction in the service of maybe not wishing to hear two conflicting accompaniment tracks and wishing to go with the one that was being heard by the entire National Mall, I could concede the reasoning. Perhaps, because she is a professional, she knew what would serve her performance best. If she was actually singing … or if she needed to make sure her lip-synching matched what people were seeing. What’s worse than lip-synching? Bad lip-synching.

In the end, was it a together performance? Yes. Were there mistakes? Not noticeably, except perhaps her first note, which was not as solid as the rest of it (and don’t you think they’d go back and fix that in the recording session? Ah ha! Perhaps ’twas live!). Were there forgotten or forged lyrics? No indeed.

Was it Beyonce singing in the style she knows best? Yes (and no – there were a couple of moments in which she could have gone all gospel/R&B ornamentational but didn’t). Was it also a respectful presentation of the National Anthem, in both musical and physical presentation? Yes. Did Beyonce take ridiculous bows at the end? No. It was not all For the Greater Glory of herself.

By the way, this just in: Whitney Houston in 1991?

Lip-synched. And the world didn’t seem to care, then.

Beyonce in 2013? One way or the other, live or Memorex – hardly a national embarrassment.

Yeah. Ya done fine.

January 22, 2013 Posted by | blogging, celebrity, entertainment, Facebook, Famous Persons, government, Internet, media, movies, music, social media, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lesson Learned

Early this morning, the snow began to fall. Gently at first, then with increasing insistence, the sky dispatched snowflakes, the better to cover our New England landscape with a picturesque coating of wintry confection that seemed almost …

Ah, heck, never mind. The weather forecast was for snow; it snowed.

The school district in which I teach called off school for the day – wisely. The roads upon which I travel to school utilize the concept of up, down and curvy in such a way that, well, roads plus an inch and a half of “packed powder” equals BOBSLED RUN!! And, while my relatively new car seems to do relatively well in snow, the wisdom of the decision seemed clear. I’m sure that I will enjoy the extra day of school tacked onto the schedule in June, too.

Okay, maybe.

Anyway, I dutifully leapt outside and shoveled away at the driveway around lunchtime, after the snow had largely quit falling. I did this with a sense of purpose. Adrenaline flowed. Not merely because I wanted to get back inside and resume my pose upon the couch … but because of what I managed to do during one of the last large snowfalls to hit central Massachusetts.

That one occurred on the Thursday after Christmas. The snow fell; I was off for the week; therefore I lacked any snow removal urge. “I’ll get it tomorrow … I prefer to park it inside and study the insides of my eyelids, or the computer screen, or whatever else strikes me.”

Problem with that was, the snow was heavy and wet, and while only three inches fell on the ground in general, another few inches were plowed onto the end of my driveway … and the next day, the temperature dropped like a stone and turned the heavy/wet snow into meteorological concrete. Neither of my trusty shovels were getting any upper hand at all on the stuff. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t force my car through or over any of it. For the next two weeks – up until a couple of days ago, in fact – I rejoined the ranks of on-street car parkers.

By itself, it would be a mild pill to swallow. As I discovered when I lived in Boston a few years ago, driveways ought to be recognized for the luxury items they are. More than once, I had to dig my car out from under snow that had basically buried it as a result of plows doing their jobs in the big city. So, okay, we suck it up.

But yesterday, I arrived home from school to find a rather large pile of mail – which explained why I hadn’t gotten any mail for the previous few days. And on every one of those pieces of mail was hand-written some variation of “ice and snow on walk”.

Part of that is because my front gutter seems insistent upon releasing water not at the corner of my house, where the downspout lives, but directly onto the center of my front step. I routinely figure out clever paths to use in order to reach my driveway without falling and cracking my head and tend to think nothing of it.

Part of that, though, is because on that Thursday after Christmas, I hadn’t cleared the walk, and therefore, it was not cleared. (Do pause to admire that last sentence.) And, wisely, my faithful mailman had probably attempted to walk that gauntlet a couple of times and then threw up his hands (hopefully not full of mail) and said, “heck with that.”

Which would be quite right.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to learn this lesson by receiving “time-sensitive” mail too late. My check for a million was not one of those letters. A kind letter from a former employer was … and so was a tiny care package from my mother, although luckily it didn’t include cookies that could have spoiled, so humanity dodged a bullet there.

But nonetheless, what if it was an important summons? What if I’d missed mail that I needed to reply to immediately, like, right this very moment, and because of a selfish shoveling decision, I’d missed a deadline or otherwise screwed something up?

So, in this semi-public space – which my mailman probably has no time to try and find – I would like to humbly apologize to said mailman. Or mail person, although I’ve been home occasionally when he’s delivered items to me and he is in fact him. (Don’t pause to admire that sentence, though.)

In this era of threatening to close post offices for the alleged cost savings … and in this era of unionized workers being, shall we say, put upon … and in this era of increasingly stupid weather thanks (at least in part) to increasingly stupid energy policy decisions … this is no time to be putting post office workers through any more stupidity than they already deal with. No jokes about going postal, either. If my mailman slips on my front walk and hurts himself, he’ll be able to draw workers’ compensation … or will he? Is his job going to be more and more like pro athletes’, in this way: if he goes down with an injury, is there a chance he won’t get his job back when he’s healed again?

So, from one human being to another: sorry. My laziness and thoughtlessness caused you to make a safety-related decision that was just as wise as my school district’s decision to close school today. I hope you do try to deliver the mail today, even through the awful conditions… because that driveway and front walk is bone dry.

I mean, I know: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But no need to make it worse.

January 16, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment