Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Life Soundtrack, Part One

Q: What does a teacher do on the first day of summer vacation?

A: Anything he wants.

 

Last night, I decided that I needed to throw my bicycle in the back of my car in the morning, and go ride the Cape Cod Rail Trail. No sleeping in for me! (Clearly I still have not regained my senses, but at least the exercise part of my hoped-for summer routine is accounted for.) So I managed to get from home to the Trail, ride it, and get back again, all the while deftly avoiding morning and afternoon rush hour traffic. An achievement.

Happily, the parking lot at the Dennis, MA end of the CCRT was nowhere near full. I swung into a parking space, unpacked the bike, donned my helmet and a pair of earbuds, fired up the tunes, and set off. My plan: to ride about 13 miles’ worth of the Trail, from Dennis to Orleans, and then follow my trail of breadcrumbs back to my car.

I’ve ridden sections of the CCRT several times before; about the only quintessentially Cape Cod detail that you don’t pass, while traversing this beautiful route, is the wonderful amalgam of classy charm and blatant tourist-trappism that is downtown Chatham. Oh, and a lighthouse (the trail doesn’t get near the actual seashore, sadly). Other than that: beaches? Check. (The edge of a lake, but it counts.) Woods? Check. Cape style homes? Check. (Well obviously.) Vegetation that is neither particularly green nor particularly lush? Check, too. (I remember being on a family vacation on the Cape at about age seven, running barefoot out of the cottage we were renting, hitting the front lawn and thinking maybe Cape Cod grass was made out of cardboard strips. Mom!? It’s not soft!!)

And one of my usual reasons for liking the Trail so much is that I can spend three or four hours surrounded by nothing but the sounds of nature. And the occasional conversation between cheerful me and people coming the other way: “Morning!” “<*grunt*>”. So, like I say, nothing but the sounds of nature.

So, the firing-up of the tunes was the new wrinkle in all this. If I’m biking in the city, I leave my ears unstopped, so that I can notice details like cars about to bump into me, things like that. But this morning, I thought I’d try the “build-your-own soundtrack” exercise.

In the car, I do this all the time. I carry rather a lot of CDs in the car, and if I need to blast a certain kind of music to match the mood of the day, I can. And I freely admit that in response to the knowledge that I’m about to arrive at a particularly good-looking stretch of roadway, my nerd self has popped in a CD of some appropriately epic-sounding movie score, just to make sure the “nature appreciation moment” does not go unaccompanied.

This isn’t good, is it?

I mean, God’s mighty creation can probably speak for itself without having this, or this, or this blaring at it.

Ah well. With luck, many years from now, if this ends up being identified as my life’s greatest failing, … then it will have been an upright and virtuous life. (Multiple people have accused me of not having any other vices, anyway.)

 

So last night, I assembled a playlist of tunes for my little MP3 player, tunes which I thought would work well as I pedaled my way through Cape Cod loveliness … as I achieved athletic activity … as the beautiful scenery unfolded before me …

Intriguing. Some items that I thought would work, did. Some … didn’t. And at all times, I had to be careful not to hum along (or at least when other humans were within earshot). No need to disturb other people’s morning routine …

Aaron Copland’s “Letter From Home” was a good way to start.

A nine-minute suite of music from the movie “Forrest Gump” could’ve done with some pruning between minutes five and seven.

Several tunes by the “cutting-edge contra dance band” Assembly (who should be far better-known than they are) got me down the path really efficiently.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd playing “O Pato” was an experiment, and an unexpectedly successful one.

Hmm. Strangely enough, I didn’t include any of the tunes from the afore-chronicled official 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics album.

Because I am who I am, I had to throw some John Williams into this. His harmonica-melody theme from “The Sugarland Express” was exactly right … but strangely enough, the “Flying” theme from E.T. wasn’t. I think it was just that the brain said “inspiration!” and the knees said, “we’re givin’ her all she’s got, Captain”.

I thought maybe the Keb’ Mo’ tunes would be an interesting experiment. Turns out, I think next time I should just load the MP3 player up with only Keb’ Mo’ tunes.

This one, from Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, was great for the homestretch (not exactly a downhill).

And I always enjoy Randy Newman’s music, but, for reasons similar to the flop of the E.T. clip, this item from the score of “The Natural” didn’t work and it should have.

 

So, in preparation for my next Ride of Substance … anyone out there have any better ideas about what makes great road music?

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June 26, 2013 Posted by | music, travel | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Time

Toward the end of my first year as athletic band director at Holy Cross, both of the school’s basketball teams did well enough to qualify for their versions of The Big Dance.

To make a long story very, very short, the HC pep band flew to Indianapolis, dumped our belongings in our hotel, and took a bus over to the RCA Dome (which, at the time, still existed) to watch the HC men’s practice session. As we entered the cavernous expanse of the Dome – which made the basketball court, placed near where the 50-yardline would have been, look exceptionally insignificant – twenty-nine out of the thirty-one of us looked around, and up, in varying states of awe and wonderment.

Two of us did not. I looked over at one of our mellophonists, and she looked at me, and one of us said quietly, “it’s good to be back.”

She had been to this venue when her high school marching band qualified for the Bands of America Grand National Championships, which were always held at the Dome. I had been there for the same reason, just in a different year, when I traveled with the UMass marching band, which was there to perform a collegiate-band exhibition or two.

I don’t think anyone else in the band heard that remark – which was okay, too. My brass colleague and I got to share a brief, unobtrusive moment of flashback. We’d been on this particular Big Stage before, in front of many thousands of people. Twenty-four hours later, the whole HC band would be able to make that claim to some degree (boy, did the team make Marquette work for that win!), but in that moment, she and I by ourselves shared a slightly weird feeling of familiarity.

During my time associated with bands and school music and such, I’ve been fortunate to experience a few Big Stage moments, although assuredly I was not the absolute center of attention in any of them. I got to march in the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, while I was a grad assistant with the Boston University Band. During my freshman year with the UMass band, I was in Washington, DC for President Reagan’s second Inauguration (the one that was so cold they canceled the parade; briefly disappointing but the decision probably saved lots of frostbite cases). The year I managed the Massachusetts All-State Symphonic Band, the band’s performance was in Symphony Hall in Boston, so I not only got to stand on the Symphony Hall stage, I got to adjust the positioning of a couple of chairs. Ooooooo.

So honestly, even if I never get to do anything remotely like any of that again … it’s okay. Those memories are mine as long as my memory lasts.

 

This past weekend, I listened to an interview on NPR’s “Only A Game” with tennis great Jimmy Connors. The program’s host, Bill Littlefield, asked Connors a number of questions about his career, and about a few things that were included in Connors’ newly-published memoir. One of Connors’ remarks got my attention, a little bit.

I remember watching Jimmy Connors play tennis on TV when I was a kid. My first impression of him was, well, he wasn’t my favorite tennis player. His personality – the way he did business out there – struck my very young self as too brash, too cocky for me, at least considering the way my parents brought me up to behave, and how a couple of my Little League coaches had taught me to carry myself. I didn’t care for the racket tossing, or the more than occasional dressing-down of the chair umpire.

In his book, “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life,” Joel Drucker wrote that no one before Connors “had ever thrown himself at every ball with such intensity. With his James Cagney-like strut, Connors was the quintessential ugly American: isolated, ambitious, arrogant, disrespectful of those who’d come before him — and wildly successful … Connors showed that the middle of life’s court was nothing. It was the lines where you wanted to live.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, fans gave Connors grudging respect, but “there was lingering sentiment that Connors, for all of that on-court brilliance, shouldn’t be getting away with such a rude, unsporting approach to the game.”

In 1990, after Connors had reconstructive wrist surgery at age 38, he was sure he’d never play tennis again. The next year, he was only allowed into the US Open field as a wild-card. He was ranked 174th in the world. He was assuredly not a contender.

That 1991 US Open was the scene of what became my two favorite televised tennis matches. In the opening round, Connors came back from basically two and a half sets down to Patrick McEnroe to win, 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. <> And then, in a fourth-round match into which no tennis pundit would have placed him, Connors defeated 24-year-old Aaron Krickstein, 3–6, 7–6, 1–6, 6–3, 7–6, in 4 hours and 41 minutes – on his 39th birthday.

It was the same old Connors in those matches. Plenty of tirades, rants and demonstrations that would never have passed muster on the grounds of, say, Wimbledon. In a way, he was lucky he was playing in a tournament located in New York City, where free expression has never been in short supply. And where audience participation could be considered mandatory. Everyone involved was well aware that Connors’ improbable run had captured national attention and a huge national TV audience; the Open spectators certainly participated, and Connors ate it up – pushing the boundaries of umpire treatment and general etiquette, but prevailing. At the time, John McEnroe, a tennis star with an even greater reputation for bad-boy behavior, remarked, “It’s unbelievable, the effort and the joy he gets out of playing.” And the equally demonstrative tennis great Ilie Nastase said in an interview, “What Jimmy has is what we would all kill for: just one more time.”

After bowing out of the 1991 Open in the semifinals, Connors told journalist Steve Flink, “That was the best eleven days of my life.”

 

So, back to the NPR interview. (See, I didn’t forget.) Bill Littlefield asked Connors, “You say in your book that if you could still play at a competitive level – you’re as competitive now at [age] sixty as you’ve ever been and you’d be doing that – you’d be out there on the court, and that’s your nature. These days, what are you doing instead?”

Connors replied, “It’s certainly difficult to find something to replace that. To be honest with you, I don’t think I’ll ever find it – to play on the major stages around the world, against the great players that I was able to play against, at such a high level. So I don’t look; I’m trying not to look anymore. I was lucky to do what I did, at such a high level … maybe one thing is good enough.”

I suppose it must be true that you can’t compete as a professional athlete, in a game which is more often an individual sport than a team game, unless you’ve got a LITTLE bit of ego … but is it possible that Mr. Connors might consider that what might seem to him like a small stage might be a big stage to someone else? Could he get involved with programs that teach little kids to play tennis, to perpetuate and continue to popularize the sport? And that might make all the difference in the world to someone else?

Maybe another way to look at it is … are you living for the thrill of the moment, or can you find satisfaction in taking the longer view?

I can’t claim to have had experiences on “major stages” that are remotely as lofty as Jimmy Connors has. I absolutely don’t have the experiences I would need, in order to climb into Mr. Connors’ head and know what it’s like to have played against the best, in the top locations, in the top events in his business … and to not have that anymore. Fair to say, I’ll never know; and maybe that disqualifies me from making any comment at all.

But … I’ve been fortunate enough to get involved with musical organizations which have offered me (relatively-)big-stage experiences. I haven’t had the chance to dip my toes into the national-attention-scale event pool in a while; which is okay, too.  People who know me well would probably not identify me as having a personality that craves an American Idol-grade spotlight.  My “thing” (in my professional life) is music teaching. But I haven’t taught in public school districts which have marquee-name music programs that get onto music-ed magazine covers. We make good things happen, all right – just not necessarily on a global scale.

No, I may never set foot on the field at the RCA Dome (well, obviously, I can’t now; they knocked it over), or the Symphony Hall stage, again. But every time a kid leaves my class carrying a different idea about something musical, or having discovered a sound or a composer or a performer s/he didn’t know about before … and great heavens, if any of my students decide they’d like to be a music performer or teacher … or even if they end up as music consumers with slightly more informed eyes and ears … then I’ve won.

It’s not a Grand Slam title, at least not in the way that will get me listed in this year’s World Almanac. It’s probably not an achievement that thousands (or hundreds or dozens) of people will notice all at once and stand up and cheer for. But does it need to be a global win … to still be a win?

 

It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”  -Sydney Smith, English writer, Anglican cleric

June 24, 2013 Posted by | arts, band, celebrity, Famous Persons, journalism, marching band, music, npr, radio, sports | Leave a comment

Mezzo-Forte

This week, I helped lead a field trip for my new school district’s middle-school musicians. During May and June in southern New England, many middle- and high-school ensembles travel to host schools to perform for a panel of adjudicators; and then spend the rest of the day at a local amusement park. As my father used to say, “work first; play after.” Or in this case, play first, and ride roller coasters after.

This event, and similar ones all over the country, are organized and run by companies whose primary business is providing performance and recreation opportunities for school musicians; to stay in business, they need to turn a profit. Some companies are more focused on the dollar than they are on the student; but some actually do try to create situations from which genuine music education might be derived. Caveat emptor is one word to the wise … but the particular company with which my new school district (and my old one, too) opts to do business seems reasonably interested in providing, you know, a learning experience for our students.

I have a bit of experience being one of those music festival adjudicators. While I was in graduate school, I was invited to do this at a couple of local festivals. For one, I judged indoor percussion. As much as I know about that subject area from having observed a few Thom Hannum rehearsals and clinics, I was pleased not to be the only judge at the top of the stands that day. For another festival, I was judging what were labeled “auxiliary performing units” – and as it turned out, I was providing feedback and scores for teams of twirlers. Well … as much as I know about twirling a drum major mace, I still kinda fell back on my ability to observe and comment upon uniformity and precision. I’ll be honest: I was not exactly working in my ultimate comfort zone on that day.

Before each of those experiences, the organizers told me one unnerving thing: in general, barring any real extremes of performance one way or another, the very lowest score I was expected to present to any ensemble was 70 points out of a hundred. I figured out in short order that the goal was not so much to provide gentle but firm constructive criticism to an ensemble that was just not in the same league as anyone else. Rather, nobody gets lower than a C-minus … or, as the recent saying goes, everybody gets a trophy.

Sort of a mezzo-forte attitude.

At a leadership clinic that I observed a number of summers ago, Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser described the enthusiasm and intensity of any performance (or lack of) in terms of musical dynamics. The upshot of a wonderful five-minute segment of Tim’s talk was this: we owe it to ourselves to operate at pianissimo, very quietly (he nearly whispered), or FORTE!!! (he suddenly shouted, and emphasized it with a sharp hand clap) … but NEVER live your life just mezzo-forte. Mezzo-forte, in Italian, literally means medium strong; to musicians it means medium-loud, or not quite as loud as forte, which means firm, strong, loud! … and to Tim it meant all of that, as he’s a music educator, but in this case it meant average. Just average. Vanilla. Bland. Uninteresting. Uninspired. Not gonna learn much from it.

As our middle-school band finished its three-tune festival program, I thought that they had taken their concert performance from the week prior … and upped their game by at least a little bit. Certainly, they stacked up very well in comparison to the band that had performed just before they did – yes, they had more varied instrumentation, and yes, they seemed to have more kids who might have been studying privately, or at least had the benefit of weekly in-school small-group lessons. This is certainly not to dump on the previously-performing band, as for all I knew they might have no small-group lesson program, and not as much rehearsal time per week, and not-adequate funding, et cetera. But our kids done good.

This particular company includes a brief clinic after an ensemble’s festival performance. Shortly after the ensemble’s last selection, the judges tally up their scores and finish writing and recording their comments; then one judge spends about ten minutes chatting with the ensemble about things that went well and things that could be worked on for the next rehearsal, or concert, or school year. The gentleman who worked with our middle-school band spent quite a lot of time talking about dynamics – about taking the dynamic markings on the written page seriously, and perhaps extra-seriously. If it says piano, be intentionally quiet – so that when it says FORTE!, you can make that much more of an impact without necessarily having to “turn it up to eleven” to do it.

Good thoughts. Too often, whether it’s a school ensemble full of third- or fourth-year players, or a church choir full of adults with lots of life experience, or a summer drum corps that rehearses fourteen hours a day, every day, June through August … the pitches and rhythms can be played correctly, but the expression, the creative part of the music, is the last element that gets any attention. If it does at all.

And then our kids piled back onto the buses, took a ten-minute drive to the Six Flags theme park, and spent the next seven hours in an environment that featured nothing but piped-in music turned up to eleven.

 

Yes, roller coasters make lots of noise. Yes, the barkers who try to entice passersby to shoot baskets, or knock bottles off shelves, or bang a mallet hard enough to send a little weight rocketing up toward a ringable bell … so that they can win stuffed pandas … all have to be loud so that they’ll be noticed, and so that people will come make them a little money. But all the recorded music in the park, whether at entrance gates to thrill rides, or in snack bar areas, or in gift shops, or accompanying street performers, was uniformly LOUD.

After being in the park for awhile, I stopped noticing.

But I only noticed that I’d stopped noticing this … when my music teacher colleague pointed it out, as we strolled through the park, keeping an eye out for our green-shirted kids. Boy, everything in here is just loud, he said, –and this, after we’d had a clinician talk to the kids about varying the dynamics in their own performance.

I looked at my colleague and prepared to make a joke … and as I made it, I realized I was actually somewhat serious.

Boy, are we important people.”

Because outside of our school music classrooms and auditoriums … the only message that our music students get, in fact the only message that almost anyone in our society gets … is this:

Everything is loud. Loud is good. Therefore everything that is loud is good.

As a music educator, I know this for sure, at least: not everything is loud. Loud isn’t always good. And not everything that is loud is, therefore, good. And if we music teachers don’t teach our students (not just our kids, but our audiences) this, … who’s going to?

The mighty 1812 Overture is good … but not just because of the admittedly gloriously loud ending. It’s also because it starts out slow and quiet, ends up fast and loud, and goes almost everywhere, from folk tunes to military brass, from delicate to bombastic, from minor and sad to major and triumphant, in between those two moments.

Music … can not be just one volume. And while we’re at it, let’s not assume that we humans are only good and right and proper if we’re of one characteristic only. In biology class, while we were studying genetics and chromosomes and heredity and evolution and such, I remember learning that a species is far more likely to survive if there are lots and lots of different characteristics being supported.

Vive la difference. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. And let’s try to preserve our hearing in the bargain, eh?

June 1, 2013 Posted by | band, education, entertainment, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment