Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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

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

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