Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Hit Pause

When schools’ summer vacation rolls around, in theory, it’s supposed to be a relaxing and re-energizing time. One of my challenges is that my first action every morning is to fire up the computer and check online to see what’s going on. Which can often lead to less relaxation, to say the least.

A check of the weather: boy, lots of tornado activity in the Midwest, early this summer.

A check of sports: well, if it’s not the local team’s bullpen imploding, it’s some athlete trying to gain an advantage over his or her mates by using performance-enhancing drugs … or abusing some other person …

A check of the news: Lordy mama, where to begin?

Even when I check onto the local social media engine, I dimly worry about data mining and privacy issues. (The curse of being a former journalism major, perhaps.)

Not relaxed!! And, far too often this summer, not at all optimistic about the state of the world.

That’s the thing about being in good company (more often the virtual online version of good company, rather than the in-person, face-to-face version, but it still counts): when you least expect it, they post something that shifts your focus (whether it’s about you or something else) and re-sets your priorities.

This morning, I staggered to the computer and checked to see what had happened overnight … and had my priorities gently re-set.

A friend of mine whom I have seen just once in the last decade had tagged me in a post on her MyFace … Spacebook … whatever … page. She noted that one of her friends was utilizing her online profile page to post kind sentiments about people in her life. My friend decided to “hop on that bandwagon” – to go and do likewise. And paid me some rather large compliments – the kind that cause one to sit and stare at the screen, head tilted to one side, probably sporting a rather dopey grin, and mumbling words like, “aww.”

A cool idea, indeed. Although occasionally it can seem absolutely essential to make a point using Snark, it’s pretty rare that anyone expresses themselves without Snark anymore. Sadly, it’s now that much more affecting when one reads the kind of (arguably way-over-the-top) things that she wrote about what kind of friends we are, in the simple and kindly way she did. That’s probably because it stands in such stark contrast to the average, baseline kinds of expression that now flood our world’s communication, whether in our own interpersonal dealings or “over the airwaves”.

(He said, having just unloaded a pile of Snark onto his readers in his most recent blog post. Guilty as charged, your honor.)

It put me in mind of a Starred Thought® from my college band director: “Don’t wait to tell people how much they mean to you. You never know.” How true that has turned out to be.

So: let the bandwagon-hopping begin.


It’s a long and tortuous, “six degrees of separation” story … but I know that friend of mine who wrote this morning’s jaw-dropper of post (anonymous in this format but she’ll know who she is) because of that college band director.

Fifteen years ago was my first summer as a Drum Major Academy instructor, and without a doubt I felt like The Rookie. There were plenty of people on staff who had been doing this for a long time, or at least longer than I had. Yes, I was familiar with all the vocal commands and the field conducting concepts and the leadership philosophies – well, they all belonged to the eponymous founder of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy, my college band director, so obviously!. But I was definitely “learning the ropes”. Everyone was very helpful, but one staff member in particular with a shock of red hair was instantly friendly and helpful and welcoming. I think it stood out to me because I had met most of the other staff members before, but she and I had known each other approximately two minutes before she actively made sure I had a clue about what was going on. (Also, we redheads gotta stick together, after all.)

It turned out that she was a graduate of the University of Delaware band, which was directed by the nice lady who was one of my fellow UMass drum majors, never mind how long ago … and if I hadn’t been her friend and colleague, I wouldn’t have gotten to write tunes for the Delaware band, never mind probably not getting hooked into the DMA thing … therefore I would never have met my new also-redheaded friend.

(I know, at this point I should drop the anonymity and just name names. Sorry, dear reader, I’m making you work too hard.)

The last time we got to teach a DMA clinic together was at least ten years ago, probably eleven. Via eMail and the social media circus, we’ve happily kept in touch ever since – when she became a high school band director, she asked me to write a few marching show tunes for her, and what a kick to be able to do that! It’s always more fun to write for friends.

But there was one moment that confirmed what I already knew: that she was one of those stand-up people who walks as good as she talks.

A month after that Starred-Thought®-generating college band director passed away unexpectedly, it was Homecoming Day at UMass, and the throng of nearly a thousand band alumni who had gathered on campus were making their way into the basketball arena, which was about to host a celebration of Mr. Parks’ life, complete with performances by the band and speeches from dignitaries and mass singing and all that good stuff. I turned a corner and had one of those Out-Of-Context Theatre moments, when you see people you know, but not where you expected to see them.

On the campus of the University of Massachusetts, in the fall of 2010, I ran smack into three graduates of the University of Delaware band from the mid-1990s. And I knew them all. Two of them had been drum majors and the other one had been a senior during the first year that I got to write for the UD band. That one – and you probably saw this one coming down Broadway with its doors open – was of course my redheaded DMA staff friend.

They had driven together, from the mid-Atlantic, five or six hours north to western Massachusetts, for that one single event in the arena. They had done so because they were students of one of Mr. Parks’ students – and they had other friends who were also Mr. Parks’ students – so here they were, many miles and doubtless many gallons! later … because that’s what friends do.


I like this bandwagon-hopping, “write something that makes sure your friends know how you feel about them” idea. ‘Twould be great if the concept went viral. Might help the world out, at least a little. At the very least, it could certainly help us hit the “pause” button on a world that’s too often full of the lunatic and the unkind.

But even if not, my little corner of the world was made brighter this morning. Thanks, Jess. Right back at’cha.

July 16, 2013 Posted by | band, DMA, Facebook, friends, GNP, marching band, social media, Starred Thoughts, UDMB, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Report: Sense No Longer Common

Overshadowed by other current events of this past weekend was this little, sad, appalling, probably inevitable postscript to last week’s plane crash in San Francisco: the story of the Bay Area television station that ran what it thought were the names of the ill-fated Asiana Flight 214 flight crew, which turned out to be some yahoo’s idea of a joke. I won’t list the fake names here. Follow the link if you’re curious. At best, the names are someone’s idea of clever puns. At worst, we’re knockin’ on the racist door again. And in any case, even if the joke were not offensive, this is a newscast we’re talking about here, and–

Sorry.  I was about to type “the news is no place for foolishness.” Seems like that’s almost all there is, in the news, lately.


The following things have happened since:

[] The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) summer intern who confirmed the names when the TV station called him … has been sacked.

[] The NTSB revealed in a subsequent statement that the person who made the mistake was indeed a summer intern who was only supposed to answer phones and pass media inquiries along to the appropriate people. Instead, he “acted outside the scope of his authority.” The NTSB also insisted that “appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.”

[] The TV station apologized, and said it had confirmed the names with the NTSB.

[] There have been no reports of any sackings at the TV station.


I got thinking about this a little – both as a former journalism guy and as a human whose senses have probably not quite yet deserted him.

Okay, so, a few things:

Note for the NTSB intern: If a TV station calls you, wanting to confirm information … they actually don’t mean you.

Another note for the NTSB intern: If you think they do mean you, your self-image is inflated out of all proportion. Even if every other human in the office is on lunch break. Interns who exhibit an ego are not interns for very long.

Note for the TV station reporter who called the NTSB: to whom did you think you were speaking, exactly?

Another note for the TV station reporter who called the NTSB: Always. Have. Multiple. Sources.

Question for the TV station reporter who called the NTSB: Did you not perceive that this had to be a joke, before you called anybody? Read the names again. Out loud. Then go watch the LPGA (up to here with really good Korean players at the moment) and see if you spot any names that sound like tasteless puns. Hint: no.

(And if one did spot a name that came off sounding like that? It didn’t get invented strictly for your English-speaking “Beavis and Butthead” amusement. Grow up.)

Question for the TV station staffer who creates the onscreen graphics: did you not [1] read the names out loud, [2] perceive that those names were unquestionably not serious (tasteful or not), and [3] address the following nuanced interrogative in the general direction of the newsroom: “awright, jackasses”…?

Question for the TV station general manager: by any chance, are you hiring?


If not, why not?

July 15, 2013 Posted by | current events, journalism, media, news, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missed Opportunities

For the past nine summers, I have traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for what is a very worthwhile three-day conference, all about issues that middle- and high-school band directors care about. This summer’s edition just finished; and there were lots of neat little moments in it.

At times I was learning a new thing or two that I could apply to my ensembles, instrumental or not. At other times I was reconnecting with music-teaching colleagues that I get to see only once a year, or in some cases less often than that. And the weekend is always an opportunity to play in a very good wind ensemble and a very fine sight-reading lab jazz band (all full of band directors). In fact it’s my only chance all year to sit in front of a pile of second-tenor-sax parts, not worrying about taking any solos in public, and playing big band music. Fun.

At some point during the weekend, a somewhat informal banquet is held, in order to bestow awards and to let the guest clinicians have a moment to pontificate off the podium. Some conductors are far better on the podium and clutching a stick, than they are behind a lectern and only allowed to use words … while some have proven to be at least as nimble with a turn of phrase as they are with a twitch of the baton.

Friday night, one of this summer’s guest clinicians, the conductor of an important university band program from an important university in Texas, stepped up to the lectern and took that speaking opportunity. He started by suggesting that he was going to be speaking very very seriously, something of a contrast from his approach since Thursday morning – but then he allowed himself a tiny grin, to suggest that perhaps that was a joke, too.

As I have chronicled here before, certain regional accents help me to consider their owners’ punchlines to be that much funnier. The work of Roy Blount, Jr., and a few more personal acquaintances of mine, have only reinforced my perception. And throughout the weekend it had been so, to some degree, with this gentleman. Over the years, the conference has featured a number of conductors from the deep South, and from Texas, who said blunt things but utilized their accents to infuse those blunt things with just a little bit of humor; and sometimes that can make all the difference in the world. If you can get people to laugh, it’s easier to sneak the message in under the radar, after all.

So, our speaker said that he wanted to talk about “legacy” – presumably in the service of causing band directors to get introspective about their profession, which was of course the point of the conference. He didn’t say that last out loud; I filled in that context for him, inside my head, but that’s where I expected he was going. I thought he was going to go unexpectedly for Very Deep Thoughts, to effectively play against the dominant impression he’d built up over the two workshop days prior, the “bluntly humorous Texan” image.

So, I tried to anticipate. Legacy. What does it mean? How can that definition apply to our line of work? What kind of foundation are we leaving for the next generation of teachers to build upon?, etc. etc.

As it turned out … nope. It was all just a way of framing what was not much more than a stand-up act. And one that was not only not terribly funny after all … but which struck me at least as a protracted rant about how things were perfect in the sixties and seventies, and look how it’s all gone to crap.

When we [the generation of band directors in their mid-forties through retirement age] started out, the previous generation left us things like…” … and then came a list of band director and band program characteristics established during the 1950s and 1960s. He painted a picture that evoked the first forty minutes of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, or most of the movie “Pleasantville”, with its “Mad Men” wardrobes and haircuts, and its more military-band-inflected conception of what band did, what it sounded like, what it looked like, what it was.

Here’s what we’ve left you [the next generation, those in their twenties and thirties] with…” … and then came a list of changes and innovations in the school band world that have arisen between the mid-1980s and now. The way that list was delivered strongly suggested that our speaker didn’t think much of the items on that list. With a certain amount of disdain in his voice, he noted all the new ensemble titles (“symphonic winds… wind orchestras…”), the proliferation of “educational music compositions” (admittedly, some music written with school bands in mind is a little tough to take – particularly some of the associated program notes. “This work reflects the triumph of the human spirit, the challenge of our world, and our hopes for the future” probably describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony much better than it does “Soaring Medium-Easy Overture for Band”) … and our speaker’s list of “New Rules for Marching Band”, in which he cheerily expressed thinly-veiled contempt for (por ejamplo) drum corps-inspired innovations in repertoire, instrumentation, uniforms, color guard activity and marching style.

I’m sure he was going for some laughs, too, but it came off (at least to my ears) as just being a stick-in-the-mud. It reminded me faintly of a letter to the editor that was published in my local newspaper several years ago, ’round about the time a local town was considering renewing a tax cap override that routinely threatened to gut local school budgets, among other things. The letter not only implied, but actually said things like, “back in my day, we didn’t have all these frills like music and art and computers and we got a fine education, so why do today’s kids need all that extra stuff that costs money?”

At the end of each subcategory of “they left us this … we’re leaving you these other things”, our speaker asked the “upstart” generation: “what will you leave the next generation?” Which would have been a great, thought-provoking question to ask, had the setup not been much more than standup comedy, and thin material at that.

Well, sir, contrary to the rose-colored-glasses view of the first half of the twentieth century that was being proffered … I would posit that all the qualities and characteristics of the school band world were in fact not perfect in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s. Drum corps has actually contributed a number of positive things to the marching activity (not the least of which is a marching style that allows feet not to be heard through horns), and not really much more silly-looking things than what can be seen in some of those black-and-white photographs of the Faber College Band back in the year ought-five. And here’s a question I’d love to ask a lot of music professors: when’s the last time you actually stood in a functioning high school band room, full of students who were born after the Internet came into common use?

In short … which I never am … the speech struck me as the band director version of “get off my lawn.”

Did I get any positive thing out of the speech? Yes. At least this: a renewed appreciation for the people with whom I get to teach, when I work for ten days every summer with the Drum Major Academy. Because those people have worthwhile things to say, and they can express those ideas effectively. They draw their audiences in with humor, rather than pushing them away. And their audiences, the DMA kids – the future high school drum majors (and who knows? some of them might be the future band directors in this world) – always, without fail, go away from those presentations with looks on their faces that I sure didn’t see after this Texas university music professor’s speech.

So at least I thank him for that. And you, for reading this.


Rant over. Stand at … ease.

July 13, 2013 Posted by | arts, band, DMA, drum corps, education, humor, marching band, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment