Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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 »

  1. […] my annual summer teaching fortnight with the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. For many reasons, a few of which already have been chronicled hereabouts, I look forward to this experience every year, […]

    Pingback by The Unlikeliest of Heroes « Editorial License | July 25, 2015 | Reply

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