Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Cool Group

The laughter was … noticeable, shall we say.

One of our group had cracked wise, and the rest of us had reacted. Not too loudly; not in a way that was disruptive to the conversations of those around us.

But it turned a couple of heads. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that the faces which had turned our way were not annoyed; actually, I thought they seemed just a little envious.

I worked hard not to take pleasure in this. That would have been egotistical, which I try not to traffick in. (Or worse, it would have made me feel like someone overly eager for an autobiographical journal topic, likely to be written in the third person. Oh. Oops.)

We were in one of the dining halls on the campus of UMass-Amherst, and it was not long before the opening Drum Major Academy session was scheduled to start. A considerable portion of the instructional staff was grabbing lunch before heading over to the auditorium where we’d get the five-day clinic off and running; and most of the cafeteria space around us was filled with DMA students, eating their first lunch of the week, too. The instructional staff is usually at least two things: [1] given to humor … and [2] very obviously enjoying each other’s company.

Remember when you’d look across the middle- or high school cafeteria and see the “cool” group, and wish you were in it? Just a little? (Unless you actually were in it, of course. In that case, perhaps it’s just as likely that you spent lots of time doublechecking to make sure you still were in it. A topic for another time.)

With that vivid memory of my youth as backdrop, I sat amongst my DMA staff friends and did allow myself to enjoy being identifiable by my red polo shirt with the DMA logo as one of the staff … but only a tiny bit.

Starred Thought®: “It’s not you … it’s the position.”

That staff is routinely populated by college-band and drum-corps drum majors … middle-school, high-school and college band directors … marching music and visual designers and performers … well, in any given summer, at any given location, there’s a lot of talent hanging around the place. More importantly, every staff member is a teacher of some sort “in real life” – and a lot of them qualify as better teachers than I’ll ever be. I endeavor to pay attention to them.

So we began the week as we always do: standing out of the line of sight of the group of students, while the lead clinician introduced them to a few basic concepts that would be emphasized throughout the week.

Every DMA week is different. The curriculum and activities are the same, with minor tweaks from year to year … but no matter how thoroughly-planned the week is, unpredictability happens. Make your command-calling and your music conducting predictable, because it will help your band’s performance, we advise students … but understand that flexibility is a great characteristic to have.

Starred Thought®: “A leader sees three things: what ought to be done, what can be done, how to do it.”

With this in mind, occasionally at the beginning of a DMA week I pause and wonder what events await us. Could be the week of a lifetime; could be calamity just around the corner.

As it turned out, this week was both.

A moment ago, I described in relatively dispassionate terms how thankful I am to be able to join this bunch of teachers. They’re effective professionals and responsible leaders of young musicians. But I’m also grateful for the ten days (in two DMA locations) each summer that I get to spend with friends, old and new. Some I’ve known for ten or twenty or twenty-five years, and some I’ve known since checking in to the hotel or the dorm; but what great folks to be around! That’s why it’s fun to be in the middle of the dining-hall laughter.

It’s also why the activities of the UMass week’s third evening was listed nowhere in the DMA syllabus but nonetheless confirmed all these thoughts in my head.

After dinner, staff and students gathered in the middle of the UMass campus, worked outdoors on conducting, showmanship and marching issues, and then re-convened in the same small auditorium where we had begun the week. Our lead clinician showed a couple of quick video clips, and then launched into a fairly personal story, intending to nail down the point of the evening’s session. As I subsequently chronicled in a less public forum, she was at the top of her game.

Starred Thought®: “How quickly it can evaporate.”

Suddenly, about halfway through her story (I would estimate), from one side of the auditorium, a couple of students called out for help. “Oh my God. Somebody call 9-1-1.” One of the students had taken ill.

Our lead clinician instantly became the very person you wanted in charge of a situation like that. And by good fortune, the nearest staff member was also an EMT. After calming whatever expressions of group concern were ready to break out (before they even really did), our lead teacher asked our EMT-trained colleague, “what are we looking at? – do we need to clear the room?” He replied, gently, “Yes, please.”

There are moments when you find out what a group is made of.

This was one.

Starred Thought®: “A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.”

Staff members immediately moved to carry out duties for which there were no pre-arranged staff assignments. Some staff moved to assist our EMT colleague; the rest of us moved toward the nearest useful thing to do. Some stayed with the fallen student. Others moved to clear the room’s four exits so the rest of the students could depart quickly and smoothly. Others moved further outside the building, to organize the students into a block and march them back to the dorm area, about a five-minute walk away. Someone called the DMA office manager, who was in her room back in the dorm tower. Some staff people put away the audiovisual equipment that had been in use during the indoor session.

Four hundred people cleared that room in ninety seconds.

A couple of us jumped in a car and drove efficiently back to the dorm, probably bending several traffic laws in the effort to get there ahead of the block of marching students. (We did, but it was a close race.) En route, we called a staff member who was still in the auditorium, to find out what the situation was and what procedures we should have the students follow when they arrived at the dorm.

We jumped out of the car and ran to the small cement plaza in front of the dorm tower just as the student block came into view, about a hundred yards distant. We got to the staff member leading the block and gave her the update: he’s fine; he’s gone to the hospital for observation; room checks at 10:15, lights out in the dorms at 10:30.

She stood up on a bench and relayed those details to the students; and then said this: “When I have you fall out, please head into the dorms with the same grace that you’ve shown since this all began.”

This is significant. For the first three days of the clinic, we had followed our usual curriculum: train the students to be good teachers. Encourage them to practice being good listeners and to expand their sphere of awareness. Suggest that it’s a good idea to have a procedure in order to be better organized; that you have to care about everyone in your group; that you need to put everybody first and yourself second; that you have to show support for others before they show support for you. Oh, and by the way, help the students learn to conduct, as well.

These are all things that we help the students focus on, chiefly for use in their band’s rehearsals and other activities. But by the middle of the second day they’re thanking the dining-hall workers (who are momentarily confused), holding doors for everyone, “after you!”, all that good stuff. And usually, that’s the extent to which the “extra-musical” values we espouse come into play. Since they’re the student leaders of their bands, we tell them that we expect more out of them than your average bando, and usually they rise to those expectations with a sort of cheerful “not every kid behaves this way; this is kinda nice; wish it happened more often” attitude.

Starred Thought®: “Your band will do what you expect them to, one way or the other.”

Here was a situation which truly put a lot of that end of the curriculum into play. The first night’s dormitory fire drill had been a game, with advance warning. Not this, though.

During that fire drill, the 400 or so students had filed out of the dorm tower and into their pre-set attendance block with what we thought qualified as silence, given the number of people involved, and it seemed pretty impressive.

According to the staff member who led the block from mid-campus to our dorm area this evening, though, the students formed a marching block outside the auditorium with a minimum of sound and a maximum of speed. They “moved with a purpose”. When the block needed to cross one of the campus boulevards, and the block leader called out, “traffic help,” several students instantly leapt out of the block to serve as crossing guards (not that there was a lot of traffic that late on a weeknight). And when my staff colleague and I drove up to the dorm, we noted that it was hard to tell exactly how far away the block was – it was dead silent.

Starred Thought®: “You’re at your best when things are at their worst.”

So they were. The students, I mean.

And so they were. The staff, I mean.

After everyone finally was packed away in their dorm rooms, I posted on my favorite little social-media engine. My status was updated to read, “I love this staff. I *love* this staff. I LOVE this staff.” Some of my friends who Liked that remark knew exactly why I wrote it; some didn’t. It applied, obviously, on a number of levels at once.

These are people whose friendship I treasure. They are people who are very good at their jobs. And they are people who are very good at jobs that sometimes aren’t on the printed schedule of the day.

The staff member who organized and led the student marching block back to the dorm got a number of hugs and shoulder-rubs and smiles from other staff members who knew, far better than any of the students, how stressful her job had been and that she had done it exceedingly well, all the way to the closing “same grace that you’ve shown” remark. The “IMPACT team” members – college band drum majors and members who were our teaching assistants and logistical helpers for the week – got a quiet pep talk and thank-you from their professional-staff leader, just a few seconds after the students were dismissed to their dorm rooms.

Every staff member looked after their students.  But they also looked after each other. It’s what you do in this situation. It’s what we do.

I get to be part of a special group of people every summer. Most times, I am conscious of that. Sometimes, though, it’s good to be actively reminded why I look forward to mid-July so much.

It’s a cool group.


August 3, 2013 - Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, education, Facebook, friends, marching band, music, social media, Starred Thoughts, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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