Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Lift Up … Up Up Up Up Up.

[Ed. Note: The day before yesterday, a good friend posted an wonderful article on her blog. At the time, with smile, I declared that she’d stolen my thunder, but good. I’d written the post that follows below earlier this past week … although actually most of it was written quite a while ago. Our approach angles to our shared topic differed somewhat … but I sense that we manage to make the same point. You can be the judge.]

For me and for many of my friends and acquaintances, mid-September will always be a time for nostalgia, and remembrance, and some level of sadness; also a time for dredging up marvelous memories. You may be aware that it was three years ago this week that the band world lost a titan, and also a remarkable human being.

The immediate sting may have faded (or maybe it hasn’t), but I expect that the ache will last for a very, very long time. That’s how much of an impact(!!) George Parks had on UMass band alumni, Drum Major Academy staff and students, and legions of other people as well.

One year after, my own commemoration here was unabashedly intense. Two years after, I was perhaps overly fixated on whether it was more appropriate to have tried to “move on”, or more appropriate not to have done so.

This year, I hope to commit far less philosophical navel-gazing … although the way I accomplish this may not immediately strike you as less of it. Here are three short stories that may offer some idea about just why George Parks impressed the hell out of me.


Story One (Year One):

At the end of his first full week of college marching band rehearsals, a scrawny, red-headed freshman decided to follow his parents’ advice, and thank people when appropriate. So, that freshman put away his saxophone, approached his new band director, waited patiently for him to finish another conversation … and then delivered a brief appreciation of the thrill of being in a huge 229-member band full of people who all loved band and who had a truly inspiring leader.

When his new band director turned to face him, though, a pair of blue eyes bored into the freshman’s skull, and caused a near-catastrophic loss of higher-order thinking skills.

The freshman still doesn’t remember exactly what he said to his new band director, but he does know that it’s just as well. Doubtless he’d be even more mortified than he already is, if he possessed eidetic memory, and therefore could replay the precise lameness of the moment over and over, whenever he wanted to, and more often when he didn’t. One thing he does remember is that near the end of his tortured paragraph, he said something very much like, “I even think I’m a little afraid of you.”



Another thing he remembers clearly: the head twirler and one of the drum majors, standing a few yards away, executing a faintly-amused, faintly-embarrassed, faintly-empathetic turning-away maneuver when they heard the freshman’s well-planned speech skid off the road into the ditch, devolving into fanboy babble. (And the term fanboy hadn’t even been invented yet, at that moment in the fall of 1984. It might have been invented in that moment.)

The first weekend of the season came and went; and with it, the first home game. Possessed of the confidence that is naturally acquired after stepping onto the turf of a college football stadium and still being able to remember one’s own name – not once in an afternoon, but twice – the freshman found an opportunity to make good … or at least gain ground on dignity.

The Monday afternoon after the first home game, the freshman sat inside Old Chapel, the band’s own building, on the third step of the staircase that led from the front foyer to the second floor (and its band staff offices). He looked up from whatever textbook he was reading as the front door opened and his new band director entered Old Chapel. The freshman called out, “Say, Mr. Parks…”

Well hi there.” Without a trace of condescension, nary an eye roll.

About what I said Friday afternoon … sorry, that was weird at the end. I think, honestly, what I meant to say was something along the lines of ‘put the fear of God into me’.”

And, bless his soul, the band director looked at his rookie band member, chuckled gently, and said, “Heh. No, no. … That job’s already taken.”

And bounded up the stairs to his office, two at a time. Or maybe five; the freshman still isn’t sure. But he was going to be able to go to rehearsal later that day and look his band director in the eye.

Starred Thought®: Go out of your way to treat people kindly.


Story Two (about two decades later):

My sister told me this story awhile back. One year, when the extended Hammerton clan made the trip to UMass for the Homecoming Alumni Band event (and the accompanying football game, of course), my niece was three years old, just old enough to have some conscious idea that this was a Big Band! that made Big Sounds! and wore Exciting Uniforms! and made Big Shapes on the Big Field! And Mom used to be in it! So of course, while Mr. Parks was visiting with various clumps of band alumni during the third quarter, he took some time to say hello to my sister’s bouncy toddler.

Somewhere during their conversation, my niece made it clear that her favorite song was “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”. Some band directors might have smiled dimly, told her how exciting that was, and moved on to the next topic, and the next alum, and the next stands tune. Mr. Parks, though, jumped up and ran away – no no!, only to return moments later with a member of the band’s trumpet section, who proceeded to play “I’ve Been Workin’ On the Railroad” just for my niece.

Think maybe that made my niece’s day? Her whole month?

Guess what school activity my niece is taking part in nowadays, in middle school? … Or do you really have to guess?

Starred Thought®: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.


Story Three (not that long ago, really):

Some time ago, I experienced a moment of professional crisis. I’d been a music teacher for a decade, and was feeling like the high school program I was leading – small as it was – was finding success, playing good music, rocking our home basketball games, and turning out some high school music alumni who were truly quality human beings – people whose college and “real-world” successes I genuinely admired. Without getting into detail, since that water has long since gone under that bridge … my school system’s leadership decided that I ought not be teaching in that area of the school system any more.

I was hurt. I felt the urge to defend myself, but I also felt that I’d been put in a position where defending myself with the appropriate vigor might be its own form of professional death wish. I was professionally offended. I disagreed not only with the decision, but with the way it was made, and with the educational philosophy (or possibly lack of) that drove it. I swerved wildly between wanting to lash out … wanting to find a way to “show ’em the error of their ways” … wanting to find another town in which to teach high school kids music … and maybe wanting to find another line of work – expensive graduate degree or no.

A month or so later, I began my tenth summer as a Drum Major Academy staff member, first in Pennsylvania and then at UMass. On the first Pennsylvania evening, after the students had been sent to the dorms, the staff gathered in the hotel bar, chatting and laughing and being as silly as we could not be in front of the kids. Mr. Parks drifted into my region of the room, asked how life was going (as he always did) … and I gave him the short but punchy answer. To his credit, he didn’t look for the emergency exit. “Hmmmmm,” he mused. “That’s rough.” I smiled, and said, “well … we’re young. We’ll adjust.” He smiled briefly, and the conversation turned to other things and joined other people’s. I didn’t think of it again, for the rest of the week.

More than a week later, before one of the UMass morning sessions began, as I stood on our “field” (one of UMass’ satellite parking lots), Mr. Parks walked by. “Morning, sir!” I said, a good deal less sheepishly than I (…sorry, than that freshman) had done, more than two decades before.

Rob. Let’s take a walk?” It really wasn’t a question, and I was happy to answer that non-question. We strolled away from where the rest of the staff was gathering.

So. Tell me about this thing again?” Interesting. He’d probably been thinking about “this thing” … turning it over in his mind … even while he had arguably much more important things to attend to. Y’know, like running the leadership clinic that bore his name?

Endeavoring to be a professional grownup, I described my year-end brush with office politics in broad strokes. “Hmmmmm,” he said again, and then said some things that could be summed up as, “that’s rough,” but in a more detailed way. And then he stopped walking. “You know what I’m thinking, though?”

(A whole lot of answers occurred to me and I voiced not a one of them. Do I know what you’re thinking? I was the drum major who forgot the drums, remember.)

He gave me a small, crooked smile. “You should teach kids. It’s what you do well.”

He didn’t say where. He didn’t say what age. He left me to fill in the crucial blanks.

When life gives you lemons, you get to choose either to make lemonade, or to throw the lemons in the direction whence they came. But as he walked away, I recalled that he always told his DMA students, “don’t quit. Do. Not. Quit.”

Starred Thought®: To become a great teacher: 1. get a response, 2. care.


Every human is just that … human. Nobody’s perfect. Every human has flaws. But it’s meet and right also to firmly emphasize whatever virtues reveal a human for the good person he or she is.

In this case, I’m thinking of Mr. Parks’ capacity to hold other people up; to lift them up; to prop them up when necessary. His friend Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser says to leadership workshop audiences, “how can you possibly lift anyone else up if you can’t lift yourself up first?” Having never been inside George Parks’ head, I can’t speak to that very private part of him. But I can remember, and happily shine a spotlight on, his grand ability to lift people up – in public or in private, any old time. An ability worth emulating, I should think.

And I suspect I’m not alone in this.


September 15, 2013 - Posted by | GNP, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] utilized a version of that same glint-in-his-eye look while offering me a piece of music teaching advice which solved a particular instance of professional crisis for me a few years ago … well, […]

    Pingback by The Little Things « Editorial License | September 16, 2015 | Reply

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