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.”

*oi*

*face-palm*

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.

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September 15, 2013 Posted by | GNP, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Takeaway

Twelve years ago today was a very tough day.

On a couple of previous anniversaries of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, I have taken a moment (here in this blog space) to note the date, usually utilizing what I remember of where I was – what I was doing (hmph). I made a connection, without great difficulty, to the music I was making at the time with my students – and the role that music played in getting through the day, or making sense of the day later, or offering comfort to people who needed it for a long time after.

I was teaching today, as well. Since I’m relatively new to my school, I was teaching several classes’ worth of students with whom I had never shared this particular observance. The change of scenery, I think, caused me to think in perhaps wider-angle terms than I would have otherwise. Things are different … somewhat.

My seventh-grade students were weeks or months old in 2001. I was twelve years younger, too; and much closer to the beginning of my teaching career than I am now. I wasn’t as schooled in the ways of geopolitical affairs and foreign policy as I have become, since. Then, I was much more likely to worry greatly about driving under highway overpasses than I am now – or, let’s just say that now I worry more about whether the bridges are going to come down on their own, never mind with help from terrorist people.

One night about a week ago, I noticed my local television listings beginning to fill up with 9/11 documentaries and tribute-laden programs – the Discovery Channel was showing nothing but, all afternoon and all night – and I was frankly shocked for a moment after I found myself thinking, “oh… Here we go. It’s that time of year.”

For those who lost people that they dearly loved, that day, September will always be “that time of year”. I was instantly embarrassed at my thought (which I had unhelpfully delivered to myself in the voice of the “Stewie” character from “Family Guy”). The sister of a good friend of mine from high school was on the second plane that hit the World Trade Center, for heaven’s sake. If the tables were turned, I’d be more than a little put out that somebody was thinking of this particular anniversary with the same kind of jaded outlook that a lot of us carry into, say, the holiday shopping season in December. For many many people, this is and always will be – well, deadly serious.

Not long after 9/11, many people wondered if it would be this generation’s Pearl Harbor – not so much as an impetus for war specifically, but more as an event that was both unforgettable and a turning point in a lot of people’s understanding of the state of the planet Earth, for better or for worse. I doubt people were thinking, “oh… Here we go again,” on December 7, 1953.

So I did several hundred mental pushups, as a sort of penance for my offhand thought. And I thought, okay, then: is there anything that we can take away from that awful day? Anything positive? Anything that we’ve actually learned?

There is the temptation to respond to that question by commenting on political- and military-science permutations of this question. We went to war in two places in the wake of 9/11 and we’re still hanging around in one of those theaters, a dozen years later, and to what end I’m not sure (except that this must be how the Soviet Union felt in 1980 or so). More lives lost; less ground gained, I think.

I am tempted to express deep concern about our temptation – then and now – to knee-jerkily retreat into patriotic fervor, as a means of reassuring ourselves that not only was this an awful, evil act (well, it was that; and no civilian population anywhere “had it coming”), but that becoming victims of that heinous crime automatically made us, or perhaps more properly our government, blameless in all things and justified in any and all responses. Invasions of whole countries followed. Euphemisms like “extraordinary renditions” and “enhanced interrogation” followed. Unnerving titles such as “Homeland Security” were created. Chants of “USA, USA” only make me smile at the Olympics, I think.

As is almost always the case … it’s not nearly as simple as politicians and pundits make it their business to make us believe.

So, while government activities and international politics grind on, actual people still suffer, both directly because of the attacks and indirectly, for a staggering and unnerving variety of reasons. There are vast, sweeping plains of wrong that haven’t yet been made right. There were wrongs before 9/11 that haven’t yet been addressed. There are debates that haven’t even been properly begun.

So what can we possibly take away from 9/11 that can make the human race seem like a noble thing?

Finally, I came around to this:

If thinking about 9/11 causes us to wonder what would possess someone to do such a thing, and we look further afield than just the instinctive, jingoistic “they hate us for our freedoms” answers … then regardless of what we find, we’ve at least tried to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view … and that’s something.

If observing 9/11 will cause us to remember and thank and support first-responders – not just the ones that ran toward the burning Twin Towers, but the ones that run toward trouble and danger in our own communities all the time, right now – then that’s something.

If recalling 9/11 will cause us to remember or be introduced to tales of ordinary people helping other ordinary people in far-from-ordinary circumstances … then that’s something.

If remembering 9/11 will cause us to reach out to people we know who lost friends or family on that day, to offer them some help or support or comfort or connection … then that’s something.

If I can start out sitting in a classroom with students who were mere toddlers in 2001, having conversations with them about those terrible events and these difficult issues … and somehow end up with a teachable moment that boils down to “go out of your way to treat people decently, so that your individual world stands a chance of being a better place”, or “let’s work together because it sure beats working against people” … as happened this morning …

then I guess that’s something.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | blogging, current events, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Never Answer an Anonymous Letter

Who are you?” “No one of consequence.” “I must know.” “Get used to disappointment.”

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

 

Within the next couple of days, this blog will celebrate its third birthday. For the past 36 months, with only a couple of lengthy pauses between posts, this online space has been a repository for creative writing the likes of which had only previously been available to me during the third- and fourth-grade. (Thanks, Miss Howe.) The “pages” of Editorial License have served to display my written moments of editorializing, tribute-paying, journalism (of a sort), ruminating, and probably many other activities that can be found in the thesaurus near “writing” also.

Online expression has the capacity to allow people to express themselves willy-nilly, as it were: opportunities to respond to things they’ve read with frightful vitriol, and largely without true repercussions – especially since it’s highly unlikely that they’ll actually come face-to-face with the people they’re critiquing. Sometimes “critiquing” is too highbrow a word for what appears on the virtual pages of the Internets. A friend of mine recently put it this way: “’I was really glad I read the comments section,’ said no one, ever.”

One reason for that: anonymity. If a commenter identifies him- or herself merely with a username rather than a truly given name, no one has any idea who it was that just called another writer a bunch of horrible names. Even if the commenter does use his or her actual name, the statistical likelihood of that commenter actually being personally recognized by the original writer or anyone else is rather small.

So what in the world was I thinking, when I parked my actual real name on the top of my actual real blog?

To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was thinking that a WordPress blog affords its owner the convenient added feature of being able to create other pages within the blog-website. In essence, one can create a neat little (albeit not extravagant) personal website. It seemed almost too generous to be true. So in creating this creative writing space, I also had the chance to post a page with my CV, in case I ever needed to quickly point anyone toward it.

Clearly I failed to consider the possible ramifications of that decision.

Frankly I’ve wasted far too much virtual ink on the brief tete-a-tete that I conducted with members of the Short Blonde Pre-Adolescent Pretend-Opera-Singing Sensation Freakish Admiration Society, about nine months into my tenure as blog pontificator. But, my regular readers may recall, not far into the relative torrent of “how can you even hint that perhaps our idol might not be the most perfect singer ever?” commentary that descended upon that blog post … came a suggestion that perhaps someone from that Society should investigate the fellow who wrote those awful things about their hero, maybe see if they could contact the school where he taught, … maybe even get him fired! Clearly he’s an awful teacher and shouldn’t be let anywhere near musical children!

Had the masthead of my blog not contained my actual name, which is not nearly as common a name as some, I would not have been nearly as inspired to research the location of a good lawyer.

When I decided that my name should go toward the top of the Editorial License page, I was not considering what effect that decision might have on my actual writing, either.

I’m a mature person. I can handle it if I write something and someone takes exception to it. We live in ‘Murika, for heaven’s sake … free country, free speech, all that good Constitutional stuff. Making the perhaps foolish and overly optimistic assumption that we’re all mature adults here … in theory, I should be grownup enough to write something, stand behind it, suffer the slings and arrows if necessary, and everybody walks away having said their piece. In practice, the slings and arrows are figurative.

Unless, of course, inside the little blog-website lives the name of the author and some clues about that author’s possible physical location. Then the slings and arrows might have more opportunity to get literal. Whoops.

 

 

Setting aside the issue of the online world’s yahoos, trolls and wackos … I have had occasion to examine how that fateful decision may have affected my actual writing, here.

One of the facets of my personality that has (by turns) both enhanced my life and detracted from it is: I’m not big on conflict. I don’t actively seek it out. I enjoy life much more when there is peace and harmony and cheery smiles and hearts and flowers and chirping birds. Rainbows too, where possible. There have been moments where it was important for me to communicate my disappointment with, or disapproval of, someone or something, and I went and did so. Occasionally I’ve done so successfully; but I’ve generally hated it. I am not adept at utilizing the written or verbal equivalent of – as my colleague Jamie Weaver once put it – “the state bird of New Jersey”.

(It probably has not helped that in the moments where the internal swizzle stick has snapped and I have finally spouted off in person about something, I have often received a response along the lines of “–hey, easy, man! No need to get so worked up!” … No no – you have no idea – this worked up moment took a hell of a lot of work. And it was relatively articulate. Can you allow a shy retiring type to ‘ssplode, just once in a great while?)

So, if I can avoid it, I try to write in such a way that at the end of the piece, people will (I hope) be encouraged to smile, or laugh, or think, etc. And maybe to return and read the next thing I post.

Now, I have written passionately about a number of hot-button issues, amongst them musical performance, teaching philosophy, famous persons’ unwise decisions, and my alma mater. And on occasion, I have written passionately from my left-leaning political perspective, and have subsequently heard from friends who don’t approach politics and policy from that same angle. They’ve been polite but firm. But polite. And I have taken those responses and chosen to remember them when I next write about that subject area – I haven’t been deterred from expressing my opinions, but I have tried to write in a way that will encourage more mature debate than it will invite flame wars.

A lot of the people who officially Follow this blog happen to be friends and/or colleagues whom I have known for months or years or decades. I think I know them well enough to know that if they pick up metaphorical pitchforks or torches in response to a thought of mine, they’ll do it in such a way that we’ll still be fast friends afterward. My brush with the Singing Sensation Society made me a touch gun-shy for a few weeks, I’ll certainly agree … but my actual friends’ responses to their responses (“O, the beating I have taken”, went my Facebook status post that week) helped me remember an important thing: as long as I can go back and read my own stuff and come away from it still comfortable that I’ve written respectfully, honorably, and honestly … that’s all I can do, and it’ll be okay in the end.

Without my name on the top of the page, I could spout off very differently. If I were writing as Anonymous, I could conceivably throw out opinions about my workplace, my church gig, my interests, my acquaintances, in a much more swashbuckling way. I could probably be a lot snarkier; arguably a lot funnier; and in some cases, I could say negative (and, it should be noted, also positive) things about people … and all of it could be shared with the world much more freely and less diplomatically than I can now.

But honestly, with this blog being as not-anonymous as it is … I have to take responsibility for it. I’m forced to think, and re-think, and craft my material. And on the rare occasions when I actually get it right … I do get to take credit for it – by name.

On balance, I can be happier about that.

 

Onward, to Year Four.

 

P.S. As in a previous post, extra bonus points for anyone who identifies the source I used for the title of this post.  Use of The Google is frowned upon. 🙂

September 1, 2013 Posted by | blogging, friends, Internet, social media, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment