Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

It Takes A Band

For a guy whose job as a music teacher and professional musician includes getting up in front of people and drawing their attention his way … my personality isn’t given to heights of “Lookit Meeeeee!” I’ve forced myself to learn how not to be UNcomfortable in these situations, or at least how to appear so; but it’s not my first instinct.

When I directed the bands at Holy Cross several years ago, part of the gig included standing on a five-foot-high podium at the fifty-yardline in front of a field formation full of marching musicians, or standing at the base of a set of bleachers full of pep band players, and in either case waving my arms madly – both to conduct the bands and to incite the crowds of sports fans to get up and clap along and sing along and say Yay. Usually the number of spectators was, um, more than a few. When I got to be one of the drum majors of the UMass band, the public face of that job was pretty similar.

People who knew me as a sixth-grade shy person would be startled to learn that I found a way to feign industrial-strength unselfconsciousness.

So, on two different weekends this month, I was given cause to revisit that situation: “everybody’s starin’ at ya. You are the main focus. Whatcha gonna do?”

The impetus for those instances? An astronomically rare set of circumstances.

 

It’s not often, if ever, that someone is offered the honor that I received this week. It’s certainly rare to receive this particular honor, in any field, twice. It’s some kind of ridiculous oddity to receive the honor twice in the same month.

Well, here I am: a statistical oddity.

On two separate days in September, I received an eMail from a college band director, asking if I could attend a ceremony that essentially was going to be all about the greater glory of me. I was brought up to be a humble and modest person, so my blood pressure immediately rose a bit at this. The basic idea of each of the eMails was: we’re pleased to let you know that we’ve made you a member of our organization’s Hall of Fame.

The word “thunderstruck” turns out to be really apt.

Each of these messages indicated that the nomination and election process was driven largely by band alumni input. Very honestly, this may have been the best thing about these eMails. Comforting to consider that a mutual admiration society was in place within the Holy Cross band alumni community, since I know I thought the world of the students with whom I got to work, there. And I got a sense, by way of ensuing conversations with a couple of my friends from the UMass world, that more than one alum took the time to submit a nomination with my name on it. To say I was humbled … would have been a good start, at least.

In this space, I have taken more than one opportunity to appreciate the people with whom I got to share band experiences, many of whom have remained my friends and colleagues since (and happily I expect these friendships to be filed under “lifelong”), and many of whom contributed to band performances that allowed me the rare and reverberating experience of hearing 250- to 350-member musical ensembles play my arrangements. Those tunes until then had only been theoretical, as I sat in front of my little computer and worked the controls of its music notation software, in a little tiny room by myself. (Which, in the musical world, is probably the most comfortable place for a shy person.)

So, three Saturdays ago, the HC band folks set up a little ceremony during halftime of their Homecoming game to make note of the latest addition to their list of Hall of Fame people. Curiously, the planned PA announcement didn’t materialize (technical difficulties, perhaps); you may not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t heartsick or devastated. The induction moment might not have meant a whole lot to most of the several thousand football fans present that day … but what was important to me was jumping on the podium to conduct HC’s alma mater one more time with lots of “my” alumni out there in the band formation. One more opportunity to make some music together, PA announcement or no. We all knew what was going on, anyway.

And then this past Friday night, as intermission of UMass’s “Multibands” concert began, I made my way from my seat to the backstage area (excuse me pardon me, excuse me pardon me, comin’ through, hot soup!, excuse me pardon me) and got to spend a bit of time with the UMass band leadership, including a gentleman whose praises I’ve sung before, and I’m happy to sing them again here.

Of course, the UMass band director from my era, George Parks, did great amounts of work to create an organization in which its members could find opportunities to contribute, and achieve, and excel, and even prepare for careers in that very field. But the opportunities that became available to me – the chance to play at being a drum major of a 250-member band, the chance to write arrangements for that ensemble and its associated basketball band and subsequently for many other groups at many scholastic levels – were made available through the efforts, encouragement, and generosity of the band’s current associate director, Thom Hannum.

If Thom hadn’t agreed to have the “Hoop Band” sightread a little pencil-sketch arrangement written by my scrawny 19-year-old self (…sight unseen!), and subsequently encouraged me to keep on writing … if he hadn’t helped Mr. Parks to understand that this Hammerton kid should help write the chart that would become the band’s “Bandstand Boogie” percussion feature shortly after I graduated … if Thom hadn’t pushed for me to have the chance to contribute to the “Hook” field production that UMass took to its first Bands of America appearance …

… then we’re looking at an alternate-universe episode of this show in which the main character’s professional career is very different and possibly not so satisfying. It might not even be a career in music. And it definitely doesn’t include the opportunity to direct the Holy Cross bands, and to form relationships with all those people.

Ultimately, it was best that there was no requirement for me to say a single word while I stood on the UMass stage. I’d have babbled. It might not have been a Hall of Fame moment. Instead, I unconsciously assumed the band’s at-the-ready position, while Thom offered a few paragraphs which represented some of the kindest words that I have been accorded, ever.

But if “speech!” had been called for, I was prepared to say something I’ve known for a long time: any successes I’ve had in the areas of music education and music arranging have been a direct result of the impact made on me by people I marched with, friends I made, student- and professional-staff members who taught the concepts and set the example … and of course, George Parks and Thom Hannum, who stand at the head of that very lengthy roster.

 

There are people out there who have said it takes a village to raise a child. My experience in the field of education demonstrates to me every day just how many people are working behind the scenes to help young people get where they’re going. It surely is true that baseball or basketball or football players don’t get a plaque or a statue in Cooperstown or Springfield or Canton, all by themselves. Even in individual sports like golf and tennis, the athletes who get enshrined in halls of notoriety didn’t become as successful as they did without parents and teachers and coaches and legions of other helpful people.

In my extremely fortunate case, it has taken a whole band community to surround an otherwise shy and retiring person and offer him opportunities to find successes as a professional musician … and more importantly, to create an environment where he felt supported enough – safe enough – to find them.

But I need to publicly thank Thom Hannum for heading that list.

October 21, 2013 Posted by | band, GNP, Hoop Band, marching band, teachers, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The More You Know…

Early today, a friend and colleague posted online, on the subject of a recent news item from a town near where he works. Specifically, he was “tempted to weigh in”, but was concerned that “only a combination of the broadcast media and Facebook as a source for my information leaves me potentially under-informed to do so.”

In other words, he was doing what so very few people do, these days: he recognized that he might not have had all the information he needed to make an informed comment, and so he didn’t make a comment.

I’ve trod this path before, but I’ll tread again: the comment section of any online article is not a place you want to visit if you’re heavily into temperate, restrained, thoughtful discourse. No indeed. And neither are talk radio programs, most cable news television chat shows, or the halls of Congress. And, sadly, this is not new. I remember hearing blowhards on the radio when I was ten and thinking, “ya wanna go read up on this before you toss your two cents in?” Or fourth-grader words to that effect.

As it happens, the comments that followed my friend’s post constituted the most thoughtful, measured and civilized debate I’ve read in a very long while. It’s the company you keep, I guess.

 

By coincidence – well, no, actually I should say this: in the world of potential blog topics, I’ve found a curious utter lack of coincidence. Somehow, way too often for it to be statistically likely, I’ll take note of a news item … and then two other way-too-similar ones pop up within the next 12 hours. It’s remarkable…

Anyway, by lack of coincidence, today I took note of a news item having to do with a school where I used to work … involving a gentleman around whom I used to work … and I had to wrestle with several issues at once.

I used to direct the athletic bands at the College of the Holy Cross. I spent a fine four years there, working with some terrific people, in an atmosphere that was assuredly very positive in many ways. And in spite of the relatively smaller crowds that women’s basketball drew, some of my very favorite memories of the Cross came at the Hart Center gym when Bill Gibbons’ teams were squaring off with their Patriot League arch-rivals.

For one thing, the women’s game always seemed to me like purer basketball. The men’s teams played with a ferocity that tended to turn the game into an almost endless succession of slams and bangs, with occasional artistry thrown in. The women slammed less, passed more, and one could almost imagine that Dr. Naismith’s game really had started out looking more like Maya Moore, Rebecca Lobo and Elena Delle Donne than it looked like Shaq, LeBron and the Round Mound of Rebound. (Nothing against Mr. Mound.)

Also, from a band director’s (and, I think it’s safe to say, a band member’s) perspective, if the HC women’s team and coaching staff was at all representative of the college women’s basketball community … then I can hypothesize that on average, women’s teams are more likely than men’s teams to give a damn about the band!

Maybe it’s because on average they draw smaller crowds than the men’s games do, so they appreciate anyone and everyone who shows up, and especially the bands that are always on duty, always cheering for them, always making sure that their gym is a miserable place for opponents to play in. And the women’s teams express that appreciation.

An indelible memory, for me, came prior to a league playoff game that Holy Cross was hosting during spring break. As often happens, band alumni came back to fortify the pep band’s ranks while classes weren’t in session, and as we were setting up drums and getting ready to do musical battle, I noticed a nice lady standing next to me, holding a pan of something that smelled very much like yummy baked goods. And that’s what they were. “These are for the band,” she said. Well thank you!, I said, and to whom to I owe thanks? “Oh, I just made up a batch this afternoon. Thought you’d like them. …I’m Bill Gibbons’ mother.”

Okay, let’s be clear. The mother of the women’s team’s head coach just baked brownies … for the band. Not a bad place to do business, eh?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say; Mrs. Gibbons must at least have provided a good example for her son to maybe follow. And her son very often followed it. Before every women’s home game, Coach Gibbons made it a point to walk over to the band bleachers, look up at the kids and call out, “we got ’em tonight, right? We can do this! Thanks for being here! Let’s go!” or something similar. The route from the locker room to the home team bench area did not take him past the band; but he made sure to take that detour.

When I left Holy Cross – not because I didn’t love the job, but because I couldn’t afford to be both a full-time public school teacher and a part-time college band director (the hardest professional decision of my life that was ever obvious), I sent a number of letters to various College “stakeholders”, expressing my thanks for their help in making my experience as good as it was. And Coach Gibbons sent back what was by far the longest and most expressive reply. It wasn’t boilerplate; it wasn’t “here, administrative assistant, send a letter, the usual gratitude template, signed, blah blah blah”. It was “if there’s ever anything I can do for you, just ask,” and it was sincere and genuine. No administrative assistant helped him … his capitalization wasn’t that good.

When I got to see Coach Gibbons at work, which was mainly at home games, he was an intense guy. In the heat of Patriot League battle, he was always working the sidelines, always in motion, always keeping the referees aware of important things, always totally into what he was doing. Nothing was held back – it seemed like the only speed he knew was “full throttle”. And it seemed to me that while he was tough on his players when they needed reminders about things like rebounding, he treated them well in public when they were working hard, even if they weren’t winning (according to the scoreboard) at that moment – and I always got the feeling that with Coach Gibbons, tough love was still love.

 

The news item of yesterday: a former HC women’s basketball player is suing the school, the coach and a couple of athletic department administrators. She is accusing Coach Gibbons of verbally and physically abusing his players at games and practices, and accusing the college of “perpetuat[ing] a culture of denial and feign[ing] ignorance over his actions”. The lawsuit says that this former player “was in fear of physical pain, [and] suffered emotional abuse and fear of retaliation at the hand of defendant Gibbons”, and that her “love of basketball and self-esteem had been damaged.”

As I read all of this in several online articles, I admit that I did so from the perspective of someone who has watched this lawsuit’s main defendant work, who has admired his work, and who thought he had a pretty good sense of what this gentleman was all about. And who was prejudicially predisposed to not necessarily buy everything this former player was selling.

I have never watched a Holy Cross women’s basketball practice. I don’t know whether Coach Gibbons is Dr. Jekyll in one place, Mr. Hyde in another. (Although, if the Coach pleading his case to the referees after a particularly awful call was Jekyll, I suppose maybe I’d prefer not to see Hyde?) I’m not privy to his interactions with his players in the locker room, away from public scrutiny. I simply do not have enough information to feel comfortable saying that the Coach is never ever so intense and out-of-control that he would do things to his players that the lawsuit accuses him of doing. Plus, I haven’t been to a Crusader women’s game for seven years. Things change. People change. Nothing is impossible … although some things are very very improbable.

So here I am … admiring my friend’s ability to admit his incomplete knowledge of a situation and his subsequent decision to refrain from commenting (and to solicit others’ assistance) … while at the same time I’m getting ready to comment.

I am still yet to achieve perfection, I fear.

But at least I know a little tiny bit of something about the man, and his program, and his school.

 

Plenty of online commenters instantly assumed that Coach Gibbons was the worst of the worst. The Midwest area director of an organization which supports survivors of abuse by priests weighed in (without offering any evidence of having conducted any more of an investigation than reading the New York Daily News article). There were the usual yahoo comments by people who were more interested in making a joke than in making a point. One comment wondered how the Coach would be treated in prison (thus bypassing due process and heading straight for “Orange is the New Black”). One commenter said, oxymoronically, “I will await the evidence as it unfolds. But the fact that Holy Cross is a Roman Catholic institution sways me to thinking that the allegations are well founded.” [To be clear, Holy Cross is a Jesuit school, and for many reasons, I suspect that this could be a distinction with a difference.] And one commenter painted with a different but equally broad brush: “Coaches can be such a—holes.”

I bet none of these people had ever seen a Holy Cross women’s basketball game.

In school, they told me: write about what you know.

So okay.

Based on what I know of Coach Gibbons … which may be incomplete knowledge, but it’s all I’ve got to go on, and it’s a hell of a lot more knowledge than is exhibited by the aforementioned parachute-drop artists and trolls … if I learned that he had in fact exhibited patterns of behavior that would merit serious consideration of this lawsuit, I would be surprised and disappointed.

One of his fellow central-Massachusetts college basketball coaches said that Gibbons was “a person who represents basketball the right way, certainly off the court with everything that should be done for your players – getting involved with community service, making sure they’re accountable academically, that they’re representing the college the right way off the court. There is no one as classy a person. If I had two daughters, which I don’t, I would love them to have an opportunity to play for Bill Gibbons.”

It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. From the get-go, Coach Gibbons absolutely struck me as an intense guy. But he also struck me as somebody who cared more about his players as people than he did about how many wins, how many championships, etc. He struck me as a decent guy – as somebody who, if he were about to make a comment to a reporter that he knew was going to draw a fine from the Patriot League, would stop and take a deep breath. He wore his heart on his sleeve … but in my dealings with him, he was nothing but a class act. Intensity … but with dignity.

I’ll be very interested to see what happens here – to see who comes out of this looking good. If the allegations are true, I’ll be disappointed, but such things happen. If it turns out that a reputation is tarnished that didn’t need to be … I’ll be more than disappointed.

October 18, 2013 Posted by | current events, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

There’s a Battle Outside And It’s Ragin’

So, for most of two weeks now, the government of the most powerful nation on earth has had a sign hanging from its figurative door, reading “Closed We Are”.

Except for a few crucial slivers of the operation, of course. Tiny things like the Amber Alert system, the National Weather Service’s local forecast page (whew!), … and the entire military. Otherwise, we’re locked down tight. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Oh yes, and one other tiny component of the federal government is still safely up and running: the blowhards.

Citizens have posted online about how they are troubled to hear that Congresspeople are still getting paid, when less heralded federal employees are not. It’s a symbol that rings hollow. (And I am deeply sorry that I wrote that last.)

Similar online expressions of anxiety have noted that people like FDA regulators, transportation safety boards, and people who monitor flu season (which starts right about now, by the way) are off the job for reasons totally not of their making. In fact, for reasons they might have trouble even conceiving of.

And then there are the national parks!…

Which might not seem a monumental thing (again, my humble apologies; I don’t know what’s wrong with this keyboard today), compared to some of these other examples. If tourists are inconvenienced when they arrive at national parks from Yellowstone to the Statue of Liberty, well, it’s an inconvenience. Disappointing to set up a vacation months previously and then have plain ol’ bad luck prevent proper enjoyment of these wonders – but the earth will continue to rotate, probably.

Except for one small matter. As a New York Times article reminded me yesterday, there are livelihoods that depend on the operation of these tourist attractions, beyond those of the actual Park Rangers. There are legions of people in national park “gateway communities” who own, or work at, or supply nearby restaurants and hotels and shops. These people depend upon the success of the national park attractions at peak tourist times – and in the case of several businesses referenced by the Times article, that peak tourism time is right now! – to help them weather the slower winter months, until spring returns with more tourists.

I can draw a parallel, I think, betwixt the federal government and my local professional sports teams. Big ol’ overpaid athletes gonna make their money whether they make the playoffs or not – but the deeper into the playoffs the Bruins or Red Sox go, the more fans will pass near and potentially through the gates of establishments on Causeway Street and in Kenmore Square. And on those occasions when professional sports leagues experience strikes or lockouts – the pro sports equivalent of a government shutdown – who suffers? Not usually the bigshots. Many or most of the players make enough money that they can weather a strike or a lockout, even an extended one. Owners? Dear heaven, no problem there. Many members of Congress already are economically set for life (or are much closer to that condition than I am) before they even take their oaths.

As usual … it’s the little guy who takes it on the chin, who may not be able to make that rent payment, whose business may end up in real trouble – for reasons beyond their control, and often beyond their comprehension. In the case of our current federal freeze, the Times article calls them victims of “political brinksmanship”.

As for the politicos who are living, nay, thriving on that brink: during this government shutdown, the media has relayed a remarkable number of quotes from a remarkable number of politicians, revelatory of a remarkable number of tin ears. Many members of Congress have seemed unaware that they were revealing truths that would inevitably label them as “out of touch with average Americans”. They have exhibited an unawareness of the plight of the little guy – as exemplified by this shutdown, but I think also in a more general sense.

We have sent to Washington, generally speaking (with a few precious exceptions), a pack of people who can’t truly represent us adequately, in part because they manage to betray no concept of what non-millionaires truly have to do to make ends meet. Economically, most of our elected representatives are far removed from the need to worry about making ends meet. For some of them, those ends have never been measurably far apart. If there’s pain in the world, they don’t feel it. In terms of economics – and increasingly, in terms of empathy – we don’t have much of a representative government anymore.

Is it worse if those representatives don’t know what they need to know about their constituents … or is it worse if it turns out that they don’t even care? Or that they care more about pleasing the people who fill their campaign coffers than they care about the people they campaigned to represent? Or … that they care more about an ideology than they care about humans that ain’t them?

I got mine … good luck to you.

More than one embittered columnist has written things along the lines of, “well, we elected these clowns – so we got the government we deserve.” But I’m not convinced that this is exactly accurate. I don’t think we do “deserve” the clowns, no matter how much or how little spare time we may have available to get ourselves educated about political issues. I sure don’t think I do, if I may be so bold as to flex a little self-esteem. And I don’t think my family or friends or neighbors deserve them either. We deserve better, we deserve more responsive, we deserve less self-serving. If you’re gonna be a public servant – and a lot of elected representatives probably think that’s a name for the guy who shambles into their offices and brings them their morning cuppa joe – then Serve The Public.

Because right about now – even without this ridiculous government shutdown – your public needs some improved serving.

As if on cue, this afternoon I received this eMail from the publicity engine of the United States Marine Band:

The following concerts have been canceled due to the government shutdown: Oct. 17 at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va.; Oct. 19 at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del.; and Oct. 20 at the Marine Barracks Annex in Washington, D.C.”

So there’s that, too. Perhaps not as pressing a situation as the people who depend on social security payments or food stamps or other government assistance programs. Only some opportunities for our young people to experience a little culture.

Come, Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call…

 

P.S. Trivia about the “Closed We Are” reference: that was on a handwritten sign, posted on the office door of the Soviet press corps at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the day after the “Miracle on Ice” American upset of the Soviet national hockey team – the “do you believe in miracles? Yes!!” game. This, according to then-United Press International radio reporter Keith Olbermann.

October 11, 2013 Posted by | current events, government, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments