Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

DNA

Ever watch someone (or someones) do their thing, and only after it’s over do you realize how much preparation and practice and work it must have taken to get to the point where it was made to look easy?

For me, whether it’s music or drama or sports or public speaking or teaching or whatever … I most enjoy myself when I don’t have to worry (“will they make it to the end of the tune? can they drive 90 yards in two minutes?”) but instead I can just watch and marvel. The best performances are the ones that not only make it look easy … they make you wish you could join the performers … in fact, the performers make it look so easy that you think, “you know, I could do that; that doesn’t look hard at all.”

Once upon a time, someone wisely said, “the moment you stop entertaining, your audience starts evaluating.”

So yesterday morning, I got entertained.

 

In this case, I was a little closer (personally and professionally) to the performing group than would be considered average, so I was a bit nervous going into the event. The band alumni stomach-butterflies flapped their little wings, and my usual music teacher “error detection and correction” instincts readied themselves. On top of that, I’d already seen a few other similar groups do their thing upon the teevee, and I’d seen occasional (understandable) struggles with logistical and meteorological challenges, so something of a precedent had been set. This particular performance concept was fraught with potential pitfalls – I’d once been in the metaphorical shoes of the morning’s performers, in fact. So: we must be vigilant … and we must actively pull for the next group on the starting line.

It was the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. It was 30 degrees and, um, breezy in Herald Square. It was an opportunity to try to fit nearly 400 musicians and visual performers into a space the size of a suburban post office parking lot, at most. And the UMass Minuteman Marching Band was about to to make that attempt.

After NBC’s Matt Lauer and Al Roker stumbled through a relatively (for network television) effusive introduction, the band entered the stage on a dead run … the drumline cranked up … and they were off. And they were killin’.

After ninety breathless seconds, the people sitting in the room with me were breathless ourselves. The blur that had been the UMass performance of “Big Noise from Winnetka” hadn’t allowed us to get anywhere near becoming “evaluators”.

Holy heck, were those kids “on.”

And then I calmed down a bit and thought, with classic 20/20 hindsight, “well of course they were going to do well; how could we have doubted.” So what if the performance in front of the Macy*s department store is the musical equivalent of the 40-yard dash? So what if the air temperature was below freezing and the “real feel” was well below that? Yeah, yeah; whatever. Some groups stare live national television air time in the face and flinch. Other groups have the spotlight hit them … and they hit it right back.

 

In the case of that UMass band: whether its fans think of it as, “since John Jenkins came along,” or “since George Parks came along,” or “since Thom Hannum came along,” or “since the first Inaugural Parade,” or “since the first Grand Nationals show,” or “since the Sudler Award,” or since some other worthy milestone … for quite a long time now there’s been something about the way that ensemble is organized, instructed, trained and motivated, which quite simply predicts a certain level of achievement. There are slight variations from performance to performance because that’s what happens when imperfect humans are involved; but the range of expected outcome that is not terribly wide. On top of which, these methods of instruction and inspiration (or very similar versions thereof) have been carried from the UMass campus by UMMB alums to a number of other campuses, and are yielding comparable results. There’s a lineage that’s been established.

There’s little doubt that Thom Hannum’s drumline will get the job done; and yesterday did they ever. (Thom’s standards tend to be almost impossibly higher than those of the rest of us mortals, meaning that if there happen to be flaws, we probably won’t spot them anyway.) There’s little doubt that the band – winds, percussion, guard – will generate an exciting, engaging performance; and yesterday that poured off the TV screens of America in waves.

In a previous post, I ascribed the characteristic of confidence … of “earned swagger” … to one other marching ensemble. The idea was, there’s a certain self-assurance that will allow a group’s members to step up to the plate and know, know that they’re going to hit this one out of the park. You might say it’s in their organization’s DNA. They don’t talk trash … they don’t strut … they don’t pause dramatically and point to the right-field upper deck.  They just step into the batter’s box with an air of “we got this”, see the pitch all the way from the mound to the plate, swing, and deposit the ball ten rows deep in that upper deck.

Quite honestly, UMass has got that.

The preparation which they carry out … which they have done for some time now … which they have come to embrace as a routine, as something that is required in order to properly do business … allows them to enter the field, or the street, or the concert hall, and instinctively know that if they do what’s necessary, they won’t have to worry about the technical-merit scores – so they can concentrate on the artistic-merit scores. They’ll bring precision and pizazz, power and class, and they will nail it.

So when Eastern-time-zone Americans turned to their TV sets yesterday morning at about 11:20 (and then the rest of the country had their chances at 12:20, 1:20 and 2:20 Eastern time), they got hit in the chops with the sight and sound of a band whose performance was distinctly different, unquestionably higher-powered, and more aggressively fun than anything similar that had appeared yet that morning.

No fair to compare collegiate bands to high school bands, you’d say, and we would of course acknowledge this as true in most cases. There were high school bands that performed well; and the James Madison University band acquitted itself well at the beginning of the parade, no doubt. But UMass – every single band member – effectively reached through the TV screen and grabbed the TV audience and said “you’re going to love us, whether you like it or not.”

(Sound familiar, fellow alums?)

Enthusiasm. Excitement. Energy. Intensity. Excellence. Holy smokes, did the NBC audience get that, in spades.

We got this … and you’re going to love it.”

Because, thanks to a long tradition of hard work by legions of people – and a very committed handful of people in particular – it’s in our DNA.

November 29, 2013 Posted by | band, current events, entertainment, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, television, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Wishbone To Pick

From the “I’s Had All I Can Takes, And I Can’t Takes No More” Dept.:

It is coming on toward Thanksgiving. All holidays are somewhat manufactured, after all; but there are some holidays which are purely creations of greeting-card companies. This is demonstrably not one of them. Previously in this space, I have noted with some startled pleasure that the purpose of Thanksgiving Day has not been transmogrified by the Corporate Interests into something it was not intended to be. It’s a day when, with luck, people will be able to express their gratitude for whatever they have, in whatever direction they wish to direct that gratitude – upward, or across a table, or over the phone, or using electrons.

Me, I can think of many things for which I am thankful. Gainful employment (that I enjoy doing, which is a nice bonus). Roof over my head. Dry floor beneath my feet. Knock on wood: a car that appears to want to run forever. Family that I can stand (hee hee – and then some). Friends whom I would not trade for the world … some of whom I’ve known for twenty-five years, some I’ve known for twenty-five days. And memories generated by my friendships and professional associations (often represented by the same person) to which I would similarly clutch tightly.

 

Meanwhile, from the sublime to the ridiculous: I’m not the only person, I think, who has lately noted a gradual but decided shift in Opportunities For Commerce, nearby to Thanksgiving.

For most of my life, the day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial start of the holiday (let’s be frank: Christmas) shopping season. For me, it’s the day when I realize that for yet another year I have failed to carry out my annual New Year’s Resolution: “do all my darn Christmas shopping in April.” And it’s the day when I stay ensconsed in my house, where it’s safe … and mark my calendar with all the December moments when the malls might not be hugely stuffed with people; when cars might not be roaming the parking lots, their drivers constantly on the alert for suddenly-vacated parking spaces upon which to predatorily pounce; when cash-register lines might not resemble the queues that form when World Series home-game tickets go on sale.

A while ago, the day acquired an actual nickname: Black Friday. Curious, as that used to be the name for a really bad economic moment.

Very recently, with the assistance of viral online articles and videos, there has been a marked increase in the reporting of rather awful moments of violence, generated by people’s rush to get into stores and snag that crucial trinket before anybody else can. Peace on earth, but limited goodwill toward men. These occurrences of trampling might optimistically be understood as the result being at a department store some time in the wee hours of the Black Friday morning. Ah, I get it – people weren’t really totally awake at 4am … or 2am … or midnight. Perhaps they thought they were still in a nightmare and had to fight their way out.

Okay, probably not that.

Well, this year: wee-hours insanity problem solved, seemingly. Move the opening of Black Friday to Thursday and be done with it. And not merely to, say, dinnertime on Thanksgiving Day. That might maybe be charitably seen as a good way for people to work off all the Turkey Day fixin’s. [OK, dear readers, weigh in: how the hell DO you spell “fixings” if you’re going to leave off the last G for the sake of an accent?]

No, this year, quite a number of commercial establishments have decided that it’s a great idea to open all day Thursday.

Being as this is a free country full of free enterprise, I suppose there’s no legislation against this.

Two problems here. First, this manages to kill Thanksgiving for the people who have to open up the stores and staff them all day. I guess spending New Year’s Day or even the Fourth of July manning the cash registers might not be the worst thing in the world. But Thanksgiving Day?

Second, there are the folks in the boardrooms and corner offices who made the decision to expand the American orgy of holiday spending into the day in which people formerly merely sat, gave thanks and burped contentedly. I don’t imagine that they will be the ones that have to go in at 8am on Thanksgiving Day and dodge the invading hordes.

I know, I know. For years and years and years, the Packers and the Lions have met to play football, and that has compelled a similar legion of workers who don’t wear suits to show up to work. The concessions stands, ticket gates, broadcast trucks, and perimeter of the NFL field of play need to be attended to by somebody … so perhaps all this Thanksgiving Day activity is not utterly new. … For that matter, that ol’ Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade thing in Manhattan has been going on for eight decades now.

Perhaps I’m late to that whole party.

But when I go into department stores, I see staff members who probably are making ends meet, but in some cases barely. People who would benefit greatly from a day off, whether it’s for the purpose of gratitude or for some extra sleep. And I can even imagine that they might be the ones who’d express gratitude most effusively, in spite of the fact that they might not have that much to be thankful for materially.

I saw an online graphic yesterday that suggested that a boycott of Thanksgiving-Day sales would be appropriate. But it doesn’t change the fact that the stores will be open. Even if all of America rose up and stated, “this is absurd,” and stayed home … the advertisements have gone out. Those stores have committed to opening, and they’ll need to follow through on that promise. So when I join my family tomorrow afternoon – in a house, and not in the Electronics department – I won’t be effectively relieving all those clerks, warehouse people, custodians, and lower-level managers of their holiday work schedules.

Yes: seventeen years ago, after the Boston University Marching Band returned from its trip to New York, to march in the Macy*s parade … I was glad that the Howard Johnson’s hotel restaurant in Kenmore Square was open so a bunch of us (many of whom were prohibitively far from home that Thursday) could go have a Thanksgiving dinner together. Someone had to be on duty there, to cook and serve and clean up afterward. And we were very, very appreciative of their work.

And yes, even more crucially: there are emergency first responders and other important people who need to be on duty tomorrow … just in case somebody chokes on something, or the turkey ignites, or something equally unfortunate happens.

But that’s for the common good. That’s for public safety. That’s for the purpose of lookin’ out for each other.

The same, I think, cannot be said for offering people the chance to elbow other people out of the way en route to the 60-inch TV department on a national day of gratitude that has still managed to avoid acquiring an official mascot.

 

So: Happy Thanksgiving. Let us give thanks. And if you do head out into tomorrow’s Very Deeply Charcoal Grey Thursday sales events … spare a smile and a “hope you get to have a holiday” for the folks in the red vests or the blue polo shirts and/or the red Santa hats.

Otherwise, for them, tomorrow could be kind of a turkey.

November 27, 2013 Posted by | current events | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Active Silence

When I was a member of my college band, I remember hearing quite a number of my fellow marchers declare, “I hate parades.”

I understood: most of the time, for a marching band, a parade entails playing the same three pieces of music, or two, or if you’re really unlucky, the same one piece of music … over and over for a certain number of miles. And those miles are the ones that the Google Maps function is capable of measuring. Then you add in the amount of time spent marking time while the float ahead of you gets free of whatever it ran into, and that usually increases the total mileage by between a third and half again the original distance. Then you factor in the opportunity to step in … shall we say … horsie byproducts … and you can begin to grasp why someone might not envision a parade as the zenith of the band experience.

As for me, I was pretty quiet about the fact that I actually didn’t mind parades.

As a woodwind player, I ended up in the “back block”, which is to say that the brass instruments formed the “front block”, the drumline was located in the center of the formation, and the woodwind instruments took up the rear. But as a woodwind player of saxophone-shaped instruments, I usually ended up at the front of the back, if you follow that. Which meant I got a pretty good look at the percussionists doing their thing. By the end of my first parade, I was pretty sure I’d gotten the high bass drum part to the marching cadence down cold. And I observed, for the first time, that apparently one could hit a drum with the same drumstick twice in a row – which, I will sheepishly admit, opened this freshman’s eyes to whole new vistas of drumming. So parades tended to be learning experiences. On top of which, it was fun to watch people react to our rather competent drumline. Either their faces displayed a large amount of “–whoa!” or they were covering the ears. (Well, eight snares, five quads, five bass drums and a rather ridiculous number of pairs of cymbals were going to make a bit of sound, after all.)

And truly, I found it enjoyable to play for a constantly-changing audience. On every block was a whole new set of people to entertain, and preparing one tune to play for ten or twenty or thirty audiences might be seen as easier than preparing ten or twenty or thirty tunes to play for one.

In my experience with bands, there has been: the parade through the “streets” of the Big E, the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts. The Woburn Halloween Parade (actually, that was the parade in which we marched about a mile and a half but I’d swear we marked time for four). The UMass Homecoming Parade. The march from Old Chapel to the football stadium, with a stopoff in the Southwest dorm area to wake some people up who had the audacity to sleep in till noon. Later in life, there was the Allston-Brighton parade, just outside Boston, which often featured many bands, many politicians, and several stretches of parade route along which sat exactly no spectators. There was the Worcester Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which can be a little nippy unless you stop every so often and do your official dance groove routine; at which point the crowd reaction helps you forget how cold it is. In fact, for the most part, the spectators are enthusiastic and clap a lot. It’s a rare parade crowd that sits on its hands, even if sometimes it seems like they’re clapping for the parade concept and not necessarily for the specific unit they’re watching. It’s okay. Yay bands! Yay Scouts! Yay twirlers! Yay, poor guy dragging a wagon full of Ninja Turtle balloons uphill, hoping to sell one or two or twenty. Parade!

And then, as a graduate assistant with the Boston University band, there was the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade experience. My alma mater band is marching that one in a week’s time, and I wish them a weird and wonderful time, which they are guaranteed to have, because that’s what the Macy*s parade is. Dress rehearsal at the store at 4:45 am, hurry up and wait, march the route in front of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of live parade watchers, eight and ten and twelve people deep at the many points along the route that don’t feature bleachers … run/march in to the Macy*s store “stage” area, play like mad for 75 seconds, run/march out, and wonder what the hell just happened?! And think “I will remember this for the rest of my life, except I can’t remember anything specific.”

Fifty years ago this coming Sunday, though, there was a parade … actually let’s be accurate and call it a procession … that was absolutely none of those things.

 

Fifty years ago this afternoon, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I’ve seen or at least looked toward plenty of documentaries in the last few days, and will continue to do so this weekend, I’m sure, about what was a horrifying and awful moment in American history – whatever one thought of President Kennedy at the time. Here was an American head of state, with a movie-star-attractive wife and two terribly cute toddler children, whose White House household was nicknamed “Camelot” and whose charisma drew the enthusiastic admiration of foreign audiences and almost invariably overcame the effects of whatever rumored less-than-wholesome activities the man might have been involved in. Here was the youngest President ever elected, a man who was just 43 years old at his inauguration – hardly middle-aged.

Pearl Harbor … the Challenger disaster … 9/11 … there are a select few events in modern American history, I think, that qualify as “where were you, when…?” moments. The assassination of John Kennedy has stood the test of time as one of those. I wasn’t alive yet on that awful day, so I’ve had to listen carefully to my mother’s stories and those of other people who remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news.

But thanks to the magic of grainy 1960s television footage, and 21st-century online streaming services, we under-fifty folks can cue up video recordings of that day and try to imagine what it was like to have been alive at that moment.

As a former journalism major, with great interest and admiration I have run and re-run Walter Cronkite’s relaying of the news flash, “apparently official”, of Kennedy’s passing – admiring Cronkite’s ability to function as a journalist and a human at the same time. He reads the press release, pausing only briefly to clear his throat against his rising grief, and otherwise remaining the calm, dignified voice of CBS News … and still he allows his humanity to be present; not dominant, but present all the same.

There are many images and sounds from that brief period in American history that are affecting, and some of them disturbing. The Cronkite moment, for one; the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald as he was transferred from the Dallas police headquarters to a nearby county jail, caught on camera, for another. And Kennedy’s three-year-old son, John Jr., saluting his father’s casket as his funeral procession passes by him, for a heart-breaking third.

But for me … and maybe this is my parade experience creating some unavoidable bias … the most remarkable scene comes during that funeral procession, during which the President’s body was taken from the White House to the US Capitol. The casket, draped with an American flag, was carried down Pennsylvania Avenue by a horse-drawn wagon, flanked by marching military personnel, followed by a single line of black limousines, and accompanied musically only by a military percussion group.

It was a Sunday, for openers, not a weekday. The crowds were reportedly ten to twelve people deep, all along the sides of the Avenue. And in one particular stretch of network-television video, one can only hear four sounds: the very spare percussion cadence, the gentle rumble of the 1960s-era limo engines, a very occasional quiet snippet of conversation, and the squall of a single six- or eight-month-old infant in the crowd somewhere.

And that’s it.

Americans can be a noisy bunch; and when we’re not actively noisy, we still seem to surround ourselves with recorded music, or other organized noise. As I’ve suggested previously in this space, Americans have become used to “loud” as a baseline volume from which to work upward. Go see an action movie in the theatre, and the sound content will shake your fillings loose.

But as Kennedy’s funeral procession traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue on that day in 1963, the thousands of people in attendance were as close to utterly silent as a group of thousands of humans can probably be.

The silence of a hundred people sitting in a room, all being silent on purpose, is much more impressive than the silence of that room before those hundred people show up.

The funeral procession passed by, and all those people stayed completely, purposefully, actively silent.

To me, that’s the ultimate indication of just how serious, how dire a moment in American history this was.

They held a parade, and nobody clapped.

November 22, 2013 Posted by | current events | , , , , , , | 2 Comments