Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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.

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November 22, 2013 - Posted by | current events | , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Wow…a very profound post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Comment by alvb1227 | November 22, 2013 | Reply

  2. I can still hear the horses’ hooves on the pavement. The TV commentators knew well enough to be silent for long stretches. Good post, Rob.

    Comment by DD | November 24, 2013 | Reply


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