Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Taking It For Granite –or– There’s a Hand, My Trusty Fiere

Today, online, I’ve noticed a large number of my friends posting sentiments along the lines of, “hey, 2013, don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

In fact, I may have quoted one friend exactly.

Recognizing that it’s right-next-to-impossible to isolate one year and discover that what’s happened to someone is either all good or all bad … the year 2013 has been beddy beddy good to me.

Not trying to one-up you, or to gloat. Rather, I think I’m trying to offer a hat tip. Enough of my years have deserved the “don’t let the door…” thought, that when one doesn’t, I want to take note.

A few years ago, I started keeping notes about what I had accomplished and when. The habit started out as a desperate bid to keep a school vacation week from slipping away. I was writing down anything from “lunch with Fred” to “nap” to “supermarket run” – so that when I got to Friday, I wouldn’t look back and wonder, “where did that week go?” If I fritter away a day or a week, I’m going to do it on purpose.

I promise, I’m not really that obsessive all the time. If I were, my office would be a lot cleaner, I think.

Anyway, I went back to the my 2013 records today and discovered that while I did have to take the occasional sick day, and not every plan came together, and occasionally I had to attend meetings which were something less than giddy fun, and occasionally all was not peaches ‘n’ cream and hearts ‘n’ flowers … yeah, 2013 and I got along.

 

I got to find out what a new job in a new town was like, and racked up a startling number of firsts. First high school concert in the new town … first middle school concert … first community outreach gig … first faculty meeting … first sick day …

I got to participate in a number of really fine musical performances, and in many of those I got to be less of a chief and more of an Indian, if you’ll pardon the expression. Bass player just groovin’ in the back? Piano accompanist playing for a vocalist who was quite rightly attracting all the attention? Saxophonist amidst the very large concert band? Choir member in the back row? That was me, just hangin’ out and watching the conductor for a change.

This was my fifteenth summer as a member of a pair of groups – assisting with the music for my favorite children’s theater group, and hangin’ with the incredible teaching staff of a certain drum major clinic – and re-discovering how Cool each of these Groups are.

Via my church gig, I had the opportunity to partake of quite a number of memorable musical experiences. Summer music involved solos and trios and choirs (oh my) … the “high holy” weeks were, shall we say, a bit more organized and thus a bit more calm (relatively speaking) than prior versions … and let’s just say that I’ve gone on and on about about the process of going “From Zero to Large Musical Work in Five-Point-Five Months”. A lot of times I have the best seat in the house, in front of that choir.

I have also already waxed eloquent about the word “thunderstruck” in relation to a pair of Hall of Fame -quality experiences this fall. And I happen not to be thinking about the Red Sox winning the World Series, either. Humbly I suggest you move on to the next paragraph.

This spring, I got to watch two colleagues flex their recent-doctorate-in-conducting muscles, leading two fine ensembles in performances that, I would judge, should have sent messages to the rest of the college indoor band world: objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

I traded barbs and smiles and current-event updates and concerns with friends and colleagues, via social media engines, as I became something of a devotee of the “liveblogging” experience. The presidential inauguration … the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent lockdown of the city of Boston … the final night of drum corps competition … the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade … random hockey games? Sometimes the commentary was about events we all were witnessing. Sometimes the commentary was journalism: Cadets in third place … our favorite college band is on CBS television right now! … the bombing suspect is hiding in a boat in somebody’s backyard. It’s a brave new world, with the virtual and the real connecting and merging and good luck figuring out which is which sometimes.

I had other opportunities to appreciate the fine people that I get to call friends. Friends old and new … sitting at coffee shops, or All-State sessions … in a booth, or at the bar … at pubs, or in homes, or at concert venues, or on the main drag at amusement parks … on the way across town to a blockbuster movie, or on the way up the eastern seaboard … chatting and philosophizing, or harmonizing and jammin’ … former students, or nearly-lifelong ‘mates … at high noon, or into the wee hours of the night. If the secret to success is to surround yourself with good people, then I got it made.

I got to attend a pair of weddings that involved professional colleagues, and in each case, it was spectacularly obvious that, in the words of the ancient mystic at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” … They Chose Wisely. And they seemed so happy that I almost couldn’t believe it.

I attended visiting hours or wakes or memorial services for relatives of four friends or colleagues. I’m not so Pollyanna that I would focus on those times exclusively as chances to connect and re-connect with good friends, although those contacts did happen. But looking back at the notes I made about those events does serve as a reminder, as if I needed one, that I had it pretty good this year – abnormally so, in fact.

 

Meantime, as always seems to be the case, out in the big wide world there were people who didn’t have it so good, this year.  Our world features miseries on top of indignities, problems causing or being caused by calamities. Meteors hit Russian cities … bombs go off at marathon finish lines and at shopping malls … gunshots ring out inside schools full of our children … military coups and poison gas attacks rend the Middle Eastern part of the world … flash floods and typhoons trap, injure and kill thousands … politicians say and do things that seem almost calculated to take other people’s misfortunes and compound them …

So, note to self: must not take for granted whatever good fortune settles upon me. I ain’t got much to gripe about, compared to many in the world. If I were a superstitious fella, I might be avoiding sidewalk cracks, crossing fingers, and tossing handfuls of salt with reckless abandon at this point. Yeah, I got stress – who doesn’t? – but as long as I’ve spent so much blog time and space imploring other people to go get a sense of perspective or proportion … I need to take my own advice on this one.

Lift up … because you can.

Here’s a wish that your year 2014 might rise to and past the level of my 2013. Whatever that may mean.

December 31, 2013 Posted by | current events, friends, social media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sense of Proportion

On Saturday, October 16, 2010, there was a football game about which I have written before in this space – but the writing was not about the athletic activity itself. As a marching band alumni of the University of Massachusetts, I have spent a very long time paying not very much attention to the actual sports going on in the games that I attended.

A few games were memorable enough for me to remember the final score, but those were a scant few. My last home game was a 52-10 smackdown by Holy Cross – but I remember that the score at halftime was something like 20-7, and friends, being down by just thirteen to the HC then-juggernaut was a moral victory for the Men in Maroon. There was one exciting finish against “the hated UConn” that we witnessed, from the end zone that our guys were trying to defend (since we’re going on the field for postgame anyway, let’s go support our team!!), and I remember we lost heartbreakingly. The score was something to something, but the postgame show was killin’.

Well, whatever school I’d attended, I’d have been cheering for that team. But UMass football has a certain following, and even in the best of times that following can be described as local. Boston sportswriters over the years have written about UMass sports with a Bostonian’s faintly condescending view of the quaint little backwater burg of Amherst that most of them have never been near. The number of times that UMass athletics has been front-and-center on Boston newspapers’ sports sections can be counted on the fingers of two hands, at best.

But in a region where professional sports teams win championships with relative regularity, even the Boston College football program, a member of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference which annually battles the Florida States and Miamis of the world, struggles for media coverage around here. New England loves its Sawx and its Broons and its Celtics if they’re winning; and in the last decade, we’ve gotten used to saying the word “Patriots” without having to look apologetic. Meanwhile, the UConn women’s basketball team is truly a team for the ages, and has been for years and years, but if you’re not standing in the 203 area code, you don’t hear much about them. And if you don’t live in western Massachusetts, college athletics based in Amherst don’t cross your radar.

So, people around here could have been forgiven if they heard the announcement, nearly three years ago, that UMass football was headed for the same college football stratum that features Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Alabama … and gave out with the English translation of “quoi?”

 

Rumors had already begun to fly, on that October afternoon in 2010. The FBS days are coming. Just a matter of time. And UMass had experienced national football limelight before: they’d been to two Division I-AA championship games and won one of them. So, sensible. Success at one level causes people to consider the next level – in the spirit of “onward and upward”. Make the leap. And oh by the way, there are bucks to be made at that level of collegiate football. Very important.

That afternoon in 2010, though, UMass managed just ten points and lost to a University of Richmond team that itself only put up eleven – two of which came thanks to a safety, which means they didn’t exactly generate those points. The home-side stands’ muttering became more insistent as the game progressed.

And while those home-side stands were mostly full, the game was Homecoming. And there were legions of band alumni present for the celebration of the life of their recently-fallen leader. So the relative crush of fans was explainable by elements other than pure love for the game of football. Significantly, the visiting-side was its usual ten-percent full.

I have a distinct, clear memory of thinking out loud, “…and they think they’re in any way ready for prime time?”

Understand: I’m not someone who takes great pleasure in saying “I told you so”. Schadenfreude is not a hobby of mine. When I take part in it, it’s for a very darn good reason. Even then, only a limited number of people get alerted to its presence.

But for the record: the following April, when that announcement was made, and UMass committed to making the transition to Big Time College Football, I worried. A lot. And when UMass went 1-11 in its first FBS-schedule season, in 2012, I worked hard to consider that all the expansion teams of my youth had also endured initial campaigns that ranged from the paltry to the disastrous. The Montreal Expos, the Los Angeles Clippers, the California Golden Seals … there’s a rich history of humble beginnings that were overcome through patience and good planning, leading to heights of glory and success that …

Oh, wait. No there isn’t.

There had been lots of promises made. There had been lots of grand plans profferred. There probably had been lots of assumptions made, too, but surely those assumptions were based in careful aforethought and consultation with stakeholders?

Who knows.

 

But what didn’t happen included:

[1] Hordes of students boarding buses early on Saturday mornings, enjoying the ride from Amherst to Foxboro, filling the Gillette Stadium student section to overflowing, replicating the atmosphere of an Alabama home game, and happily re-telling the great football moments on the way back to their evening arrival back on campus. And telling those stories to more students, inspiring them to be part of the experience too.

[2] Multitudes of alumni, living in the Boston area and on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island, discovering that they had a shorter, more convenient, mostly-highway ride to UMass home football games than they would have if the games were held in the 413 area code – and becoming repeat UMass customers, when otherwise they might only have made an annual pilgrimage.

[3] Work starting immediately and in earnest, following the FBS-transition announcement, of a sweeping renovation of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, to accommodate tens of thousands of fans (and to satisfy NCAA requirements). I’ve seen the artists’ conceptions of the new McGuirk. It’s beautiful. A little out-of-character for the Pioneer Valley, true, but if you’re going to dream, dream big. Problem: the first time I saw construction activity that could be considered remotely significant was when I stood on nearby parking lots, teaching with the Drum Major Academy, fifteen months after the initial announcement.

And how fortunate to have an NFL stadium close-by, to stand in for the home stadium while the renovations were carried out. Well … sort of close-by.

Here, what rears its ugly head is my membership in the marching band alumni association … joining my membership in the general alumni association, as well as my membership in the association of people who enjoy football … in making a few observations.

The band followed the team to Gillette, of course. And in a facility far too large for any group (band, fans) smaller in number than 30,000 to make a true impact (go to a New England Revolution game: no matter how many seating sections they cover with tarps, and no matter how much gleefully incessant drumming and chanting and singing goes on, the joint is still not jumpin’) … the band continued to do their thing.

The band kept on performing their field shows regardless of how far away the small audiences were, or how dwarfed were the audience reactions by the sheer size of the room – you’re our audience, and whether you’re 20,000 or just twenty, we’re gonna put on a show for you. The band kept on cheering for their team, regardless of how little success that team was having – never our role to critique or complain while we’re in uniform and on the scene, but instead energy! enthusiasm! Regardless. If the joint is not going to jump, it’s not going to be because we lay down on the job.

And even so, the band has in fact adjusted their product to attempt to fit the needs of the moment, and of the new reality. The pregame show is now much more involved and active; more appropriate for an Ohio-State-like big-time atmosphere … and the difference is that much more obvious when the band’s energy isn’t met by a response from tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of spectators, but that of only a couple of thousand early arrivals. Thanks mostly to NFL stadium security requirements, there aren’t any sideline tuba-pyramid (and other) antics. Noticeably, halftime field shows are populated much more often by productions that involve volume and musical “muscle” than, as its late director used to call them, “pretty moments”. And that’s not the band’s fault. It’s not really a fault at all. It’s a response to external stimuli. Here’s what will work in a 70,000-seat stadium that is the closest thing New England has to the Grand Canyon … and here’s what will not work. As long as UMass football is played amidst architecture of that scale, a delicate mezzo-piano clarinet section passage will be lost somewhere between band and cheap seats.

Yes, the plan is to return a portion of UMass’ regular-season schedule to Amherst next fall, and all of it soon thereafter. So it’s not fair to say that we’ll never again hear music such as we long-time band fans heard during the legendary Phantom of the Opera show in 1990 (“Christine, I love… you…”). But as rare as delicate musical sounds are, in the college marching band game, they can’t survive a Division I-A crowd. At the half-dozen Boston College home games that I attended some years ago, it struck me that most of the home-side fans appeared to be utterly ignoring the band on the field at halftime. To get FBS football crowds’ attention, you have to play at jet-engine decibel levels. It ain’t right … but it’s life at the top.

Lastly, but of “alumni importance”: the last two Homecoming games at Gillette Stadium were snarkily but accurately nicknamed “Faux-coming”. Homecoming – an event meant to bring alumni back to campus and reunite people and organizations – has been fractured, even as the university has gamely tried to re-package it into a week-plus-long celebration. I attended the annual “Multiband Pops” concert this fall and noticed that – by contrast with many past year in which the audience was packed into the Fine Arts Center like sardines – the hall was not close to sold out. I suspect this was partly because it was being held eight days and 93 miles away from the football game, instead of seventeen hours and a brisk walk. The numbers, and the intensity of the experience, have been diluted.

Sorry. As a band guy, I seem incapable of talking about college football without worrying in a disproportionate way about how it affects the band. Habits of a lifetime. But regarding the broader football product – is the damage done?

 

What was it that drove the University of Massachusetts to make the move to the football Big Time? Speaking of responses to external stimuli: what dreams and schemes rose up and insisted that attention must be paid, perhaps at the expense of more sober understandings of what is vs. what could be?

As is so often the case, I can imagine that money talked loudest – in spite of the documented fact that very few big-time college football programs actually turn a profit for their schools, even the famous ones. The lure of increased ticket sales, better access to government and business leadership (leading to greater investment), and more network television exposure (leading to greater media revenue) conceivably could have been too much to resist. Now, money is not the root of all evil. That aphorism gets screwed up all the time. Money just sits there. It’s love of money that is the root of all evil – or at least certainly it’s something that encourages really bad decisions.

I can imagine that the siren call of increased revenue trumped, as writer Douglas Adams once put it, a sense of proportion. I can imagine that there were plenty of people in the UMass-Amherst community who saw weaknesses in the logic of moving UMass football to the bigger time. And now, at least one article in a major newspaper suggests that this grand experiment could lead to the demise of UMass football.

Hyperbole, perhaps. A columnist writing as if his hair was on fire, to ensure readership. But whether or not this experiment is a fatal one, from the get-go it seemed flawed to me. And at least based on everything that I’ve known about UMass in general for the past thirty years, I can’t think of nearly enough about UMass football and the environment in which it exists that would justify Going Big Time.

Is it really so bad to be a relatively big fish (decently successful football team most years, with occasional elevations to Division I-AA title games) in a relatively small pond?

December 27, 2013 Posted by | band, current events, football, marching band, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Enthusiasm, Part the Second -or- From the Soles of Your Shoes

So in this space, during the last few months, I’ve occasionally mentioned my pie-in-the-sky attempt to become a Serious Composer.

But I haven’t chronicled the process of getting those compositional attempts in front of a live human group, and of getting the stuff rehearsed and prepared. Suffice to say, it was both measured and also a little frantic.

Wha–?

As much as one can lay out a strategy for preparing a Large Work so that everyone has plenty of time and opportunity to get comfortable with the material … life has a way of conspiring to, um, thwart. Or at least challenge.

For starters, a church choir is (oh by the way) responsible for preparing music for weekly regular worship services. And we don’t wish to prepare “baby music”, music that clearly takes no time to put together, with all the inspirational impact of a C-SPAN rerun. So that’ll cut into your Large Work prep time!

Also, a volunteer choir is full of people who have lots on their plates: work, home, kids … the list goes on. We have folks who travel on business. We have folks who succumb to the local autumn and winter virus germ bugs. Family emergencies happen. Unforeseen things come up. Rehearsals are missed (not super often, but enough) for legit reasons.

And in my case, one more wrinkle. Thanks to the tendency of public school calendars to place school music ensemble concerts on Thursday nights, that’s where I spent the last two Thursdays prior to the third Sunday in Advent … which is when we had intended to present the Large Work. This is not ideal. At least we’d seen it coming in advance and had planned for it. Also … at least our choir members didn’t elect to disown me, over it.

So I won’t say I was exactly happy that a winter weather event on the third Advent Sunday caused us to postpone the presentation till the fourth Advent Sunday … but perhaps that did serve a purpose.

You can never have too many rehearsals on a piece of music. Well, maybe you can; but with a volunteer choir, repetition is good, repetition is good, repetition is good. In fact, four years ago, we experienced a similar winter-weather postponement, except then we had to postpone our Christmas Cantata presentation till January of the new year. The Epiphany we had (joke) was that we had spent an extra month living with the piece not to learn any more notes but instead to get so comfortable with the music that when we finally did present it, five weeks later than planned, we weren’t so obsessed with the individual notes that we couldn’t make a little music. And we could really enjoy ourselves. So as we abandoned last week in favor of this week, I thought perhaps history could repeat, if we were lucky.

(On top of which, this past Thursday did not contain any school concerts. Kind of a bonus to have the choir director present for the last rehearsal. Sheeeee.)

My fine colleague, our church’s organist and music director, assured me that things had gone very well during those two aforementioned Thursday rehearsals. I thanked him and assured him that I owed him a couple of lunches at least. But still, I hadn’t been present when he and the choir had integrated the choral work with the playing of our instrumental helpers – horns, string bass, and various other congregation members and friends. So that Total Art Work was still all in my imagination.

In fact the tunes were totally assembled in only two places in my life up until this morning: in my imagination; and in the MP3 rehearsal tracks we put together for the choir. And a weird thing had happened to me in late November: I’d been driving to and fro, hither and yon, playing a CD of those rehearsal tracks … and realized with a start that I was actually bored with it.

This is not a good thing to be, if what you’re listening to is your own stuff.

Then the truth of it occurred to me: I was listening to a computerized rendering of the music, which meant that as lifelike as the individual sounds were … and my music notation software can offer fairly authentic sounds of strings and pianos and drums, and sometimes horns, and not very often voices … still, I was listening to a computer following instructions, rather than humans making music. (So the computer voices weren’t presenting the actual text; but instead, some very nearly authentic “ooh”-ing.)

And this morning was the final, clinching proof that humans will never ever be replaced in the game of making music – expressive music which features spontaneous decisions and which evokes actual emotions from audience and performers alike.

For one thing, computers can’t smile and joke and look more and more relaxed the longer the early-morning warmup and run-through progresses. Humans can. This choir did. The styles covered by the musical material (jazz, pop, rock, gospel) were perhaps more conducive to the smiles and good humor and swaying and occasional belly laughs than would the music of, say, J.S. Bach. The Mass in B Minor may suggest more strongly to a group that gravity and dignity are absolutely called for. Let’s be honest: there’s a difference between a Baroque-era work that is in triple meter, and a 1940s-style slow swing tune, in spite of the fact that they both seem to have triplets in them.

For another thing, computers don’t need conductors, so they’ll never experience ensemble members and conductors feeding off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm and, yes, moments of irreverence to produce a musical performance that is more than just the right notes.

And when computers produce music that humans would consider challenging, audiences will quite rightly expect that all the notes will be correct, so long as the power doesn’t go out in the middle of the performance. There will be no suspense about this. When humans go after music that stretches them a bit, or in fact when humans present any music at all, it’s always some version of a tightrope act. The hundred, thousand, million decisions made by every individual person involved … are in fact rocket science, and then some! And computers could do what humans do … if there were enough programming time available. But humans make decisions “in the moment” that make each performance different (slightly or vastly) from any that had come before or will happen thereafter.

Computers make lousy jazz musicians.

I’ve written arrangements before, and heard them played and sung by many different ensembles at many different levels and in many different environments. I’ve written a few relatively small pieces: a couple for the high school band which I led for almost a decade, and a couple for the church choir that I’m thinking fondly of this evening. In all cases, it was exciting to hear that the ideas did work, that the pieces were coherent, and that the people seemed to like playing or singing them.

For many reasons, this morning’s presentation was all of that, but more besides. In part, yes, it was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and also the addition of a few instrumentalists to our musical ensemble whose presence and performance added just that little spark of something that helped us “take it to the next level” – and what a cliché that phrase has become, and yet it’s fairly accurate. But there was something else that coalesced.

The first of the eight pieces stood alone, as our worship service’s Prelude. Lots of ethereal “ooh”-ing from the choir, providing backing for a pair of soprano soloists, and the effect during the heat of battle was positively hypnotic. We got a good start.

Following a hymn, a scripture reading and the “children’s message”, the second through fifth selections comprised the block of service time during which the sermon would normally have happened. (Our senior pastor annually gives up his sermon time for some or all of our Advent Cantata presentation. For a lot of pastors this would be a really hard thing to do!) Following another hymn, the reading of congregational concerns and celebrations, movements six and seven made up the “offertory” music slot; and after a closing hymn, the final movement served as Postlude.

As has been chronicled in this space before, the third movement was a lazy swing thing that I wrote while unabashedly thinking of Raymond Chandler private eye novels, and this morning the choir seemed to not worry so much about the notes that made up the close-harmony, minor-sixth and flat-ninth Manhattan Transfer chords, but instead relaxed their hips and shoulders and Swung Out. If they’d had fedoras, they’d have tipped them rakishly to one side.

And as good a time as I had, listening to the second and fourth movements even as I conducted them … and as much as the sixth, seventh and eighth items created great effects – and the Big Finish was indeed a big finish! …

Oh, that fifth anthem.

We got finished with that piece, which can be described stylistically as slow gospel, but that doesn’t really cover it … and I leaned over to my accompanist colleague and whispered, “we could stop now. In fact, I’m not sure how we follow that.”

During Thursday night’s rehearsal, from somewhere outside my own head, I had found this stage direction for movement five: “bring the sound up from the soles of your shoes.” There’s singing the notes, and then there’s singing the notes with depth. And I had the feeling that descriptions involving vocal anatomy or deep philosophical constructs would be way too scientific or way too ephemeral to be effective in a music rehearsal. So, as is often my wont, I tossed out a weird little phrase and hoped it would be just odd enough to work.

Yeah, that one kinda worked on Thursday night.

Add firmly controlled adrenalin, add a live congregation, add the momentum of the four prior anthems, stir and serve … and that one more than kinda worked this morning.

Let’s just say that I want the recording of movement number five like very few tangible things I have wanted for quite some time. I want to find out whether I really heard and felt what I thought I heard and felt.

You are perhaps familiar with the phrase that gets used by and about pro sports teams: “leave it all out there on the field”? As in, this is the moment of truth, and who wants to look back for the rest of their lives and wonder what better results would have come if we hadn’t held anything back?

We left it all out there on the field.

Particularly with that fifth anthem, yes … but also all morning long.

Quite simply, it was a privilege and a joy to be associated with that choir this morning – regardless of whose music they were singing. All you had to do, to know that they’d held nothing back – aside from maybe listening to them do their thing – was to watch them.

Oh, yes, that’s another thing that computers will never be able to do: finish a calculation, or an operation, or a function …

and smile that smile. The very small one that still manages to reach the eyes. The one that says: “had it all the way, and it was a kick.”

December 23, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments