Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.


As today is Throwback Thursday in social media land, I have had occasion to think backward to thirty years ago, and to eight days ago, both on the same topic.

Throwing things. (Not backward, if I can help it, as will become clear shortly.)

Very early in my time as a freshman in the UMass marching band, I saw something I had genuinely never seen before: I saw someone throw a mace.

For the uninitiated, this is not the mace that people spray to make other people to go away. It’s not the mace of medieval times, although it must be an ancestor. It surely counts as a weapon – in fact, the TSA reportedly frowns upon them as carry-on items.

This is a version of the traditional signaling baton used by drum majors since time immemorial to communicate to a band things like “when to go,” “in what direction to go,” “when to stop,” “when to play,” “how fast to play” … and, in more recent band history, “oh, Lord, the drum major is going to have to catch that thing somehow.”

The mace has informational but also showmanship uses. Everybody anywhere ever has seen at least one baton twirler, yes? Well, in a way, it’s just an overgrown version of twirler weaponry. A meter-plus long, with a point on one end and a tennis-ball-sized counterweight on the other – unless you’re using a British mace, in which case it’s more like five feet long, and the counterweight’s size is closer to a softball or even a volleyball, and it’s got jingling decorative chains all up and down it, and if you squint you might mistake it for a Buckingham Palace guard who hasn’t eaten in a while.

Over the course of the twentieth century, drum majors have figured out more and more mesmerizing ways of spinning and twirling these things. Baton twirlers mostly twirl betwixt the fingers on one hand; twirling a mace is usually less about finger dexterity and many maneuvers require both hands in order to be successful … but in either case, it’s impressive when done well and it’s rather obvious when one fumbles.

This applies to both mace spinning … and mace throwing. One can huck this thing up in the air (keeping it spinning) and catch it. Sometimes it’s a low toss, incorporated seamlessly into an improvised twirling routine. Other times, it’s a high toss, a maneuver designed to elicit responses from halftime show audiences as the mace reaches grand heights (oooooo!), with a successful catch being anything that doesn’t hit the ground, no matter how the drum major snagged it (yayyyyy!).

My parents, ever mindful of topics their 18-year-old college bando son blathered on about, bought me a mace for Christmas that year. I cheerfully took it out into the backyard (must not be seen by the general public until one is totally ready for one’s debut) and went to work teaching myself to spin this thing, just like I’d seen drum majors Mike, Neil and especially Jeff do. Spin and twirl, toss and (ouch) (hey) (oh, oww) (woo!) catch. As will often happen, I self-taught myself just enough that it took a lot of work to unlearn some really poor habits later; but I’ll skip over that minor glitch.

During the showmanship portion of my drum major audition, in spring of my junior year, I worked hard to emulate the mace work of my college band director, George Parks, who was and still is known as a pioneer of modern American drum majoring. To that end, I aped one of his signature tricks: huck, execute a somersault, and come up just in time to catch. (Afterward, two of my observer-friends noted that this was very foolish – either because it would’ve been lame if I’d missed the catch, or because Mr. Parks was likely to remember, and expect me to pull that stunt again sometime. Eh, “no risk, no reward”; but they both were correct.)

Since then, I’ve noted that during my senior drum major season, I was basically a two-trick pony in performance. Stride up the fifty-yardline, execute an about-face, execute a one-handed rifle-spin (Trick #1). Stop the mace, gather myself and huck (Trick #2)!! And catch, most of the time. I suppose you could label my Senior Day toss, when it sailed about fifteen yards to my left instead of returning straight down to me and stuck, point-down, in the turf, as Trick #3; but I think that was really just Insane Blind Luck For The Ages.

I could also do execute a two-handed mace spin, but never did so in performance.

So, recently, and particularly eight days ago, when I’ve been called upon to teach a beginner mace class as part of the Drum Major Academy week, I’ve agreed cheerfully to do so … but I’ve been glad to have a bit of advance warning. I can do this basic stuff, but I rarely think about how I’m doing it.

Sounds fine, yes? I’m well past the point of consciously thinking, “crown up, point up, chop, recover, re-grab, start all over again, crown up, point up… –d’oh!!” And mostly, when I huck, I do so in such a way that the thing responds to gravity but doesn’t appear to be hunting me like some metal bird of prey. I will reach up and forward, aiming for the center of the spin, and catch the mace without dislocating a finger.

This summer, though, I did have to pause and think and analyze and confer with a colleague or two about how best to teach that two-handed spin to DMA students who had little or no experience with a mace. I felt the same weight of responsibility to get it right as when I was teaching beginner instrumentalists. Don’t teach bad habits – again, one does not wish to force people to unlearn what they have learned.

Starred Thought™: You find out how well you know a subject when you have to instruct someone else.

What terminology do you guys use?, I asked my staff mates, one of whom re-wrote the book (or the DVD) on the subject!! Just so I don’t teach in a way that will force you to need to translate into your language when some of these kids one day move to the intermediate or advanced class. Cleverly disguising (not really) the fact that I was trying to figure out how to break down the spin into small, more easily-explainable sections. Just like proper teaching procedure says: explain, break down into elements, evaluate, correct, re-assemble, pick up speed … re-evaluate … and around and around it goes.

And away we went. I stood on a podium, facing at least a hundred teenagers with sharp metal objects in their hands. My first emphasis was on reinforcing the rules of Don’t Hurt Yourself. And make sure you’ve got enough room between you and everyone else here – left and right, front and back. Then we advanced to the “hold the mace like this; rotate your wrist like this; the faster the thing revolves, the lighter your grip can be and the more the mace’s momentum will spin it up into your hand again like magic!” stage. Then it was on to the “don’t just blindly huck now, but instead practice tossing the mace a few feet in the air without rotation and catching it without death and destruction” stage. Followed by the “here’s a way of winding up for a toss that uses scientific pendulum concepts” phase. Followed, startlingly soon, by the “okay, we have to stop now, Heidi is waiting for us with the rest of the students and is tapping her foot” moment.

Several students thanked me for the session afterward. I told them they were entirely welcome, and that I was glad to have had lots of staff assistants out there as helpful co-teachers. And thought to myself that I was both disappointed and pleased that I had not made a recording of the lesson – I still think I have a ways to go before I can be nearly as effective a teacher of Sharp Spinning Object Technique as my colleagues.

But I did see quite a few of them fumbling their rifle spins less and less, and getting the hang of that two-handed spin more and more. I was also pleased that I did not see them working hard on their high tosses, as a hundred people in close proximity all working on that at the same time is nothing you want to see. Go home and be alone in your backyard. And wear a bicycle helmet or something, early on.

Curious. While I was working to pass on the concepts of an activity in which everything depends on rotation and revolving objects and other circle-y ideas … I noted that thirty years later, events had come full circle, from my backyard to (potentially), theirs.

August 7, 2014 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alumni Affairs

This space doesn’t usually feature pure diary entries. The writing might sometimes resemble journalism, but it’s rarely my journal.

Having said that …

I’ve been away from the blog for a solid month now. WordPress may be wondering if I’m still alive. For that matter, so, perhaps, have you. (If you’ve been actively wondering, then I am humbled; and I might well be extra-motivated to never let a whole month go by again. I’d probably be even more tail-between-the-legs if this were a subscription-based service!)

It’s called “July”.

No snark there, actually. My opportunities to sit and write tend to decrease during this month which, for us east-coast teacher types, traditionally is a little less full of the day-in-day-out-ness that is otherwise our lives. In theory, we’re lounging on the beach or in the mountains or wherever. In reality, we’re just as likely to be not-lounging on a straight-backed chair in the middle of a professional development workshop; but that’s a topic for another time.

Schedule items have been packed into this particular July pretty tight. My calendar looks like a game of Tetris. Social visits and the annual Drum Major Academy fortnight; rehearsals and meetings and errands; conferences and family gatherings … comparatively, my August appears almost blank. This is an illusion, guaranteed, and it always is; but for the next few days anyway, I get to throw it into a lower gear.

So much for this not being my diary.

What has struck me about this July’s events and discussion topics, though, is the common thread that has run through them all: alumni.

(Or, as a certain Latin scholar and friend of mine wishes I would put it more often: alumni/-ae. It’s a little unwieldy in print, but the combined masculine/feminine endings beat the heck out of making it into a neuter-gender Latin word.)

Webster’s Dictionary defines an alumnus as “a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university”. With a certain amount of raised eyebrow, I note that the secondary Webster’s definition is “a person who is a former member, employee, contributor, or inmate [italics mine].”

Boy howdy.

Early in July, the summer arts program which is responsible for a lot of my formative experiences in the arts celebrated its 45th summer with a reunion event. Assuredly, there were plenty of Charles River Creative Arts Program alumni milling about, exchanging “long time no see” hugs, stories and belly laughs. (Given some of the lunatic anecdotes that evoked those belly laughs, one might reasonably recall the phrase “inmates running the asylum”! Ah, artistes.)

I did note how few social interactions there seemed to be between us ancient relics and the current staff members, that night. There seemed to be an innocent but discernible separation between the two groups. But then, I thought back to the 15th-year event (when I was a current staff member) and tried to remember to what extent we’d been instructed to mingle with the old-timers; and really couldn’t. Anyway, it was us forty- and fifty-somethings over here; the twenty-somethings over there. Maybe I’m just used to doing an abnormally large amount of multi-generational stuff in my life. Whatever.

Mid-month, and then again a couple of nights ago, I made what has become something of an annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod to attend a concert or two put on by a group of collegiate a cappella singers called Cape Harmony. The various editions of this group, since I first stumbled upon them six summers ago, have been very good at the game of women’s a cappella. For one thing, they have to write very careful arrangements, since by no fault of their own they work with a rather more limited range of pitches, high to low, than do their male counterparts. For another, a cappella singing in general is a high-wire act: there’s no instrumental accompaniment into which to sing your notes. If anyone is flat or sharp or otherwise misaligned, the whole project could come crashing down very suddenly.

What I find particularly enjoyable about this group, though, has just as much to do with the actual people in the group. Or rather, the people who were in the group and are still connected to it, electronically or in person. They still support the organization in lots of ways – and current members always make sure to acknowledge that support on their website, during concerts, and indeed when they sing the Wailin’ Jennys arrangement of “The Parting Glass” and bring any attending alumni onstage to sing with them. Too often, organizations can forget where they came from; but even as Cape Harmony are now completing their ninth summer, clearly they haven’t forgotten.

The back half of my July was dominated by the ol’ Drum Major Academy. Each summer, for four July days in eastern Pennsylvania and five days in Massachusetts, a rather inspiring collection of personalities get together, nominally to help prepare six hundred or so future high school band student leaders, but also to enjoy each other’s company and very often giggle a lot. There are former staff members whom we don’t get to see much, thanks to distance or circumstance; but the names predictably pop up in conversation (and at least one very-long-time-no-see example did visit this past week). In addition, many staff members were once DMA students. As I’ve noted recently here on the blog, some of those were very specifically my students – “in my TV room”.

Accordingly, I was inspired to take a rather harder look at the students who sat in those TV room chairs this summer – and for the first time, I spotted a couple of students whom I felt were strong enough (in skill set and mindset) to be recommended for future inclusion on our “IMPACT” staff, the group of collegiate drum majors and other student leaders who assist the DMA instructional staff with instruction and logistics.

(On top of which, last week’s DMA session took place on the campus of UMass, which has a certain band alumni history and presence of its own, previously chronicled in this space at some length and in some detail. So I was kinda surrounded by a definite sense of continuity.)

Sadly, this summer has seen some of the less positive effects of alumni involvement.

When news of the firing of Ohio State University’s marching band director broke, a couple of weeks ago, I was with my DMA colleagues at West Chester University. Because my mobile Internet access device is, um, limited (i.e. can’t display multiple windows in its antique little browser), I couldn’t open the links that would have allowed me to read news articles with titles like “Ohio State band director fired over ‘sexualized’ culture”. I had to wait till I got home to my desktop Mac. And once I did, I discovered accounts of an Ohio State investigation that revealed a band program full of frankly awful activities and traditions, such that the University saw fit to relieve the band director of his duties – some of which (including oversight and, frankly, the modeling of proper behavior) he seemed not to have carried out so very well.

Amidst the allegations of “an environment conducive to sexual harassment within the band, creating a hostile environment for students”, I found a couple of details which got me thinking specifically about the whole concept of alumni, and their role in organizations of which they formerly were members.

In the comments sections that followed the news articles from the Columbus Dispatch, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, some commenters demonized the director and some canonized him. Inevitably, the ones that claimed to be former members of the Ohio State band were the most vociferous in support of their former director.

Myself, I have my own fond memories of my college band director, and I do recall supporting him vociferously at a few crucial moments, and not absolutely always doing so with a great deal of charity toward the University that employed him. So, from knee-jerk-reaction or emotional standpoints, I don’t have trouble imagining that there are people prepared to rise to their director’s defense. There is, as you will shortly see, a difference, though…

The current assistant band director told investigators that “OSU’s Marching Band is unique in that it has a large, active, proud, and at times stubborn alumni base that can be resistant to change.” Ohio State is not alone in this, though. Every single college band I have ever been associated with in any way has featured one of these. Either by direct interaction or anecdotal observation, I found those bands’ alumni bases to be inspiring and challenging – either by turns or occasionally in the same breath. While I would agree that Ohio State may have more history and tradition to draw on than most bands do, I would nonetheless suggest that it is not, in terms of alumni involvement, at all unique.

Several details in the University’s investigative report stood out, to me, in this context. Most alumni associations are (or ought to be) focused strictly on fundraising and moral support (and, of course, cheering loudly from the bleachers at halftime). Alarmingly, according to the report, the OSU band alumni organization appears to have stepped over a few very reasonable lines:

[The band director] stated that the Marching Band’s alumni network publishes an annual directory that includes nicknames for some members, and he provided its latest version. Many of the printed nicknames included in the new June 2014 TBDBITL directory are sexually explicit, including some names given to new members in 2013.

Several witnesses stated that sexually explicit tricks [according to the report, tricks are “acts that individual Band members perform, either on command or at their own volition. … The tricks are usually connected to the students’ assigned nicknames”] were not performed in front of [professional band staff]. They were instead performed at student house parties, dinners sponsored by alumni [italics mine], and during down time on trips.

The misconduct described [in the main body of the report] … is highly sexual, frequent, and longstanding as part of the Marching Band’s culture. … The misconduct occurred in multiple locations involving the Marching Band, including practice at the stadium, bus trips, alumni events [italics again mine], and off-campus parties.

The band’s now-former director had held his position for just two years, but he had served as assistant director for the previous ten years, and as a graduate assistant before that. And before that? He was a band member for four years – graduating with Ohio State’s class of 2000. From fall 1995 onward, he had never not been in the Ohio State band program.

He was an alum, too.

One might think that this would give him an advantage at times: he’d been part of the organization, and probably was more familiar with its traditions, inner workings, and “players”, than other people who also may have been candidates for the position. But it’s entirely possible that in this case, familiarity bred not contempt but rather complacence, and complicity. The investigative report states:

Witnesses did not, however, report any significant change, or effort to change. In fact, only one witness stated that there had been transition in the culture of any kind. Another witness stated that speaking with Band directors about the culture was futile. She added that [the director] wants to be a cool guy in the Band. Similarly, [one other witness] stated that [he] just wants to be their [the students’] friend.”

For most alumni, the very act of being an alum may suggest that indeed, you can “go home again”. Every once in a while, alumni bump into the rather harsh reality that you can physically go back, but the organization is made up of a whole new crop of people, and former members are just that: former members, forced to live vicariously through the current membership.

Sometimes alumni can deal with that reality, and work to support the organization. Sometimes they can’t, and end up looking like rabid Little League parents, at best.

So. What traditions do we uphold? Hopefully, only the ones that make sense. How can alumni best support the organizations of which they once were an active part, and which they still love very deeply? They – we! – walk a sometimes very difficult tightrope indeed, one which sometimes forces us to reconcile our favorite memories with more current realities. We want the best possible experience for the people who come after us … but not everyone has the same vision of what that experience ought to be. And on occasion, that experience may necessarily be different from the experience that came before.

August 7, 2014 Posted by | arts, band, current events, DMA, marching band, music, news, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment