Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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.

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

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