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 »

  1. […] experience and people without … there were people who thought it was important to be able to chuck a mace, and people who didn’t. Within those dozen people, a lot of different skill sets and […]

    Pingback by Playing the Hand You’re Dealt « Editorial License | May 19, 2017 | Reply

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