Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Odd Ducks Wearing Feathers On Our Heads

He’s going to write about band again.

Well?? If you read this blog at all, you kinda know that’s a large part of where I live.

When I was a college student, it really was where I lived. To the point where one of the professors in the department from which I earned my actual degree noted that “we knew you were majoring in band.”

So at this time of the year, if I should happen to go to a college football game, or watch one on the teevee (and the sports broadcast outlet stoops to showing camera angles of the band) … or log on to my social media feed and read the posts of some college band-associated folks with whom I have relatively recently been connected …

I note that the activity does mean a lot to the people inside it.

Even if (in spite of the appearance of movies like “Drumline”) most of the world still thinks it’s an activity full of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.

Which, actually, it is … but in a good way.

This weekend … and, for some higher-profile groups (thanks to the successful football programs to which they’re attached), next weekend, or some time in December or January, will mark the last time some of their members will ever don those often-bizarre uniforms, and play musical instruments that were never designed to be played in the middle of a Polar Vortex, and sing songs and chant chants and commit relatively innocent hijinks.

(While rooting for groups of people wearing oftenbizarre uniforms, including somewhat-short pants that were never designed to be worn in the middle of a Polar Vortex, grunting grunts and slamming into other people wearing inexplicable short pants, chasing after a ball that isn’t even round. All of which is a topic for another day; come to think of it, a topic for another day in this blog’s past.)

For this reason, tears will be shed late this afternoon, in a great many football stadiums across the nation; and in one in particular that I’ve been kinda attached to myself, for quite a while. (Here are some specific and wonderful thoughts about that from someone “on the inside” of that band, about to head on to what she calls “The Other Side”.)

And for another band that I’ve more recently gotten to know, that weekend was a week ago.

This fall, for the first time in a good long while, I was attached on a weekly basis to a college marching band. In this case, it was as an instructional assistant with a band of about 65 musicians. During the typically-intense pre-season camp, I ran music sectional rehearsals, assisted with the teaching of field drill, moved amplification systems, helped with the fetching of sandwich materials for post-rehearsal snacks. If it needed doing, I helped do it.

I had my face figuratively torn off by a brass section whose numbers-to-quality-sound ratio was off the charts.

I (a former marching saxophonist) returned to the world of “marching woodwinds are people too!”, although in this band, the woodwind players saw the front sideline an awful lot more than those in the outsized bands tend to do.

I helped move the pit. Grunt.

I got to hear the director describe for high-school exhibition audiences that her band’s traditional closing song is a reminder that band is a place where everyone can feel like they have somewhere to call home.

I got to drive the equipment truck. Which didn’t break down once.

My literal running around in the hot sun in t-shirts and shorts … and then in the increasingly chilly late-afternoon air, as the semester progressed and the daylight savings time change loomed ever nearer … helped to keep me from remembering that I’m a good thirty years older than half the kids in the band. Hustle out there, Rob!

But it helped me to remember – as if I really needed help to remember – that college bands are full of truly fine and decent people. (This past summer’s difficulties at Ohio State notwithstanding.) It’s almost as if they know that the world in general thinks the marching band activity is bizarre and worthy of mockery (gentle or not), and it just makes them even tighter with their colleagues. If we don’t support each other, who the hell is going to?

These folks worked hard. Not just on the field, where the music and the drill forced them to figuratively fly around the field – fast notes, fast feet, and you can’t hide or dog it and still survive halftime … but off the field as well. In smaller bands, a larger percentage of the band roster is called upon to be the student leadership. Taking individual ownership of the ensemble is a lot more likely – not that most of the membership wouldn’t take it anyway. For all but the folks who are in marching band to satisfy a music-major requirement, and even many of them, it’s their choice to be there. They choose to sweat in the sun, stand in the rain, freeze in the cold, and perform in a manner that frankly was unimaginable to musicians of three hundred years ago.

One reason I was hangin’ out with this particular band was that a summer-teaching colleague of mine is the director. One enjoys being with, and helping, friends.

Another reason I was rather deeply involved from the get-go, though, was that my friend the director was going to deliver a baby sometime mid-season, and one of the things one cannot do while having a baby is direct a college band. I certainly think it’s unwise to try, because neither of one’s “babies” will get the attention it deserves. My schedule made it possible for me to help out in this way – to assume one of the more public versions of substitute teaching that I can think of – so, happily, I did so. But I had to learn the system rather thoroughly first!

It had been nearly a decade since the last time I had been in front of a college band on a regular basis, in any form … and it was good to get back into that game.

Not because I desperately needed to be seen stepping to the home-side bleachers’ railing and conducting the pregame show, although that was part of the gig.

Not because I desperately needed to walk alongside the band during a Veterans’ Day Parade and say “thank you” to cheering spectators on behalf of the performers, although I did that, too. (I’m one of those weird people who actually likes parades. Always have been. Don’t judge.)

And not because I desperately needed to ask a group of college students “how … are your feet?!” Although in this particular band, that was how rehearsals ended. (And I only screwed up my part of that “feet together, stomach in, etc etc” chant once. One time! Who’s got the least articulate pretend-director anywhere? Y’all do. Sorry. I’m more used to giving the answers than asking the questions.)

But, I discovered, … Starred Thought™: “Surround yourself with good people.” When you hang out with people who are enjoying possibly the last moments in their lives during which they are able, nay, encouraged to take part in organized silliness … you experience life the way it really ought to be lived.

Vicariously, perhaps; but all the same, you do.

In a way, I’m cheating. My college-band “senior day” happened in very very late October 1988, and at the time I had no idea that it wasn’t going to be my last chance to leap up in the air and pump my fists when my team intercepted a pass, to gyrate weirdly to the strains of “Hey Baby”, to stand out in miserable weather for three hours and shout “harder rain! Wooooooo!”

Tears will be shed this weekend by college band kids, and those tears will be a curious and enviable mix – of disappointment that their college marching careers are over, but of love for the activity they threw themselves into and even more for the people with whom they shared it, for a year, or four, or more.

For many of them, this really will be the last time they get to experience this, in just this way. Some will become band directors themselves, but even that will be just a version of the experience. And of course, there will be Alumni Band experiences to look forward to; which will be close, but not quite the same. They’ll be near the playing of “Twist and Shout” and the band cheers and the mascot-kidnapping (have I said too much?) … but they’ll still only be looking over at the kids who are now actually in those beloved, bizarre uniforms.

But, at the very least, the memories will stick – of Senior Day, and of everything that came before – and the knowledge that “we were part of something insane and incredible and nobody takes THAT away from us.”

For my colleagues in the UMass fall-1987 senior group, perhaps all we have to do is hum “Still Crazy After All These Years” for that senior day to come readily to mind … and hot on the heels of that, all we have to do is hum “Silverado” or “Echano” (hey Harvard, yoo hooo!) or “Al’s Rag” or “Crown Imperial” … or “Oh, George Parks…”

So I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have had the opportunity to be near enough to another, more recent senior group, members of which may instead hum “Skyfall” or “Blue Skies” or “Dancing in the Dark” or “Runaway Baby” … or a tune that I have no idea about because I wasn’t on that bus…!

Because I do have some idea of what that feels like.

Because I was an odd duck, wearing feathers on my head.

November 22, 2014 - Posted by | band, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] outside that bubble, it can look like just a bunch of odd ducks wearing feathers on their […]

    Pingback by The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Five: Guilty Pleasures -or- The Great Convergence « Editorial License | May 5, 2016 | Reply

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