Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

How Firm a Foundation

A couple of hours ago, a friend of mine posted a short essay on her blog regarding a miracle of sorts.

Or at least it was a very stressful series of speed bumps placed in front of the project she was in charge of. To the extent that, in spite of the statistical likelihood that those speed bumps would throw that speeding car into the ditch, … they didn’t. The car careened onward, average persons probably having no idea whatsoever that there even were speed bumps in the road. And in fact the roar of that car’s engine impressed folks who knew a bit about what makes a machine tick. Among those folks was my friend, who was ultimately responsible for making sure the sports car stayed firmly on its wheels and purring, rather than upside down and smoking.

I’m going to pause a moment and admire that paragraph-long metaphor.

I just turned a college marching band into a Maserati.

Actually, I didn’t. And I’ll get to that shortly.

[Ed. note: I’m certainly not writing this blog post in an effort at one-upsmanship. No indeed. Her blog post was a terrific thing to read and by rights should stand on its own. But, reading it, I had an immediate thought that I thought was worth tacking onto hers, as something of a smiling postscript.]

 

A week from tomorrow morning, we here at Church Musician Central will fire up the choir again, after its summer hiatus, when our church’s program year begins. We’ve had one rehearsal already, and we’ll get another one before we get back in the saddle, as it were.

My organist colleague and I will be starting our fifteenth year as directors of music at this church. Sometimes it seems like just yesterday that we began this phase of our joint professional lives (the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as it happens). Other times, we can account for every single moment of those fourteen years, often in excruciating detail.

We’ve had lots of successful moments, happily – that’s the reason why the years fly by. And also, we’ve had our share of opportunities to adjust what we do in order to make certain things and certain people more successful. We’re no different, in that respect, from any other church musician. Ever improving the product – and more importantly, ever improving the process, with which we lay the foundation that will serve to help our choir add musical inspiration to our Sunday services … to help them do their thing in the way we would love to see them to their thing.

So, we rehearse in a certain way. And we develop ways in which we “do our thing” that will ensure that our organization will sound good, will look good, will serve our audience best. (Even though we prefer to talk about “congregation” rather than “audience”, and “presentations” or “offerings” rather than “performances”.)

Over the course of fourteen years, we’ve taken the procedures and traditions that have worked for past choir directors, and utilized them, adapted or abandoned them when necessary; and we’ve added new wrinkles to our program when such would be helpful. Based on the recordings we’ve archived over the years, we’d like to think that we’ve continually improved the musical offerings that our congregation receives on Sundays; just as importantly, we hope we’ve cultivated an environment in which our musicians can roll with the punches, adapt to sudden moments of unexpectedness, and come out sounding and looking like, well, “we meant that. That’s how we drew it up on the chalkboard.”

One of our favorite sayings was brought to us by a gentleman who spent some time as our church’s Minister of Visitation, the Rev. Dick Harding. We call it the Harding Rule: “no matter what happens, we planned it that way.”

None of that, though, happens by chance. Not just by mistake, or by good and dumb luck, does an organization (musical or otherwise) encounter moments of crisis and push through them and prevail. Whether that crisis is something relatively small, like “we’re just about to start playing the National Anthem and our darn football team decides that’s the correct moment to run out of the locker room all pumped and ready for battle and cheering and fist-pumping” … (I’m looking at you, fine and unflappable members of the Central Connecticut State University band this weekend) … or whether that crisis is a little more dire.

 

Which is some form of transition from church choirs back to the college marching bands of which I spake, earlier in this essay.

In print, my friend seemed almost bewildered that the organization that she was in charge of should have weathered the storms (both metaphorical and literal) that it did, in order to perform magnificently enough at halftime of last night’s opening home football game that she laughed in wonderment and relief.

Early in her essay, she noted: far too often nowadays, young people “want their world to be black and white. ‘What do I need to do to get an ‘A?’ ‘What exactly is expected of me in this class?’ ‘What do you want me to do at this exact moment in time in order to not be wrong?’” She suggested that they have been “set up to fail” by their previous teachers (and sometimes by their parents); and said that because “the world is NOT black and white, friends, … this means that putting the gray matter located inside your skull to work is the only option you have at having a prayer at survival.”

What my church musician colleague and I hope we’ve been able to do is, as I said before, to create an environment which allows, and hopefully encourages, our musicians to think on their feet when they need to, make adjustments on the fly, and create solutions to challenges (all the while being able to gracefully take direction from the spindly fellow who waves his arms and thinks he’s in charge!).

And I know that my friend the college music professor has done that, down in Newark, Delaware, where her Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band regularly steps up and, when necessary, makes the best of a bad situation.

It’s not just good fortune. It’s good planning, and it’s the building of a program and procedure.  It’s twenty years of consistency in teaching; it’s her students’ knowledge that yes, she’s got their backs, but also that they’re responsible for (and supported in) figuring it out when that’s needed.

And it’s a very firm foundation.

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September 5, 2015 - Posted by | band, choir, marching band, music, SUMC, UDMB | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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