Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Little Things

[Ed. Note: not for the first time has my treasured friend and colleague Heidi Sarver blogged <http://dmablog.drummajor.org/2015/09/16/5-years-have-flown-by/&gt; about the topic at hand, and in doing so, has beautifully either [1] echoed my sentiments, [2] teed up the football for me, or [3] entirely stolen my thunder … I’m not sure which. You can be the judge. I’m only too pleased when it’s any of these. Go give the DMA Blog a hit; you won’t regret it.]

***

Not long ago, I noted that anniversaries in multiples of five years are often assigned greater import than other nearby numbers’.

Is it that five years represent half a decade? Four years being two-fifths of a decade … just doesn’t have the same ring to it?

I bring this up because, as regular consumers of the Blogge are aware, today is the fifth anniversary of the passing of my college band director.

A year afterward, my band alumni friends and I were still (um) convulsing. A year or two after that, we were getting our feet under us, enough to mark the anniversary by using as funny stories as well as sorrowful thoughts.

Last week, I found myself thinking in a way that I was pretty sure would cause a few raised eyebrows out there. Just in the last day or so, I’ve observed that I may not be quite as alone in this as I thought, but: last week, I realized that my primary emotion five years later is not sadness.

Sorry if that inspired you to fling stuff. Let me clarify: I miss him, same as anybody else. This is what humans do. Por another ejamplo, I wish my Dad were still around to witness some of the stuff that’s going on in the world nowadays, to make pithy comment on it, etc., etc. In his case, it’s been ten years and then some, but he will assuredly not fade into obscurity – because of good works and fond memories, and not so much because we’re hung up on mourning.

A fine friend of mine (who, by exactly zero coincidence, is the same friend I mentioned in the Editor’s Note above) addressed this, while commenting on my blogged thoughts on this subject, a year ago:

It is not grief any longer…it is not yet another stage of mourning…it is not selfish sadness either. It is the realization that we HAVE moved on … we HAVE found ways to emulate him … but we are quiet and pensive … because we remember we would much rather have him here, cheering for us so we could exceed HIS expectations.”

So, with respect to the people who (today specifically, and in general) are rightly wrestling with the sadness … when I think of that fabled college band director, now I think promptly of the good stuff. I don’t so much think of that awful night, or the next morning when I first heard.

Instead, I think of the effect he had on the people he came into contact with.

 

George Parks directed the Minuteman Marching Band, yes; and of course did so much else besides. Reading Buccaneer drum major … Drum Major Academy founder … UMass music faculty member for thirty-three years … conductor of many, many district and All-State honor bands … leader of the Bands of America Honor Band in two Rose Parade appearances … and that probably leaves a lot of resume items out.

Plenty of large accomplishments; plenty of big and loud things whose success he was responsible for.

And yes, when he would stand up on the narrow, concrete grandstand railing at McGuirk Alumni Stadium to conduct the band, thus making a whole lot of people very very VERY nervous (it’s a long way to the ground, guy!), he had a huge impact on a lot of football spectators who otherwise wouldn’t have known or maybe cared about that other stuff. (I have my own particular memory of that, from when I visited campus as a high school senior who wanted to see if UMass had any kind of a band. As if.)

But the most impressive stuff wasn’t his mace tossing, or his calls for more “ENERGY!!” from whatever ensemble he was leading. Instead, what was most impressive … what said the most about him as a human being … what still causes people to park him firmly on a pedestal that few can reach … were the little things.

 

A little while ago, a relatively recent UMass band alum posted a Facebook “crowdsourcing” writing prompt. Usually, these things are fluffy, and come in the form of “please post a comment about how we met” or some such.

This one was not fluffy. And, I immediately thought, it could get really interesting really fast.

This alum was preparing a presentation about “something that inspires me”, and chose Mr. Parks. She was hoping that she could solicit a few stories about him from the band alumni community.

Pretty safe to assume that the band alumni community wouldn’t exactly be stuck for something to say.

Indeed, the replies rolled in. And a pattern quickly emerged – a similarity amongst the stories that was not hard to spot.

They were stories about little gestures.

There were quite a few stories about freshmen whose names Mr. Parks somehow knew as early as the middle of band camp, even from high up on the scissorlift or the scaffolding. “He had the ability to know you even before you knew the drill.”

There were stories about being a member of a high school honor band that Mr. Parks was conducting, and approaching him during a break to let him know they’d be joining the Minuteman Band the next fall … and at the end of the weekend, having him remember (amidst the rest of his responsibilities that weekend) to say, “see you in the fall!”

There were stories about first-year music majors being pressured by other music faculty members to not march; and then Mr. Parks working quietly, behind the scenes, to convince those faculty members to dial down the pressure – trying to help keep those first-year music majors from being caught between a rock and a hard place for their entire four years of college.

There were stories about very small local festival honor bands receiving the same kind of attention and care from Mr. Parks that he gave to major international music clinics.

There was one story of a band member stricken during band camp with mononucleosis … and how Mr. Parks had made a phone call to her, saying he’d identified a band member in each of her classes who would share their class notes with her, and that he’d assigned an alternate marcher to her drill spot until she was well enough to return to band.

There was a story about a music teacher job applicant being offered the job because Mr. Parks took time to call the hiring principal and extol the virtues of his former student – and about how impressed the principal was that Mr. Parks thought that much of his former student to pause during a Drum Major Academy clinic and make the call.

There were stories about people who had been members of a nearly-400-person UMass band (and how many thousands of different band members were there, throughout the “Parks era”?), and yet had been greeted by Mr. Parks, sometimes in environments totally “out of UMass Band context”, by their full names and with obvious recognition (and sometimes with their old band nicknames included) … years or sometimes decades later.

There were stories from band alumni for whom Mr. Parks was “the new guy”. Those alums freely admitted having not been his staunchest allies, early on – but said that Mr. Parks always made a point of keeping in touch, saying “hi”, hoping all was well … and during lengthier conversations, brushing off their apologies “for their stupidity back in the day” and saying that he understood the situation.

 

So you can perhaps understand that there was a reason why, if he asked band alumni for help with a project, they stepped up.

There was a reason why, when he suggested to band alumni (and anyone else who couldn’t run faster) that all it would take to build a new building specifically for the marching band would be to contribute a couple of dollars … every week … for two years … they ponied up.

There was definitely a reason why, in one particular moment of Music-Department-created institutional stress, when Mr. Parks sent a note out to band alumni, wondering if any of us would like to attend a meeting to show support for the Minuteman Band and its continued existence in its current form? … a large number of us not only showed up, we got up and spoke up and let people know exactly what we thought of the Department’s bright idea to somehow improve the band by diminishing it.

In fact, so did one band parent. (Hi Mom.)

[Ed. Note: Do not get me started about that night.]

In this space, I’ve previously regaled my faithful readership with tales like the ones that the Facebook crowdsourcing plea elicited. Now: a point of personal privilege, may it please the presiding officer:

I’m now recalling my moment of almost-unfathomable success in a marchoff during my sophomore-year band camp. I was in the last about half-dozen marchers in a competition that had already weeded out about 215 of my band colleagues. Of course, the last thing I should have done in that moment was to think, “oh wow, I’m in the last about half-dozen marchers in a marchoff!!”, but that’s exactly what I did. Mr. Parks called a left flank … I went right … and kept right on marching to the sideline. Honor system invoked. Out. Done. Thanks for playing. … Except that Mr. Parks called the remaining, far more worthy marchers to a halt; and called down from his perch atop the viewing tower, “how ’bout a hand for Rob?”

I checked. Nope: my name tag was not visible. Sin! at band camp, but in this case it also revealed that yeah, he knew my name. I had not exactly been the most super-visible, attention-grabbing freshman the previous fall, and had not been a “Chapel rat” at all during the ensuing spring. But he knew who he was looking at. Gulp.

About twenty years later, by some unlikely alignment of planets, I won a DMA staff marchoff for which he was calling commands. I executed one final salute, surrounded by the rest of my staff friends. Having Mr. Parks salute right back at me (as he did for any marchoff winner), with that (um) rather intense blue-eyed stare of his, was one of the highlights of my time as any kind of UMasser at all. And when he utilized a version of that same glint-in-his-eye look while offering me a piece of music teaching advice which solved a particular instance of professional crisis for me a few years ago … well, let’s just say, that moment was an equivalent highlight, too.

 

More than once, there were remarks from those Facebook storytellers to the effect that “he did more for me than I could ever do for him.”

Even more recently, another band alum (and music teacher) has endeavored to invent and publicize a hashtag called “#BecauseOfGNP” to frame our online remembrances this year, which has taken off like the proverbial rocket, and why not? He wrote, “Mr. Parks moved mountains for me and it is because of him that I get to wake up everyday and do what I love.”

For a guy whose public persona was bigger than life, and very often literally high up off the ground, George Parks did a lot for a lot of people … made a lot of people feel important and taken care of … by doing the little things.

***

P.S. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to continue this little writing exercise. #BecauseOfGNP.

So … in the comment section here, or on the Facebook link to this post … tell me:

is there a story about a “little thing” that Mr. Parks did for you?

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September 16, 2015 - Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, social media, UMMB | , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Talked with my third grade students today (somewhat cognizant of the Season) – “Raise your hand as high as you can…” I said (like someone else we know). “Now raise it two inches higher…” You may know the end – you may get the Joke! Even 8 year olds can come to understand how to strive! (Come to think of it, weren’t we sorta like 8-year olds in band?! Ha ha!) RIP, GNP. I still remember riding to and from my dorm in your car, Mr. Parks, before or after babysitting for your lovely children. A little conversation along with each ride – a lot of teaching going on. And I wasn’t the one doing the teachin’ then…

    Comment by Kristin | September 16, 2015 | Reply

  2. You reminded me of a time when he put a plea out to Boston area alumni; it seemed a UMASS graduate had passed away and had a desire to have Twilight Shadows played at the funeral. I couldn’t go, but I think I remember hearing that some did…All because Mr. Parks cared enough to ask.

    Comment by Tom Carbone | September 17, 2015 | Reply


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