Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Not Wrong, Just Different -or- Shades

Faithful readers of this blog will already be aware that I’m kind of a UMass guy.

Four years in the marching band there, and pretty much the rest of my life rooting and writing for them.

Also a journalism degree. Also many lifelong friends.

Good place. Beautiful scenery. Amherst, the quintessential college town, looking largely the same as it did thirty-one years ago when I was a rookie tenor saxophonist just trying to find Orchard Hill.

(Except for a relatively colossal and totally out-of-place six-story office building that’s going up at the join of North Pleasant Street and Triangle Street, looking for all the world like a Borg cube just went all eminent-domain on a Norman Rockwell painting. Not that I have any feelings about that, no indeed. <*grrrr*>)

I’m a little attached to the joint.

So, just about twenty years ago this moment, I was stepping outside the ol’ comfort zone: starting work as the graduate assistant for a college marching band that was one of UMass’ direct competitors, at least as far as football conference rivalries went.

At least until the school disbanded its football team, the Boston University Terriers were a regular part of the UMass football schedule. The two bands saw each other annually. There’s even a painting, hung up in the lower level of UMass’ Campus Center, that purports to be a panoramic depiction of a home football game in Amherst, complete with the UMass band on the field … except that if you look closely, you can see that the band on the field is wearing the red blazers and white fedoras of the BU Band of the 1980s and 1990s. Whoopsie. Get me quality control, stat.

And the first few conversations that I had with BU band folks gave me the polite but distinct impression that they hadn’t always appreciated the UMass band strutting into the friendly confines of Nickerson Field in Boston, and using its relative size to seem like it was stomping all over the marching Terriers.

(Somewhat futilely, early that 1995 season, I gently suggested to my new BU colleagues that UMass didn’t really go places aiming to do terrible things to any other bands. Well, except maybe Harvard’s – which thanks to BU’s Beanpot tournament experiences was at least something we could bond over. Anyway, in New England, when your band is 250, or 300, or 350, it’s kind of an act of aggression just to step off your buses.)

My new boss at BU, band director Joe Wright, was a University of New Hampshire grad, so he had no particular dog in that fight, other than being kinda cheerily feisty about both schools. And happily, he also had (um) a sense of perspective. Before I was even officially on board as his able assistant, he had suggested to me that he felt it would be valuable to add my UMass experience to his staff.

If it was an olive branch, I was happy to grab hold of it. It seemed an oasis of “your UMassness is okay” in an ocean of New Boston University Things and Procedures and Surroundings.

 

Starred Thought: Do what works” was my philosophy as I prepared to run my first brass-and-woodwinds music sectional. I’d asked if there were particular exercises or activities that the BU winds had traditionally done. Joe had looked at me and said, “well, we don’t really have a music technique program per se, so … create something.”

When your band experience (at least on the brass and woodwind side) includes instruction by the drum major and arranger and brass caption head of the DCI world-champion Garfield Cadets (ya know … the guy who’s writing the shows for a little group called Carolina Crown, nowadays?) … you go back and ape everything you can possibly remember him doing.

And I did. Partly it was smart stuff, and had shown itself to work; and partly, in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, it was something I could latch onto for dear life until I got my feet under me.

(It came as a great relief when one of the band’s seniors … who had the opportunity to be the most territorial about “the way we’ve always done things” of all the undergrads present … quietly supposed, midway through band camp, that she really liked the things I was doing, especially all the work with breathing exercises. “I was chatting with my section and we were saying we’d never really gotten into that before, so that was cool.”)

But I tried my hardest not to talk a real lot about that group in Amherst, and not to identify what I was doing as all Minuteman-like. I think this was mostly out of respect for the fact that it was a new situation, and partly to keep my new friends from getting that look in their eye again. We would like to keep these new friends, period, please and thank you.

 

August turned into September, and I seemed to be keeping enough friends to get by, and mysteriously, the Commonwealth Armory was feeling more and more like home. It wasn’t UMass’ Old Chapel, but it probably had a comparable amount of history. It was a huge brick building with not much else in it but space for a whole football field, and it was where we … ahhh, the BU Band was starting to be “we”! … stored our stuff and rehearsed our show.

[A brief aside: yes, the BU Band rehearsed inside a brick building. You may rightly ask, how can anyone rehearse marching band shows inside an echo chamber like that? It’s a good question. When I would conduct a long tone in a wind sectional, the echo that followed the release of the note lasted a complete seven seconds. The answer to your question: … you get used to it. And I did.]

[It’s amazing how clean and clear the sound is when you get out there, across the street from the Armory, in the open air at Nickerson Field, for halftime, though.]

Something that struck me early on … and which I did adapt to … but which I still noted … was the contrast between how they do things here, compared with how they do things there. Many of the BU marching commands and terminology were very similar to what was used at UMass. Some were assuredly not. It was my job to figure out the differences and not screw them up.

At UMass, we went to the ready. At BU, we went to stand-by. At UMass, it was “left turn harch!” At BU, it was “four-count-turn-to-the-right… one, two, ready, move.” (I had my own thoughts about that, but we didn’t have many of those commands in the actual show, or in many parades, anyway.)

And while UMass’ PA guy, Jim MacRostie, was all stentorian bombast and kept 99 percent of the time to the written script … the BU band’s announcer, Scott Monty, was clearly influenced by the free-wheeling irreverence of Ivy League band narrations, and honest to Heaven, we had NO idea what silly and sometimes borderline-inappropriate jokes he was going to deliver next, while introducing the band at halftime.

It was a good lesson. In Amherst, they do it this way, and it works. On Commonwealth Avenue, they do it slightly (or very) differently … and yes, it works.

Every so often, I would gently soft-pedal a possible adjustment to how we did what we did … and as the season went on, I would even occasionally whisper, “tiny UMass tactic which might help clarify this” … and folks started to get the idea that I wasn’t really trying to create “little UMass” on the Charles.

 

Once, in late September of that first BU semester, we were running a music rehearsal session that focused on our rather sizable folder of stands music. The BU band stands book was actually two overstuffed marching folios (per musician) full of tunes. If you were a BU bando, you put one of them on your lyre, and you put the other one next to you on the stadium bench. I quickly discovered that the reason they had that many tunes available is because it made life better at hockey games – wherein you play eight bars of a tune, the puck drops, and you stop playing and immediately get a different song ready. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It was a dizzying thing to catch up with … especially since the focus of the UMass marching establishment, at least when I marched, was always almost completely on the halftime field show. In Amherst, in the stands it was usually trombones barking out John Williams’ “Superman” fanfare, or the trumpets wailing out a charge that either came from Temple University or West Chester University (I was never sure which), or everybody dancing to the “go-fight-win” cowbell cheer. And that was about it.

So my band director boss Joe stopped the rehearsal, looked over at me, grinned, and said, “at the risk of ‘dissing’ my able assistant here … in the stands, we did a whole lot better than the University of Massachusetts last year.”

I’m pretty sure a number of the BU bandos were waiting to see how I’d react to that.

What can I say? The truth will set you free. I smiled, and said, “no, you’re probably right about that.” And he smiled. And they smiled. And we went about our business. And nobody came to console me afterward, possibly because I didn’t need consoling. Hmm. Three weeks into the BU life, and I’m feeling comfortable, even though instead of maroon, I’m wearing scarlet.

Ooo. How ’bout that. Two shades of red. Different, but related. Didn’t see THAT comin’, did you?

Yeah, neither did I, until that September.

 

Previously, in this space, I’ve described “because we’ve always done it this way” as one of my least favorite phrases. Again, lesson learned: the first way you learn to do something is always going to be your default. But there are alternative ways of doing it which, as it turns out, can work well too.

And, in the best of situations, the new ways that work perfectly well … can also help you understand why the old ways work so well.

Wouldn’t trade that experience with the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue for anything. Go Terriers.

And, as well, go Minutemen.

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September 20, 2015 - Posted by | band, BUMB, marching band, music, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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