Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Safe As Band Rooms

This week, quite a number of people in my FB world will return to their musical ensembles – scholastic or church-related or community groups or whatever – stand in front of them, and try to find something to say that addresses the place we find our nation in. Not an easy job. (No easier is the job of the people who will return to their music – or other! – classrooms and try to find the right thing to say to their elementary and pre-school-aged charges. That’s certain.)

I will, too. So, I’ve been thinking furiously (and you may take that however you like). I’ve been remembering ensembles I’ve been a member of, throughout my life, and drawing inspiration from them.

Here’s what I think I would say to any of the ensembles that I get to work with. Here’s what I think I would say to any ensemble I’ve EVER gotten to work with — because there are groups full of people from my recent and distant past that I’ve been thinking of in the last day or so, as well, who happen to be wonderful people but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They all were – are – PERSONS, and as such deserve respect unconditionally.

Deep breath.

I feel like I have to say this, in this moment; but I also feel like there’s no need to say this, generally, because you all know this already; but I also feel like it’s worth saying at all times.

In this ensemble, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what instrument you play or what flag you wave or what voice part you sing, no matter whether you read music well or somewhat or not at all… no matter what…

When you are on this field, in this choir room, on this stage… you are IMPORTANT… you are WELCOME… and you are SAFE.”

Effectively, that’s what George Parks said (by way of his actions), for all those years. It’s what newly-minted NafME GNP Leadership Award winner Thom Hannum has done for all of his years – and specifically, valiantly demonstrated six years ago when a particular bereft band needed it the very most. It’s what was shown to me and to anyone within reach, by all the band directors and choir directors that I’ve ever played or sung for. And I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and for, a pleasant number of friends who are stellar band and choir directors, and they all personify that sentiment.

As role models go, they’re all far better than some of the public figures we’re fixated on now.

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November 9, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, CCSUMB, choir, current events, GNP, HCMB, heroes, music, news, politics, SUMC, teachers, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Sixteen: They Can’t Take That Away From Me

I marched with UMass in the late 1980s, and I saw a gentleman clearly having a ball doing his job.

I assisted with Boston University’s marching band in the mid-1990s, and I watched another gentleman in his element: in the midst of a group of student musicians, teaching, leading, encouraging, holding feet to fire occasionally, with humor and wisdom.

Regular Blogge readers will already (likely) have read my various notes about my time writing for the Delaware band, and the dominant impression that their director leaves with anyone who has watched her interact with her charges for twenty-plus years now.

In some form or another, it is or was their dream job, certainly in that moment. Nowhere else I’d rather be, etc.

Part of my answer to the question, “what’s your dream job?”, is rooted in my observations of those folks.

Yep. My dream job: directing a college band.

Actually, to really fully answer that, I would have to say, “directing a college band which is performing a field show full of music from Star Trek”, but I think I’ll refrain. I mean really.

One out of two ain’t bad. And I got to do it, for a time.

I have chronicled, in this space, the two-day road trip that I took with the College of the Holy Cross’ marching band, wherein they played nice with the University of Delaware band, and wherein I spent about thirty-six hours totally immersed in what I wanted to be doing.

In the late summer of 2002, the perfect storm occurred: a small college very near where I lived posted a job opening, for athletic-bands director. It was a college whose band I knew fairly well, since my alma mater and that school had played football regularly while I was a marcher. It would have been a ten-minute commute.

It was part-time – administratively VERY part-time – but that was okay. I applied, I interviewed, they liked me, they offered me the job. Spectacular.

And it was.

Ten years ago next month, I made (what was to that point) the hardest professional decision that was ever obvious: I gave that gig up.

Well, it was so part-time that it wasn’t possible to maintain my full-time public-school music teaching gig and do the Holy Cross job, each, at the level I would have liked to. And, since my full-time job was funding my house … the conclusion I reached was very sad, but very necessary.

I scheduled a meeting with whatever band members were still local, three weeks after classes had ended. They thought it was to talk about next year. In a sense, it was, but not exactly. And, to their enduring credit, when I described my decision to walk away from all this … they spent probably four seconds’ worth of jaw-drop, and then they immediately swung into “how do we move forward?” mode. As much as a band director’s ego could be massaged by an extended period of wailing and gnashing of teeth … much better to see a group of band members become, or continue to be, great leaders.

Starred Thought: “A Drum Major (leader) does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether s/he likes it or not.”

Starred Thought: “A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.”

Holy Cross was in good hands, no matter who my successor would be.

As I’ve said many times, at least I can say I did that job for four years, as well as I could; worked with spectacular people; had great experiences … and was in front of a college marching band full of people that worked hard, played hard, entertained people, and with whom I would have traveled anywhere.

I miss it. Thanks to Facebook and such, happily, I get to stay in touch with lots of the good people of Crusader Band Nation. So I get lots of opportunities to flash back to great memories and funny stories.

But I miss it.

But … I did it. And nothing can take that away.

May 16, 2016 Posted by | band, blogging, BUMB, GNP, HCMB, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Five: Guilty Pleasures -or- The Great Convergence

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 5: “My Guilty Pleasure”

 

If you’ve been paying proper attention to the Blogge, in the five-plus years it’s existed, you know that I’m an utter, squealing geek when it comes to two subjects.

One is the universe according to George Lucas.

When “Star Wars” hit theaters in May 1977 … it became an almost-instant genuine cultural phenomenon, and it’s cast its shadow over nearly four decades of American life, since. (Although a few stories have since surfaced detailing the disdain that some of the movie’s own production crew members had for the project while they were making it. Admittedly “Episode IV” must have looked like every other bewildering or pathetic attempt at science-fiction movie magic that had come before it, and more than a few that came after.)

But honestly, it could still be filed under “guilty pleasure” because honestly … weird creatures and zap guns and really not-that-great acting? I mean come on. And then “The Simpsons” invented their Comic-Book Guy character, thereby creating a capsule review of every mid-thirties American male who waxes authoritative about the galaxy far, far away from the comfort of a parent’s basement very, very nearby.

The other geek-out subject is that of the good old American marching band. (On this Blogge, I suppose you could think of it as “the universe according to George Parks”.) Sadly, no matter how much dignity and seriousness we try to infuse into the activity, for every “Drumline”, it seems like there are several “American Pie: Band Camp” examples out there.

From inside the bubble of the marching band universe – the place where its participants and adherents rehearse music, learn marching drill, and practice throwing and catching flags and rifles and other implements of destruction – the activity can be a remarkable and beautiful experience both from an entertainment standpoint and from a “life skills you will learn while marching that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life and make you lifelong friends”, etc. etc. angle.

From outside that bubble, it can look like just a bunch of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.

Everybody is right.

 

One day in 1999, my two guilty pleasures intersected. It was a moment of guilty-pleasure geekdom that I fear will never come again. Although perhaps that’s for the best.

As has been chronicled here and elsewhere, when the marching music activity is done right, it can be great, and when it’s done poorly, it’s cringeworthy and look-away territory.

Until that day, and since then, when marching ensembles have attempted to reproduce the John Williams “Star Wars” musical scores, it’s been anywhere from “almost; good try” to “oh put that away, it’s not even close and it’s embarrassing”.

I come at the “Star Wars” scores from the perspective of someone who considers himself, rightly or not, something of a “Star Wars” score savant. When I hear any orchestral cue from the original trilogy of films, I can hear the dialogue from that scene in my head at the same time. I can hum along with most of those cues, accurately. You could say I’ve marinated in the stuff for nearly forty years. That “Episode IV” double-LP album has long since had its grooves worn away.

And having invested that kind of ridiculous time in listening to those recordings, I’ve gotten used to what the London Symphony Orchestra sounded like, making those recordings. As glad as I was, when “The Force Awakens” opened, to hear the first new “Star Wars” film score in ten-plus years … still I was a little puzzled at the opening blast of brass because it didn’t sound quite right. I wondered if it was (ironically) some new recording technology that was making the brass sound a little different, not quite the same … and then I read somewhere that the score was recorded in Los Angeles (a nod to not forcing the octogenarian Williams to cross the ocean to London, repeatedly). Ah ha. So, different. Not bad; just not … quite.

 

So, at the fourth annual Collegiate Marching Band Festival, held at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, PA, came a moment of “will it or won’t it?”

I sat up in the stands amongst the Boston University band folks with whom I had traveled (and the legions of other college band members, and local high school band kids, and lots of other spectators), watching the mighty Penn State Blue Band take the field. I had never heard Penn State live. Their reputation preceded them. The Festival, which to that point had taken place on the last weekend of September, had been moved to the first weekend in October to accommodate Penn State’s schedule. Yes, you do that for certain groups which reside in the pantheon of American marching bands.

Their PA announcement declared that they would open their exhibition show with The Theme From Star Wars!! …

And my heart sank.

Because any other time I’d heard an outdoor band go there, whether they’d played well or not, it had not been … quite.

(And sometimes – many more times – it had been not at all.)

Penn State took a deep breath … and so did I. I didn’t trust a big-10-style, high-stepping, spats-wearing band to make “Star Wars” sound like anything other than a marching band trying to approximate that sound that I was so familiar with, and knew could not be reproduced – certainly not by a marching band.

I prepared to be disappointed.

Penn State did not give me that opportunity.

In the time before, and in the time since, I have not ever heard a marching band nail, completely nail the opening introductory few measures of John Williams’ “intro to a galaxy far, far away”. But that afternoon, Penn State nailed it. I sat up very much straighter on those not-quite comfortable benches in the J. Birney Crum home stands. I listened very much more closely to the chords, the rhythms … the voicings in the arrangement … trying to see if I could spot watered-down rhythms, not-quite-correct chords. I couldn’t. To my ears … with no orchestral string section present … outdoors, with no acoustical shells to direct the sound properly to my precise location in the audience … Penn State delivered a sound so authentic, so true to the original, that I wished I could hit rewind and listen to it again, right then.

The phrase “I couldn’t believe my ears” is thrown around with such abandon now.

But I couldn’t.

But I was forced to, because those were live humans down there – no lip sync, or the band equivalent (whatever technology *that* might require!). No faking it in any way. What you hear is what you get.

I got an earful.

Penn State put an arrangement very much like that one back into its repertoire ten years later, and they almost, almost reproduced that Allentown sound. But I think it’ll never happen again. And that’s okay. The wind was blowing just right – the winds were blowing just right – and at least one particular geek in the stands got his perfect storm, his Great Convergence of Guilty Pleasures.

May 5, 2016 Posted by | band, blogging, BUMB, marching band, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment