Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Resting On Laurels

Many of my friends and colleagues have many George Parks stories. I do too. And in the days leading up to today, a day in which we’re marking the sixth anniversary of his passing, I’ve been reminded of one in particular.

Probably not so coincidental, this reminder: the story is about beginnings, and it’s come back to me during many Septembers, including the ones before 2010. September is when school years (at least here on the east coast) and church program years crank back up again. Bands are band camping … choirs are getting back into organized singing again … many folks are packing up their summer gear … fall sports teams are working out again … kids (and graduate students) are once again setting aside afternoon and evening time for homework … everyone seems to be getting back to the old grind.

The story I’m thinking of has to do with my very very first football game as a collegiate marching person.

 

The mighty UMass marching band had completed its first pregame show of the 1984 season, and its first halftime show, and its first postgame show. I had sung my first uniformed “My Way”, and the band was encircling its director in the dusty parking lot outside the UMass football stadium in the way that only it can.

I was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled at what we’d just accomplished. I’d never been in a band that big, that powerful, that entertaining, before. Just eleven months before, I’d visited the UMass campus on a Saturday and saw the UMass marchers light their home stadium on fire. I had determined that this school was where I needed to be, and that band was where I needed to be. And lo, I was now a member of that group. And it was just as great — WE were just as great — as I had remembered. The audience cheered. The band danced (where appropriate). I was astonished at my good fortune.

We stood in a 230-person blob, around a portable podium upon which stood the same band director whose navy three-piece suit, red beard, and ability to stand on a very very narrow stadium railing had gotten my attention, at that game nearly a year before. This was the moment. This was MY moment.

Well, gang,” Mr. Parks asked, “…how’d it feel?”

We roared. That good. Only far-and-away the best band performance of my life.

Good, good! … Because we’ll never see THAT band again.”

Yeah! Only the most awesome show in the history of– … … sorry, wh’-what? Come again?

Lots of work to do on Monday. Detail to the ready…”

And we came to attention one last time and how were our FEET? Together … in, out, back, frozen, up … substandard?

But … but … but “Crown Imperial” was bombastic (with a 48-count sustained final chord, no less)! Stan Kenton’s “Malaguena” ripped the crowd’s faces off! Lionel Richie’s “Hello” was … well, strangely placid, –but that just proved we could play anything in any style and nobody was messin’ with us! Right?

It wasn’t until two and a half weeks later — at the end of a midweek rehearsal, in fact — that Mr. Parks declared that the UMass band had “emerged”. That was his way of saying, okay, we’ve gotten ourselves back to the level of performance where we ought to be. Back to what the band should sound like. And in the mid-1980s, it usually wasn’t until the autumnal equinox that Mr. Parks looked upon his creation and declared it good.

Which I imagine may have frustrated people sometimes. In the fall of 1984, it confused this particular freshman, who had repaired to supper with his family after that first home game still reverberating from the experience of surviving and thriving on a college football field.

Took a while, but I figured it out.

 

Some time ago, I saw a video clip of a pre-band camp student staff meeting, in 1993, the year UMass was slated to play its first-ever exhibition at the Bands of America Grand National Championships. Mr. Parks was chatting with his student leaders and saying, well, gang, last year was such a great year, and ya know what? That band doesn’t exist anymore. That band is gone.

Odd thing to say, if you want to rev up your troops on the eve of battle … but his point was: this year’s band is not last year’s. It’s not even the same as last year’s.

The roster is not exactly the same. The drum majors are not necessarily the same people. The repertoire is new. The drill is new. The seniors (some of whom amassed four years of UMass band experience and institutional knowledge) are gone — and their shoes are about to be filled by rookies (some of whom have never even marched before).

We got work to do … and if all we bring out there, onto the practice field or the Alumni Stadium field or the Hoosier Dome field, is our memory of our reputation or the achievements of the ethereal past … if we don’t dig in and put in just as much work as the bands that unleashed “Phantom of the Opera” in 1990, or that made Delaware fans want to throw their babies in 1987 or 1983 or 1981, or that represented Massachusetts at Presidential inaugurations in 1984 or 1981 … all of the members of which are now out in the big world and not here to help

… then we may not live up to the standards that they set.

All right, but … what about all that stuff I wrote, in this space, three years ago, about excellence being in that band’s DNA? It wasn’t untrue. And yet, while you can build a foundation … if you don’t maintain the house on top of it, the thing tends to deteriorate.

As the great Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser says: “If you plant corn, you get corn. If you plant tomatoes, you get tomatoes. What do you get if you plant nothing? … Weeds.”

 

So, for example, for the last fifteen Septembers, when starting the first choir rehearsal of our church’s program year, I’ve quietly borne in mind that no matter how great Music Ministry Sunday sounded back in June, and regardless of the fact that we don’t graduate seniors but instead benefit from having people singing in the choir for decades in a row … we can’t rest on those laurels.

That’s why, for example, the Drum Major Academy that Mr. Parks started has continued, and the curriculum has seen some adjustments and refinements. A couple of summers ago, after an especially memorable day of DMA teaching (and watching my colleagues teach better than I do), I posted on Facebook, “DMA lives … and *evolves*.”

That’s why, for example, teachers attend professional development workshops in the summer, when arguably they should be sipping adult beverages on the beach. If you stay in one spot, you get stagnant.

Starred Thought: “Bands (choirs) (organizations) (people) never stay the same. They either get better, or they get worse.”

That first college home football game of mine was thirty-two years and one week ago. And I still think about the fact that “we’ll never see THAT band again”, and consider how good that is to remember. And to consider, in spite of the fact that he’s no longer with us, how great it is that I remember who said it, and why he said it, and that he wasn’t saying it to tamp down our enthusiasm but to pump it up.

These things don’t just happen by themselves, gang. Gotta get in there and work for it.

Starred Thought: “Never. Assume. Anything.”

Whenever it is that I have finally rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible … if I’ve had even a sliver of the impact and influence on the world that George Parks had, and still has … I will be (at least metaphorically) in heaven.

At the end of a Drum Major Academy week, Mr. Parks used to look out at the group of high school drum majors that he was training, and say, “As a band leader, you have the greatest opportunity to have a permanent lifelong impact on the people in your school.”

Right back at you, sir. And you took full advantage of that opportunity.

We’ll never see that band again.”

And we’re all the better for it, #becauseofGNP.

September 16, 2016 Posted by | band, DMA, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief Pause to Remember

[Ed. Note: I posted the following thoughts on Facebook a year ago today; and was reminded of that posting this morning, thanks to Facebook’s curious habit of telling people exactly what they said a year, two years, five years, etc., etc., ago. So, on the occasion of a particularly premature passing … I’ve adjusted just one word (to reflect the passage of time), and here it is: a tip of the cap.]

 

The color guard guy and the arranger were sitting at the bar, in the West Chester (PA) Holiday Inn, the night before DMA got going. The conversation wound around to designing field shows. The color guard guy looked over at the arranger, and said, “Really – the way you write makes my job so much easier.”

It might have been the first time the arranger had known for sure that the color guard guy thought he was actually okay.

The arranger accepted the compliment, but raised his eyebrows a bit: he hadn’t done anything *consciously*, while writing, to cause life to be easier for the color guard guy. (The arranger was, however, relieved, because he had seen what it could be like when the color guard guy *didn’t* think you were okay. He could be, um, lacerative.)

The arranger is pleased to report, though, that since then he has paid much more attention to the visual elements of marching shows.

He hopes the color guard guy has noticed; although he suspects that the color guard guy has his hands full dealing with the color guard of “the Pride of the Great Beyond”.

It’s been exactly seven years, which feels like both forever-ago and just-yesterday. Curious how that is.

Miss ya, Donnie.

March 21, 2016 Posted by | band, DMA, Facebook, friends, marching band, UDMB | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I Can’t Abide the Stanford Band

Yes, friends, after having repeatedly preached the gospel of “if all us band types can’t support each other, who in the world is going to?” in this space … I’m ripping on somebody else’s band.

Irony alert.

 

So, yesterday afternoon, I was alerted by the social media elves that there had been yet another example of college marching bands behaving badly.

In this case, it was the Rose Bowl halftime. As it was, the University of Iowa football team had been taking it on the chin, at the hands of the Stanford University athletic establishment. The score was somewhere near 35 to nothing at the break.

And then, reportedly (as I am without glitzy cable TV these days, I didn’t see any of it, but the reports were quite insistent), the Stanford band took the field, and took a few liberties.

Some background details to note here.

First, the Stanford band is a member of that subset of college bands who tend not to take themselves, their opponents, their activity, or indeed the concept of dignity, too seriously. And honestly, a band that can’t create a little fun in their show – somehow, and there are many ways to do this – isn’t much of a college band. Right?

Second, the Stanford band could not have predicted that Iowa football was going to tank as badly as it did, in that first half. Their intent wasn’t to pile on, at least in that context.

But pile on they did. And even if the score had been the reverse, apparently their halftime-show mockery of Iowa and its farmers and its Midwestern-ness crossed a few lines of good taste and good sense.

This is a thing that the occasional college band will do. They take shots at opposing teams, or schools, as an integral part of their halftime shows. Usually it involves public-address narration, so there can be absolutely no doubt that they meant that.

(You may recall earlier this fall, when there was debate about whether it was okay for the Kansas State band to take a crack at its in-state rival, Kansas University – when it wasn’t even the K-State/Kansas game! Never mind the issue of whether that drill formation was the Starship Enterprise or something, um, more personal.)

And third: this sort of thing is not new for the Stanford group.

Earlier yesterday morning, as they passed in review for the national-TV cameras at the Rose Parade, I watched how they conducted themselves – just the overall dominant impression they offered the average viewer who perhaps was new to the activity – and I posted this on the Facebook machine:

My apologies to everyone in the world… but the Stanford band is everything about band that I wish would just. please. stop. (Unearned swagger, for openers.)

But it goes back further than that. A lot further. And a lot less “oh, they’re just college kids”. There’s a history here.

There’s even a history on my social media timeline. When the Facebook algorithms told me that I had a few memories from past New Year’s Days to review and remember, yesterday … turns out those memories were of me making very similar commentary about that same Stanford band organization, exactly two years ago, after it covered itself in something other than glory during that Rose Parade.

So… Stanford… … … where to begin?”

And then, during that year’s Rose Bowl halftime clunker:

Here’s the only reason UMass should stay in Div. I-A: so that one bright shining day, they can play Stanford in a bowl game and put on the definitive halftime clinic.”

And then, I scrolled down further and noted my reactions to their Rose Bowl halftime show on New Year’s Day 2013, just a year earlier than that:

The TV camera angle of the day, for me: in the foreground, the Stanford band playing its halftime show … and in the background, the Wisconsin drumline kneeling on the sideline, their faces clearly reading: ‘…whatever.’”

Final score: Wisconsin wins music and dignity captions; Stanford wins ‘you’ll remember our band tomorrow morning at work’ caption.”

 

Sorry. That’s a whole lot of high-and-mighty dumping on one particular band organization – a band whom I have never actually met; whose rehearsals I have not watched; whom I have not actually experienced in real life. All I’m basing my reactions on … is what I’ve seen on TV and on Internet replays.

But that’s the point: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This is what a few bands (Stanford being only the most obvious, yesterday) do: they live inside the bubble that is their own heads, or their own organizations, and remain convinced that it would be best if they played the part of arrogant jackwagons, on the field or on the parade route, because, well, WE think it’s funny, anyway. If you’re offended, or think we could try to bring a better musical product, well, that’s your hangup, dude.

On that subject, Australian philosophy professor Patrick Stokes wrote:

The problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.”

In fact, however, when you’re a band playing a halftime show, it’s not all about you – even if, yes, you’re the only people on the field and in theory you’re the show. You’re playing for somebody (in this case, an audience), and you’re representing someone other than (larger than) yourself. One hopes that, at the time, you realize it.

Or at least that your leadership does.

The training I’ve received via my college band, and then as part of the Drum Major Academy staff, has had at least as much to do with remembering where you are and what effect you have on other people, as it’s had to do with guiding the lines and playing the notes and hitting the drill dots and wearing the uniform frontwards.

Also, once, I read a high school band’s governing handbook, and it said this:

Let me give you some other things that band does for you. … #3. Citizenship: to develop better citizens for the world of tomorrow by devoloping the traits of responsible citizens today. This may be realized through the mental and physical discipline incurred from the enactment of the program experience. … #4. Service: to lend dignity, color, and atmosphere to certain school and civic events.” [Italics mine.]

Also, I read an interview with Richard Goodstein of Clemson University, and he suggested this to future band directors:

…As the administration you have to make sure that your students are good ambassadors of the university, whether they’re at home or on a road trip. … There are so many different stakeholders that you have to take a wide view and it makes you politically astute about what kind of things will make you successfull beyond the narrower view of just the marching band program.” [Italics, again, mine.]

Finally, of course, the purveyor of my aforementioned training in how best to do band (and, by extension, the rest of life) memorably said this, in an interview:

There are standards — standards of behavior, standards of how to project the image of the band, which is the image of the university, which is of course the image of themselves.”

 

So I guess it just bugs the hell out of me that ninety-nine and a half percent of the college band world is just trying to do things right, to put on a decent show, to not get mocked mercilessly for wearing feathers on our heads, and just generally to get even remotely understood by the general public … And then yahoos like the Stanford band leadership have to go and plan stuff – on-field, pre-meditated stuff – that by extension casts all those darn bands full of dumb college kids, in a really poor light.

And in preparation for yesterday’s Rose Bowl, somebody at Stanford University green-lit that project. Okayed it for viewing by tens of thousands of live witnesses, and by millions of viewers … whose opinions of that school, and that band, and unfortunately band in general, would be shaped by what they were seeing in that moment. And who wouldn’t take the time to go to YouTube or wherever, to find out what the “average” college band performance was. Y’know, just so they could figure out where on that continuum a Stanford-esque show actually sat.

The final nail in the coffin: one of the Drum Major Academy students with whom I had the honor of working, this past summer, leapt onto Facebook and posted a thought that referenced one of our head clinician’s Starred Thoughts which happens to be my favorite:

All hype and no substance makes you a fluffhead.”

There ya go.

So thanks a bundle, Band Whose Mascot Appears To Be A Tree: through your efforts, the concept of band is in the news again, and for the worst reason and in the poorest light. Happy New Year to you, too; but only if that happiness comes in the form of dispensing with the attitude and gaining a little perspective.

January 2, 2016 Posted by | band, current events, DMA, entertainment, football, GNP, marching band, music, news, social media, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments