Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Invisible Togetherness

Foolish question: if you can’t attend to a live sporting event, election-night rally, competition, or other similar event where the outcome is in doubt … what’s the most fun other way to witness it? Sitting by yourself watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people you know and love, watching on TV?

Well, obviously.

I remember a TV commercial from awhile ago that featured a man sitting on a couch in front of his living room TV, alone, rooting hard for his favorite football team to win; when the winning touchdown is shown on the TV, he jumps in the air, lets out a whoop, and tosses his snack food in the air. Then looks around awkwardly. His utter lack of companionship in that moment makes him look strange, albeit honest.

On any given election night, great numbers of people gather in a convention hall or an outdoor park somewhere, and wait nervously for election returns to come in. When the election of their candidate is official, people (who either know each other or they don’t!) hug each other and whoop and holler and generally celebrate. And the TV networks will intercut these scenes with scenes from bars and offices and lots of other places around the state or the country, with the same things happening, just on a smaller scale. When images of these smaller venues are shown, viewers are more likely to see people who might have known each other before that evening began.

Pick any World Cup soccer final, ever. No matter what national teams are involved, their fans can always be seen in pubs, on the streets, gathered around TVs or radios, wearing their national colors, waving flags, sometimes hanging out of moving cars while waving flags. And when one team wins … that’s when the show really begins.

Before about eight years ago, though, if you wanted to get together with friends and stress out over a suspenseful game or election (or reality show), you had to conspire to physically meet up with them all. It took work. And people who lived far away were out of luck.

Before social media technology, all we could do was get together in restaurants, or in each other’s living rooms.

Whew. Stone Age.

In January 1986, as a sophomore at Umass-Amherst, I repaired with seven or eight of my friends to one of their dorm rooms to watch the New England Patriots’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance, against the Chicago Bears. We were all very excited. Lots of snack foods and cheering, for the first fifteen minutes or so. When it became clear that the Bears were going to administer a ferocious beating, we sadly drifted into other conversations and the TV became just background noise. But it was fun to hang out together on that first weekend back from break, anyway.

One Saturday night in October 1986, I sat on a high school gym floor and watched, along with 239 of my closest friends, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox engage in what is now one of the more re-broadcast World Series games in baseball history. The UMass band was on a weekend road trip, and the director had brought along new technology – a projection TV! – so we could watch a wall-sized TV picture of the game from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Every half-inning, a different half of the band was prepared to throw themselves off the nearby bleachers as their favorite team threw away a chance to win. We were probably about 40 percent Mets fans, 40 percent Sox fans, and 20 percent “so very tired wanna do lights-out and get some sleep”. When that fateful ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and Game Six went to the Mets, band people in that gym commiserated, or celebrated (or rolled over, I guess); I wish more photos of the proceedings existed. No question: it was quite a scene.

 

This past Saturday night, I was part of a gathering of a significant subset of my official list of friends – the ones who follow drum and bugle corps. I couldn’t see any of those friends, though.

In order to participate, I parked myself in front of my computer, opened a Web browser window to the Drum Corps International official website, specifically the webpage devoted to a live-blog of the season’s final competition … opened another browser window to my Facebook page … and settled in.

A year beforehand, I had also done this, and experienced an odd but pleasant sense of invisible togetherness. This year, though, the summer’s competitions had been fiercely fought, and there were an awful lot of people who were rooting uncommonly hard for one or two particular corps. [The specific details of the battle at the top of that leaderboard are contained in my blog post from last week.] We knew people who were on the field marching; we knew people who were their instructors; we knew people who had created the musical scores or choreography being performed all summer and that night. Some of us (certainly not me) had marched with those groups, or some drum corps at some time, and had a extra-special understanding of the kind of desperately wonderful stress of Finals.

A couple of my friends were actually on the grounds of the competition, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and were able to do a little genuine journalism (including, in one case, a running tally of the number of standing ovations her favorite group was receiving, as they happened). The niece of a college band alumni friend was a member of the corps that was working doggedly to reclaim first place from another corps which had caught up to them within the last week of the season. That friend was watching in the way any proud aunt would watch – and several people were periodically checking in with her, there on Facebook, to make sure the suspense had not in fact killed her.

I kept the live-blog page open constantly, and not just because it was my only connection to Finals. Last summer, just as the scores for the 12 competing corps were to be announced, the demand on the DCI website was so intense that it crashed the thing. By way of having maintaining that live-blog page’s activity (seemingly, if I’d closed the window, I couldn’t have re-connected), I had inadvertently became a combination of Dan Rather and Paul Revere – trying to help keep my friends, who couldn’t get the website to load, updated. One if by land … two if by sea … in ninth place, with a score of 86-point-something, the Madison Scouts. I posted each score on my Facebook page for people to see, as the official live-blog webpage was revealing it.

All over the country and in some other parts of the world, lots of my friends sat at their computers and filled in the sound of the crowd applauding, inside their own heads. And posted comments and thoughts and reactions, and read everyone else’s. And Liked them. And commented on them. Social media technology plus imagination equalled, well, not quite the same effect as if we’d been at the local watering hole watching the 60-inch TV in the corner, but near enough.

So this year was likely to be a repeat of last summer’s thriller finish, and then some.

It was an electronic version of a 1930s family gathering around the radio in the living room. Especially since the online video-feed package offered by DCI (in exchange for a significant outlay of money) was glitch-filled to start the evening, settled down for most of the rest of it, but took a flying header for good just as scores were about to be announced. Again. Okay, no picture. Unless one could’ve gotten DCI’s audio-only YouTube channel to load, no sound either. So now this wasn’t even radio … it was storytelling. It was the Pony Express, sort of. It was the Greek army’s advance scout, the fellow who ran the first marathon, returning with news of the enemy invasion. It was that series of mountaintop beacons in the last “Lord of the Rings” movie.

Meanwhile, my live-blog page was still … live. And offering details of the competition, thanks to two gentlemen in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box who were pecking away at their laptops, posting observations and remarks and the occasional digital photo of the field.

All right, then … another chance for public service, sorta.

 

No scores yet,” I posted, “but the Live Blog guys are taking a beating [from their online commenters] for the connectivity issues.” Replied a friend, “I’m yelling at my computer right now… but it’s not helping!” Commented another, “At least the live blog is up.” I typed, “I will defend that open browser window with my life.” Almost instantly, little on-screen flags appeared, letting me know that two online friends had liked my comment, almost simultaneously.

Finally, after the kind of pregnant pauses and video montages which impress the DCI Board of Directors and infuriate fans who just wanna know the scores (irked Facebook posts on my screen: “Now they’re showing a video, apparently. … They do this on purpose, you know.” “I just want to go to sleep. Please just get on with it!”) … the live-blog began to post scores just after the stadium announcer had announced them. Feverishly I moused back and forth between my live-blog window and my Facebook page. Control-C … Control-V … hit “return” on the keyboard and post. Rinse, and repeat.

11th, 86.40 Spirit of Atlanta.” Twenty seconds later: “10th, 87.75 Blue Knights.”

8th place, 90.40 Boston Crusaders.” I added a comment beneath that post: “Nearly caught the Cavs.” Which almost made me late for the next announcement – quick! Copy-paste-post: “Jim Ott Award for Best Brass Performance to Carolina Crown. No kidding.” That last sentence fragment was mine, not the DCI live-blog’s … and the bottom of my screen exploded with little Notification flags. People Liked that post. People commented on one of my previous posts. And another. I gave up trying to read the text of the various comments – they were coming in too fast. I don’t say this to make anyone think I was particularly Like-able – it’s just that there were so many of my Friends all watching their News Feeds at once and all reacting to things in the same moment. The equivalent would have been a sports pub full of friends, all making comments and laughing at them and nodding and high-fiving … you know … in person.

No time to consider the lofty philosophical implications. More scores, and now we’re getting closer to the important ones. “5th place, 93.35 Bluecoats.” Copy, paste. “3rd place, 96.95 The Cadets”, I posted; and added a comment expressing amazement that nearly 97 out of 100 didn’t get them win or place, only show. An instant after I posted that, a friend’s comment sprang into view below it: “.1 over SCV? Scoring is crazy!” More flags. More Likes. More comments. No time. Work to do.

And then a longer pause. The announcement of the runner-up reveals, by process of elimination, the identity of the Champion. The moment of truth is actually not the final score announcement. More pause. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Ping. New live-blog post. Copy, paste. Then read. And catch one’s breath:

2nd place, 98.05 Blue Devils.”

The corps that so many of us were pulling for … had not had their name called. Our sentimental favorite … was the actual winner.

In my mind – and, I’d have sworn, outside my mind as well – I heard the stadium crowd in Indianapolis react. I’d seen or heard the crowd reaction to the runner-up announcement when DCI Finals was in nearby Foxboro in 1994. When half an NFL football stadium full of drum corps fans endures long minutes of suspense, and then is allowed to let loose, that sound is like very few others in the world. My imagination filled it in. Quickly I posted something which was not from the DCI live-blog.

And Indy LOSES ITS MIND.”

So did my News Feed.

Ping, ping, ping, like silent firecrackers going off. “Crown!” “#purplepantsband !!!!” “Carolina Crown wins!” “YES!!!” “They did it!” (My drum corps fan friends do have a little perspective. No one posted “I can die happy.” That’s a Red Sox or Cubs kind of thing.)

Copy, paste. Sit back in chair and relax for the first time in a solid half an hour, or half a day, or half a summer.

1st place, 98.30 Carolina Crown.”

I took a moment to post in the direction of my now undoubtedly proud and madly-dancing friend whose niece was, no doubt, also proud and madly dancing. “Hey … you can go to bed now.”

I felt just as cheerily drained as I would have, had I been standing in a tavern – admittedly, the weirdest tavern in America, if it’d chosen to put a drum corps show on the big TV in the corner instead of the Sox game or a Keno scoreboard. There was no one in my house with whom I could trade high-fives or incredulous silly grins. But I watched my News Feed, read the posts, threw a few of my own in, Liked some comments … and gradually, like a sports bar emptying out after the walk-off home run has been hit and the postgame interviews are underway, my Facebook page calmed down. Then I realized … I had broken a sweat. I felt as if I’d done some actual physical heavy lifting.

I was physically alone – but also surrounded by friends, and sharing a moment with them. Even though they were five, ten, fifty, five hundred, three thousand miles away.

It may take a while for me to wrap my head around the aforementioned lofty philosophical implications.

 

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interactions. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

-Albert Einstein

 

As smart a guy as Prof. Einstein was, and a wise one, too … still, technology is neither good or bad. It’s what you do with it. In this case, we made it work for us, creating a gathering of, by my rough and wholly unscientific estimate, easily more than a couple hundred people. We all experienced an event together, and the technology didn’t surpass our human interactions – it made them feel real enough.

And, not counting the mad jumping around that a lot of us did, virtually and physically, when the Finals results were announced … I didn’t feel at all like I was surrounded by a pack of idiots.

August 12, 2013 Posted by | blogging, drum corps, Facebook, friends, Internet, journalism, media, music, social media, technology, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Am I To Judge?

We have arrived at the time of year wherein we pass judgment upon the drum and bugle corps activity, since they’ve all arrived in Indianapolis to duke it out amongst themselves, all the while being marketed as the state-of-the-art in marching music. Last night they put it “Big Loud and Live” on cinema screens across the US … and if you do that sort of thing, you have to expect to hear opinions. So here I go … because I can.

(Also because this year, I’m kinda invested in a group or two, thanks to having friends and colleagues amongst their ranks. So remember: opinions are like armpits. Everybody’s got them, and sometimes they stink. Forewarned is forearmed.)

 

As the movie-house version of the big drum corps show began, early last night, a thought occurred: the top six or seven corps have gotten flat-out ridiculous in terms of talent pool and performance output, but this hasn’t diluted the product from corps #8 and below. Twelfth-place corps performances from 25 years ago contain definite musical deficiencies. I bet this year’s #15 show would place in the top 6 easily, if it traveled back in time to, say, 1985.

Corps #15 (as ranked going into the evening’s activity): Pacific Crest. First time I’d ever seen them. Solid sound, solid look. This is fifteenth place? A good evening ahead, I thought.

Corps #14: Troopers. Love ’em. Entertaining all the way. They were proof that you all you need is a cowboy tune, the Battle Hymn, and a sunburst, and you have a crowd favorite.

Corps #13: Crossmen. With “Protest”, a deeper thematic concept than the Troopers’, and that’s okay for each group. Lots of fun when the Crossmen horns decide to lay it out there. How ironic is it that one of those moments was “The Sound of Silence”?

Corps #12: Blue Stars. First the Houdini show, now a “voodoo” show. All right; they like the creepy. I wish they’d made a bigger deal out of “I Put a Spell On You”, as long as it was on the set list. And I wonder if they were just a little miffed that they ended up a point-plus behind…

Corps #11: Spirit of Atlanta. Was it tempting fate to run video of the legendary 1980 Atlanta “Sweet Georgia Brown” before the current corps took the field and tried it? I think if you’re going to “reclaim your history”, you need to reclaim more than 15 seconds of it at the end of a show. (Side note: the bass drum heads featured someone peering through a speakeasy door-slot. Problem: every time they showed the bass drum line, it looked like the drummers were hitting that face right between the eyes. Whoops.)

Corps #10: Blue Knights. Good thing they reportedly added lots more of Pat Metheny’s “First Circle” to their closing statement – it was great, and it moved the corps out of the world of odd performance art, just in time. But the BK show this year is exactly, exactly the kind of swirly, mysterious, modern-dance, interpret-it-how-you-like show that causes the 70-something drum corps vets in the audience to mutter about the good old days. Some nights, I’m not sure I blame them.

Corps #9: Boston Crusaders. I went from “what in the world is this?” with the corps running and stumbling out of the tunnel covered in faux explosion debris, looking for all the world (and frankly a little bit too much) like we were right back in the middle of 9/11 again, to “I need to see that show again”. Great nod to “Conquest” in the final three chords. Loved the moment when the corps’ historical-but-glum grey jackets came off and oh! there was all the Crusader red fabric that had gone missing! (Was I the only person in the room who didn’t see that coming? Yeah, probably.)

Corps #8: Madison Scouts. Three years ago I remember thinking, “and this is a young corps. Just wait till they mature a little bit; they’ll be something to deal with.” Well: the future is now. There’s no hesitation in the sound or the movement. The most resonant moment: of course, the General-Effect-point-guaranteeing finish. Yes, I know – all the corps have their corps songs. And yes, I know they all are meaningful to corps members and alumni. But when the Scouts fire up “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the Scouts alums in the crowd instantly stand and sing, and one of the Scouts’ drum majors pointedly turns around and gets the rest of the audience singing … UMass band people, back me up on this one, if you agree: “YNWA” might qualify as the only such song in all of DCI that has the same effect on the ensemble membership, alumni and the general public as UMass’ “My Way” has.

Corps #7: Cavaliers. I will cheerfully suggest that, considering what they looked like in late June, the Cavs have a lock on Most Improved Corps. Interesting to hear their show designer admit that during his pre-show interview. Now, if only some of the visual elements of the “secret society” theme, both seen on the field and mentioned by that show designer and mentioned by the drum major in the post-show interview, didn’t feel so strongly like (and didn’t seem to glorify), to me, rituals we’ve come to recognize as bullying and hazing.

[ An aside: this may sound somewhere between odd and a opportunity for a criminal background check. But: the Scouts and Cavaliers were the first corps after the intermission. As Corps #6 entered the field, I realized with a lurch that for about half an hour of show, I had really missed – not even really the sight – but the sense of women being on the field playing horns and drums and tossing equipment around, moving just as fast and working just as hard as their male counterparts. Maybe it was a bit of time travel back to the early- or mid-20th century, when women in the activity were far less prevalent. Nice to be back in these modern times. ]

Corps #6: Phantom Regiment. They just keep plugging away every year, tossing out those trumpet section runs … and that super-expressive guard … and that chevron drill set … and those quotes from classical literature that are more than just quotes, they’re actual selections with length … and they rarely miss the target, in my book. Also, PR felt like the first corps since Atlanta that didn’t seem like all angry brow-furrowing music all the time. I want to see this show again, because it struck me as just very sweet.

Corps #5: Bluecoats. Interesting to watch. But, pre-show, the show designer described the show’s theme as being an allegory about people wanting to come to America and fit in – an immigration show? If so, it was a harsh tale. So the color guard represented people who wanted in, while the brass and percussion were mean to them and tried to shut them out, until the end? It was a nasty moment when a little guard girl holding a balloon looked inquiringly at a quad player, and the quad player flung a flam-a-ca-bubble-GAK at her and strutted away – “no, you can’t join our reindeer games”.

Corps #4: Santa Clara Vanguard. Unfair of the announcers to suggest that SCV 2013’s “Les Miserables” had a chance to make people forget SCV 1989’s Phantom of the Opera show. “Phantom” was a chip-on-the-shoulder show for the ages, borne of a dogged need to win with this show, a show that had been beaten in a photo-finish the year before, so damn it we’ll put it back out there and show ’em all. “Les Miz” was well done, with some nice effects musically and visually … and, mercifully, it was a show full of tunes we know. But considering all the corps that were playing angry music in the same discontented way … here, ironically, was one that I thought needed to be playing angry and wasn’t. Even the sad songs seemed like celebrations. (Friends, there’s a reason why the name of the book, play and movie was “The Miserable Ones”.)

Corps #3: Cadets. I like them best when they’re playing challenging American music – Bernstein, Copland, and this year’s Samuel Barber repertoire. Odd to think that the Cadets were the first group in TWENTY YEARS to go after Medea’s Dance Of A Tenuous Grip On Sanity. Such an achievement was Star of Indiana’s 1993 “Medea” production that the Cadets might be the only people I’d want to see try it. So we now have proof that Star was at least 15 years ahead of its time in all phases of the game.

Also odd to think that the Cadets, of all people, might have been the one group that played an “old school” corps show. Creative drill that was still uncluttered … a minimum of extra electronic special effects … and music (especially the bookend treatments of “Adagio for Strings”) that on multiple occasions was allowed to have its moment as a beautiful thing, without being rushed offstage in favor of the latest Stupid Drum Corps Trick. Irony: as much of a reputation as the Cadets’ director has for advocating electronics and all kinds of other tradition-busting rules changes … his corps did a lot last night to anchor the activity in its honorable past.

 

Corps #2: Carolina Crown. I want to be wrong about this: Crown’s 2013 show could end up as the finest second-place show ever. What a vast number of people are saying (and I have the privilege of knowing the guy who wrote the brass score, which might reveal me as biased, and I am, so sue me) is this: Oh, My Lord, That Horn Line. The music they are playing, the way they are playing it – wildly difficult brass music being played together across ridiculous field spreads and with actual musical expression – caused me to think to myself throughout the show: Holy. Screaming. Jehosephat.

An aside: Let’s not confuse brass quality and depth with volume, even if the two can occur together. To paraphrase a recent candidate for public office in New York City: the Drum Corps Is Too Damn Loud. If I played tuba or bass drum, I would hope to be forgiven for thinking maybe I was just out there for show. With a gigantic subwoofer on either side of the pit, every time most of the corps set up for any kind of mid-major impact, somebody in the pit basically rammed the low end of the sound electronically down my throat with the sonic force of an 3.6 earthquake. By the time I got to Corps #4 last night, my head hurt. Not metaphorically – actually.

So I was pleased that when Crown made a brass statement, the statement sounded chiefly like acoustic brass. And Crown made statements all over the field. Any corps that can take the music of Philip Glass, for heaven’s sake, and make you want more of it when they’re done, can make you root for guard kids portraying two lovers sitting on a park bench, even without an overt boy-meets-and-loses-and-wins-again-girl story, can make you care … deserves to be richly rewarded. Crown are a very attractive group.

And yet …

Corps #1: Blue Devils. I am steeling myself for the likelihood that that the Devils may lift the trophy again this year. Doggedly, they’ve pulled even with Crown, and climbed ahead of them in the last few contests – after Crown had exploded out of the gate in June.

The Devils have put together their usual 21st-century presentation. Whether people understand their show or not, whether they like their show or not, they cannot deny that this corps executes at a level that few performing groups can achieve, and makes it look effortless. While I acknowledge this … and they’re probably fine human beings … their “Rewrite of Spring” show, to me, came off as soul-less.

Lookit what we can do. Listen to this. Check this out.” … Yes, impressive from a technical standpoint.

But to what end?

Throughout their show, I kept waiting for that warm fuzzy feeling somewhere between my heart and my throat that I get when a corps goes beyond technical merit and gets to artistic merit – from “oh, that’s cool” to “oh, that means something to me”. No luck. I wondered if I was looking at the the difference between executing and performing.

The Blue Devils didn’t make me care about Stravinsky a toot.

 

So, I guess … a question for the judging community. We’ve invented a point system that reaches down into hundredths of points, to guard against those accursed ties. Someone has to win. Someone has to be judged to be better. And last night, the Blue Devils topped Crown tonight by fifteen one-hundredths of a point. If you like it in digits, that’s 0.15. Out of a hundred points, take one of them, chop it up into ten little bits; grab one of those bits, plus half of another. Set up your electron microscope, and let’s get to work.

What’s the difference between a 97.20 corps and a 97.05 corps? Especially if they’re not playing the same exact score, doing the same exact visual work, marching the same exact drill?

As we do with Olympic figure skating, and diving, and gymnastics, we’re trying to quantify the unquantifiable. We’re asking human judges – who are irrevocably stuck inside their own heads, with their own individual and subjective understandings – to measure the level of execution and the degree of general-effectiveness by using numbers. Can mere numbers reflect a concept as fleeting, as undefinable, as unscientifically measureable as that warm fuzzy feeling of “…yes.” …? Should they be expected to?

I only stuck around for the scores because, again, I have friends and colleagues in a couple of corps and I wanted to see how they did. I admit it: I wanted to see if they won.

And then after I got home, I read the online commentary from lots and lots of friends of mine, who were also rooting for one particular group … and even though the group we were pulling for missed first place by 0.15 points … clearly they’d won a whole lot of people over.

So which would you rather be? The name on the trophy? Or “second-place but first-place in our hearts”?

In this time and place, that’s a hard question.

August 9, 2013 Posted by | arts, drum corps, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Missed Opportunities

For the past nine summers, I have traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for what is a very worthwhile three-day conference, all about issues that middle- and high-school band directors care about. This summer’s edition just finished; and there were lots of neat little moments in it.

At times I was learning a new thing or two that I could apply to my ensembles, instrumental or not. At other times I was reconnecting with music-teaching colleagues that I get to see only once a year, or in some cases less often than that. And the weekend is always an opportunity to play in a very good wind ensemble and a very fine sight-reading lab jazz band (all full of band directors). In fact it’s my only chance all year to sit in front of a pile of second-tenor-sax parts, not worrying about taking any solos in public, and playing big band music. Fun.

At some point during the weekend, a somewhat informal banquet is held, in order to bestow awards and to let the guest clinicians have a moment to pontificate off the podium. Some conductors are far better on the podium and clutching a stick, than they are behind a lectern and only allowed to use words … while some have proven to be at least as nimble with a turn of phrase as they are with a twitch of the baton.

Friday night, one of this summer’s guest clinicians, the conductor of an important university band program from an important university in Texas, stepped up to the lectern and took that speaking opportunity. He started by suggesting that he was going to be speaking very very seriously, something of a contrast from his approach since Thursday morning – but then he allowed himself a tiny grin, to suggest that perhaps that was a joke, too.

As I have chronicled here before, certain regional accents help me to consider their owners’ punchlines to be that much funnier. The work of Roy Blount, Jr., and a few more personal acquaintances of mine, have only reinforced my perception. And throughout the weekend it had been so, to some degree, with this gentleman. Over the years, the conference has featured a number of conductors from the deep South, and from Texas, who said blunt things but utilized their accents to infuse those blunt things with just a little bit of humor; and sometimes that can make all the difference in the world. If you can get people to laugh, it’s easier to sneak the message in under the radar, after all.

So, our speaker said that he wanted to talk about “legacy” – presumably in the service of causing band directors to get introspective about their profession, which was of course the point of the conference. He didn’t say that last out loud; I filled in that context for him, inside my head, but that’s where I expected he was going. I thought he was going to go unexpectedly for Very Deep Thoughts, to effectively play against the dominant impression he’d built up over the two workshop days prior, the “bluntly humorous Texan” image.

So, I tried to anticipate. Legacy. What does it mean? How can that definition apply to our line of work? What kind of foundation are we leaving for the next generation of teachers to build upon?, etc. etc.

As it turned out … nope. It was all just a way of framing what was not much more than a stand-up act. And one that was not only not terribly funny after all … but which struck me at least as a protracted rant about how things were perfect in the sixties and seventies, and look how it’s all gone to crap.

When we [the generation of band directors in their mid-forties through retirement age] started out, the previous generation left us things like…” … and then came a list of band director and band program characteristics established during the 1950s and 1960s. He painted a picture that evoked the first forty minutes of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, or most of the movie “Pleasantville”, with its “Mad Men” wardrobes and haircuts, and its more military-band-inflected conception of what band did, what it sounded like, what it looked like, what it was.

Here’s what we’ve left you [the next generation, those in their twenties and thirties] with…” … and then came a list of changes and innovations in the school band world that have arisen between the mid-1980s and now. The way that list was delivered strongly suggested that our speaker didn’t think much of the items on that list. With a certain amount of disdain in his voice, he noted all the new ensemble titles (“symphonic winds… wind orchestras…”), the proliferation of “educational music compositions” (admittedly, some music written with school bands in mind is a little tough to take – particularly some of the associated program notes. “This work reflects the triumph of the human spirit, the challenge of our world, and our hopes for the future” probably describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony much better than it does “Soaring Medium-Easy Overture for Band”) … and our speaker’s list of “New Rules for Marching Band”, in which he cheerily expressed thinly-veiled contempt for (por ejamplo) drum corps-inspired innovations in repertoire, instrumentation, uniforms, color guard activity and marching style.

I’m sure he was going for some laughs, too, but it came off (at least to my ears) as just being a stick-in-the-mud. It reminded me faintly of a letter to the editor that was published in my local newspaper several years ago, ’round about the time a local town was considering renewing a tax cap override that routinely threatened to gut local school budgets, among other things. The letter not only implied, but actually said things like, “back in my day, we didn’t have all these frills like music and art and computers and we got a fine education, so why do today’s kids need all that extra stuff that costs money?”

At the end of each subcategory of “they left us this … we’re leaving you these other things”, our speaker asked the “upstart” generation: “what will you leave the next generation?” Which would have been a great, thought-provoking question to ask, had the setup not been much more than standup comedy, and thin material at that.

Well, sir, contrary to the rose-colored-glasses view of the first half of the twentieth century that was being proffered … I would posit that all the qualities and characteristics of the school band world were in fact not perfect in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s. Drum corps has actually contributed a number of positive things to the marching activity (not the least of which is a marching style that allows feet not to be heard through horns), and not really much more silly-looking things than what can be seen in some of those black-and-white photographs of the Faber College Band back in the year ought-five. And here’s a question I’d love to ask a lot of music professors: when’s the last time you actually stood in a functioning high school band room, full of students who were born after the Internet came into common use?

In short … which I never am … the speech struck me as the band director version of “get off my lawn.”

Did I get any positive thing out of the speech? Yes. At least this: a renewed appreciation for the people with whom I get to teach, when I work for ten days every summer with the Drum Major Academy. Because those people have worthwhile things to say, and they can express those ideas effectively. They draw their audiences in with humor, rather than pushing them away. And their audiences, the DMA kids – the future high school drum majors (and who knows? some of them might be the future band directors in this world) – always, without fail, go away from those presentations with looks on their faces that I sure didn’t see after this Texas university music professor’s speech.

So at least I thank him for that. And you, for reading this.

 

Rant over. Stand at … ease.

July 13, 2013 Posted by | arts, band, DMA, drum corps, education, humor, marching band, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment