Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

This is a follow-up, non-chronological, postscript of sorts to an article posted earlier today on a friend’s blog.

In that article, my friend remarked on the stress she feels at this time of year: when she’s auditioning, interviewing, and accepting some of her university marching band students into student-leadership positions. And not accepting others. And empathizing with their disappointment … at the same time as she’s reminding herself that it’s not a bad thing for college students to learn to deal with disappointments before they leave college and go out into the big scary unfeeling world.

And reminding the world that: you can make a difference in a band, or any group, even if you don’t have a title. Even if you’re not a Rank Leader, or a Uniform Manager, or a Drum Major.

She wrote, specifically:

The students wait with baited breath for the Facebook post to hit. They get worked up, filled with anxiety, desperate for the results of auditions and interviews. I, however, sit and stare at the list for days on end. No matter what I do I am going to disappoint some of my students. Some will take a deep breath when they don’t see their name on the list and are ok. Some will become so angry they will throw a chair through a glass door (yes, this happened once). Some will be furious with me – they think I hate them, or at the very least, don’t like them. Some will quit band altogether.”

When I read her words, it kicked loose a memory from my senior year in college, during which I got to be one of the Drum Majors of my college band.

Regular readers of the Blogge may recall a stretch of time several years ago wherein I was inspired to inflict many memories of that memorable autumn in the late 1980s upon them. Well … so here’s a memory that didn’t make that cut (in part because it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the topic of that moment, namely, how great our late great band director was).

When I auditioned for one of the three drum major positions, during the prior spring semester, so did nearly a dozen other band members: soon-to-be seniors, juniors and sophomores were in the mix … the brass, woodwinds and color guard were represented … there were people with drum-major experience and people without … there were people who thought it was important to be able to chuck a mace, and people who didn’t. Within those dozen people, a lot of different skill sets and personalities.

And our director could only take three of them as drum majors. Traditionally, he would then draw two or three or four names from the list of those whom he had not chosen as drum majors, and install them on the student field instructional staff as Drill Instructors. The DIs were a bit higher in the field staff hierarchy than Rank Leaders, who each were in charge of one group of eight marchers; but a bit lower than the Drum Majors. DI responsibilities tended to differ a bit from year to year, depending either upon the Drum Majors’ skill sets or upon a new idea our director had had since the end of the previous season. Mostly, when field drill was being taught, DIs jumped out of the form and assisted with teaching a subset of the band near them, when asked.

During that spring’s audition process, I got into a conversation with one of my fellow auditioners, a newer but pretty good friend of mine (we’ll call her Robin), that went along the lines of: “If we BOTH make Drum Major, great! Fun! If one of us gets to be a Drum Major, the other will still stay in band. If we NEITHER of us are accepted, we still have to be in band. Because at the end of the day, being in the band is more important.” The best thing you can ever do, etc. Robin and I felt like we saw eye-to-eye on that, and we also wanted to be adults about this. Dealing with disappointment is hard; but we would do it.

One of the other auditioners had in fact been one of the Drum Majors during the previous season – the only one of the three DMs who wasn’t graduating. That particular year, our director had decided not to “grandfather” Drum Majors from one season to the next; instead everyone would re-audition. So okay; this former Drum Major … we’ll call her Dana … re-auditioned. Cheerfully, which not everyone in the world might have managed. So, give Dana points for that.

Audition and interview days came and went … the student field staff was not announced … the semester ended, finals were taken, the mid-May commencement happened, everyone cleared out of the dorms … and finally the student field staff was announced, albeit in the second week of June.

I was one of the three applicants who made Drum Major.

Robin and Dana each were not.

If you were someone who had been a high school drum major, and were a very competent marcher and musician, and had performed very well as a Rank Leader the season before, but weren’t selected for Drum Major, you might well be very disappointed.

Now, if you had been a Drum Major of that college band before … and then suddenly were no longer Drum Major … how would you take the news?

I would like to think that I would play the part of good person and loyal bando, and be in the band again, regardless.

I would like to think this.

I don’t know for sure, though.

Here, meanwhile, is the part that taught me a lot:

All season long, Dana, our former Drum Major, was nothing but enthusiastic and professional and fun and friendly and helpful as a DI, and had (within my hearing, at least) nary a down-in-the-mouth thing to say about the whole experience. (There was a time or two wherein she genuinely helped this Drum Major look better than he really was, as it happened.)

We never saw Robin again.

And I was genuinely surprised.

Now, I don’t say all this in order to dump on Robin; or to suggest that she was a horrible disloyal immature person. At all.

Again, in her shoes, I would like to hope that I would have played the hand I was dealt, cheerfully, enthusiastically … but I genuinely don’t know. I didn’t have to find out … but it would have been instructive to have to find out.

I don’t know how much time Dana spent, in private, throwing things at the wall, after the student field staff was announced. And I wouldn’t blame her for doing so. (Smile in public, and grouse in private, goes the Starred Thought, approximately; something many public figures could stand to get better at.)

But Dana made a difference, without the title of Drum Major. (Most remarkably, again, she did so after having previously held the title of Drum Major.)

So it can be done.

Easy to say that, either from the safe perspective of thirty elapsed years, or from the comfortable position of having made Drum Major and therefore having weaseled out of experiencing all this. Or, um, both. I admit this freely.

But there is proof that it can be done.

May 19, 2017 Posted by | band, drum major, marching band, UMMB | , , , , | Leave a comment

Significant or Successful?

And so, my annual Drum Major Academy teachin’ fortnight draws to a close.

(Actually, it did so a good couple of weeks ago, but life careens onward. You know how that goes.)

To be honest, although I’ve been a part of that rarefied world for seventeen summers, I’m consistently startled at the regularity of one thing: every summer, one thing in particular strikes me as important about what I just experienced … and every summer, it’s a different thing.

One year, it was an appreciation of how DMA staff members take care of business, and take care of their students, and just as importantly take care of each other in moments of crisis (as well as in every other summer moment, and outside of the mere delivery of the curriculum). One year, it was an appreciation of the DMA students, and how social media has allowed them to be their own best support systems, even after the week of instruction is over. One year, it was the recognition that if more groups of teachers were as silly and lunatic and creative as the crowd I get to work with … lots of parts of the world would be in better shape.

In each case, it was an acknowledgment that a DMA week is an intense and concentrated thing, one which has a lasting impact on people – and this is clear not just while six-member student squads do group hugs after the end of the final demonstration for the parents, and not just while the “veterans” (the second- or third-year high-school drum majors who are “crazy enough to come back and do this thing again”) link arms and shed a tear or two or thirty when we play them that song on the last evening.

Talking of veterans and rookies …

I guess I count as a vet, here. Crazy enough (or perhaps it’s some other motivation; yeah, I think) to come back and do this thing thirty-four times now (West Chester and UMass, times 17 summers; because math).

When the staff is briefly introduced to the students by name, early in the week, everybody looks up at the Powerpoint files projected on the screen above the assembled staff’s heads and reads the summary of what each of us do, where we’re from, and how many years we’ve been doing this DMA thing. With very few exceptions, the staff is introduced from newest to most-experienced. And in the last two or three years, I’ve found myself about third-to-last on a bench that usually is twenty or thirty people deep.

Heh. Means I’m old.

It does not, however, mean that I lack for moments in which I definitely don’t feel like a vet.

I’ve run indoor conducting-video analysis sessions a-plenty [side note: who else uses that word anymore?] … I’ve judged tons of squad marching-and-commanding competitions and led lots of pretty productive “postgame” discussions. Lately I’ve even begun to teach mace to absolute beginners (which, for this two-trick pony, is probably about right). But – maybe it’s a little bit about how my brain is wired, but – I look around that room and see so many people whom I consider teaching role models, the quality of whose work I would someday like to at least emulate.

I’d like to think that’s because teachers are always their own toughest critics – always looking for ways they can run that session just a bit better next time.

That feeling doesn’t completely dominate my perceptions all week. When collegiate members of our team, the “IMPACTs” or “CLIP staff”, are assigned to hang out in my TV room or with my company of competition squads, we each seem to learn a bit from each other, and they’re always very kind to suggest that they’ve gotten something out of watching me do my thing. Self-deprecating I may be, but not quite to the point of lockjaw. Shortly many of these kids (and sorry, but they are kids!!) will probably surpass their teachin’ elders, and it’s definitely better that way. Beats the alternative – not least for the sake of DMA. If I can do any tiny thing to make their experience one that they would wish to continue and even pursue as a vocation, … then great.

Two moments from this past two-week summer teaching hitch struck me particularly, with regard to this topic.

First, the out-of-this-world leadership speaker and music-education advocate, Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser, spoke to the West Chester students. He always slips the absolute universal truths in between the belly laughs. Addressing the precarious leadership role into which we’re placing teenaged people, he talked about the “why do you want to be a drum major?” and “are you doing this for the right reasons?” questions. Do you understand that you have the chance to make a difference in people’s lives, or are you just in it for the uniform and the glory? Is it for them or for you? “Do you want to be significant, or do you want to be successful?”

And then, on the last evening of the UMass week, the stellar lead clinician Heidi Sarver had her annual conversation with the students about their opportunity, the biggest of anyone at their school, to make the biggest impact on people in their school. After asking them to remember the people who were important to them when they were rookies – freshmen – she turned it around on them: a few years from now, I’ll ask the DMA students to think about that same subject, and they’ll imagine you.

It’s a pretty effective moment, because suddenly the DMA kids are fully aware that they’re part of a continuum.

And, it occurred to me even more strongly than usual that evening … so am I.

In the summers of 1999 and 2000 and 2001, when I really was a DMA staff rookie, there were people who took me under their wings … gave me a clue … helped me figure out all the mysterious elements that go into teaching at DMA.

I got to hang out in Heidi’s TV room. I looked over Fred’s and Darrell’s shoulders at their “squamp sheets”. I got to watch Jen run her mad, mad, mad morning-calisthenics routine. I got to just generally pick the brains of Jess, and Scott, and Jamie, and Mona. (And, yes, there were numerous others. I think these folks are nicely representative; but I’ve definitely left people out, which is not a good plan. You know who you are; you really do.)

Think of the people who made DMA special for you, my brain translated for me, that evening. And see if you can turn around, just like all those DMA students, and help the next generation as best you can. “Pay it forward” is a nearly-cliched aphorism at this point, but … that’s how this thing survives, and thrives. DMA, and band, and, ideally, the rest of the world too. Boiled down, that’s the point of this fortnight.

Which, ultimately, is thanks to the efforts and inspiration and forethought of the gentleman who thought the whole project up. Who made DMA special for everybody, and continues to do so. Who made it both significant and successful.

August 19, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, friends, GNP, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

Marvel Studios have managed to produce a string of movies with some really fine moments in them, in the past few years. Over and over again, they’ve offered the movie-going public some story revelations that cause said public to think, “aha! It really has all been leading up to this.” Somehow, these movies about inherently silly characters – the giant green rage monster, the not-really-Norse god, the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” – have all been deftly intertwined, at least within their Cinematic Universe. (Aficionados of the comic book versions of things may need to cool their jets here, as shhhhhhh! this isn’t really the subject of this piece, but instead, as usual, the author needs a hook and this time your favorite characters are it.) Fun to go back and look at certain scenes again and say, “they really were thinking about six movies down the road, there.”

Other scenes are kinda right up in your face, to the point where one could accuse the filmmakers of being almost ham-handed in their need to make sure you Get The Point.

I’ll admit right away: I’ve got one favorite Firmly Telegraphed scene. (Or at least I did, until “Agent Carter” came along, but that’s for another time.)

The scene came in the first Captain America film, “The First Avenger”. Which I didn’t see in the theaters. I got ambushed by the thing on basic cable. That’s how late to this party I was.

And by the way, I will happily admit: of all the silly Marvel Comics characters, to my way of thinking, ol’ Cap was THE flippin’ silliest of them. I’m all for red and blue costumes (rah rah rah Superman), but honestly, between the little teeny wing things on the sides of his helmet and what I perceived, rightly or not, as the “I can win World War II all by m’ lonesome” vibe …

Um, no and no. Sorry. Silly look; don’t want to wallow in the jingoistic; nice artwork, but I think not.

So the filmmakers wrote a nice little series of scenes that served as a nod to the “classic” Captain America look and a reassurance that, well, we’re going to try to sand down as much of the silly and cheeseball as we possibly can. In fact, we’re going to have Cap react to his own cheesy look, his very own self.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know the comic-book Captain America origin story well enough to know whether the moviemakers’ version was an homage, or just a great new idea to link him to the, um, chemistry-set experiments that produced a giant green rage monster. Either way, they made the point, sometimes rather heavily but at least earnestly, that Captain America used to be a 98-pound weakling but he was the 98-pound weakling who had his priorities straight.

The Firmly Telegraphed scene that I like so much is this one:

First, a montage of scenes depicting the physical trials that the US Army is putting two dozen or so soldiers through – the soldiers who are being considered for participation in the Army’s super-secret super-soldier program. Then the Colonel in charge (played by Tommy Lee Jones with gruff charm, like almost every other gruffly charming character that Tommy Lee Jones has ever gruffly and charmingly played) tosses what appears to be a live grenade into the midst of the soldier-candidates. They scatter – all of them except for one, the 98-pound weakling called Steve Rogers. Instead, he throws himself on top of it and wildly waves everyone else away.

Turns out, it’s a dummy grenade. But Rogers is the only one who volunteers to “take one for the team” – on the grounds of some backwater Army training camp, far from The Front, he’s willing to lay down his life for the rest of the squad. Never mind that amongst that squad is one guy whose personality had already been Firmly Telegraphed as arrogant, smug, and a genuine bully to everyone in general and to Rogers in particular. Rogers is taken seriously by absolutely nobody there – with the exception of the scientist whose technology is driving the whole super-soldier project, who has insisted that Rogers be considered for reasons which no one else in the US military establishment quite understands) – but he’s a good guy.

A few other, earlier Firmly Telegraphed scenes in “The First Avenger” have already done their part to build the story point: Steve Rogers is a decent human being. And after Rogers is selected, the scientist puts it to him this way: “This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life … [he loses] respect for that power. But a weak man, he values his strength. And loves compassion.” And then, he says, “Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you must stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier. But a good man.”

Shortly I’ll be heading out for my annual summer teaching fortnight with the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. For many reasons, a few of which already have been chronicled hereabouts, I look forward to this experience every year, more than almost any other.

One reason has to do with Captain America, or at least the Cinematic Universe’s incarnation of his origin story.

Stay with me. It’s not nearly as silly as that sounded.

In the years in which I’ve head out to the DMA locations at West Chester University and UMass-Amherst, I’ve had the chance to work with lots of high-school seniors, and juniors, and a few sophomores, who arrive at our clinics having been labeled by their high school band directors as Drum Majors Of Their Bands. Some of them are veterans – they’ve gone on this ride before, and for the most part they have a decent idea of what that job entails, what parts of it they’ve been good at, and what they still need to work out, or what the areas are in which they can refine their performance.

Some of them are new to the game. Of these, some put on a good game face at the start of the week, some acquire that game face by the week’s end, and some of them probably clutch the certificate of completion-of-studies on the way home still wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into. Or, more accurately, knowing what they’ve gotten themselves into and hoping for a little divine inspiration that will help them through it.

It’s been fun to see some of the evidence that some of those figured it out. Blessed are the meek, for when they become not meek anymore, their boldness means so much more than that of the People With Good Game Faces.

There was one particular example of this which I wrote about a couple of years ago in this space, in a post called “New Rachel”. And at the end of last summer, I experienced a relative torrent of Facebook friend requests from DMA students (as I wrote then, instead of the usual one or two, there were fifteen or twenty). It was neat to see the “on the bus to our first game” selfies … and by season’s end, it was fun to read the brief anecdotes about “best season ever” and see the photos from band banquets and such.


And then, not long ago, I spotted a Facebook status post authored by one of the students who was in one of my “video rooms”. S/He was not the strongest conductor; s/he was not the strongest caller of commands; s/he was desperately trying to keep up with all the material being thrown at him/her; but s/he seemed a genuinely decent person. I saw her/him again at the final presentation (for parents and family and friends) and wondered actively to myself how s/he would fare.

And while I always keep in mind the old “can’t judge a book by its cover” adage … still, by no means did that student fit the standard typical average normal median Drum Major Look. I even wondered if s/he had been one of those kids who had spent a lot of his/her life being on the receiving end of the pranks, or the jokes, or the out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye looks, or even the overt bullying, that can happen when adolescents interact unsupervised.

I wondered if s/he was chosen by his/her director in spite of the skepticism of the rest of the band, deserved or not. I hoped s/he’d do well, of course … but didn’t know.

(An aside: S/He wasn’t even one of the DMA students who had Friend-requested me … but I saw the Facebook post because it was “liked” by several of the DMA students who had. Which was a hallmark of last summer’s group … all season long, they continually urged each other on. It was very cute, and also more than a little reassuring.)

The post went on at great length (or as long as Facebook allowed), as I recall, about things like “greatest year of my life” and “love my band so much” and “grew so much as a person”.

Well. All right then.

By hook or by crook … without necessarily becoming the second coming of Frederick Fennell or of the commander of the US Marine Silent Drill Team (although perhaps something clicked after DMA week was done) … somehow, some way, s/he made it work, and it indeed worked, and s/he came out the other side victorious.

Maybe something happened that was perhaps not quite as dire as throwing him-/herself on top of what could have been a live grenade … but that had a very similar effect on the people around him/her.

Maybe s/he managed to be his/her band’s unlikeliest of heroes.

Maybe what s/he was really meant more, ultimately, than what s/he was able to do.

That’s what makes DMA so much of a big deal to me, I think.

We’ll find out what this summer reveals. See you on the other side…

July 25, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, Facebook, heroes, marching band, movies, social media | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments