Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

It Takes A Band

For a guy whose job as a music teacher and professional musician includes getting up in front of people and drawing their attention his way … my personality isn’t given to heights of “Lookit Meeeeee!” I’ve forced myself to learn how not to be UNcomfortable in these situations, or at least how to appear so; but it’s not my first instinct.

When I directed the bands at Holy Cross several years ago, part of the gig included standing on a five-foot-high podium at the fifty-yardline in front of a field formation full of marching musicians, or standing at the base of a set of bleachers full of pep band players, and in either case waving my arms madly – both to conduct the bands and to incite the crowds of sports fans to get up and clap along and sing along and say Yay. Usually the number of spectators was, um, more than a few. When I got to be one of the drum majors of the UMass band, the public face of that job was pretty similar.

People who knew me as a sixth-grade shy person would be startled to learn that I found a way to feign industrial-strength unselfconsciousness.

So, on two different weekends this month, I was given cause to revisit that situation: “everybody’s starin’ at ya. You are the main focus. Whatcha gonna do?”

The impetus for those instances? An astronomically rare set of circumstances.

 

It’s not often, if ever, that someone is offered the honor that I received this week. It’s certainly rare to receive this particular honor, in any field, twice. It’s some kind of ridiculous oddity to receive the honor twice in the same month.

Well, here I am: a statistical oddity.

On two separate days in September, I received an eMail from a college band director, asking if I could attend a ceremony that essentially was going to be all about the greater glory of me. I was brought up to be a humble and modest person, so my blood pressure immediately rose a bit at this. The basic idea of each of the eMails was: we’re pleased to let you know that we’ve made you a member of our organization’s Hall of Fame.

The word “thunderstruck” turns out to be really apt.

Each of these messages indicated that the nomination and election process was driven largely by band alumni input. Very honestly, this may have been the best thing about these eMails. Comforting to consider that a mutual admiration society was in place within the Holy Cross band alumni community, since I know I thought the world of the students with whom I got to work, there. And I got a sense, by way of ensuing conversations with a couple of my friends from the UMass world, that more than one alum took the time to submit a nomination with my name on it. To say I was humbled … would have been a good start, at least.

In this space, I have taken more than one opportunity to appreciate the people with whom I got to share band experiences, many of whom have remained my friends and colleagues since (and happily I expect these friendships to be filed under “lifelong”), and many of whom contributed to band performances that allowed me the rare and reverberating experience of hearing 250- to 350-member musical ensembles play my arrangements. Those tunes until then had only been theoretical, as I sat in front of my little computer and worked the controls of its music notation software, in a little tiny room by myself. (Which, in the musical world, is probably the most comfortable place for a shy person.)

So, three Saturdays ago, the HC band folks set up a little ceremony during halftime of their Homecoming game to make note of the latest addition to their list of Hall of Fame people. Curiously, the planned PA announcement didn’t materialize (technical difficulties, perhaps); you may not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t heartsick or devastated. The induction moment might not have meant a whole lot to most of the several thousand football fans present that day … but what was important to me was jumping on the podium to conduct HC’s alma mater one more time with lots of “my” alumni out there in the band formation. One more opportunity to make some music together, PA announcement or no. We all knew what was going on, anyway.

And then this past Friday night, as intermission of UMass’s “Multibands” concert began, I made my way from my seat to the backstage area (excuse me pardon me, excuse me pardon me, comin’ through, hot soup!, excuse me pardon me) and got to spend a bit of time with the UMass band leadership, including a gentleman whose praises I’ve sung before, and I’m happy to sing them again here.

Of course, the UMass band director from my era, George Parks, did great amounts of work to create an organization in which its members could find opportunities to contribute, and achieve, and excel, and even prepare for careers in that very field. But the opportunities that became available to me – the chance to play at being a drum major of a 250-member band, the chance to write arrangements for that ensemble and its associated basketball band and subsequently for many other groups at many scholastic levels – were made available through the efforts, encouragement, and generosity of the band’s current associate director, Thom Hannum.

If Thom hadn’t agreed to have the “Hoop Band” sightread a little pencil-sketch arrangement written by my scrawny 19-year-old self (…sight unseen!), and subsequently encouraged me to keep on writing … if he hadn’t helped Mr. Parks to understand that this Hammerton kid should help write the chart that would become the band’s “Bandstand Boogie” percussion feature shortly after I graduated … if Thom hadn’t pushed for me to have the chance to contribute to the “Hook” field production that UMass took to its first Bands of America appearance …

… then we’re looking at an alternate-universe episode of this show in which the main character’s professional career is very different and possibly not so satisfying. It might not even be a career in music. And it definitely doesn’t include the opportunity to direct the Holy Cross bands, and to form relationships with all those people.

Ultimately, it was best that there was no requirement for me to say a single word while I stood on the UMass stage. I’d have babbled. It might not have been a Hall of Fame moment. Instead, I unconsciously assumed the band’s at-the-ready position, while Thom offered a few paragraphs which represented some of the kindest words that I have been accorded, ever.

But if “speech!” had been called for, I was prepared to say something I’ve known for a long time: any successes I’ve had in the areas of music education and music arranging have been a direct result of the impact made on me by people I marched with, friends I made, student- and professional-staff members who taught the concepts and set the example … and of course, George Parks and Thom Hannum, who stand at the head of that very lengthy roster.

 

There are people out there who have said it takes a village to raise a child. My experience in the field of education demonstrates to me every day just how many people are working behind the scenes to help young people get where they’re going. It surely is true that baseball or basketball or football players don’t get a plaque or a statue in Cooperstown or Springfield or Canton, all by themselves. Even in individual sports like golf and tennis, the athletes who get enshrined in halls of notoriety didn’t become as successful as they did without parents and teachers and coaches and legions of other helpful people.

In my extremely fortunate case, it has taken a whole band community to surround an otherwise shy and retiring person and offer him opportunities to find successes as a professional musician … and more importantly, to create an environment where he felt supported enough – safe enough – to find them.

But I need to publicly thank Thom Hannum for heading that list.

Advertisements

October 21, 2013 Posted by | band, GNP, Hoop Band, marching band, teachers, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Your Band Will Shine

My experiences as a music arranging person have been varied, and anywhere from deeply personally and professionally satisfying to “glad I could help” to just plain fun.

Via being in the right place at the right time, or talking with the right person, or word-of-mouth publicity, or out of necessity, I’ve had opportunities to write for a wide variety of groups of singers or instruments. By that I don’t just mean band, chorus, orchestra, jazz band … I mean “band with no trombones”, “choir with very few tenors” … “piano, French horn, banjo and drum set” (my personal all-time favorite “whaaaat?” ensemble) …

At one time, I was really interested in getting some of my arrangements published. Charitably, a couple of pretty important teachers of mine suggested, “hey, you should send this or this or this item to some publishers, see if they’ll put it out.” Not only was this a dangerous thing to say to a relatively young ego, it was said by people who knew music and knew their business. And, well, heck, if these trustworthy and honest people (which they were) are telling me this, I need to believe it!! … Sadly, I never did follow up on this idea very strongly, for weal or for woe. It was more procrastination and alleged other priorities that got in the way than it was lack of interest, but the end result was kinda the same, I guess.

 

Back in the ninth grade, when I stole (sorry! –borrowed) one of my high-school band director’s demo records (yes – a 33 rpm LP double-album. Vinyl. Scratches ‘n’ all), the first musical arrangers I really took note of were John Higgins and Jay Bocook. (Doesn’t everyone play Bocook’s stuff at some point in their band lives?) Messrs. Higgins and Bocook were writing for Jenson Publications, a Wisconsin-based company that then was the beast of the industry but eventually was bought up by the Hal Leonard Corporation. I played and re-played their arrangements of current pop tunes and their adaptations of drum corps tunes – they were great charts! (It didn’t hurt that the demo recordings were played either by rather massive college bands, so the tunes were unrealistically huge-sounding – or by a band full of professional studio musicians who could play anything at any time – but the company probably thought that was fine. The better they sound, the better they sell.)

What I didn’t realize, in 1981, at age 15, was that at that time the publishers were offering adaptations of drum corps tunes (“Your band will shine with this electrifying arrangement of the Blue Devils’ ‘New York Fantasy’!”) featuring trumpet lines so high that only DCI sopranos, or those studio pros, could have played them. A few years later, some of the publishers did begin to market arrangements that could actually be performed decently by humans in cold weather. Sometimes that meant that the tunes didn’t quite have the same air of daring or drum-corps peel-my-face-off screamitude, but the companies were probably responding to the feedback of band directors who logically didn’t want to invest money in charts that were out-of-reach of their bands. Do ya want to stay in business, or what?

That, really, has been the underlying theme of my arranging experience (if it has one): while writers of literature are often admonished, “write what you know,” and “don’t write what you don’t know”, I have done a lot of work under the philosophy “write for what you have, toward the strengths and away from the weaknesses.” Mostly because it was necessary. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a jackass when his answer to a question about military planning was “you go to war with the army you have, not with the one you wish you had” – but that, paraphrased, is the gospel truth for arrangers: if the band has no screamer trumpets, it’s a bad plan to write notes above the staff. (If the band has no screamers, and you write for them anyway, the band director will probably not hire you again. Survival of the smartest.)

I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of college marching bands that DO have all the right instruments, and plenty of each kind. Only half-jokingly do I declare that it’s a thrill to write for bands that actually have second-trombones! But other than that, I haven’t done a lot of writing for strictly-standard instrumentation that I could submit to publishers.

The first high school band I ever directed had the following instrumentation: two flutes, one clarinet, one trumpet, one tenor sax, one bass player, four percussionists, and one keyboard player who was just starting piano lessons. And, guaranteed, nobody publishes music for that collection of instruments. … So “Seventy-Six Trombones” was probably out. So? My tenor sax guy was my low brass section; my clarinetist very often was my midrange, and I don’t even remember what I did with four percussionists, but they all reported having a good time that year, so…!

It’s not that I don’t have the experience, or the desire, or the musical imagination, to write charts for ensembles like: “double choir (SSAATTBB)” or “standard jazz ensemble also with two flutes and two French horns and a tuba” … but for the most part, that hasn’t been what’s been in front of me … and frankly, it’s just as much fun to write an arrangement of a tune that makes a group sound full even when they aren’t.

 

I may have written briefly about this before: my very first arranging moment was at the Charles River Creative Arts Program, a summer day camp doing business on the grounds of the Charles River School in Dover, Massachusetts. The program had established the completely ridiculous tradition of putting up a complete children’s musical (on average, 90 minutes long and fully costumed, staged and choreographed) during each of its two four-week sessions. It was a classic case of “nobody told us we couldn’t do it, so we did it”. On top of that, most of the shows were original – the July show was often written by staff members over the preceding winter, and the August show was commonly written by the July session Playwriting class. Talk about writing on a deadline! And, miraculously, the August shows were very often very, very good.

The gentleman who was the music director for the show that was going up during my first session on staff, Jack Megan, looked at me with about a week to go before opening night and said, “I’m not going to have time to arrange this one tune for the pit orchestra. Can you do it?” And of course, being the wide-eyed enthusiast (and also wanting to come through in the clutch), I said, why sure! The pit orchestras for our shows were usually made up of staff members, and not all of them members of the music department staff. So some players were conservatory-trained; others were decidedly not; at least we all enjoyed laughing, which we did a lot. For my first arrangement, I wrote for piano, bass, drums and alto sax (me).  One ensuing summer, we had a pit that included piccolo, flute, clarinet, alto and bari saxes, trumpet and flugelhorn, and piano/bass/drums. Usually we landed somewhere in the middle, and not always with classic instrument balance, top-to-bottom. So, for six glorious summers, it was like a game show: “you have an occasional-flute, a decent trumpet, a violin, a pianist, a great drummer, and probably a bassist but we’re not sure; and we need something that sounds like a classic Broadway overture. You have 24 hours. Go.”

It was a blast. When the tunes were great tunes, the object was to write arrangements that supported the tunes but stayed largely out of the way, the better to not screw them up. On the occasions when a particular song wasn’t up to CRCAP’s usual standards, it was kinda neat to dress the thing up in fancy (pit) clothes and see if anyone noticed.

 

When I got to my high school gig, the goal was to make the band sound like a band, even if it did lack certain important instruments … or a lot of people … or both. This band hadn’t even existed on a regular basis before I was hired, so for a while I was kinda making my own decisions, hopefully wise ones, about what to do to make the group sound bigger and better than it really was. Before we went outside to play pep tunes at football games, we decided to re-start the athletic-band side of our existence by playing at boys’ and girls’ basketball games. For openers, in an acoustically-live gym, nine horns and a decent rhythm section can sound like Michigan State if you play your cards right. (Also we didn’t have to worry about the weather.) Throw a lot of melody lines into instruments, let the rhythm section take the chord content (i.e. don’t dilute the wind sound!) and you can convince a lot of people that you got every instrument covered. If the crowd doesn’t think “hey, not bad for a pep band” – in fact, if the crowd doesn’t think AT ALL, but instead gets up and grooves with you…? We have a winner. And let’s be honest: certain tunes that get athletic crowds up and dancing are not exactly the most complex musical compositions ever written anyhow. No countermelodies or flat-13 chords to distract from the pep! “Land of a Thousand Dances” wasn’t exactly Tchaikovsky to start with, after all.

So when the coach of the opposing team came by at the end of halftime, one night, and said to me, “we’re going to take all our timeouts this half no matter what, just so we can listen to you guys play!” … well, that was kind of a comforting moment. (And that is an absolutely true story. I turned to the kids and said, “did you just hear that?” and they nodded, a bit stunned. “Good,” I said. “And get ready to play a lot.”)

 

So would I rather have THAT experience, or would I rather pick up a check for a buck or two every time a publisher sells my version of some tune or other? (“Your band will shine with this arrangement of ‘Zombie Nation’!”)

Not that I wouldn’t want just one published hit, on the scale of Tom Wallace’s “Hey Baby”. Just one! I’m not asking much…

Money is nice. Musicians (young or otherwise) feeling like a million bucks because they can play the tunes they like, in a way that makes them feel likeable? You can’t pay the heating bill with that … but it’ll keep you warm anyway.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | arranging, band, choir, CRCAP, drum corps, Hoop Band, marching band, music, SUMC, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Pause to Consider

Twenty (20) (oi, TWENTY) years ago this very day was the first time I ever heard a college band play one of my arrangements live in performance.

It was UMass, playing the theme from “American Bandstand”, at Fitton Field, on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross.  I’m not sure how many people get to have their first arrangement played by a 300-member band with the percussion written by Thom Hannum.

[Coincidentally, Fitton Field was the location of my first road-trip performance as a UMass band freshman; and a lot later in life I got to be the band director at … Holy Cross.  That’s a heck of a field.]

How did it sound?  How did it feel? … Let’s just say that I remember chatting with Michael Klesch, who was also writing for UMass at the time, and who has been responsible for a few kinda neat arrangements in his time.  He asked me how it felt to write for UMass.  “You have no idea,” I said, quite fuzzily.  “Oh wait, right … you do.”  He then said something which is very true, and has not changed in all this time: “We have an opportunity that so few other people get.  Isn’t it something?”

For that opportunity (as well as, happily, lots of ensuing ones), I have George Parks and particularly Thom Hannum to thank.  Thom was brave enough to read my second unsolicited attempt at a UMass Hoop Band arrangement during my sophomore year there – the first one, um, wasn’t great! – and since then he has been nothing but unfailingly supportive of my writing work.  That would be Thom: always willing to use whatever considerable clout he’s got to help his students.  I never took a single percussion lesson with him – watching his drumline was education enough! – but I surely was one of his students.

Happily, as I say, since then, I’ve had the opportunity to continue to write for other bands (high school, college and community).  Some of my arrangements have gone to fun places like Bands of America performances, or NCAA tournaments … and some have gone onto local football fields and seemed to make bunches of band kids fairly happy.  It all proves that as much as what you know, it’s who you know, and which ensembles you get lucky enough to be associated with.  (Go BU.  Go Gardner High.)

Speaking of: this is my sixteenth year of writing arrangements for the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band.  And for that large and unusual opportunity, I have UD director Heidi Sarver to thank.  She had kindly conscripted me to write a thing or two for her while she was at her first high school teaching job, then again when she was at Temple University; and then in the summer of 1995, she asked me, “how’d you like to write for a major college band?”  She was under no obligation to do it, but she did.

One more thing.  I could dig back and really try and figure out who my music-writing “ancestors” are – the people who gave me my very first breaks.  I think that distinction probably goes to Jack Megan, a music counselor at the summer arts camp (Charles River Creative Arts Program, Dover, MA) where I spent many summers as a kid.  One day, my first summer (1982) as a junior baby rookie staff member, as we were nearing production week of our children’s musical, Jack tracked me down and asked if I could write a pit band arrangement for one of the tunes.  I suspect he probably thought it would save him some time, down-to-the-wire as we were.  When I handed it to him the next morning (and this was before computer notation software; we were still working by hand, yeesh … so I guess I appeared just a *little* enthusiastic), he paused but an instant, and said, “…okay, can you do these two others?”

Nobody gets places on their own.  Everybody gets help from somewhere.  I’m fortunate to have gotten huge help from generous sources.

[Proofreaders’s note: Math and I didn’t get along after I got to the 7th grade.  Upon further review, the ruling on the field is overturned: 1990 was twenty years ago, not thirty, as my original post suggested.  Well, I knew how to spell it, anyhow. 😛  ]

September 8, 2010 Posted by | arranging, band, CRCAP, GNP, Hoop Band, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments