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

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

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-One: As the Songwriter Wrote…

Today’s writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 21: “Something I miss”.

Well, plenty, since over the course of my first half-century on Earth, I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few experiences that might or might not ever happen quite that same way again, and that’s a shame! …

Here are two of those that leap immediately to mind:

 

[1] Franklin DC dinners.

In this space, I’ve dropped a lot of details about my college marching days, but not this: we rehearsed from 4:40 to 6 in the afternoon, every weekday. Not every band gets this. Most bands rehearse twice or three times a week; we got nearly seven hours of rehearsal and that didn’t even include Saturday mornings before games.

So, our daily routine included finishing rehearsal and then tearing across campus to the nearest dining commons (named after Franklin County, in western Massachusetts, and not after anyone named Franklin) to grab dinner before the facility closed its cafeteria line at 6:30. Usually, we stood in line, faintly perspiring both from the hustling across campus and also from 80 minutes of rather dogged band rehearsal, and shuffling slowly up a winding ramp from the entrance up to the second-floor dining level. And then we would sit, and eat, and laugh and joke, at least until 7pm, when the corps of sweepers and moppers and other cleaner-uppers would tiptoe into the dining area and try to slip us silent hints that “at some point we would really like to go home, so we wonder if you might wrap this up some time before 8 o’clock please”. They never actually said this, but I could imagine that those were the hints.

The thing that kept the workers there, and kept us there too, was the particular group of marching band folks (and a couple of other friends-of-band-members who weren’t in the band but might as well have been). We were just over-tired enough that funny things seemed funnier, and we were just friendly enough that we kinda suspected that we might be sharing supper with people who’d eventually become lifelong friends.

Thanks to things like social media connectivity, alumni band, and other sundry gatherings through the years, lots of us have crossed paths since then … but I miss those evenings. The rest of the college experience, full of papers and tests and dorm issues and campus buses and such, was held at bay, and we ate and smiled and just about fell over laughing, for about an hour a night.

I miss that.

 

[2] Pit crazy.

My time at the Charles River Creative Arts Program was about a decade long. During the last six of those years, I was a staff member of some kind, and thus eligible to be part of the pit orchestras that were formed to accompany each of the two children’s-theater musicals which were the centerpiece of the day camp’s two Arts Festivals, usually in the third week of July and of August, respectively.

We met as a pit during “tech week,” the last few days of intense rehearsals before showtime. The usual schedule included … spending two or three hours after the camp day ended on Monday, desperately preparing the accompaniments to 10 or 12 of the show’s songs. We played what we had for the tech rehearsal (full of children and tech-theater counselors scurrying about) on Tuesday evening. We played it all for the dress rehearsal (full of children and costume staff scurrying about) on Wednesday evening; and then Thursday, Friday and Saturday it was showtime! (And on Sunday we rested, and also looked back and marveled at the amount of work that had gotten done in just six days.)

The pit was full of staff members, not all of whom were music department staff; some were music professionals, and some played our instruments for fun. Lots of different skill levels, but all the same level of commitment to having a blast while we did lots of rather dogged work. There was much silliness. There was a lot of laughing.

One year the pit was a piano, drums, bass and a couple of woodwinds along for the ride. One summer we had a perfect storm of musical staff, and were writing arrangements for piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, piccolo, clarinet, two multiple-sax players, trumpet and flugelhorn. It was never the same twice from an instrumentation standpoint; but it was always, always something to look forward to – and there was always an underlying sense of “enjoy this moment; it’ll never happen quite like this again.”

The shows were put up on an outdoor stage, located adjacent to one of the buildings of the Charles River School, where the summer program was based. The pit did its thing off to one side of the stage, beneath one of those rental-company tents, about ten feet square (so, necessarily, our long-time drummer and at least one other player were under the tent in name only). Whenever I smell bug spray, I think of the Charles River pit, because great heavens!, did we ever protect ourselves from bugs (which were of course attracted particularly to our warm and sweaty selves and also to our music-stand lights).

After the closing-night show, a few of us would linger for ten or fifteen minutes (while the cast repaired to another area of the camp to set up its farewell cast party) and engage in a rather spirited C-blues jam session. Myself, I would get to the pit far earlier than our pit-orchestra report time so a friend and I could sing and play as many of our favorite James Taylor songs as we could get to before paying customers (or the rest of the pit) started to show up.

Renovations of and additions to the Charles River School’s campus have actually caused a new building to be slammed down on top of the actual spot where the pit used to set up shop; so the current pit location is actually about fifty feet or so to the south. But whenever I stand near there … and quite often even if I’m not on the grounds … I think of those rather intense tech weeks, and at least I appreciate having been able to be part of that craziness.

I miss that, too.

 

Because, indeed, life careens on … people’s trajectories head in various different directions … and as much as we’d love it to be so, those exact combinations of people and activities never do happen exactly that way again. But we cart the memories around with us, and smile.

The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

The way you hold your knife
The way we danced till three
The way you changed my life
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

May 21, 2016 Posted by | arts, blogging, CRCAP, friends, marching band, music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment