Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Jazz History

Reportedly, jazz giant (and father of numerous similarly jazz-gigantic progeny) Ellis Marsalis passed away yesterday, taken by the COVID-19 virus.

I will confess that the one and only time I ever saw him in person, I … um … kinda didn’t know how big a deal it was.

He visited the Jazz History class I was taking as a sophomore at UMass-Amherst. Professor Jeff Holmes introduced him; we clapped loudly — because we figured that Professor Holmes knew the quality people to bring in. After all, Max Roach had been a guest speaker/performer before that, so, ya know.

Mr. Marsalis spent some of the session telling tales of New Orleans jazz in that wonderful Bayou drawl … and spent most of it making the Bezanson Hall piano tell its own tales.

That was one of the fastest hours I ever spent in a class. At the end of it, we stood and clapped loudly and didn’t stop for a while.

Even though clearly, Wynton, Branford, and the rest of the Marsalis clan don’t follow me on any social media platform (!!!) … my thoughts are with them today. And with a world that will have to make do with benefiting from their father’s greatness on recordings only.

But first, let me stand and clap loudly for a while.

April 2, 2020 Posted by | arts, current events, Famous Persons, music, news, teachers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not the Point

The following thoughts have a point.

That point is not that ABC’s decision to include former White House press secretary Sean Spicer in the cast of the upcoming season of “Dancing With the Stars” has rubbed a great many people the wrong way.

I have my own feelings about Mr. Spicer’s time as press secretary, but they’re not the point either.

I have my own feelings about the suits in the ivory-tower offices that thought it would be a great idea to reward Mr. Spicer with pop culture celebrity status, when his single claim to fame was accepting a White House paycheck to defend the indefensible … but those feelings aren’t the point either.

The point has to do with Spicer’s own assessment of his likely success, or lack thereof, on the dancing competition show.

Spicer admitted Wednesday [August 21, the day his gig was announced on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program] that he’s not much of a dancer. He revealed that he was kicked out of the school band in sixth grade for having ‘the sense of beat of a steamroller.’”

I don’t know Spicer’s sixth-grade band director. I’ve never seen that teacher teach. I have no idea whether this quote is even accurate, although during this attempt at self-deprecation, Spicer insisted that the steamroller metaphor was indeed a direct quote from his teacher.

(The point of this blog post isn’t even to raise an eyebrow at the steamroller metaphor, since I’ve heard steamrollers that chug along quite steadily; maybe this band director said or meant some other piece of construction equipment, or some other noun entirely. I guess I get the gist, nonetheless; but man, the English language has taken a beating lately.)

But over the course of my time as a public-school music teacher and church choir director, I’ve heard more stories about music teachers of a bygone era dissuading students from continuing their musical interests on account of their alleged musical liabilities than I care to.

Just move your mouth along with the words,” said the elementary school chorus teacher in stories told by church choir members or (worse) wistful grown adults who subsequently never participated in any musical activities again because a music teacher told them they couldn’t sing.

As a high school band director, I encountered students at lots of different levels of musical ability. Some were truly spectacular natural talents; and some worked really hard just to keep pace with “average”. I can think of one or two whose contribution to our high school music program was one part musical skill to about seven eight parts hard work and (occasionally reckless-abandon-level) enthusiasm. They probably know who they are; they might be surprised to know how important they were to my experience as a teacher. I learned more from them than they might have learned from me.

For a truly inspiring concert experience, I will revel in the relatively humble achievements of a pack of music students who are not all Wynton Marsalis or Kathleen Battle and never will be … but who find some success and decide they want to experience it again and so they keep after it.

For all I know, Sean Spicer might not have been a troublemaker, a misbehaver, a disrupter, a hindrance. For all we know, he might have been an earnest “good kid” who tried his hardest and wanted to be a band musician so badly it hurt.

Who knows where Sean Spicer could have ended up, how different his life might have been, had his band director understood that “band is a place for everyone”, and figured out how to keep him around and get him a taste of success … rather than just badmouthing him and then “firing” him at the first sign of weakness.

Hmm. Ain’t that a familiar tale … I can think of another guy who treated Spicer that same way …

but again, that’s not the point.

August 26, 2019 Posted by | band, celebrity, current events, education, entertainment, Famous Persons, music, news, Starred Thoughts, teachers, television | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Attitude Adjustment

In no way should the very tall, balding, bearded, bespectacled gentleman have needed to do what he did.

But he did. And it said a lot about who he was, before I even saw him “in context.”

 

I stood at the registration table for the weekend event and noted that my housing assignment appeared to be screwed up. This was long enough ago that I really don’t remember exactly what the issue was; only that suddenly, attending an event that would last from Thursday morning to Saturday noon was looking a little more dicey, since one does prefer to spend evenings in some form of lodging, rather than, say, not.

The tall gentleman happened to be standing very near the registration table, which made it easier for him to detect the waves of “…uhh…” that were coming off me.

In that moment, in addition to staring down the barrel of two nights without an assigned place to sleep, I was the following things:

[] A newbie at that weekend event.  [] Recognizing exactly zero other people attending that event. (Not recognizing anyone yet, as it happened; but in that moment it was the first day of pre-school all over again.)  [] Not even a resident of the state in which I stood swaying gently.

Upon inquiring about my predicament, the tall gentleman looked me up and down, and said, “Well, come on upstairs.”

I trailed along after him, with all my baggage (interpret that however you like), as he ascended a set of stairs and headed down a couple of hallways to a small office. One short and amiable phone conversation later, he’d set things right, by setting me up with a proper dorm room assignment, and my weekend was off and running.

Half an hour removed from that little episode, I mused that the tall gentleman could easily have passed that duty off to one of his lieutenants. I mean, I was a newbie from a whole different state with an issue that quite honestly was probably very small, considering all the other responsibilities he had … considering he was the fellow in charge of the entire event.

But he saw a moment where he could be helpful to someone, knew what needed to be done, and determined that he was in the best position to do it. Regardless of rank or station. (Likely because of rank and station, in this case; but still.)

 

And so, for the next ten summers after that, I made my way north to Plymouth State University, for the New England Band Directors Institute; secure in the knowledge that the event, dreamed up by the tall gentleman and put together by the New Hampshire Band Directors Association that he led, was an event during which all the attendees were viewed as valuable and important, and were taken care of, and were almost instantly seen as old friends. Even the new ones.

A mentor of mine once suggested that “a band is a reflection of its leadership.” And NEBDI was assuredly a reflection of its leader, PSU’s director of bands, Professor Gary Corcoran.

At an NEBDI edition a few summers after my housing-assignment rescue moment, I took time to thank Gary again for his above-and-beyond effort, and he responded exactly true to form: in so many warm and unassuming words, you’re welcome, and don’t mention it, and anyone would have done it, and glad it worked out, and you’re welcome. It was almost as if all of us faithful NEBDI attendees were his kids, and he made sure to take care of us.

(In many ways. When he was addressing the group of attendees, he very often sounded like a gentle father figure … and then he would get a tiny mischievous glint in his eye, announcing the Friday evening attendees’ party at a tavern down the road – and calling it the “attitude adjustment session”.)

Three summers ago was the most recent NEBDI I’ve gotten to, for various reasons. By that time Gary had retired, but was hanging around the summer workshop event – at least partly because the NHBDA board had determined that they should award Gary their equivalent of the lifetime achievement award. He’d been at PSU for an amount of time that, rounded to the nearest whole number, was approximately forever. In that time, he had (amongst other things) built NEBDI up into an event that was known nationwide as a unique professional-development conference for school band directors.

At the Friday-evening dinner (which preceded the attitude adjustment session), the Association formally honored its longtime leader. When summoned to make a little speech, Gary got through a few appreciative sentences before choking up, just a little. And when he finished his remarks, the resulting standing ovation lasted long enough that he sheepishly tried to get us to siddown … and tried again … and again. We just wouldn’t. He was clearly not comfortable with the idea that he was getting this ridiculous, protracted standing-O … but we figured he had it coming.

 

Gary Corcoran passed away this past Friday at the age of 74.

I’m pleased that on several occasions, I took advantage of the opportunity to make sure he knew how much I appreciated his work – both in the larger, sweeping, lifetime-achievement sense, and also in the rescue-a-rookie-from-his-own-administrative-incompetence sense. And every time I took advantage of that opportunity, I couldn’t help but notice that although he only ever saw me three days a summer … so, a total of 27 times ever … he always knew exactly who I was, no re-introduction necessary. And always seemed a little startled that anybody thought he was a big deal.

He was a big deal.

And I hope the New England Band Directors Institute continues for as many more summers as is humanly possible – if only to stand as testimony to how big a deal he really was.

Godspeed, Gary.

July 10, 2018 Posted by | band, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment