Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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.

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

Safe As Band Rooms

This week, quite a number of people in my FB world will return to their musical ensembles – scholastic or church-related or community groups or whatever – stand in front of them, and try to find something to say that addresses the place we find our nation in. Not an easy job. (No easier is the job of the people who will return to their music – or other! – classrooms and try to find the right thing to say to their elementary and pre-school-aged charges. That’s certain.)

I will, too. So, I’ve been thinking furiously (and you may take that however you like). I’ve been remembering ensembles I’ve been a member of, throughout my life, and drawing inspiration from them.

Here’s what I think I would say to any of the ensembles that I get to work with. Here’s what I think I would say to any ensemble I’ve EVER gotten to work with — because there are groups full of people from my recent and distant past that I’ve been thinking of in the last day or so, as well, who happen to be wonderful people but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They all were – are – PERSONS, and as such deserve respect unconditionally.

Deep breath.

I feel like I have to say this, in this moment; but I also feel like there’s no need to say this, generally, because you all know this already; but I also feel like it’s worth saying at all times.

In this ensemble, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what instrument you play or what flag you wave or what voice part you sing, no matter whether you read music well or somewhat or not at all… no matter what…

When you are on this field, in this choir room, on this stage… you are IMPORTANT… you are WELCOME… and you are SAFE.”

Effectively, that’s what George Parks said (by way of his actions), for all those years. It’s what newly-minted NafME GNP Leadership Award winner Thom Hannum has done for all of his years – and specifically, valiantly demonstrated six years ago when a particular bereft band needed it the very most. It’s what was shown to me and to anyone within reach, by all the band directors and choir directors that I’ve ever played or sung for. And I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and for, a pleasant number of friends who are stellar band and choir directors, and they all personify that sentiment.

As role models go, they’re all far better than some of the public figures we’re fixated on now.

November 9, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, CCSUMB, choir, current events, GNP, HCMB, heroes, music, news, politics, SUMC, teachers, Thom Hannum, UDMB, 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