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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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


Ever watch someone (or someones) do their thing, and only after it’s over do you realize how much preparation and practice and work it must have taken to get to the point where it was made to look easy?

For me, whether it’s music or drama or sports or public speaking or teaching or whatever … I most enjoy myself when I don’t have to worry (“will they make it to the end of the tune? can they drive 90 yards in two minutes?”) but instead I can just watch and marvel. The best performances are the ones that not only make it look easy … they make you wish you could join the performers … in fact, the performers make it look so easy that you think, “you know, I could do that; that doesn’t look hard at all.”

Once upon a time, someone wisely said, “the moment you stop entertaining, your audience starts evaluating.”

So yesterday morning, I got entertained.


In this case, I was a little closer (personally and professionally) to the performing group than would be considered average, so I was a bit nervous going into the event. The band alumni stomach-butterflies flapped their little wings, and my usual music teacher “error detection and correction” instincts readied themselves. On top of that, I’d already seen a few other similar groups do their thing upon the teevee, and I’d seen occasional (understandable) struggles with logistical and meteorological challenges, so something of a precedent had been set. This particular performance concept was fraught with potential pitfalls – I’d once been in the metaphorical shoes of the morning’s performers, in fact. So: we must be vigilant … and we must actively pull for the next group on the starting line.

It was the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. It was 30 degrees and, um, breezy in Herald Square. It was an opportunity to try to fit nearly 400 musicians and visual performers into a space the size of a suburban post office parking lot, at most. And the UMass Minuteman Marching Band was about to to make that attempt.

After NBC’s Matt Lauer and Al Roker stumbled through a relatively (for network television) effusive introduction, the band entered the stage on a dead run … the drumline cranked up … and they were off. And they were killin’.

After ninety breathless seconds, the people sitting in the room with me were breathless ourselves. The blur that had been the UMass performance of “Big Noise from Winnetka” hadn’t allowed us to get anywhere near becoming “evaluators”.

Holy heck, were those kids “on.”

And then I calmed down a bit and thought, with classic 20/20 hindsight, “well of course they were going to do well; how could we have doubted.” So what if the performance in front of the Macy*s department store is the musical equivalent of the 40-yard dash? So what if the air temperature was below freezing and the “real feel” was well below that? Yeah, yeah; whatever. Some groups stare live national television air time in the face and flinch. Other groups have the spotlight hit them … and they hit it right back.


In the case of that UMass band: whether its fans think of it as, “since John Jenkins came along,” or “since George Parks came along,” or “since Thom Hannum came along,” or “since the first Inaugural Parade,” or “since the first Grand Nationals show,” or “since the Sudler Award,” or since some other worthy milestone … for quite a long time now there’s been something about the way that ensemble is organized, instructed, trained and motivated, which quite simply predicts a certain level of achievement. There are slight variations from performance to performance because that’s what happens when imperfect humans are involved; but the range of expected outcome that is not terribly wide. On top of which, these methods of instruction and inspiration (or very similar versions thereof) have been carried from the UMass campus by UMMB alums to a number of other campuses, and are yielding comparable results. There’s a lineage that’s been established.

There’s little doubt that Thom Hannum’s drumline will get the job done; and yesterday did they ever. (Thom’s standards tend to be almost impossibly higher than those of the rest of us mortals, meaning that if there happen to be flaws, we probably won’t spot them anyway.) There’s little doubt that the band – winds, percussion, guard – will generate an exciting, engaging performance; and yesterday that poured off the TV screens of America in waves.

In a previous post, I ascribed the characteristic of confidence … of “earned swagger” … to one other marching ensemble. The idea was, there’s a certain self-assurance that will allow a group’s members to step up to the plate and know, know that they’re going to hit this one out of the park. You might say it’s in their organization’s DNA. They don’t talk trash … they don’t strut … they don’t pause dramatically and point to the right-field upper deck.  They just step into the batter’s box with an air of “we got this”, see the pitch all the way from the mound to the plate, swing, and deposit the ball ten rows deep in that upper deck.

Quite honestly, UMass has got that.

The preparation which they carry out … which they have done for some time now … which they have come to embrace as a routine, as something that is required in order to properly do business … allows them to enter the field, or the street, or the concert hall, and instinctively know that if they do what’s necessary, they won’t have to worry about the technical-merit scores – so they can concentrate on the artistic-merit scores. They’ll bring precision and pizazz, power and class, and they will nail it.

So when Eastern-time-zone Americans turned to their TV sets yesterday morning at about 11:20 (and then the rest of the country had their chances at 12:20, 1:20 and 2:20 Eastern time), they got hit in the chops with the sight and sound of a band whose performance was distinctly different, unquestionably higher-powered, and more aggressively fun than anything similar that had appeared yet that morning.

No fair to compare collegiate bands to high school bands, you’d say, and we would of course acknowledge this as true in most cases. There were high school bands that performed well; and the James Madison University band acquitted itself well at the beginning of the parade, no doubt. But UMass – every single band member – effectively reached through the TV screen and grabbed the TV audience and said “you’re going to love us, whether you like it or not.”

(Sound familiar, fellow alums?)

Enthusiasm. Excitement. Energy. Intensity. Excellence. Holy smokes, did the NBC audience get that, in spades.

We got this … and you’re going to love it.”

Because, thanks to a long tradition of hard work by legions of people – and a very committed handful of people in particular – it’s in our DNA.

November 29, 2013 Posted by | band, current events, entertainment, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, television, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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