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

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