Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

40 Years of “My Way”

[Ed. note: This piece was first published yesterday on the UMass marching band alumni website. You can see it, complete with illustrations and video links, here.  I was thrilled to be asked to write what turned out to be something of an historical research paper.]

 

Every tradition has an origin story.

The problem is, most often those origins are really difficult to pin down.

In the middle of some marching season, some year, the flute section begins to march doubletime at a certain moment in the percussion cadence … or the tubas decide to march separately from the rest of the brass block and call it a “tuba tail” … or the band plays a particular stands tune at a particular time in a couple of football games in a row and suddenly it seems like it happens that way all the time, without fail.

But rarely can anyone identify the moment a tradition becomes a tradition. Even more difficult to pinpoint who had the idea in the first place.

Not in this case, though.

In celebrating “40 Years of ‘My Way’,” the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band marks four decades of a perhaps inevitable tradition that had a very specific start date … encouraged by a very specific person.

On September 16, George Parks, 57, died en route to Michigan with the band – on a long shot ‘pinnacle’ performance he somehow made happen at the 110,000-seat Big House at [the] University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – like he made everything happen for all his years at the helm.

George and the band had stopped in Ohio to give a performance and to sleep, and George saw them through the show, led them in his favorite, ‘My Way’ (whose lyrics include: ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…’). Then he stepped down from the stage and collapsed of a heart attack.”

– author Betty Londergan, in her article “The Music Man of UMass”, published on her blog, “What Gives”, September 21, 2010

A heartbreaking coincidence. …Maybe.

 

Entering the fall of 1978, in his second year as Minuteman Marching Band director, George Parks decided he needed some sort of closing song for his band’s performances. From his own college marching experience, with the band at West Chester State College, he drew a version of Paul Anka’s anthem “My Way”, written for and most famously performed by Frank Sinatra. The arrangement, written by James H. Burden (who regularly arranged music for the West Chester marching band, as well as a little group called the Penn State Blue Band), was originally performed at a moderate tempo, to the accompaniment of a gentle marching percussion backbeat. But when Parks brought it to UMass, he eliminated most of the battery parts and turned the song back into a ballad, and soon presented it to the UMass community, with the help of the band, as something of a hymn.

Since then, at the close of the majority of its performances, the Minuteman Marching Band has gathered in a tightly-packed formation and played “My Way.” The band plays a verse in a quiet brass and woodwind chorale setting; sings a verse; and finishes with a playout that is slightly faster and a whole lot louder … immediately after which the battery percussion fire up their cadence, and the band exits the venue. For it seems, as long as anyone can remember, the same thing has happened, every show. Tradition.

Or very nearly the same thing. The original lengthy, trumpet-screamer ending was given a gentle rewrite by then-graduate assistant Michael Klesch ’90 M.M. The song’s performance tempo has slowed noticeably over the years. The sung portion (in recent years) has begun to include a few extra exclamatory additions. When current director Timothy Todd Anderson recognized tradition and left the the leading of “My Way” to Associate Director Thomas P. Hannum ’84 M.M., the conducting style, the “look” of the song, understandably changed a little. And, compared with renditions from the early 1980s, the length of the trombone section’s final, iconic three-note, octave-leap figure is now drastically slower.

As “My Way” has evolved, the band’s presentation of the song remains an encore that, in just under two and a half minutes, presents audiences with all the elements of a great, entertaining band performance (short, perhaps, of a mace toss).

But it’s become much more than that. And, one suspects, this is not at all accidental.

 

It’s not just a nice melody with pretty chords.

And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain / 
My friend, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain / 
I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / But more, much more than this / I did it my way

Parks fretted, in front of students at his what turned out to be his final summer Drum Major Academy session in 2010, that the lyrics to “My Way” were maybe a little selfish. (He wasn’t alone. Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina has said that her father “always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”) But Parks wove an affecting defense for why he preferred not to think of those lyrics as emblematic of self-absorption, so much as representative of self-discovery and self-confidence. Those, after all, were characteristics which he was helping DMA students to work toward: “you can’t do this job without a LITTLE bit of ego. Just don’t let it control you”).

Further, one can make a case that some “My Way” lyrics, ones which the band has never sung, might serve to illuminate Parks’ work and relationships with the UMass band. In the mid-1980s, he created a video montage of UMMB scenes, partly to the accompaniment of the original Sinatra “My Way” recording. The lyrics, likely by no accident, lined up with certain visuals: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew / When I bit off more than I could chew”, sang Sinatra, over the sight of the UMMB, in a Washington, DC snow squall, videotaping a short clip for ABC-TV’s 1981 Presidential Inauguration coverage — the “Happy Morning America” moment (ask a mid-1980s alum for details). And “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried / I’ve had my fill, my share of losing / And now, as tears subside / I find it all so amusing”, was the backing track for scenes of mid-1980s UMMB seniors shedding tears after their last postgame show.

 

Perhaps the largest part of the “My Way” tradition have been the connections that the song helps to foster. The connection between the UMMB and its audiences – home football audiences know that “My Way” is coming, and don’t leave the stadium until they hear it; and audiences that are newer to the UMass band experience quickly discover that … marching bands sometimes sing.

The connection among UMMB members – metaphorically and actually – as they gather even closer to one another and sing together.

The connection between the “baby band” and its alumni – a great many of whom have taken part in that same UMMB tradition – have played and sung that same arrangement; and now stand and sing and sway arm-in-arm, just as they did in their college years. With each other and with the current membership – in a relatively-new decade-old tradition – all together on the field at Homecoming.

And the connection between the UMMB and the high school bands who have the chance to watch a UMass show – when the “My Way” performance tells them that “band is a place for everyone” – and that it can be a refuge, a haven of great support and affection. And that it’s okay to show those feelings, in public.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to just the Pioneer Valley.

[Natasha Stollmack’s] most memorable high school experiences revolve around the Blue Devil marching band. ‘Attending Drum Major Academy at the Univ. of Massachusetts over the summer was a life-changing experience. DMA is a camp geared towards student leaders in band programs, and it was led by UMass’ incredible marching band director George N. Parks.’

Ms. Stollmack and [her] fellow drum majors quickly took a liking to Mr. Parks during the week they worked together at the camp. The group promised to keep in touch with him throughout their competitive season. … With warm memories of the relationship they developed with the legendary college marching band leader still fresh in their minds, the Huntington quartet was jolted during the opening weeks of school.

“’In mid-September, [Huntington director Brian] Stellato called us all down in the morning and shared with us the awful news of his passing,’ Ms. Stollmack said … ‘We were all shocked and devastated. We treated the rest of the season sort of as a tribute to him. I arranged a surprise performance of the song ‘My Way,’ which is the piece that UMass’ marching band shows always end with. The kids played it at the home show and it brought Mr. Stellato and the four of us to tears. It was one of my proudest moments of the season, seeing us all come together like that, most of the kids not even knowing who this man was. But they did it ‘with pride.’ That phrase that we use now is ‘because of Parks’. At the Carrier Dome, we had the most amazing performance in all of my years in the program. The four of us could barely keep our composure up on the podiums! I couldn’t have dreamed of a better group than this one. I love them all so much.’”

from an article posted on the Huntington (NY) Public Schools’ website, March 2011

And the “My Way” formula has found success in at least one other college-band environment.

In 1995, UMMB Hall of Famer Heidi Sarver ’86, ’88 M.M. was named director of the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band. Almost immediately, she began looking for a similar melody to utilize – to foster similar connectional impact to “My Way” – with her new band. Not long into that fall marching season, she came upon John Lennon’s “In My Life.” This author crafted an arrangement that followed the “My Way” play-sing-play structure, and condensed the original lyrics into a single verse. That arrangement is now in its 24th season of use by the Blue Hen Marching Band.

 

Two decades earlier, George Parks had brought “My Way” to UMass, in all likelihood, with a very good idea of what the song and its performances might become. He might not have predicted how important it would turn out to be, the very first time it was “performed” after his passing in 2010.

THURSDAY [September 16, 2010; gymnasium, Cuyahoga Falls HS, Ohio]


“People first sat on their sleeping bags, most with a hand over their mouth and a look of horror in their eyes. … Eventually people made their way towards each other and sobbed as they held each other close. … The band formed a huge circle over 380 people in the gym and started to hum ‘My Way.’ The hums became choking words as the singing got louder:

“’And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain
 / My friends, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
 / I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / And more, much more than this / I did it my way’

The lyrics of our beloved band song we perform at every game suddenly took on a whole new meaning as the band acknowledged the fact that this was the last song Mr. Parks ever conducted.

“… Many phone calls were made and the decision was made that we would continue on to Michigan. It was Mr. Parks’ dream to perform in Michigan Stadium with the UMMB and the Michigan marching band and that was what we were going to do.”

from “A Performance We Will Never Forget,” by Alyssa Berkowitz ’12, Monday, September 20, 2010

Over the course of forty years, George Parks’ way has become the way of the Minuteman Band.

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October 18, 2018 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tiny Conundrum

Regular readers of this blog … are to be commended.

Recently, you’ve had to pay serious attention in order not to miss the very rare flashes of activity.

This calendar year so far, I’ve posted, on average, once a month.

This is far less than the previous rates of writing.

On top of that, while lately it’s been just about once a month, there’s a gap of exactly four months between posts, back in the spring.

So, the average doesn’t quite tell the story.

I’ve been away, seemingly.

 

Well, no. I haven’t. I’ve been right here. And very very often, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, I’ve been ready to write.

And I’ve taken my hands off the keyboard.

If you’ve read the Editorial License blog in the last three years at least, but especially since June 2015, you know that I marinate in politics. I keep up with the news. There are plenty of people in this country who, for various sometimes legitimate reasons, don’t follow the workings of the government well enough to know who the Secretary of Commerce is, or how the 25th Amendment works. They’re working multiple jobs, they’ve got kids, they’re keeping their heads above water.

But I follow, and I know. I make it a point to follow, and know.

Which sounds pretty arrogant, or at least very very confident. But here, “I make the effort” doesn’t automatically lead to “…and you don’t”. My goal is not to be self-inflating. Current events happen to be an interest of mine — and has been since it was part of sixth-grade social studies class.

There have been good reasons to keep up with the news, and to know who’s who and what they stand for and what policies they support, and even how they behave.

Through all the waves of legitimate news stories about legitimately awful or corrupt or mean behavior perpetrated by the federal government in the last couple of years or so, there has of course been one guy … That Guy … who is known by everybody, who is commented upon or joked about or railed against by everybody.

That Guy, the person currently occupying the Oval Office, is of course that guy.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, I worked hard to make sure people knew who That Guy was, why I didn’t care for him in the slightest, and why you shouldn’t either. In the first few months of his occupation of the Oval Office, I kept after him. It wasn’t just your average case of executive branch mischief; I felt like it was important to highlight his behaviors, actions, and beliefs which directly contradicted the patterns of proper and decent and humane behavior, action, and belief that my parents and teachers taught me, and which I (and my friends who became teachers) have turned around and tried to instill in the students we were lucky enough to have in our classrooms.

 

I didn’t want to suffer news fatigue.

For all this time, I’ve suggested to people that one single individual can’t possibly keep track of all the news; can’t possibly be the point person for activism against all the wrongs. There are lots of people in the world; there’s a history of division of labor in our civilization; so let’s take advantage of that. Pass the baton; catch your breath; get ready to take the baton back when it comes around again.

Equally, it’s important to step away from anything, occasionally. It’s a great reason for the existence of vacations. It’s the purpose of sleep — because none of us can go full-tilt, 24/7, all the time.

Actually I don’t think I’ve suffered news fatigue: yes, the news is fatiguing.  But I continue to keep up with current events, and grind my teeth firmly about every new piece of stupid, arrogant, cruel behavior that emerges from our current version of the Executive Branch. I download my political podcasts and listen to them all the way through. I engage in conversation with anyone who also seems interested in discussing the news of the day.

So why haven’t I written about it all here at the rate that I used to? I may have fallen victim to the “frog in boiling water” effect. There is SO much going on, so many things to keep track of, so many examples of terrible corruption and awful behavior and inhumane policies … that it’s only the really seriously over-the-top egregious ones that cause me to leap to the blog and write. Children in cages, as an example. #Metoo, for another.

So with regard to all the important issues of the day, I suppose I’ve not got much of an excuse. Just at the moment, as a straight middle-class Christian white guy, I live every day in an environment of the kind of privilege that allows me to check out. Not many of my rights are in immediate jeopardy. The various demographics of whom I am a member allow me the privilege of stepping back, exhaling heavily, and contemplating my toes for an afternoon, or a day, or longer … before gathering myself and hurling myself back into the fray.

But specifically as regards That Guy, the fellow currently occupying the West Wing? For the last year or so, I certainly could have leapt to the keyboard and blogged, vociferously, about each of the four or five latest outrages perpetrated by That Guy. I detest just about every single thing about him. Hate is a strong word, and I’m going to work really hard to reserve it for things that really rate it. But it’s been a rare thing for me to come upon a human being about whom I can find nothing to admire, and everything to loathe. So congratulations, Toddler-in-Chief, Orange Muppet Hitler, Vulgar Talking Yam, Cadet Bone Spurs … I guess you’re the best in one category, after all.

But — and I didn’t say this to myself consciously, but looking back, it was definitely the case — I haven’t felt like constantly, weekly, even daily, railing against That Guy in this space.  And I could have.  There’s lots of raw material; lots of fodder for this particular cannon.  After a year of the campaign and a year of this hideous Administration, it’s not so much a case of “what more is there to say?” because there’s ALWAYS something more to point to and say, kids, don’t be like that.  It’s more a case of “do I want to flog my readers with yet another rant about Cheeto Mussolini?”

The solution might have been, “well, write about happy things instead. Make the blog into a respite from the stupid.” Again, subconsciously, I was recognizing that this would’ve come off as either willfully turning away from the flood of awful, when enough of our institutions and our mores had been under assault and really deserved propping up, and why would I not write about THAT instead of about unicorns and rainbows?

So. A tiny conundrum.

 

A blog doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Or, ideally, it shouldn’t. There are readers — there are subscribers who actually aren’t Russian bots! — to consider, and to respect.

At least they’re not paying readers and subscribers. Dodged that bullet.

But … do I flood my readers with unPresidential rants and tire them out and drive them away? Do I write about subjects that, in the current climate, seem trivial and unimportant? Or do I restrain myself, write far less, and cause my readers to drift away?

I appear to have chosen Option 3. If you’re reading this now, you are, again, to be commended.

Let me see if I can get back to honoring your commitment to this.

September 25, 2018 Posted by | blogging, current events, government, news, politics, writing | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Confession and (Re-)Connection -or- Where Ya Been?

Hi everyone.

I know. It’s been months.

This was not the plan.

There’s been plenty to write about.

And honestly, it’s not that my schedule, my life, has been that jammed full of every possible commitment and activity that I didn’t have time to sit and park a few thoughts on the Blogge.

I could have gone on and on about, say, current politics. Plenty of writers have done so, and very eloquently and movingly – not that this truth would have deflected me from writing on that topic, as well. I’m not that humble.

My musical life has careened onward at its standard pace. I could have scribbled (metaphorically) a few notes (ha) about all that.

Yes, I had a root canal recently. But it was my tooth that hurt, not my typin’ fingers.

Somehow, several months have gone by.

A friend of mine suggested that it would be a much bigger deal if this were a paid-subscription blog. In that case, then, yes, I would have to process a few refunds!

But still, there are people – not just automated bots, but actual people – who signed up to get eMail blasts every time I published something. They didn’t have to do that. No one was forcing them. They did it – I presume – because they enjoyed something I wrote, and were interested in reading the next one, and possibly even the next one. I need to respect that.

There are others who didn’t sign up, but let me know that they were reading faithfully anyway. I need to respect that, too.

Those are connections.

Connection – most especially these personal connections, with longtime friends and newer friends and friends I’ve never actually met in person! – is something that has become, to me, more important-seeming in the last three or four months of navigating current events. Not that you would know it from my blog activity … so what say we show a little evidence of that?

Write. Write write write.

Will do.

Stand by. Powering back up. Re-acquiring signal. Re-establishing connection. Resurrecting blog in 3… 2… 1…

May 19, 2017 Posted by | blogging, writing | , , , | Leave a comment