Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

You Didn’t Have To Do That

[Ed. note: A brief tale here, and please forgive me if it comes off as self-absorbed and annoying. It’s not supposed to. We may even come up with different “morals of the story”. That’s okay, I think.]


I’ve participated in many UMass Homecoming Weekend alumni bands, in the nearly three decades (oi) since I graduated from there.

So, yes, I’m now that pushing-fifty guy, grey beard and all, who is still hauling a saxophone out there, dancing around like a goof, and generally enjoying the heck out of the experience, even if it’s raining, because it was fun then, so it’s fun now!!!

Another portion of my college band experience (other than toting a saxophone around) was getting to be one of the three drum majors during my senior year. Now, please understand: when I sign up online for alumni band activities and they ask what my instrument was … there’s no check-box for “drum major”, and even if there were one, that’s not an instrument!! and I wouldn’t check that box anyway. Really. You don’t believe me, but it’s true.

There have only been two Homecomings wherein I have played the alumni drum major game. One of them was seven years ago, when the alumni band was 925 strong, so it was pretty much all hands on deck. There were at least fifteen former drum majors out there, because it was necessary.

The other time was I think five years ago. That morning, as the weather looked less and less dire and I began to not worry so much about marching a Selmer Mark VI saxophone in the rain, my friend James, a former UMass drum major (who was a DM twenty years after I was), looked over at me and said, “Rob, is your mace in your car?” I said, yeah, it was; and it actually was still in the trunk from back in the summer when I brought it with me to the summer drum major clinic wherein we’d both worked. (Only out of sheer “I don’t have a free hand to grab it when I bring the rest of my life into the house after work”, not “who knows when I might need a twirling mace?”.)

Cool,” he said, “let’s just go out there and throw.” And so, in the midst of the alumni band’s halftime tune, James and I strode onto the Gillette Stadium field, conducted not a single note, and just chucked maces in the air indiscriminately. (We were two redheaded, bearded guys throwing maces. Hmmmmm. Didn’t exactly plan that visual way ahead of time, but okay.) I’m not usually the ostentatious-showmanship type … and though it seemed like fun, and several people subsequently thought out loud that it was fun to watch, I still did feel a wee bit like I’d stepped away from the pack of alumni who were actually playing their horns … and I felt a wee bit guilty. Like, come on, you had your chance in 1987, and took it, and thanks for playing, it’s done. Right?

I know, I’m weird. But that’s the way my head works.

Fast-forward to last weekend, Homecoming Weekend at UMass. I arrive and find a clump of band alumni gathering, early in the morning … and rumors begin flying.

So I hear you’re conducting ‘Let’s Groove’?”

Do you hear that?

So you’re singing Twilight Shadows?”

I’m … willing … … but I didn’t know we were playing the alma mater for halftime?

Gonna chuck a mace today?”

Ummm … it takes two hands to play sax?

Did I mention that, while being a team player and being willing to fill whatever role the organization needs me to fill, I am nonetheless reticent to grab that sort of spotlight?

And please notice particularly that, um, my former-DM colleague from five years ago, James his very own self, is standing over there without his trumpet, and is therefore well-suited for that job, whereas oh look! I’ve got my tenor with me and its reed is actually whole and complete and not dinged for a change?

Naw, I’ll hang with the crazy alumni tenor saxes, some of whom I’ve just met (because they’re relatively or VERY recently graduated from UMass and therefore, no disrespect intended, ARE CHILDREN!! and are tons of fun).

I’ll be fine.

(I didn’t have to do that, didn’t need to jump out in front of the group, in order for my life to be complete or something.)

At some point in the alumni band rehearsal early that afternoon, the current band director, Tim Anderson, wanders over in my direction and asks, “So, ya wanna conduct ‘Fight, Mass.’?”

Urp! Uh, Tim, there’s redheaded James right over there, yeah? I mean, I’ll do what you need, but, uh, really!

I wasn’t even one of “his” drum majors, since he’s been at UMass just the seven years. Again, sweet of him to ask, to keep track and to be aware, but super not-required … No, it’s okay.

Fifteen or so minutes later, we’re most of the way through rehearsing the music for halftime, which includes a couple of tunes by the current undregrads, “Let’s Groove” with just alumni, the finale of the “1812 Overture” with all of us combined, and then the UMass fight song. And one of the current drum majors walks by and says, “okay, so, we’re gonna put you on a ladder for ‘Fight, Mass.’…” As in, I’m going to climb one of the stepladders that the assistant drum majors use, and conduct for the band members too far from the 50-yardline to properly see the conductor on the center podium.

Well okay, it sounds like that would be helpful to somebody; and besides, the particular current drum major who came to talk to me … well, if she tells you to do something, you darn well do it.

Sweet of her to ask, though.

Then I get to the ladder.

Or rather, I discover why I would probably not be a great UMass drum major these days.  In the 1980s… no ladders.

I get four steps up that ladder and realize that there are two more yet to go. And getting to the top of the ladder will mean leaning forward onto a little bitty guard rail using only my lower shins.

And I’d swear that ladder is shifting in the breeze.

Have I ever mentioned, I don’t do super well with heights that aren’t contained by skyscraper windows or airplane fuselages?

So, current UMass drum majors, when you find the five indents on that ladder’s front guard rail, please know that I’ve “left my mark” on the band: I stood only five steps up, conducted that fight song rehearsal righthanded, and held onto that rail with a lefthanded Vulcan Death Grip.

At the actual halftime of the actual game, the bands played through the first two tunes, and as I dashed to the sideline before “Fight, Mass.”, suddenly so did everybody else, having been waved in that direction by director Tim. The halftime show had to be cut short for time.

I was not disappointed.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t have been happy to have gone only five steps up the ladder in performance … but I was also relieved … relieved of the opportunity to pitch off the thing and make the wrong kind of spectacle of myself with thousands of people watching and wondering.

Again, I didn’t go to Homecoming to stick out from the crowd. I went to Homecoming to be in the alumni band, in and amongst my friends, old and new. And that’s what happened, and as usual, it was glorious.

Not *quite* the end of the tale, though.

Rewind a few hours: just before the rehearsal had finished, director Tim was doing a series of last announcements – where to meet, where to go, what time, where to sit in the stands, all the non-glamorous details – and then I heard him get the band ready to do its final traditional end-of-rehearsal call-and-response thing. And I realized he was explaining to the assembled graduates and undergraduates that this former drum major guy from 1987 over here is going to lead it.

He’s what now?

I didn’t focus on this till afterward: while his noted predecessor always asked the band, “how are your FEET?, stomach, chest, shoulders, etc.?” so they could then shout about being Together, In, Out, Back, etc. … Tim has since handed that duty off to his drum majors. And he was handing it off now.

He didn’t have to do that, either. But he did. And it was very kind.

And yeah, even as I picked up my tenor afterward, and spent the rest of the day cheerfully and properly communing with great band-alum friends … I kinda did appreciate the gesture.



P.S. I am fully in control of my verb tenses at all times. In case you wondered.

P.P.S. But not in control of my sentence lengths.


October 26, 2017 Posted by | band, drum major, friends, marching band, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Friends on Earth, and Friends Above

I’ve been thinking a lot about friends lately.

Twenty-five years and a few days and a few hours ago … as much as it pains me to consider this … I was taking my first steps onto the field as a senior and a drum major in my college marching band.

Twenty-five years. Zoiks.

A few times during that fall season of cowboy tunes and Latin jazz chopbusters (not that I used my actual chops that fall – but someone did use my sax, so maybe that counts?), I mused that I had friends that I could imagine still being friends with, a few years after I graduated. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen – they really were that much fun, that trustworthy, that good. Five years out? Yeah, I bet.

Because I was lucky enough to hang out with that band for a few more years in various capacities (not least of which was my role as “oh, you’re Kristin’s brother!”), I managed to make a few more friends, whom I also thought were pretty swell.

As tends to happen, a great many of these people stayed on my mind quite frequently, although we only saw each other infrequently (Homecoming or other alma mater football games, usually). And, as also tends to happen, although we only saw each other infrequently – or traded letters or occasionally picked up the phone and spoke – whenever we did see each other, the years fell away and we were just exactly as silly as we had been in, or near, band.

And now, twenty-five years have passed, and I’m struck by just how many of those friends from the late ’80s and early ’90s are still “with me” … and to my eyes and ears, they haven’t changed a bit. The years fall away.


Funny … or actually not funny at all … how sad circumstances seem to do the best job of getting friends together, and reminding them – us – how much we mean to each other.

Bad news, says an online post. Didn’t get that job. Hang in there, says a comment, they didn’t deserve you anyway, and let’s go get lunch and commiserate. Or, as is going to become more and more common for me, parents of college friends pass away, and we offer sympathy and support. This weekend I drove across state lines to shake my friend’s hand and give him one of those manly hugs, the ones that have a little impact. Thanks for coming? That was so thoughtful? No, no assignment of super extra credit called for – this is what friends do.


My little corner of the online world is gently exploding again today. Today is the second anniversary of one particular sad circumstance, and friends are paying tribute … and re-connecting.

I imagine that there are those who are worried that with each passing year, the impact of the anniversary of George Parks’ passing will fade, and somehow there will be less and less recognition of just how much of an effect that gentleman had on so many people’s lives.

And I can also imagine that there are those who are worried that the impact won’t fade – and who worry about the people who may be caught in a spiral of mourning that will simply never let them look up and realize that in spite of events that can’t be controlled, they can honor that gentleman’s memory by living life the way he taught us to do.

I was in that second group today – except for the moment when a not-quite-random tune came up quite randomly on my computer, and I had to pause briefly. Deep breath, short walk, head-shake … and back to the task at hand with (mostly) fresh vigor. Otherwise, I was indeed one of those people.

A particularly wise friend of mine – of, yes, twenty-five years, and then some – made an online suggestion this week on this smaller facet of this larger topic. It was a suggestion that was characteristically up-front, and I imagined some readers misinterpreting it – or thinking it perhaps too blunt for this weekend, the anniversary of a very (and for certain people, a very very very) traumatic event. It’s worth taking a look for yourself, here, so you can make up your own mind. I took some time with it and tonight I see exactly where she is; and I think I’m there too.

To summarize, the thing that may have caused some heads to snap back was her assertion that “we have not moved on.”

Thereafter, she and her thought process concluded that “grief is a process – but when the year of mourning has has concluded Judaism teaches us that our primary obligation is not to the dead. It is to our self, to our community and to life. We are obligated to live.”

Some have moved on. Some surely haven’t. Some are on a tightrope somewhere in the middle and couldn’t tell you how far they actually are from one circus-tent ladder to the other. It may not be of any use to compare where I am to where you are. Every person deals with this in their own way, or doesn’t.

So here’s how I deal with it: I consider that most of my friends from college … and a good many of them from after college but connected with that college … and more friends since, from the ranks of the Drum Major Academy teaching staff … collectively form a community of friends that I treasure, and which has been assembled and nurtured by the presence, and the influence, and now the memory, of a remarkable college band director.

A month after that frightening weekend in 2010, of course, there was a rather loud and enthusiastic scene that illustrated the scope of that community: the Homecoming halftime featuring a performance by 925 band alumni. While the whole day (morning rehearsal, Mullins Center event, and every moment of the football game aside from halftime!) offered opportunities for friends to re-connect, the enormous scale of the day probably made conversations and reunions brief and basic.


For me, the day that began my journey from dumbfounded shock to that sense of being perhaps able to “move on” was during the weekend after The Weekend. Plans were developed, pretty swiftly, for Drum Major Academy staff past and present to gather in Amherst. Not everyone was able to get there, but I imagine we were pretty close to comprehensive – people came from all over the United States, and from a number of places outside the US, and oh, did we gather. That Saturday morning was spent communing, swapping stories, and laughing (a lot) at a diner near campus … and to this day I wonder what it was like to go to that diner, walk in, and unexpectedly find that herd of boisterous people there. At midday, we paid our collective respects to Mr. Parks at an informal graveside ceremony that was, by turns, solemn and humorous, wrenching and comforting. Late in the afternoon and well into the evening, we sat on the lawn next to Old Chapel, the longtime home of the Minuteman Marching Band – communing, swapping stories, and laughing. A lot.

Sitting near Chapel, I thought about how remarkable a collection of friends it was. When I saw all the photos from the day, posted on Facebook, I continued to think the same thing. When I chance to see any of the photos, even two years later, I still marvel at that assembly, that community of friends. As I briefly stood near Chapel this weekend, I looked down at the patch of lawn where we all had sat and shared precious time, and I could almost see all the people, on lawn chairs, on blankets, on the bare grass, all together. I expect that the way I feel about that day now … will be the way I feel about it until whenever I’m done here: “it was a wrenching and wonderful day that I would never ever want to go through again,” as I wrote to a great friend of mine, “–except oh yes I would.”  With those people, those friends?  Sign me up.


Mr. Parks himself is gone, and regrettably so. His impact is lasting, and impressively so. The people he brought together – UMass band, DMA staff, and all the “extended family” that are linked to those people – are a community, and a lasting one. Thankfully so.

Everyone deals with this in their own way. I consider what monumentally great friends I’ve made, all because Mr. Parks got us all together. And I consider what my alternate-universe life might have been like, had he not. And I think I’m comfortable with dealing with it this way. Not a bad way to move forward – by building upon the work of the past.

A lifetime’s not too long…

September 16, 2012 Posted by | band, DMA, Facebook, GNP, marching band, social media, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment