Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain -or- Your Pledge Dollars At Work

[Ed. Note: Here’s a piece that will probably run this week in The Chronicle, the weekly electronic newsletter of the church at which I gig.]


File this somewhere under ‘Behind the Scenes’, and cc: it to ‘Your Pledge Dollars at Work’…

Last month, I helped represent SUMC musicians at a pair of workshops offered by the local chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association. (‘Your Pledge Dollars at Work’: there were tiny fees attached to them – and there’s a ‘staff professional development’ line-item in our church budget for this sort of event. This line-item exists in no other church budget that I know of. And whenever I’ve utilized this money, it’s translated into noticeable improvements in how the choir does its thing, here.)

The second session, ‘Music and Worship for Today’s Church’, was more helpful for choir directors than for choir members: it mainly dealt with repertoire selection and worship-service planning. It seems there are quite a lot of music ministry staff members out there who are allowed to select hymns for their Sunday worship services.

Honestly, when I grasped that, I had a jaw-drop moment. Because I have an idea of how hard it is to draw up the game plan for one Sunday morning, let alone all of them. Certainly, I could crack open the hymnal, pick my favorite hymns, plug them into the three hymn slots, and be happy. But around here, it’s not that easy, and for very good reason.

Sometimes it hits you over the head; sometimes you may not be as aware of the themes that permeate SUMC’s Sunday mornings. But every week, there’s a focus – a program of the church like Social Justice or Outreach, for example, or a larger idea like ‘hope’ or ‘responsibility’ or, as was the case this week, our ambitious and exciting ‘Pave the Way’ capital campaign. And everything – hymns, sermon, prayer content, even the children’s message – everything addresses that somehow.

You might be right in thinking that this makes planning a service easier. At least it narrows down one’s wide range of choices of material to use. And that includes the choir’s anthems.

Pastor Joel is the only senior pastor I’ve ever worked with (and Kevin and I have now worked with a bunch of ’em) who sends us ‘bulletin forecasts’ ahead of time, usually three to four weeks ahead of any given Sunday. When we get them, we get some idea of what specific readings, prayers, and preaching will be utilized – and from this, we can determine what anthems will complement the message of the day. So in order to accomplish this forecast, Pastor Joel needs to get his game plan together at least a month early. And he does, regularly.

Lest you thought perhaps a pastor only works on Sundays! It’s NOT true. In our case, we’re more than getting our Pledge Dollars’ worth. Unfortunately, sometimes, to appreciate someone’s skill-set, you have to be a little bit ‘on the inside’ to have the proper perspective. I’m pleased to be in position to see what needs to happen Behind The Scenes, in order that people can walk out of church on Sunday morning feeling ‘spiritually fed’.

And on the rare occasions when someone asked me, ‘why’d you choose that hymn?’, and I tell them to send their cards and letters to the tall guy in the corner office … I’m not passing the buck, and I’m not deflecting their question gleefully. I’m referring them to the gentleman who’s doing a ton of work on their behalf.

Anyway, I just thought I’d relay this thought or two. Any questions? Feel free to run up to the Chancel after service and ask!”


October 26, 2015 Posted by | choir, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


The slight delay in blog posting hereabouts has had mostly to do with my month of July, which featured a whole lot of travel, at least half of which had to do with professional development.

First: to New Hampshire, for the New England Band Directors Institute, a three-day affair in which band directors from New England (and elsewhere) gather – with instruments – to attend workshops, to read new band literature, to be conducted by one or more massively influential band conductors, and to have our attitudes (unofficially) adjusted. We’re a relatively small group – people who are pretty passionate about a topic that maybe not a lot of other people may quite understand. If you’ve seen the movies “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Drumline”, at least in my opinion, you still might not understand it.

Then: to Gordon College, for a similar gathering of choral directors from Massachusetts. Same idea; same level of “the rest of the world may not quite embrace this subject nearly as tightly as we do”! Off the top of my head I can’t come up with any movies that have been made about choir directors, either. “The Choir”, maybe.

Then to the mid-Atlantic, for some professional development wrapped up in a vacation: my annual pilgrimage to the American Shakespeare Center, in Staunton, VA. Tucked away in the mountains of Virginia, this little theater is modeled after the one in which William Shakespeare his own self put on his, um, skits. And it’s populated by some really fine actors. This year I saw “Hamlet”, which is perhaps a bit less light than the plays I’d seen there previously – “Much Ado About Nothing” (in which the ASC made me forget Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington and Kate Beckinsale, and instead remember Sarah Fallon and Rene Thornton, Jr.), and “The Taming of the Shrew”. With all due respect: Shakespeare enthusiasts are passionate but they don’t usually get nearly the attention that Tom Cruise and things blowing up do, on the big screen. Sometimes for good reason: the English Department professor who taught the Shakespearean Lit course that I took during my sophomore year at UMass seemed just plain deranged sometimes – in his view, every single element of a Shakespearean play represented some sort of sexual imagery. (Sometimes, Doc, “the dagger I see before me, the handle towards my hand” is just a dagger!) Anyway, if you tell the average American someone that you adore “Twelfth Night”, they may wonder if you mean some sort of winter holiday celebration.

Most recently: my annual two-week total-immersion course in the art of the drum major, courtesy of the West Chester, PA and UMass-Amherst versions of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. Now, talk about a gathering of rather passionate and relatively not-understood people: not only are they what the media would condescendingly call “band geeks”, but these young people will be their bands’ “head band geeks”! And they’ll be taught by people who have made band directing, and also drum major instruction, a large and important part of their lives. A documentary about this activity may not guarantee a major TV network knockout ratings, exactly.

But for 13 summers, I’ve participated in what is, for me, arguably the most professionally and personally enjoyable fortnight of the year. Until this year, I got to work for George N. Parks, who may not have been well-known outside the marching music industry, but inside of it he was the top dog. How lucky I was, for 12 years, to be able to look over and say, “hey, Mr. Parks, how do?” while most of the students and other participants in the West Chester and UMass clinics would see him coming and whisper, “–that’s George Parks!” with a certain amount of hero worship audible in those whispers. He was a genuine Hall-of-Famer, after all. And following his passing this past year, the DMA company took a deep breath, gathered itself and continued on; and during my two weeks of immersion this summer, I got to watch another master teacher, Heidi Sarver, gather up the reins and lead students – and staff – through this experience.

More than once, we DMA staff members have watched the kids go from being slightly bewildered new DMA students to being truly passionate student leaders, and we’ve heard their explosive cheering and nearly-foaming-at-the-mouth reactions to the goings-on, led by Mr. Parks … and we’ve quietly remarked, “it’s a good thing they’re on the good side of the Force.” To an outsider, the exhortations of the staff and the responses of the kids could easily seem right on the edge of, or maybe further into the realm of, a cult. No one is speaking in tongues, mind you; but when 300 or 400 high school students suddenly bellow “Together! In! Out! Frozen! Up! With Pride! With Pride!” and the listener has no idea what any of it means, I can imagine that it can make for some nervous wondering.

(The kids are just describing how various body parts are, in the attention position, but it may not be totally obvious.)


It’s occurred to me that I actually belong to a number of groups that fit this description: they … WE … are passionate about a particular topic; we commit a great deal of our personal time to it; we don’t always understand why the outside world doesn’t also treasure that topic; and we get a little miffed when the outside world says things like, “…I don’t get it. It’s weird.”

I will of course list these.

[] Marching band. (As is partly chronicled above; as is surely chronicled in most of the posts in this blog since last September.) This is an activity that can create marvelous sounds and images; and, taught right, it can yield philosophies for life and strategies for dealing with people and events that can be used in a lifelong way. (“Band is a place for everyone.”) Or … it can be the silliest-looking thing on planet Earth. As my DMA colleague Jamie Weaver once said to a roomful of student leaders, “let’s be honest, gang, we’re running around a field playing instruments that shouldn’t be outside, waving flags, and wearing chickens on our heads.”

[] Musical theater. For the love of heaven, please let’s set aside the stereotypes about theater people and their particular orientations. Statistically speaking, most activities in the world feature one person out of every ten who’s not facing the same way as the other nine, and does that excuse abusive behavior? Sorry, no. … Anyway, musical theater: done right, it gives young people the chance to discover the fun of performance, in an environment where they don’t have to decide it’s what they want to do forever, but could! Done wrong, it sounds like the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” activity where two actors play a scene in different styles suggested by the audience: when someone calls out “community theater!”, the actors get stilted and awful and break character and giggle.

[] Curling. An intriguing sport that I don’t play, I just watch, probably for lack of opportunity – and the fact that if I crouch down to play catcher in baseball, at least I’m using two feet; if I go to launch the curling rock and have to slide along the ice, I’m quickly going from one foot to one backside and an elbow, and zero dignity. It’s a sport, but it doesn’t look like the four major spectator sports at all, and I certainly understand why other people might look at someone standing on a sheet of ice with a little broom in their hand and might cry out, as commentator Charlie Pierce has done, “…SPORTS?!!!?”

[] Left-leaning politics. Thanks to my upbringing and my observations during the later years of my public and collegiate education, I see certain issues certain ways. I have to work really hard to read right-leaning political essays and comprehend how anybody could view the same issues in such a different light. (My suspicion, based on some recent historical non-fiction that I’ve read, is that the radical, reactionary right-wing politics currently in vogue are only distantly related to the beliefs put forth as “classic” Republican platform planks.) That said, I have a few friends and colleagues who are Republicans and occasionally they’ve said things and I’ve seen their points. I like those people because sometimes they’re mystified by my politics but we’re still friends anyhow.

[] Star Trek. Enough said. … Although I will say this: in fourth grade, I wore a Captain Kirk shirt on school picture day. I do not do the equivalent thing now. I went to one Trek convention, in Boston in 1992, mainly because it featured Patrick Stewart as the keynote speaker and I’d go to the ends of the earth to listen to that guy improv for an hour. (On the subway, heading into Boston, I sat next to a family of four, also going to the convention … and Mom, Dad, Jimmy and Jane all wore full Starfleet uniforms. I decided it was okay for them and that I was okay where I was.)

So, once in a while you bump into a group of people, enthusiasts regarding a particular topic, who are so passionate that it blinds them to the possibilities that [1] their activity may not be the best thing since sliced bread, and that [2] other people who “don’t get it” should be allowed to “not get it” and not take abuse for it.

For example, I’m a big ol’ fan of “A Prairie Home Companion”, which may be the only remaining weekly variety show left on American radio. Every week, as my dad would have said, “I have my folksy humor batteries fully charged”. Late in the two-hour show, Garrison Keillor largely improvises a twenty-minute monologue purporting to chronicle the recent week’s current events in “the little town that time forgot”, Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average – and where all the characters are right on the edge of being stereotypical homespun, myopic and faintly backward Midwesterners. I have heard more marvelous parables acted out by these characters than I can count. The musicians on the program are some of the finest in America. The writing is superb. But plenty of Midwesterners, Lutherans and others have mistaken Keillor’s works for mockery. For every 99 Keillor admirers, there’s one listener that doesn’t get the joke, or doesn’t get that sometimes all it is is a gentle joke.

This summer, I read a book by the marvelous writer Sarah Vowell, called “Radio On”. It’s a diary of a year of listening to the radio. Vowell doesn’t just listen to one station in one city; she listens wherever she goes, to many different stations with different formats, and makes some very astute comments about sounds coming out of her radio and about large issues as illuminated by those sounds. Some of her comments rake NPR over the coals, but manage to avoid whitewashing NPR and its listeners as snooty elitists, while still making some good points about ways in which NPR could probably lighten up a bit. In a couple of chapters, Vowell dumps on Garrison Keillor pretty firmly. I happen not to share her disdain. She may be a little too acerbic and sharp-tongued and smart-ass by nature (which generally works for her) to appreciate Keillor’s act; but I wouldn’t begrudge her the opportunity to be so. I happen to like “Prairie Home” for a lot of reasons besides his observations about humans via his mythical little town, and I wish someone could explain it to Ms. Vowell in a way that would break through her deflectors (hello!; Star Trek nerd reference!) and help her understand what he’s going for. But I get why she and other people might not “get it.”


In my first job out of college, I worked in the light-manufacturing department of a biotechnology company. I often would assemble thousands of little plastic pieces, or do equally repetitive things, in a given week. For about three weeks that winter, I was (figuratively, and sort of literally) pinned behind my drill press while another manufacturing department member tried doggedly to get me to join his church. By the time those three weeks had become three weeks, it was borderline harassment. I finally whispered to my department supervisor that if Jacques (not his real name) said one more word to me about how great my life would become if I joined the Houston Church of Christ (not its real name; a singular organization not affiliated with the more well-known Church of Christ denomination) and about why the church I did attend was just not sufficient to ensure my ascent into Heaven at the end of this earthly life … then I was going to march straight into the office of the president of this 40-member company and take up his valuable time asking him to supervise the removal this yahoo from my life.

Astonishing how easy it is to stumble into situations where, inadvertantly, you can poke a nest with a stick – and run afoul of a swarm of True Believers.

So I try to forgive people for not understanding the meaning of “Starred Thoughts™”, or for not agreeing that Jean-Luc Picard became a better starship captain right around the beginning of season three, or for rooting for the Canadiens over the Bruins, or vice-versa. And I hope we can convince more people, someday soon, that if they do accidentally poke the bear, they should at least be left alive – figuratively, literally, whichever. Because if some of the people who populate our nation’s capitol have inadvertantly taught us anything in the past few weeks, it’s this:

A little perspective can only be helpful.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | band, blogging, DMA, drum major, education, entertainment, GNP, government, humor, Internet, literature, marching band, media, music, news, npr, politics, radio, science fiction, sports, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment