Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Take a Cup of Kindness -or- 2018, Your Performance Review is Today

Because I marinate in politics (news roundups, editorials, podcasts, the shootin’ works), I could very easily think that 2018 had been a ridiculous, corrupt, are-we-in-the-Matrix-or-something?, disaster of a year.

But if I just look over this way … perhaps a different story.

[] This year, my church gig is full (to overflowing) of interested and available brass and woodwind and string and guitarhead folks … not to mention a choir that became increasingly affable and chuckly as 2018 progressed. Not to be taken for granted.

[] This year, my work situation … well, let’s just say: not long after the date of the company holiday party was announced, more than one person asked me, “so, is your Mom coming to the party again this year?” — genuinely, without a shred of snark. Not to be taken for granted.

[] This year, in both of the aforementioned arenas, I work for grand and decent (manager-type) people. NOT to be taken for granted.

[] This year, I celebrated my 20th summer of (1) helping to make some quality children’s theatre happen, and (2) helping to teach drum majors how to flap their arms and such. In both cases, I feel like I’ve received far more benefit than I’ve offered. Great times had, great friends made. In a world where nothing lasts forever, these are a couple of activities which I’m starting to mindfully NOT take for granted, in the moments when I’m participating in them.

[] This year, two of the college marching bands with whom I am pleased to be associated in some way made themselves a big ol’ splash in Major Holiday Parades On Live Television this past year. One was celebrating Roses, and the other was celebrating … well, Deep-Frozen Philly Cheese Steak, I suppose.

[] This year, the good people who host my professional website and my blog have not closed either operation down for utter embarrassing lack of activity, even though they definitely should have. (At least the blog don’t cost money!)

[] This year, the house has not sprung a leak. The car has not pooped out. NOT to be taken for granted.

[] I have grand and glorious friends, both newly-made and lifelong. My social media feed is the sort that more people ought to have … calm, cool, collected, and thoughtful. (I do need to see more of them live and in-person, though. So, a New Year’s Resolution.)

[] Number One Niece and Nephew continue to become the kind of people who make a fella thrilled to be the Uncle. Talented, hard-working, smaht … and very, VERY funny.

[] Number One Sister remains the kind of sister you want to have. And I’m one of the lucky folks in the world who thinks that Number One Brother-in-Law is indeed Number One.

[] Mom’s still making a very strong case for Most Agile Octogenarian, and still has not only all her marbles but a few other people’s as well.

[] Oh, and a couple of projects began to develop this year that I will talk about some other time, when it’s appropriate. Vaguebooking is alive and well.

So, at least within my little echo-chamber-y bubble: this year, plenty good stuff, after all.

I do freely admit that as a straight white male, my in-built privilege makes it that much easier to think that life is that much easier. I may well be the last demographic that they come for.

Outside my bubble, there’s still a huge amount of work to do, before life is made that much easier for a great many people in the world. So … time to go get after it in 2019.

But worthwhile to recognize what’s going well, and try to amplify it. Hope you can say some version of the same, in this clearly insane world.

As the good Col. Potter said: “Here’s to the new year. May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”

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January 1, 2019 Posted by | current events | , , , | Leave a comment

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

Lift Up … Up Up Up Up Up.

[Ed. Note: The day before yesterday, a good friend posted an wonderful article on her blog. At the time, with smile, I declared that she’d stolen my thunder, but good. I’d written the post that follows below earlier this past week … although actually most of it was written quite a while ago. Our approach angles to our shared topic differed somewhat … but I sense that we manage to make the same point. You can be the judge.]

 
For me and for many of my friends and acquaintances, mid-September will always be a time for nostalgia, and remembrance, and some level of sadness; also a time for dredging up marvelous memories. You may be aware that it was three years ago this week that the band world lost a titan, and also a remarkable human being.

The immediate sting may have faded (or maybe it hasn’t), but I expect that the ache will last for a very, very long time. That’s how much of an impact(!!) George Parks had on UMass band alumni, Drum Major Academy staff and students, and legions of other people as well.

One year after, my own commemoration here was unabashedly intense. Two years after, I was perhaps overly fixated on whether it was more appropriate to have tried to “move on”, or more appropriate not to have done so.

This year, I hope to commit far less philosophical navel-gazing … although the way I accomplish this may not immediately strike you as less of it. Here are three short stories that may offer some idea about just why George Parks impressed the hell out of me.

 

Story One (Year One):

At the end of his first full week of college marching band rehearsals, a scrawny, red-headed freshman decided to follow his parents’ advice, and thank people when appropriate. So, that freshman put away his saxophone, approached his new band director, waited patiently for him to finish another conversation … and then delivered a brief appreciation of the thrill of being in a huge 229-member band full of people who all loved band and who had a truly inspiring leader.

When his new band director turned to face him, though, a pair of blue eyes bored into the freshman’s skull, and caused a near-catastrophic loss of higher-order thinking skills.

The freshman still doesn’t remember exactly what he said to his new band director, but he does know that it’s just as well. Doubtless he’d be even more mortified than he already is, if he possessed eidetic memory, and therefore could replay the precise lameness of the moment over and over, whenever he wanted to, and more often when he didn’t. One thing he does remember is that near the end of his tortured paragraph, he said something very much like, “I even think I’m a little afraid of you.”

*oi*

*face-palm*

Another thing he remembers clearly: the head twirler and one of the drum majors, standing a few yards away, executing a faintly-amused, faintly-embarrassed, faintly-empathetic turning-away maneuver when they heard the freshman’s well-planned speech skid off the road into the ditch, devolving into fanboy babble. (And the term fanboy hadn’t even been invented yet, at that moment in the fall of 1984. It might have been invented in that moment.)

The first weekend of the season came and went; and with it, the first home game. Possessed of the confidence that is naturally acquired after stepping onto the turf of a college football stadium and still being able to remember one’s own name – not once in an afternoon, but twice – the freshman found an opportunity to make good … or at least gain ground on dignity.

The Monday afternoon after the first home game, the freshman sat inside Old Chapel, the band’s own building, on the third step of the staircase that led from the front foyer to the second floor (and its band staff offices). He looked up from whatever textbook he was reading as the front door opened and his new band director entered Old Chapel. The freshman called out, “Say, Mr. Parks…”

Well hi there.” Without a trace of condescension, nary an eye roll.

About what I said Friday afternoon … sorry, that was weird at the end. I think, honestly, what I meant to say was something along the lines of ‘put the fear of God into me’.”

And, bless his soul, the band director looked at his rookie band member, chuckled gently, and said, “Heh. No, no. … That job’s already taken.”

And bounded up the stairs to his office, two at a time. Or maybe five; the freshman still isn’t sure. But he was going to be able to go to rehearsal later that day and look his band director in the eye.

Starred Thought®: Go out of your way to treat people kindly.

 

Story Two (about two decades later):

My sister told me this story awhile back. One year, when the extended Hammerton clan made the trip to UMass for the Homecoming Alumni Band event (and the accompanying football game, of course), my niece was three years old, just old enough to have some conscious idea that this was a Big Band! that made Big Sounds! and wore Exciting Uniforms! and made Big Shapes on the Big Field! And Mom used to be in it! So of course, while Mr. Parks was visiting with various clumps of band alumni during the third quarter, he took some time to say hello to my sister’s bouncy toddler.

Somewhere during their conversation, my niece made it clear that her favorite song was “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”. Some band directors might have smiled dimly, told her how exciting that was, and moved on to the next topic, and the next alum, and the next stands tune. Mr. Parks, though, jumped up and ran away – no no!, only to return moments later with a member of the band’s trumpet section, who proceeded to play “I’ve Been Workin’ On the Railroad” just for my niece.

Think maybe that made my niece’s day? Her whole month?

Guess what school activity my niece is taking part in nowadays, in middle school? … Or do you really have to guess?

Starred Thought®: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

 

Story Three (not that long ago, really):

Some time ago, I experienced a moment of professional crisis. I’d been a music teacher for a decade, and was feeling like the high school program I was leading – small as it was – was finding success, playing good music, rocking our home basketball games, and turning out some high school music alumni who were truly quality human beings – people whose college and “real-world” successes I genuinely admired. Without getting into detail, since that water has long since gone under that bridge … my school system’s leadership decided that I ought not be teaching in that area of the school system any more.

I was hurt. I felt the urge to defend myself, but I also felt that I’d been put in a position where defending myself with the appropriate vigor might be its own form of professional death wish. I was professionally offended. I disagreed not only with the decision, but with the way it was made, and with the educational philosophy (or possibly lack of) that drove it. I swerved wildly between wanting to lash out … wanting to find a way to “show ’em the error of their ways” … wanting to find another town in which to teach high school kids music … and maybe wanting to find another line of work – expensive graduate degree or no.

A month or so later, I began my tenth summer as a Drum Major Academy staff member, first in Pennsylvania and then at UMass. On the first Pennsylvania evening, after the students had been sent to the dorms, the staff gathered in the hotel bar, chatting and laughing and being as silly as we could not be in front of the kids. Mr. Parks drifted into my region of the room, asked how life was going (as he always did) … and I gave him the short but punchy answer. To his credit, he didn’t look for the emergency exit. “Hmmmmm,” he mused. “That’s rough.” I smiled, and said, “well … we’re young. We’ll adjust.” He smiled briefly, and the conversation turned to other things and joined other people’s. I didn’t think of it again, for the rest of the week.

More than a week later, before one of the UMass morning sessions began, as I stood on our “field” (one of UMass’ satellite parking lots), Mr. Parks walked by. “Morning, sir!” I said, a good deal less sheepishly than I (…sorry, than that freshman) had done, more than two decades before.

Rob. Let’s take a walk?” It really wasn’t a question, and I was happy to answer that non-question. We strolled away from where the rest of the staff was gathering.

So. Tell me about this thing again?” Interesting. He’d probably been thinking about “this thing” … turning it over in his mind … even while he had arguably much more important things to attend to. Y’know, like running the leadership clinic that bore his name?

Endeavoring to be a professional grownup, I described my year-end brush with office politics in broad strokes. “Hmmmmm,” he said again, and then said some things that could be summed up as, “that’s rough,” but in a more detailed way. And then he stopped walking. “You know what I’m thinking, though?”

(A whole lot of answers occurred to me and I voiced not a one of them. Do I know what you’re thinking? I was the drum major who forgot the drums, remember.)

He gave me a small, crooked smile. “You should teach kids. It’s what you do well.”

He didn’t say where. He didn’t say what age. He left me to fill in the crucial blanks.

When life gives you lemons, you get to choose either to make lemonade, or to throw the lemons in the direction whence they came. But as he walked away, I recalled that he always told his DMA students, “don’t quit. Do. Not. Quit.”

Starred Thought®: To become a great teacher: 1. get a response, 2. care.

 

Every human is just that … human. Nobody’s perfect. Every human has flaws. But it’s meet and right also to firmly emphasize whatever virtues reveal a human for the good person he or she is.

In this case, I’m thinking of Mr. Parks’ capacity to hold other people up; to lift them up; to prop them up when necessary. His friend Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser says to leadership workshop audiences, “how can you possibly lift anyone else up if you can’t lift yourself up first?” Having never been inside George Parks’ head, I can’t speak to that very private part of him. But I can remember, and happily shine a spotlight on, his grand ability to lift people up – in public or in private, any old time. An ability worth emulating, I should think.

And I suspect I’m not alone in this.

September 15, 2013 Posted by | GNP, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment