Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Puzzlement

This isn’t about politics.

Well, it’s not about national, Presidential-level politics. At least not in spite of the first few paragraphs.

It’s a little bit about local politics, but perhaps not the way I’ve set you up to think.

It’s more about dilemmas.

It hasn’t been too often that I’ve stepped into my local voting booth and filled in the little circle for a candidate for President. Much more often, in my lifetime, in a general election, I’ve voted against someone I definitely didn’t want to be President.

It’s said that in primary elections, you fall in love (with a candidate) and you vote with your heart … and in general elections, you fall in line (with your party) and vote with your head, or at least with a bit more recognition that certain things just kinda happen; that things have been done the way things are done … that you’re participating in “politics as usual”.

And sometimes you come out feeling conflicted, and a bit at sea: I wish it were different than it is, but it is what it is, and for all kinds of reasons that aren’t always as pure as “I frickin’ love this candidate and what they stand for and I think they have my personal best interests at heart”.

You’re participating in democracy, as filtered through a party-oriented political system that is, we are forced to admit, almost hopelessly in thrall to money. Therefore you’re participating in a system prone to corruption, even while you are personally against corruption.

You’re often choosing a candidate that you perceive as the lesser of two evils; and you’re often feeling like you’re part of a political setup that is definitely the lesser of two good things.

The grownup, adult world is full of these dilemmas. There are folks who wish to see the world in strictly black-and-white terms; but, sadly, it’s much more grayscale. Takes more thought, more pondering, more head-scratching in the effort to try and see a solution, or a way out, or a way forward.

Which brings me to my alma mater.

Via the good offices of my college band’s alumni association, yesterday I became aware that the UMass Faculty Senate was to vote on a motion to recommend that University administration [1] downgrade UMass football to Division I-A status, or [2] eliminate it altogether. Their reasoning had to do with finances, as well as some other considerations. The motion was voted down, but not before it got me to thinking.

Setting aside for a moment the unlikelihood of the latter [1], within American culture – although my colleagues and I from Boston University in the late 1990s might offer a bit of perspective about killing football programs – and set-ting aside the attractiveness of the former proposal [2] … I will admit to being more than a bit conflicted.

Football has almost always caused me to at least raise an eyebrow. Long before former NFL players were putting it to the NFL that concussions were not just a roster-management nuisance to teams, but were in fact a health crisis generated by the very nature of the sport, I saw football as dangerous to the health of its participants, and let’s face it, a bizarre sport. Football has never been my idea of a great sport to play, myself – I’m pleased that my young nephew is all about baseball – and is assuredly not my favorite sport, period.

On the other hand, as regular readers of The Blogge will know … I did marching band for eight years in high school and college.

The original idea was that American scholastic bands marched because of football games. Then we invented band competitions, so we could have somewhere to perform wherein the spectators were entirely made up of people who cared at least a bit about marching music. But it’s the uncommon ensemble that is deprived of its football context and still thrives. Rarer still is the school marching band that never had a football team to root for, to begin with.

I’m sure that studies have been conducted to determine the adverse effect upon band recruitment of “no football games for your band to play at”, but I can’t quote any right off the top of my head. Do band people care much about that? Would it keep them from continuing to march? (Some of the college bands with whom I have worked have contained people who lived for the exhibitions at high-school band shows, and gritted their teeth all the way through football games. On the other hand, how many people join the Michigan Marching Band and don’t get a little worked up for games against the Spartans or Buckeyes?)

At the same time as I must acknowledge that cutting the football program at a major state university is unlikely … I must also acknowledge that Donald Trump as a major-party presidential nominee was considered most unlikely. So … Starred Thought: never assume anything.

For a brief moment, upon hearing about the vote (before it happened and ended up being a big Emily Litella “never mind!”), I had a Moment: –would the hypothetical axeing of UMass football lead to the end of my beloved Power and Class of New England? If so, at what pace? Via implosion, or erosion?

Now, not just because the motion did fail, but even if it had passed, non-binding as it was … and even if passage had meant something (which current University administration officials appeared to think was highly unlikely anyway!) … in the cold morning light … I’ve decided that I’m not losing sleep over this. (I *am* mixing metaphors like a one-armed bartender.) (And my similes are feeling similar pain, apparently. Sorry.)

After all, if the Boston University Terrier Marching Band could have its football team yanked out from under it (fall 1997; I was there) and still survive and thrive and get into movies and such … then surely the 380-member juggernaut from the Pioneer Valley (with a Sudler Trophy and a DCI-Hall-Of-Fame instructional staff and, dang it, a reputation) ought to be okay. Yes?

I think?

I’m already on record about the decision to move UMass football to Division I (or the BCS, or whatever the folks in charge are calling it). From the get-go, I felt it was among the more ill-considered, more pie-in-the-sky, more arrogant decisions my alma mater has ever made. No need to go into the reasoning behind that opinion, here, since all you have to do is click here and read.

From a strictly football point of view, I never felt there was either the existing interest or even the potentially-develop-able interest (from current students, from local alumni, from the general eastern-Massachusetts public) in supporting Your Alma Mater’s Football Team At Gillette Stadium Squaring Off Against the Mighty ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big-Whoop Famous Football Teams. And (as it became quickly clear) there was hardly a hope of attracting the kind of football talent necessary to keep UMass from being perennially “Your 2-and-10 Minutemen”. Let’s be honest: this is New England. We don’t have anything remotely like Alabama/Auburn – and, at least as importantly, we don’t have anything remotely like Texas high-school football. (Which for many reasons might be just fine, actually.)

Downgrading (or, as I prefer to think of it, returning) UMass to Division I-A would mean that football would be played in the cozy confines of McGuirk Stadium, not the cavernous one-sixteenth-full Kraft Family Canyon. And it would be enjoyed by the relatively small but loyal constituency of western-Massachusetts fans which has been propping up that little UMass football program for decades. It’d be shorter money (you don’t get a big payday from a major network for playing against the University of Maine) … but UMass would get much closer to breaking even. And the student section would be full of kids who actually would be able to roll out of bed at noon and walk down to the game, rather than having to hop a bus at Absurd O’Clock and kill an entire Saturday.

And the relationship between the band and its halftime and postgame audiences would be far less diluted by the physical distance from stands to front sideline. Which, at UMass, has always been a pretty big deal at least as far back as the first time George Parks perched on that narrow concrete rail at the base of the McGuirk home stands. At Gillette Stadium, when the band crashes the sideline, the audience is still in another zip code. At McGuirk, the band crashes the sideline and the audience can see individual band members’ smiles.

One big part of me agrees with the Faculty Senate (if not its tactics). Football is, at best, a double-edged sword – one that benefits greatly from the phrase about tradition that goes, “but we’ve always done it this way”. It often offers more long-term risk than long-term reward for its participants. From the standpoint of concussions alone, some commentators have advocated abolishing the sport altogether, and I grasp their passion on the subject, oh yes I do. And the Division I version of American college football opens its participating schools up to great sweeping plains of temptation and corruption and mistreatment of people and academic hypocrisy that would make a mud bath feel clean and pristine.

But another, equally large part of me knows that a fall Saturday afternoon at halftime is a great place for the Minuteman Marching Band to do its thing.

It is … a puzzlement.

April 29, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, football, marching band, politics, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not Wrong, Just Different -or- Shades

Faithful readers of this blog will already be aware that I’m kind of a UMass guy.

Four years in the marching band there, and pretty much the rest of my life rooting and writing for them.

Also a journalism degree. Also many lifelong friends.

Good place. Beautiful scenery. Amherst, the quintessential college town, looking largely the same as it did thirty-one years ago when I was a rookie tenor saxophonist just trying to find Orchard Hill.

(Except for a relatively colossal and totally out-of-place six-story office building that’s going up at the join of North Pleasant Street and Triangle Street, looking for all the world like a Borg cube just went all eminent-domain on a Norman Rockwell painting. Not that I have any feelings about that, no indeed. <*grrrr*>)

I’m a little attached to the joint.

So, just about twenty years ago this moment, I was stepping outside the ol’ comfort zone: starting work as the graduate assistant for a college marching band that was one of UMass’ direct competitors, at least as far as football conference rivalries went.

At least until the school disbanded its football team, the Boston University Terriers were a regular part of the UMass football schedule. The two bands saw each other annually. There’s even a painting, hung up in the lower level of UMass’ Campus Center, that purports to be a panoramic depiction of a home football game in Amherst, complete with the UMass band on the field … except that if you look closely, you can see that the band on the field is wearing the red blazers and white fedoras of the BU Band of the 1980s and 1990s. Whoopsie. Get me quality control, stat.

And the first few conversations that I had with BU band folks gave me the polite but distinct impression that they hadn’t always appreciated the UMass band strutting into the friendly confines of Nickerson Field in Boston, and using its relative size to seem like it was stomping all over the marching Terriers.

(Somewhat futilely, early that 1995 season, I gently suggested to my new BU colleagues that UMass didn’t really go places aiming to do terrible things to any other bands. Well, except maybe Harvard’s – which thanks to BU’s Beanpot tournament experiences was at least something we could bond over. Anyway, in New England, when your band is 250, or 300, or 350, it’s kind of an act of aggression just to step off your buses.)

My new boss at BU, band director Joe Wright, was a University of New Hampshire grad, so he had no particular dog in that fight, other than being kinda cheerily feisty about both schools. And happily, he also had (um) a sense of perspective. Before I was even officially on board as his able assistant, he had suggested to me that he felt it would be valuable to add my UMass experience to his staff.

If it was an olive branch, I was happy to grab hold of it. It seemed an oasis of “your UMassness is okay” in an ocean of New Boston University Things and Procedures and Surroundings.

 

Starred Thought: Do what works” was my philosophy as I prepared to run my first brass-and-woodwinds music sectional. I’d asked if there were particular exercises or activities that the BU winds had traditionally done. Joe had looked at me and said, “well, we don’t really have a music technique program per se, so … create something.”

When your band experience (at least on the brass and woodwind side) includes instruction by the drum major and arranger and brass caption head of the DCI world-champion Garfield Cadets (ya know … the guy who’s writing the shows for a little group called Carolina Crown, nowadays?) … you go back and ape everything you can possibly remember him doing.

And I did. Partly it was smart stuff, and had shown itself to work; and partly, in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, it was something I could latch onto for dear life until I got my feet under me.

(It came as a great relief when one of the band’s seniors … who had the opportunity to be the most territorial about “the way we’ve always done things” of all the undergrads present … quietly supposed, midway through band camp, that she really liked the things I was doing, especially all the work with breathing exercises. “I was chatting with my section and we were saying we’d never really gotten into that before, so that was cool.”)

But I tried my hardest not to talk a real lot about that group in Amherst, and not to identify what I was doing as all Minuteman-like. I think this was mostly out of respect for the fact that it was a new situation, and partly to keep my new friends from getting that look in their eye again. We would like to keep these new friends, period, please and thank you.

 

August turned into September, and I seemed to be keeping enough friends to get by, and mysteriously, the Commonwealth Armory was feeling more and more like home. It wasn’t UMass’ Old Chapel, but it probably had a comparable amount of history. It was a huge brick building with not much else in it but space for a whole football field, and it was where we … ahhh, the BU Band was starting to be “we”! … stored our stuff and rehearsed our show.

[A brief aside: yes, the BU Band rehearsed inside a brick building. You may rightly ask, how can anyone rehearse marching band shows inside an echo chamber like that? It’s a good question. When I would conduct a long tone in a wind sectional, the echo that followed the release of the note lasted a complete seven seconds. The answer to your question: … you get used to it. And I did.]

[It’s amazing how clean and clear the sound is when you get out there, across the street from the Armory, in the open air at Nickerson Field, for halftime, though.]

Something that struck me early on … and which I did adapt to … but which I still noted … was the contrast between how they do things here, compared with how they do things there. Many of the BU marching commands and terminology were very similar to what was used at UMass. Some were assuredly not. It was my job to figure out the differences and not screw them up.

At UMass, we went to the ready. At BU, we went to stand-by. At UMass, it was “left turn harch!” At BU, it was “four-count-turn-to-the-right… one, two, ready, move.” (I had my own thoughts about that, but we didn’t have many of those commands in the actual show, or in many parades, anyway.)

And while UMass’ PA guy, Jim MacRostie, was all stentorian bombast and kept 99 percent of the time to the written script … the BU band’s announcer, Scott Monty, was clearly influenced by the free-wheeling irreverence of Ivy League band narrations, and honest to Heaven, we had NO idea what silly and sometimes borderline-inappropriate jokes he was going to deliver next, while introducing the band at halftime.

It was a good lesson. In Amherst, they do it this way, and it works. On Commonwealth Avenue, they do it slightly (or very) differently … and yes, it works.

Every so often, I would gently soft-pedal a possible adjustment to how we did what we did … and as the season went on, I would even occasionally whisper, “tiny UMass tactic which might help clarify this” … and folks started to get the idea that I wasn’t really trying to create “little UMass” on the Charles.

 

Once, in late September of that first BU semester, we were running a music rehearsal session that focused on our rather sizable folder of stands music. The BU band stands book was actually two overstuffed marching folios (per musician) full of tunes. If you were a BU bando, you put one of them on your lyre, and you put the other one next to you on the stadium bench. I quickly discovered that the reason they had that many tunes available is because it made life better at hockey games – wherein you play eight bars of a tune, the puck drops, and you stop playing and immediately get a different song ready. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It was a dizzying thing to catch up with … especially since the focus of the UMass marching establishment, at least when I marched, was always almost completely on the halftime field show. In Amherst, in the stands it was usually trombones barking out John Williams’ “Superman” fanfare, or the trumpets wailing out a charge that either came from Temple University or West Chester University (I was never sure which), or everybody dancing to the “go-fight-win” cowbell cheer. And that was about it.

So my band director boss Joe stopped the rehearsal, looked over at me, grinned, and said, “at the risk of ‘dissing’ my able assistant here … in the stands, we did a whole lot better than the University of Massachusetts last year.”

I’m pretty sure a number of the BU bandos were waiting to see how I’d react to that.

What can I say? The truth will set you free. I smiled, and said, “no, you’re probably right about that.” And he smiled. And they smiled. And we went about our business. And nobody came to console me afterward, possibly because I didn’t need consoling. Hmm. Three weeks into the BU life, and I’m feeling comfortable, even though instead of maroon, I’m wearing scarlet.

Ooo. How ’bout that. Two shades of red. Different, but related. Didn’t see THAT comin’, did you?

Yeah, neither did I, until that September.

 

Previously, in this space, I’ve described “because we’ve always done it this way” as one of my least favorite phrases. Again, lesson learned: the first way you learn to do something is always going to be your default. But there are alternative ways of doing it which, as it turns out, can work well too.

And, in the best of situations, the new ways that work perfectly well … can also help you understand why the old ways work so well.

Wouldn’t trade that experience with the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue for anything. Go Terriers.

And, as well, go Minutemen.

September 20, 2015 Posted by | band, BUMB, marching band, music, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are You Kidding?

Another week, another free-associating flashback to an ancient memory.

I read a brief post on the local social media engine this afternoon that referenced the Vince Lombardi rest stop, toward the very northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike. For most people, this location is at best a place to remedy the difficulties of a long highway journey – gotta go, gotta eat. For most people, this location is assuredly not a garden spot, in spite of it being located in the Garden State. For most people, this location is best experienced by utilizing, as one of my favorite teachers once said, “the ol’ git-in and git-out deal.”

But if you’re a college band person, and your band ever traveled between New England and the lower Mid-Atlantic, this joint may be the location of one or more of your favorite memories. Or at the very least, when you drive past at 70 miles an hour, you still look over at it and smile a little.

In my case, not a memory I would like to experience again, necessarily; but as with so many things in life … it’s amusing now.

 

The graduate assistant of the Boston University band (your humble correspondent) stepped up into the cab of the band’s equipment truck. It was the biggest truck which I was licensed to drive, and easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been in charge of, then or since. I was up high! and in control!

The second annual Allentown college band show was finished, and so was our weekend trip, which had taken us from Boston to Bridgewater State College (a brief appearance at their football halftime) to the University of Delaware (this was when BU had a football team to put on the field against UD), to Allentown, PA, to participate in a Sunday afternoon of college marching band performances.

That late-September afternoon was yielding to early evening, and the sun was still shining, but not far above the horizon. The two BU buses pulled away from J. Birney Crum Stadium and headed for whatever interstate gets you from Allentown to 95, and after all these years I am still not clear about which one that is. Therefore, I attached my truck (figuratively) to the back bumper of the second bus and worked hard not to lose it amidst the considerable Sunday-afternoon end-of-weekend traffic.

It seemed to be getting darker. And darker. And darker. Yes, the sun was going down, and it was that wonderful twilight during which it is a trial to drive sometimes; but it seemed comparatively very dark considering my headlights were on.

Weren’t they?

I tugged on the lever that controlled the truck’s headlights, and in an instant I knew what the rest of the trip was going to be like. The high-beams came on. I let go of the lever, and the high-beams went off. And the regular headlights did not come on. Either of them. And now it seemed rather exceptionally dark.

In order to see properly, I had to pull the high-beam lever back and hold it there. All the way to I-95, and the Jersey Turnpike. And all the way up the Turnpike. Not complaining; you do what ya gotta do. Mister Pollyanna here declared that it was great that the high-beams were both working very well.

I flashed the high-beams off-on, off-on, at the second bus, trying to get the driver’s attention. The lead bus was pulling away at a fully ridiculous rate of speed. Throughout the weekend I had gotten the impression that the two bus drivers didn’t get on as well as they could have, and it had been curious to watch Driver One pull lane-changing maneuvers seemingly in such a way that Driver Two had to work extra hard to match those lane changes without wiping out cars while trying. I knew that my not-quite-late-model truck had zero chance of catching up to Driver One … but somehow, without words (and at the time, without cellphones or any other means of electronic communication), I successfully suggested that Driver Two had better not kick in the warp drive and leave me out there too. Happily, he didn’t. We formed a pathetic little convoy, the smallest convoy you can make without being a single vehicle. Bus changes lanes? Truck changes lanes. Bus changes lanes again? Truck changes lanes again. Don’t ask why. Just do. I probably looked like a little kid trooping around after a high school football player he idolized.

After either ninety minutes or a thousand years of driving, I saw Driver Two get in the exit lane that would take us to the mighty Vince Lombardi service area, and I gave out with a tiny little “…yay…” Idly, I had wondered if there was a plan, or whether all the BU vehicles were free agents now.

By this time, I had catalogued most of the possible ways to describe this experience that could possibly avoid dropping F-bombs, but was running dangerously low on ideas. Mister Pollyanna had (he now is forced to admit) become more of a Bill Cosby “foul filth and your filthin’ foul” expresser of notions. I will smack the truck rental guy across the nose, lousy pre-trip alleged maintenance check, amateur-hour operation, grouse grouse grouse.

We pulled into the Vince parking lot, cozied up to where Bus One was parked (and had been for some time), and shut our engines off. I shook my left hand vigorously to see if blood wanted to renew its membership. Keys out of the ignition, don’t have to shut the lights off!!! … and I stumbled down out of the cab. I followed the stream of BU band members from Bus Two through the rear entrance of the Vince rest stop building, and found a fast-food vendor line to join. I stood right behind Driver Two. Driver One walked over to his colleague, looked at him, looked at me, and cheerfully said words I shall never ever forget. They may ring in my ears until I join the bleedin’ choir invisible.

Well! I think it’s goin’ pretty well, don’t you?”

Your mild-mannered correspondent did consider, over the course of a long split-second, what his best response might be. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take advantage of that perfect opportunity, to righteously unload on someone who surely had it coming.

Sadly, I’m still wondering.

Instead … I looked at Driver One, then at Driver Two, then back at Driver One, and executed a maneuver that I have watched a very dear colleague of mine use to great effect on several occasions. I closed my eyes very slowly … carried out a textbook about-face … opened my eyes … and Slowly. Walked. Away.

March 7, 2014 Posted by | band, BUMB, marching band, social media, travel | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment