Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Sixteen: They Can’t Take That Away From Me

I marched with UMass in the late 1980s, and I saw a gentleman clearly having a ball doing his job.

I assisted with Boston University’s marching band in the mid-1990s, and I watched another gentleman in his element: in the midst of a group of student musicians, teaching, leading, encouraging, holding feet to fire occasionally, with humor and wisdom.

Regular Blogge readers will already (likely) have read my various notes about my time writing for the Delaware band, and the dominant impression that their director leaves with anyone who has watched her interact with her charges for twenty-plus years now.

In some form or another, it is or was their dream job, certainly in that moment. Nowhere else I’d rather be, etc.

Part of my answer to the question, “what’s your dream job?”, is rooted in my observations of those folks.

Yep. My dream job: directing a college band.

Actually, to really fully answer that, I would have to say, “directing a college band which is performing a field show full of music from Star Trek”, but I think I’ll refrain. I mean really.

One out of two ain’t bad. And I got to do it, for a time.

I have chronicled, in this space, the two-day road trip that I took with the College of the Holy Cross’ marching band, wherein they played nice with the University of Delaware band, and wherein I spent about thirty-six hours totally immersed in what I wanted to be doing.

In the late summer of 2002, the perfect storm occurred: a small college very near where I lived posted a job opening, for athletic-bands director. It was a college whose band I knew fairly well, since my alma mater and that school had played football regularly while I was a marcher. It would have been a ten-minute commute.

It was part-time – administratively VERY part-time – but that was okay. I applied, I interviewed, they liked me, they offered me the job. Spectacular.

And it was.

Ten years ago next month, I made (what was to that point) the hardest professional decision that was ever obvious: I gave that gig up.

Well, it was so part-time that it wasn’t possible to maintain my full-time public-school music teaching gig and do the Holy Cross job, each, at the level I would have liked to. And, since my full-time job was funding my house … the conclusion I reached was very sad, but very necessary.

I scheduled a meeting with whatever band members were still local, three weeks after classes had ended. They thought it was to talk about next year. In a sense, it was, but not exactly. And, to their enduring credit, when I described my decision to walk away from all this … they spent probably four seconds’ worth of jaw-drop, and then they immediately swung into “how do we move forward?” mode. As much as a band director’s ego could be massaged by an extended period of wailing and gnashing of teeth … much better to see a group of band members become, or continue to be, great leaders.

Starred Thought: “A Drum Major (leader) does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether s/he likes it or not.”

Starred Thought: “A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.”

Holy Cross was in good hands, no matter who my successor would be.

As I’ve said many times, at least I can say I did that job for four years, as well as I could; worked with spectacular people; had great experiences … and was in front of a college marching band full of people that worked hard, played hard, entertained people, and with whom I would have traveled anywhere.

I miss it. Thanks to Facebook and such, happily, I get to stay in touch with lots of the good people of Crusader Band Nation. So I get lots of opportunities to flash back to great memories and funny stories.

But I miss it.

But … I did it. And nothing can take that away.

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May 16, 2016 Posted by | band, blogging, BUMB, GNP, HCMB, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What, Me Worry?

I wasn’t worried when the bus lurched to one side, that fateful morning.

I was worried even before then.

This is a story of things that should have worried me, but didn’t. And a story of things that shouldn’t have worried me, but did.

There were more of the former than the latter, happily.

 

Some time during the 2004-05 school year, I got a phone message from my friend Heidi that said, approximately, “…Hey! Just got the football schedule for next year, and you’re on it. So. You comin’ down?”

At that moment, I was in my third year of directing the marching band at the College of the Holy Cross. Heidi was in her tenth year of directing the band at the University of Delaware.

At that moment, the Holy Cross band was a group of not quite forty absolutely sweet collegiate folks who were stalwart and sturdy marchers. At that moment, the Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band was a group of sweet college kids who were stalwart and sturdy, too; and they were also about ten times our size.

That might have worried some folks, but not me.

When I returned her call, my first question to Heidi was, “…do you know what a hell of a bad football game that’s gonna be?”

Delaware football was only about 15 months separated from its 2003 national championship win over Colgate University. Holy Cross played in the Patriot League, which long ago abandoned the silly idea of offering scholarship money for something like football. Perhaps you grasp the enormity of the challenge that faced the Crusaders?

Yeah, well,” she declared. “So should we schedule High School Band Night for that date? Get you a little more exposure.”

Hard to argue with that.

 

It wasn’t that the trip would have been lengthy. We had traveled to Bucknell University during that football season, and that took better than six hours on a bus. So.

It wasn’t the idea of our small-but-mighty band performing for lots of high school bands as well as the local home crowd. We’d had experience with that – the Bucknell game was their high-school band day, and after the trip was all over, I got a letter from Bucknell’s assistant athletic director, praising the band’s performance and good-natured spirit, and insisting that we were welcome to come back any time. So.

And the year before that, we’d gone out to UMass, to participate in their high-school band day, and that thing was full of just about 4,000 high school band kids, and Holy Cross wasn’t even the football opponent. So.

(Thanks to a number of happenings that day that were anywhere from inconvenient to too-sweaty to logistically-confusing to a-really-long-day, I took a bit of flak for the trip from some of my charges … but honestly I didn’t really factor those in. Partly because: look, kids, a Saturday football game when you’re in band is inconvenient, is sweaty, and takes up a whole day. And honestly, in spite of what it looked like from the field, surrounded by a sea of other band uniforms worn by people rather younger than you … hey gang, UMass has that Band Day organization thing down to a science, really. And didn’t you guys get a chance to perform at postgame, by your lonesomes, when all the kids were up in the stands and could see and hear you?, and didn’t they cheer loudly for you guys?, and wasn’t the UMass band on the sidelines the best audience you’ve ever had? Right. So suck it up, and ac-cen-tuate the positive.)

It wasn’t even the idea of yet another road trip. That was what Holy Cross did: made sure the band traveled to road football games. Because if there’s one thing HC alumni do really well, it’s show up at Holy Cross road football games. If the band isn’t there, they ask hard questions. I learned about this early – my first HC game was on the road at Harvard University, and given my experience of Harvard and being the visiting band there, I was a wee bit nervous. But there was this sea of purple in the visiting stands that cheered us before we played a single note, and I was properly enlightened. And quickly came to understand the value (and fun!) of being on the road in a purple jersey. So.

The band kids, of course, knew it long before I figured it out. And had a ton of fun, on the road, in enemy territory (except for the nearby alumni), chanting “HC! MB! HC! MB!” By the way, we don’t get intimidated easily, in case you missed it.

My HC higher-ups were all in favor of us going down to Delaware. Neither the team nor the band had ever been there, so … a whole new region of the country that would get to see us! But they were not super-in-favor of a double-overnight trip. We traveled a lot, and so we had to mind our budget, and two nights in a hotel would run into serious money.

 

So we created what I can only describe as the Itinerary from the Imagination of the Optimistic:

Load the bus Friday afternoon and drive into the night. Stay overnight Friday into Saturday morning at a hotel in southern New Jersey. Load the bus that morning and drive the rest of the way to Newark, Delaware. Play the game. Load the bus one more time, after the game, and drive straight home. Straightforward.

Did I mention that the game was a Saturday night game? Kickoff around 7 o’clock? So, load the buses after the postgame show, say, around 11, and get back to central Massachusetts as the sun was starting to come up.

That makes sense.

Actually, in the college world, it kinda does. Also, this being Holy Cross, quite a number of my band people were interested in getting to Mass on Sunday morning, rather than still being on the road home. And I had a church gig of my own. Which is where a bit of the insane part comes in (he said, selfishly, thinking of his own 8:45am Sunday-morning choir warmup); but y’know, it was going to be a great experience.

So I sold this trip hard. Straight from the top of the fall-2005 semester, I went full-court press on the kids. This late-September trip will be one of the absolute highlights of your marching life. The Delaware home crowd is 16,000 people who have been trained by their own band to cheer loudly even for the visiting bands. The Delaware band will replace UMass as the best audience you’ve ever seen – and you’ll go nuts for their show.

By the way, their band is about 380.

What?!

No,  they’re sweet people! They know how to play the game. My friend is their director; she’ll make sure they’re nice. They won’t eat you.

Three-eighty?!

Judge me, by my size, do you?” Do you guys play musically?

…Yeah.

Do you march well?

…Yeah.

Do you have a fun show?

We think so.

Do you trust me not to throw you to the lions?

…Well, in three years, you haven’t.

Right. Suck it up. You’ll be fine.

<*sniff*> O-okay.

 

We hit the road on time … got to the hotel on time … the next morning, the hotel staff said they’d love to have us back … we hit the road on time again … we found the Delaware campus … and our bus turned the corner into the parking lot adjacent to the Fightin’ Blue Hens’ rehearsal field.

And the bus leaned perceptibly to the left.

Not because the bus driver hit a curb or anything. No, our drivers were from the Silver Fox Bus Company (free plug) and for my money they were the best in the business, early in the day or late, clear weather or stupid.

No, that bus leaned to port because a bunch of the Holy Cross bandos on board suddenly were plastered to the bus windows, getting their first look at the particular three hundred and eighty people who were making music on the field, on the left of our bus.

Holy crap!”

No, I said, unable to repress a smile … that’s not our name.

They have more tubas than we have brass players.”

Didn’t I tell you? You’ll be fine. Relax. Sit back down, you’re making the driver nervous.

Yeah, I made a great show of confidence that morning. What was also true was that in the back of my mind, since we’d loaded the buses at the hotel in Jersey that morning, was the nagging question: what if this somehow doesn’t turn out to be the absolute best marching memory my gang will have this season? Have I bitten off more than I chew on this one?

The first moment that I knew I didn’t have to worry was when, shortly after my band pretended to relax, I saw a troupe of Delaware marchers heading for our bus. Drum majors, and other student-staff members, sauntering over, smiling.

I called out from the front of the bus, “hey Suzie? Jay? Come on up here.” The kids in the UD welcoming party had been on the summer Drum Major Academy “IMPACT” collegiate team … and so had Suzie and Jay, representing HC. “You guys have some greetings to do.”

As soon as the rest of the HC band saw, out the left-hand-side windows, the UD and Holy Cross IMPACT team mini-reunion happen, they relaxed for real. Hugs and handshakes all ’round, out there on the parking lot. It’ll be all right after all.

Didn’t I tell you?

And after that came moment after moment after astounding moment of knowing we didn’t have to worry.

At that afternoon’s rehearsal, after the two college bands had rehearsed the tune they would play together at halftime, they jointly passed the time while waiting for the high school bands to arrive. I looked over and saw our lone mellophone almost literally swarmed by the, um, many Delaware mellophonists. I saw our drum major hanging out with theirs. Memorably, I saw the Delaware and HC clarinet sections, intermingled, sitting in a big circle on the turf and playing duck-duck-goose.

(Man. Only in college.)

While the HC band ate their suppers, I stood with my friend Heidi, looked around, and marveled that these two former UMass drum majors seemed to have gotten their two college bands together for what amounted to a play-date.

The actual game began. By the third quarter, I had actually seen the Holy Cross football team hold their own with the recent national champions. My band played its fight song more than just ceremonially. (In the fourth quarter, the team ran out of steam, and the score ended up not an embarrassment but a mere loss. And at least as much of a moral victory, if you believe in that sort of thing. Which we did, that night.)

At postgame, I saw the Holy Cross band play the living snot out of their Earth, Wind & Fire opener, and I heard the fans in the stands cheering, but more importantly I heard the Delaware band losing its mind on the sidelines. No, those thirty-eight musicians weren’t bigger and louder than the 380 in gold and blue … but they were laying it all out there. And the gold and blue team was right with ’em.

And then the Fightin’ Blue Hen band took the field (and I mean they took it) … and by the end of their show, far from being intimidated or humbled or Mom I wanna go home … the Crusader Band people were standing (some of them on the offensive line’s benches), and adapting their usual cheer for to be pumpin’ ourselves up

UD! MB! UD! MB! UD! MB!”

 

Several years later, I had a Facebook exchange with one of (I say selfishly) “my” HC band alumni, which started out not really about that particular band trip. But something in the midst of the conversation reminded me, and I said so, of that absurd weekend in Delaware, and my alumni friend immediately responded, “Favorite band trip? Ever!”

About which I was, and am, pleased. I was worried … but a bunch of stellar college marchers took the hyper-optimistic game plan laid out by their director guy and turned it into a trip that, if it’s not my absolute favorite band trip ever, it’s certainly in the top two.

The final, clinching proof of that?

We loaded the bus at around 11pm, after the lengthy Band-Day postgame show was over, and headed north. People caught what sleep they could … the bus, at one point, was unnervingly silent … but as the sky got lighter, and the bus crossed into Massachusetts from Connecticut, on Interstate 84, I thought I heard band members quietly singing Billy Joel songs at each other, and with each other. And, far from hearing other band members gently asking them to quit it … I heard more of them join in. And laugh. And suggest the next singable songs. All the way to Worcester.

As we drove up the hill toward campus, I found the bus driver’s PA mike, and murmured into it (it was 5:30am, after all), “I have no business expecting you guys to be in this good a mood. I would travel with you anywhere.”

And the bus lurched to the left again … but only because that’s what buses do when they have to navigate the main parking lot at Holy Cross.

That trip began ten years ago tonight.

I can’t find my car keys sometimes … but I remember the Delaware trip like it was just this afternoon.

No worries.

September 23, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, marching band, music, UDMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The More You Know…

Early today, a friend and colleague posted online, on the subject of a recent news item from a town near where he works. Specifically, he was “tempted to weigh in”, but was concerned that “only a combination of the broadcast media and Facebook as a source for my information leaves me potentially under-informed to do so.”

In other words, he was doing what so very few people do, these days: he recognized that he might not have had all the information he needed to make an informed comment, and so he didn’t make a comment.

I’ve trod this path before, but I’ll tread again: the comment section of any online article is not a place you want to visit if you’re heavily into temperate, restrained, thoughtful discourse. No indeed. And neither are talk radio programs, most cable news television chat shows, or the halls of Congress. And, sadly, this is not new. I remember hearing blowhards on the radio when I was ten and thinking, “ya wanna go read up on this before you toss your two cents in?” Or fourth-grader words to that effect.

As it happens, the comments that followed my friend’s post constituted the most thoughtful, measured and civilized debate I’ve read in a very long while. It’s the company you keep, I guess.

 

By coincidence – well, no, actually I should say this: in the world of potential blog topics, I’ve found a curious utter lack of coincidence. Somehow, way too often for it to be statistically likely, I’ll take note of a news item … and then two other way-too-similar ones pop up within the next 12 hours. It’s remarkable…

Anyway, by lack of coincidence, today I took note of a news item having to do with a school where I used to work … involving a gentleman around whom I used to work … and I had to wrestle with several issues at once.

I used to direct the athletic bands at the College of the Holy Cross. I spent a fine four years there, working with some terrific people, in an atmosphere that was assuredly very positive in many ways. And in spite of the relatively smaller crowds that women’s basketball drew, some of my very favorite memories of the Cross came at the Hart Center gym when Bill Gibbons’ teams were squaring off with their Patriot League arch-rivals.

For one thing, the women’s game always seemed to me like purer basketball. The men’s teams played with a ferocity that tended to turn the game into an almost endless succession of slams and bangs, with occasional artistry thrown in. The women slammed less, passed more, and one could almost imagine that Dr. Naismith’s game really had started out looking more like Maya Moore, Rebecca Lobo and Elena Delle Donne than it looked like Shaq, LeBron and the Round Mound of Rebound. (Nothing against Mr. Mound.)

Also, from a band director’s (and, I think it’s safe to say, a band member’s) perspective, if the HC women’s team and coaching staff was at all representative of the college women’s basketball community … then I can hypothesize that on average, women’s teams are more likely than men’s teams to give a damn about the band!

Maybe it’s because on average they draw smaller crowds than the men’s games do, so they appreciate anyone and everyone who shows up, and especially the bands that are always on duty, always cheering for them, always making sure that their gym is a miserable place for opponents to play in. And the women’s teams express that appreciation.

An indelible memory, for me, came prior to a league playoff game that Holy Cross was hosting during spring break. As often happens, band alumni came back to fortify the pep band’s ranks while classes weren’t in session, and as we were setting up drums and getting ready to do musical battle, I noticed a nice lady standing next to me, holding a pan of something that smelled very much like yummy baked goods. And that’s what they were. “These are for the band,” she said. Well thank you!, I said, and to whom to I owe thanks? “Oh, I just made up a batch this afternoon. Thought you’d like them. …I’m Bill Gibbons’ mother.”

Okay, let’s be clear. The mother of the women’s team’s head coach just baked brownies … for the band. Not a bad place to do business, eh?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say; Mrs. Gibbons must at least have provided a good example for her son to maybe follow. And her son very often followed it. Before every women’s home game, Coach Gibbons made it a point to walk over to the band bleachers, look up at the kids and call out, “we got ’em tonight, right? We can do this! Thanks for being here! Let’s go!” or something similar. The route from the locker room to the home team bench area did not take him past the band; but he made sure to take that detour.

When I left Holy Cross – not because I didn’t love the job, but because I couldn’t afford to be both a full-time public school teacher and a part-time college band director (the hardest professional decision of my life that was ever obvious), I sent a number of letters to various College “stakeholders”, expressing my thanks for their help in making my experience as good as it was. And Coach Gibbons sent back what was by far the longest and most expressive reply. It wasn’t boilerplate; it wasn’t “here, administrative assistant, send a letter, the usual gratitude template, signed, blah blah blah”. It was “if there’s ever anything I can do for you, just ask,” and it was sincere and genuine. No administrative assistant helped him … his capitalization wasn’t that good.

When I got to see Coach Gibbons at work, which was mainly at home games, he was an intense guy. In the heat of Patriot League battle, he was always working the sidelines, always in motion, always keeping the referees aware of important things, always totally into what he was doing. Nothing was held back – it seemed like the only speed he knew was “full throttle”. And it seemed to me that while he was tough on his players when they needed reminders about things like rebounding, he treated them well in public when they were working hard, even if they weren’t winning (according to the scoreboard) at that moment – and I always got the feeling that with Coach Gibbons, tough love was still love.

 

The news item of yesterday: a former HC women’s basketball player is suing the school, the coach and a couple of athletic department administrators. She is accusing Coach Gibbons of verbally and physically abusing his players at games and practices, and accusing the college of “perpetuat[ing] a culture of denial and feign[ing] ignorance over his actions”. The lawsuit says that this former player “was in fear of physical pain, [and] suffered emotional abuse and fear of retaliation at the hand of defendant Gibbons”, and that her “love of basketball and self-esteem had been damaged.”

As I read all of this in several online articles, I admit that I did so from the perspective of someone who has watched this lawsuit’s main defendant work, who has admired his work, and who thought he had a pretty good sense of what this gentleman was all about. And who was prejudicially predisposed to not necessarily buy everything this former player was selling.

I have never watched a Holy Cross women’s basketball practice. I don’t know whether Coach Gibbons is Dr. Jekyll in one place, Mr. Hyde in another. (Although, if the Coach pleading his case to the referees after a particularly awful call was Jekyll, I suppose maybe I’d prefer not to see Hyde?) I’m not privy to his interactions with his players in the locker room, away from public scrutiny. I simply do not have enough information to feel comfortable saying that the Coach is never ever so intense and out-of-control that he would do things to his players that the lawsuit accuses him of doing. Plus, I haven’t been to a Crusader women’s game for seven years. Things change. People change. Nothing is impossible … although some things are very very improbable.

So here I am … admiring my friend’s ability to admit his incomplete knowledge of a situation and his subsequent decision to refrain from commenting (and to solicit others’ assistance) … while at the same time I’m getting ready to comment.

I am still yet to achieve perfection, I fear.

But at least I know a little tiny bit of something about the man, and his program, and his school.

 

Plenty of online commenters instantly assumed that Coach Gibbons was the worst of the worst. The Midwest area director of an organization which supports survivors of abuse by priests weighed in (without offering any evidence of having conducted any more of an investigation than reading the New York Daily News article). There were the usual yahoo comments by people who were more interested in making a joke than in making a point. One comment wondered how the Coach would be treated in prison (thus bypassing due process and heading straight for “Orange is the New Black”). One commenter said, oxymoronically, “I will await the evidence as it unfolds. But the fact that Holy Cross is a Roman Catholic institution sways me to thinking that the allegations are well founded.” [To be clear, Holy Cross is a Jesuit school, and for many reasons, I suspect that this could be a distinction with a difference.] And one commenter painted with a different but equally broad brush: “Coaches can be such a—holes.”

I bet none of these people had ever seen a Holy Cross women’s basketball game.

In school, they told me: write about what you know.

So okay.

Based on what I know of Coach Gibbons … which may be incomplete knowledge, but it’s all I’ve got to go on, and it’s a hell of a lot more knowledge than is exhibited by the aforementioned parachute-drop artists and trolls … if I learned that he had in fact exhibited patterns of behavior that would merit serious consideration of this lawsuit, I would be surprised and disappointed.

One of his fellow central-Massachusetts college basketball coaches said that Gibbons was “a person who represents basketball the right way, certainly off the court with everything that should be done for your players – getting involved with community service, making sure they’re accountable academically, that they’re representing the college the right way off the court. There is no one as classy a person. If I had two daughters, which I don’t, I would love them to have an opportunity to play for Bill Gibbons.”

It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. From the get-go, Coach Gibbons absolutely struck me as an intense guy. But he also struck me as somebody who cared more about his players as people than he did about how many wins, how many championships, etc. He struck me as a decent guy – as somebody who, if he were about to make a comment to a reporter that he knew was going to draw a fine from the Patriot League, would stop and take a deep breath. He wore his heart on his sleeve … but in my dealings with him, he was nothing but a class act. Intensity … but with dignity.

I’ll be very interested to see what happens here – to see who comes out of this looking good. If the allegations are true, I’ll be disappointed, but such things happen. If it turns out that a reputation is tarnished that didn’t need to be … I’ll be more than disappointed.

October 18, 2013 Posted by | current events, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment