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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

40 Years of “My Way”

[Ed. note: This piece was first published yesterday on the UMass marching band alumni website. You can see it, complete with illustrations and video links, here.  I was thrilled to be asked to write what turned out to be something of an historical research paper.]

 

Every tradition has an origin story.

The problem is, most often those origins are really difficult to pin down.

In the middle of some marching season, some year, the flute section begins to march doubletime at a certain moment in the percussion cadence … or the tubas decide to march separately from the rest of the brass block and call it a “tuba tail” … or the band plays a particular stands tune at a particular time in a couple of football games in a row and suddenly it seems like it happens that way all the time, without fail.

But rarely can anyone identify the moment a tradition becomes a tradition. Even more difficult to pinpoint who had the idea in the first place.

Not in this case, though.

In celebrating “40 Years of ‘My Way’,” the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band marks four decades of a perhaps inevitable tradition that had a very specific start date … encouraged by a very specific person.

On September 16, George Parks, 57, died en route to Michigan with the band – on a long shot ‘pinnacle’ performance he somehow made happen at the 110,000-seat Big House at [the] University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – like he made everything happen for all his years at the helm.

George and the band had stopped in Ohio to give a performance and to sleep, and George saw them through the show, led them in his favorite, ‘My Way’ (whose lyrics include: ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…’). Then he stepped down from the stage and collapsed of a heart attack.”

– author Betty Londergan, in her article “The Music Man of UMass”, published on her blog, “What Gives”, September 21, 2010

A heartbreaking coincidence. …Maybe.

 

Entering the fall of 1978, in his second year as Minuteman Marching Band director, George Parks decided he needed some sort of closing song for his band’s performances. From his own college marching experience, with the band at West Chester State College, he drew a version of Paul Anka’s anthem “My Way”, written for and most famously performed by Frank Sinatra. The arrangement, written by James H. Burden (who regularly arranged music for the West Chester marching band, as well as a little group called the Penn State Blue Band), was originally performed at a moderate tempo, to the accompaniment of a gentle marching percussion backbeat. But when Parks brought it to UMass, he eliminated most of the battery parts and turned the song back into a ballad, and soon presented it to the UMass community, with the help of the band, as something of a hymn.

Since then, at the close of the majority of its performances, the Minuteman Marching Band has gathered in a tightly-packed formation and played “My Way.” The band plays a verse in a quiet brass and woodwind chorale setting; sings a verse; and finishes with a playout that is slightly faster and a whole lot louder … immediately after which the battery percussion fire up their cadence, and the band exits the venue. For it seems, as long as anyone can remember, the same thing has happened, every show. Tradition.

Or very nearly the same thing. The original lengthy, trumpet-screamer ending was given a gentle rewrite by then-graduate assistant Michael Klesch ’90 M.M. The song’s performance tempo has slowed noticeably over the years. The sung portion (in recent years) has begun to include a few extra exclamatory additions. When current director Timothy Todd Anderson recognized tradition and left the the leading of “My Way” to Associate Director Thomas P. Hannum ’84 M.M., the conducting style, the “look” of the song, understandably changed a little. And, compared with renditions from the early 1980s, the length of the trombone section’s final, iconic three-note, octave-leap figure is now drastically slower.

As “My Way” has evolved, the band’s presentation of the song remains an encore that, in just under two and a half minutes, presents audiences with all the elements of a great, entertaining band performance (short, perhaps, of a mace toss).

But it’s become much more than that. And, one suspects, this is not at all accidental.

 

It’s not just a nice melody with pretty chords.

And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain / 
My friend, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain / 
I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / But more, much more than this / I did it my way

Parks fretted, in front of students at his what turned out to be his final summer Drum Major Academy session in 2010, that the lyrics to “My Way” were maybe a little selfish. (He wasn’t alone. Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina has said that her father “always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”) But Parks wove an affecting defense for why he preferred not to think of those lyrics as emblematic of self-absorption, so much as representative of self-discovery and self-confidence. Those, after all, were characteristics which he was helping DMA students to work toward: “you can’t do this job without a LITTLE bit of ego. Just don’t let it control you”).

Further, one can make a case that some “My Way” lyrics, ones which the band has never sung, might serve to illuminate Parks’ work and relationships with the UMass band. In the mid-1980s, he created a video montage of UMMB scenes, partly to the accompaniment of the original Sinatra “My Way” recording. The lyrics, likely by no accident, lined up with certain visuals: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew / When I bit off more than I could chew”, sang Sinatra, over the sight of the UMMB, in a Washington, DC snow squall, videotaping a short clip for ABC-TV’s 1981 Presidential Inauguration coverage — the “Happy Morning America” moment (ask a mid-1980s alum for details). And “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried / I’ve had my fill, my share of losing / And now, as tears subside / I find it all so amusing”, was the backing track for scenes of mid-1980s UMMB seniors shedding tears after their last postgame show.

 

Perhaps the largest part of the “My Way” tradition have been the connections that the song helps to foster. The connection between the UMMB and its audiences – home football audiences know that “My Way” is coming, and don’t leave the stadium until they hear it; and audiences that are newer to the UMass band experience quickly discover that … marching bands sometimes sing.

The connection among UMMB members – metaphorically and actually – as they gather even closer to one another and sing together.

The connection between the “baby band” and its alumni – a great many of whom have taken part in that same UMMB tradition – have played and sung that same arrangement; and now stand and sing and sway arm-in-arm, just as they did in their college years. With each other and with the current membership – in a relatively-new decade-old tradition – all together on the field at Homecoming.

And the connection between the UMMB and the high school bands who have the chance to watch a UMass show – when the “My Way” performance tells them that “band is a place for everyone” – and that it can be a refuge, a haven of great support and affection. And that it’s okay to show those feelings, in public.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to just the Pioneer Valley.

[Natasha Stollmack’s] most memorable high school experiences revolve around the Blue Devil marching band. ‘Attending Drum Major Academy at the Univ. of Massachusetts over the summer was a life-changing experience. DMA is a camp geared towards student leaders in band programs, and it was led by UMass’ incredible marching band director George N. Parks.’

Ms. Stollmack and [her] fellow drum majors quickly took a liking to Mr. Parks during the week they worked together at the camp. The group promised to keep in touch with him throughout their competitive season. … With warm memories of the relationship they developed with the legendary college marching band leader still fresh in their minds, the Huntington quartet was jolted during the opening weeks of school.

“’In mid-September, [Huntington director Brian] Stellato called us all down in the morning and shared with us the awful news of his passing,’ Ms. Stollmack said … ‘We were all shocked and devastated. We treated the rest of the season sort of as a tribute to him. I arranged a surprise performance of the song ‘My Way,’ which is the piece that UMass’ marching band shows always end with. The kids played it at the home show and it brought Mr. Stellato and the four of us to tears. It was one of my proudest moments of the season, seeing us all come together like that, most of the kids not even knowing who this man was. But they did it ‘with pride.’ That phrase that we use now is ‘because of Parks’. At the Carrier Dome, we had the most amazing performance in all of my years in the program. The four of us could barely keep our composure up on the podiums! I couldn’t have dreamed of a better group than this one. I love them all so much.’”

from an article posted on the Huntington (NY) Public Schools’ website, March 2011

And the “My Way” formula has found success in at least one other college-band environment.

In 1995, UMMB Hall of Famer Heidi Sarver ’86, ’88 M.M. was named director of the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band. Almost immediately, she began looking for a similar melody to utilize – to foster similar connectional impact to “My Way” – with her new band. Not long into that fall marching season, she came upon John Lennon’s “In My Life.” This author crafted an arrangement that followed the “My Way” play-sing-play structure, and condensed the original lyrics into a single verse. That arrangement is now in its 24th season of use by the Blue Hen Marching Band.

 

Two decades earlier, George Parks had brought “My Way” to UMass, in all likelihood, with a very good idea of what the song and its performances might become. He might not have predicted how important it would turn out to be, the very first time it was “performed” after his passing in 2010.

THURSDAY [September 16, 2010; gymnasium, Cuyahoga Falls HS, Ohio]


“People first sat on their sleeping bags, most with a hand over their mouth and a look of horror in their eyes. … Eventually people made their way towards each other and sobbed as they held each other close. … The band formed a huge circle over 380 people in the gym and started to hum ‘My Way.’ The hums became choking words as the singing got louder:

“’And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain
 / My friends, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
 / I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / And more, much more than this / I did it my way’

The lyrics of our beloved band song we perform at every game suddenly took on a whole new meaning as the band acknowledged the fact that this was the last song Mr. Parks ever conducted.

“… Many phone calls were made and the decision was made that we would continue on to Michigan. It was Mr. Parks’ dream to perform in Michigan Stadium with the UMMB and the Michigan marching band and that was what we were going to do.”

from “A Performance We Will Never Forget,” by Alyssa Berkowitz ’12, Monday, September 20, 2010

Over the course of forty years, George Parks’ way has become the way of the Minuteman Band.

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October 18, 2018 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’ll Take A Cup of Kindness

The year which is just wrapping up now has had its good bits, and its ghastly bits. If you’re a follower of the news, you might feel overwhelmed by the ghastly.

Myself, I have this habit of visiting current affairs-related websites which feature daily writings by several of my favorite political writers – not necessarily a bad habit, but not always a productive one. It leads to wallowing: my Lord, the world is full of yahoos, and some of them are actually in charge.

Rather than dwell on the ghastly bits, though … in this moment, I choose instead to raise my glass to one good bit. In the spirit of “it’s gotta start somewhere”.

It’s something that I’ve been noticing in the last few months, and to my mind, it may go nicely toward countering the onslaught of online posts that boil down to “2014: The Year That Just Plain [insert faintly off-color verb, meaning ‘failed to live up to expectations’, here]”.

Pollyanna-ish to suppose that this small thing can spread throughout the whole wide world and make everything right again, … but it can’t hurt. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” and all that.

It goes back to a couple of things which I’ve written about in this space, previously. In short, this year more people than usual took me up on my suggestion, at the end of summer Drum Major Academy sessions, that DMA students would be welcome to keep in touch with the staff. Let us know how things are going. Jump and shout and point to your successes! And let us help with the more challenging moments, if we can.

As noted previously, usually that yields a handful of eMails over the course of the ensuing fall semester. Now that social media is a thing, that also can yield a couple of new Facebook Friend connections each August. This year, for me, it yielded an unusual number of those. By the time Veterans Day had rolled around: two dozen.

That by itself got my attention. I tried to figure out what was different. Something in the air? Just the right alchemy during the DMA week? A particular funny joke? Something.

I thought maybe that’d be the end of the story. … Not really.

At the beginning of the fall marching season, I noted the posts from newly-minted high school drum majors that noted the completion of stellar band camps, looked forward to first performances, celebrated successful first shows, and, in particular, noted the influence on their lives of DMA’s founder. Eloquently, in many cases. If these are the future leaders of America, maybe we’re not in such bad shape after all.

I thought maybe that’d be the end of the story. … Again, no.

Before the onset of social media, DMA instructors would suggest to DMA students that they were probably meeting the drum majors of their heated-rival bands; and wouldn’t it be something if, when those bands met, the two (sets of) drum majors might be seen meeting and shaking hands and being friendly? What great message would that send to their bands?

But unless snail-mail or eMail addresses were exchanged, rather on purpose, that mid-game meeting was going to be the extent of the keeping-in-touch.

Now, though … lots more opportunity for that. As many unfortunate qualities as social media has … this is one of the good ones.

End of story?

Yes and no.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed, and I doubt I’m the only DMA staff type who has: as summer became fall, and fall became winter, DMA students posted those band-related notes, and then began to post other things like brief tales of college applications, college acceptances, and other items not specific to band but definitely important in their lives – including moments in which DMA Starred Thoughts were relevant, and applicable, and helpful.

And without fail, the lists of people who “Liked” the posts, and the comment sections below the posts, all practically began and ended with fellow DMA students. And not, I would judge, just the drum majors of the rival band, but their drum major friends from hundreds of miles away in completely other states, from Maine to New Jersey and beyond.

Please: I haven’t been creeping. I haven’t been going looking for this stuff. It’s popped up in my Facebook News Feed, though, and over the course of the fall, it’s been nearly impossible to miss. It’s a little community of people who have spent the last four months urging each other on, congratulating each other, bucking each other up when necessary.

Regardless of what band they belong to.

The world could use a little more of that.

News pundits might scoff at this admittedly Pollyanna-ish idea. Such a little tiny idea, accomplished by little tiny people, away from the big important places and people in the world.

Yeah, well … two words:

Ice buckets.

As the great philosopher Max Bialystock noted, “Worlds are turned on such thoughts.”

It’s gotta start somewhere.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

December 31, 2014 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, Facebook, GNP, Internet, marching band, social media, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment