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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Welcome Will Not End

One of the topics that gets covered during a George N. Parks Drum Major Academy clinic week, as we offer three hundred high school drum majors and color guard captains a metaphorical box of tools with which to survive and thrive in their new autumn jobs, is that dangerous word: traditions.

Ya know,” our lead clinician quipped this week, “the stuff you do two years in a row.” And then you can’t figure out why it was so important, but you keep doing it.

DMA has a few traditions of its own.

One of them, which we’ve been upholding for most of three decades, is an event that I will freely admit to enjoying, even though it can be one of the more melancholy moments of my professional year. It comes toward the end of our last evening with the students. It’s an odd moment to have this kind of “heavens, we’re done” feeling, considering we still have about eighteen hours left – the next day, we do one more morning of clinic activities and then an afternoon demonstration show for family and friends.

The moment comes after our lead clinician has spent better than an hour emphasizing to the assembled high school band student leaders (among other ideas) the importance of making sure that the freshmen – and the upperclassmen! – keep believing in the magic of band. Which, out of context, may strike people as a spectacularly Pollyanna-ish and corny thought, but take my word for it: at the end of this particular lecture session it makes all the sense in the world. The thought comes at the end of a very intense four days.

Such that, in the last few minutes of the session, when our lead clinician brings the DMA instructional staff onto the stage of the little auditorium so she can properly acknowledge us, the students clap and cheer madly. And when she brings the veterans (students who “are crazy enough to come and do this a second or third year”) onto the front edge of the stage, a lot of them are teary before they even get there, never mind when they’re handed a little souvenir DMA “vet pin”, never mind when they’re called to execute a salute and the rest of the non-veteran students and the staff clap and cheer madly.

Such that many of the non-veteran students are also a wee bit teary. The instructional staff does generally keep it together.

At least until!…

Well, here’s the tradition that I both love and (in a simultaneous, slightly out-of-body moment) wonder whether the outside world would think it’s as great as I do.

We play a recording of this one particular tune from the mid-1980s that seems specifically designed to lay waste to most everybody’s composure.

Everybody links arms and sways. Some of us (who have actually heard the tune two or three or thirty times before) sing along. (Some of us sing in five-part harmony with full orchestration. Um, guilty.) A lot of people suddenly realize they’re in the middle of the last time we’ll be together doing this, for a while or maybe ever.

Rewind thirty years.

Can you guys help me with something?”

It was DMA, at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, during the summer of 1987. The collegiate assistants were gathered at the edge of the practice field where DMA marching and teaching activities were conducted. At the time, it was a much smaller group than it is now – only the UMass band’s three drum majors and a couple other student field-staff members – and after the morning sessions, they’d grab lunch and head back to the UMass campus to continue prep work for the upcoming band camp and marching season; then they’d come back to Hampshire for the evening indoor lecture sessions.

Our band director had asked the question.

Many words have been written in this space, previously, about this gentleman, nearly all of which basically glowed in the dark. We did, and do, think very highly of him.

But nobody’s perfect; and occasionally, we humans looked at our very human band director and wondered what exactly was going on in that mad brain of his. Sometimes there was a plan, and we just didn’t know about it right away. Sometimes there was a plan, and we never did find out what that plan was.

This time, he had a project for us – but he didn’t tell us the whole plan.

Yeah, I found this song, and it’s kinda neat, but I can’t quite understand some of the lyrics, the way it’s sung. Could I ask you guys to take a listen and see what you can make out?”

(Kids, gather ’round your old man and listen to him tell stories of the days before the Internet.)

So we sat down around a picnic table in the middle of that field, fired up the boom box, and pretty much shredded the cassette tape of this, um, more than faintly cheesy-sounding tune.

Back and forth, over and over, we closed our eyes and bore down on what we were hearing, and tried to glean what this tenor pop singing fellow was getting at. A shame that I don’t know where the notebook has gotten to, the one in which we wrote what we thought might have been the lyrics. Or maybe not a shame it’s gone: it’s pretty likely that we got most of the refrain correct, perhaps half of the first verse, and exceptionally little of the second.

None of us knew who Michael W. Smith was, before that morning. That knowledge might have helped. There were a number of lyrics that … well … they couldn’t possibly be religious, could they? We’re a state university, after all.

(They could.)

Packing up the dreams God planted / In the fertile soil of you

Was this song even intended for the UMass band in any way at all?

(It was.)

The fertile soil of you?” What kind of writing is that?

(I know. Trust me. I know.)

Can’t believe the hopes He’s granted / Means a chapter of your life is through

Hmm. Maybe it’s for senior day, or the Band Banquet, or something.

Was this song really meant for too-cool-for-the-room college students, this fairly sentimental-sounding piece of pop fluff?

But we’ll keep you close as always / It won’t even seem you’ve gone

(Even this.)

(After all, our director was one of the world’s foremost authorities on making corny pieces of music into beloved elements of the legacy and lore of one’s college band.)


We did our best. We gave him his notebook back. We went to lunch. And (while he was, as it turned out, engaging someone else somewhere else in this project too, since a lot of us now know the lyrics “chapter and verse”, as it were) … we didn’t think about the song again until a few months later, when we were playing an arrangement of it.

The UMass band already had a tune that it performed to close all its performances. So that wasn’t it. And we played this Michael W. Smith tune at about three performances total. We listened to the recording, the one which we DMA helper-types had transcribed almost completely wrong, in maybe only a couple of other non-performance moments. Our director just thought that the song said some things that applied to our band, which he loved very much – or certainly he wanted them to apply to us.

‘Cause our hearts in big and small ways / Will keep the love that keeps us strong

And then, possibly helped along by the fact that band people can just be that way sometimes … we bought into the thing. Hook, line and sinker.

And then our director decided to apply the tune to his Drum Major Academy curriculum.

Fast-forward thirty years, to now …

And here we are. Standing on the stage in an academic auditorium, many of us surreptitiously thinking, “I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying”, and at least as many of us (even those relative cynics amongst us) thinking about how the lyrics have it just about right … as they apply to the staffers who have been doing this relatively forever, but also to the students who have pretty much just met each other, and none of us really want to part company just yet.

There are lots of reasons why I look forward to the summer week or weeks of DMA. For many reasons, I could argue that in fact it is “the most wonderful time of the year”, and not that wintry month during which lots of people buy and wrap stuff. Talk about traditions!…

I’m thinking, here of one particular reason. It’s a reason which is hopefully not the biggest, since the Drum Major Academy purpose is to teach young people not just to conduct and call commands and teach and lead but to take the tools we offer them and utilize them throughout their lives to be decent to other people.

But one thought that regularly leaps into the forefront of my mind as summer approaches is this: I get to spend time with, and hang out with, and joke and be silly with, and learn to be a better teacher from, this pack of marvelous professional educators (and collegiate future-educators) … many of whom I only get to see once a year. As well as, frankly, a great many DMA students who bring some remarkably positive attributes with them as we meet for the first time.

And a few of those students, some of whom have been in my indoor conducting-video sessions or in my outdoor squad-competition companies, have crossed over to the staff side of things … and now are teaching me how better to teach. And thanks partly to the marvel that is social media, but mostly to the rather intense experience that we share each summer, we’re friends and borderline adopted-family; and those song lyrics are Pollyanna-ish and corny and sentimental, but they’re also true …


And friends are friends forever

If the Lord’s the Lord of them

And a friend will not say never

‘Cause the welcome will not end

Though it’s hard to let you go

In the Father’s hands we know

That a lifetime’s not too long

To live as friends


August 5, 2017 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, friends, GNP, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

Marvel Studios have managed to produce a string of movies with some really fine moments in them, in the past few years. Over and over again, they’ve offered the movie-going public some story revelations that cause said public to think, “aha! It really has all been leading up to this.” Somehow, these movies about inherently silly characters – the giant green rage monster, the not-really-Norse god, the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” – have all been deftly intertwined, at least within their Cinematic Universe. (Aficionados of the comic book versions of things may need to cool their jets here, as shhhhhhh! this isn’t really the subject of this piece, but instead, as usual, the author needs a hook and this time your favorite characters are it.) Fun to go back and look at certain scenes again and say, “they really were thinking about six movies down the road, there.”

Other scenes are kinda right up in your face, to the point where one could accuse the filmmakers of being almost ham-handed in their need to make sure you Get The Point.

I’ll admit right away: I’ve got one favorite Firmly Telegraphed scene. (Or at least I did, until “Agent Carter” came along, but that’s for another time.)

The scene came in the first Captain America film, “The First Avenger”. Which I didn’t see in the theaters. I got ambushed by the thing on basic cable. That’s how late to this party I was.

And by the way, I will happily admit: of all the silly Marvel Comics characters, to my way of thinking, ol’ Cap was THE flippin’ silliest of them. I’m all for red and blue costumes (rah rah rah Superman), but honestly, between the little teeny wing things on the sides of his helmet and what I perceived, rightly or not, as the “I can win World War II all by m’ lonesome” vibe …

Um, no and no. Sorry. Silly look; don’t want to wallow in the jingoistic; nice artwork, but I think not.

So the filmmakers wrote a nice little series of scenes that served as a nod to the “classic” Captain America look and a reassurance that, well, we’re going to try to sand down as much of the silly and cheeseball as we possibly can. In fact, we’re going to have Cap react to his own cheesy look, his very own self.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know the comic-book Captain America origin story well enough to know whether the moviemakers’ version was an homage, or just a great new idea to link him to the, um, chemistry-set experiments that produced a giant green rage monster. Either way, they made the point, sometimes rather heavily but at least earnestly, that Captain America used to be a 98-pound weakling but he was the 98-pound weakling who had his priorities straight.

The Firmly Telegraphed scene that I like so much is this one:

First, a montage of scenes depicting the physical trials that the US Army is putting two dozen or so soldiers through – the soldiers who are being considered for participation in the Army’s super-secret super-soldier program. Then the Colonel in charge (played by Tommy Lee Jones with gruff charm, like almost every other gruffly charming character that Tommy Lee Jones has ever gruffly and charmingly played) tosses what appears to be a live grenade into the midst of the soldier-candidates. They scatter – all of them except for one, the 98-pound weakling called Steve Rogers. Instead, he throws himself on top of it and wildly waves everyone else away.

Turns out, it’s a dummy grenade. But Rogers is the only one who volunteers to “take one for the team” – on the grounds of some backwater Army training camp, far from The Front, he’s willing to lay down his life for the rest of the squad. Never mind that amongst that squad is one guy whose personality had already been Firmly Telegraphed as arrogant, smug, and a genuine bully to everyone in general and to Rogers in particular. Rogers is taken seriously by absolutely nobody there – with the exception of the scientist whose technology is driving the whole super-soldier project, who has insisted that Rogers be considered for reasons which no one else in the US military establishment quite understands) – but he’s a good guy.

A few other, earlier Firmly Telegraphed scenes in “The First Avenger” have already done their part to build the story point: Steve Rogers is a decent human being. And after Rogers is selected, the scientist puts it to him this way: “This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life … [he loses] respect for that power. But a weak man, he values his strength. And loves compassion.” And then, he says, “Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you must stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier. But a good man.”

Shortly I’ll be heading out for my annual summer teaching fortnight with the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. For many reasons, a few of which already have been chronicled hereabouts, I look forward to this experience every year, more than almost any other.

One reason has to do with Captain America, or at least the Cinematic Universe’s incarnation of his origin story.

Stay with me. It’s not nearly as silly as that sounded.

In the years in which I’ve head out to the DMA locations at West Chester University and UMass-Amherst, I’ve had the chance to work with lots of high-school seniors, and juniors, and a few sophomores, who arrive at our clinics having been labeled by their high school band directors as Drum Majors Of Their Bands. Some of them are veterans – they’ve gone on this ride before, and for the most part they have a decent idea of what that job entails, what parts of it they’ve been good at, and what they still need to work out, or what the areas are in which they can refine their performance.

Some of them are new to the game. Of these, some put on a good game face at the start of the week, some acquire that game face by the week’s end, and some of them probably clutch the certificate of completion-of-studies on the way home still wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into. Or, more accurately, knowing what they’ve gotten themselves into and hoping for a little divine inspiration that will help them through it.

It’s been fun to see some of the evidence that some of those figured it out. Blessed are the meek, for when they become not meek anymore, their boldness means so much more than that of the People With Good Game Faces.

There was one particular example of this which I wrote about a couple of years ago in this space, in a post called “New Rachel”. And at the end of last summer, I experienced a relative torrent of Facebook friend requests from DMA students (as I wrote then, instead of the usual one or two, there were fifteen or twenty). It was neat to see the “on the bus to our first game” selfies … and by season’s end, it was fun to read the brief anecdotes about “best season ever” and see the photos from band banquets and such.


And then, not long ago, I spotted a Facebook status post authored by one of the students who was in one of my “video rooms”. S/He was not the strongest conductor; s/he was not the strongest caller of commands; s/he was desperately trying to keep up with all the material being thrown at him/her; but s/he seemed a genuinely decent person. I saw her/him again at the final presentation (for parents and family and friends) and wondered actively to myself how s/he would fare.

And while I always keep in mind the old “can’t judge a book by its cover” adage … still, by no means did that student fit the standard typical average normal median Drum Major Look. I even wondered if s/he had been one of those kids who had spent a lot of his/her life being on the receiving end of the pranks, or the jokes, or the out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye looks, or even the overt bullying, that can happen when adolescents interact unsupervised.

I wondered if s/he was chosen by his/her director in spite of the skepticism of the rest of the band, deserved or not. I hoped s/he’d do well, of course … but didn’t know.

(An aside: S/He wasn’t even one of the DMA students who had Friend-requested me … but I saw the Facebook post because it was “liked” by several of the DMA students who had. Which was a hallmark of last summer’s group … all season long, they continually urged each other on. It was very cute, and also more than a little reassuring.)

The post went on at great length (or as long as Facebook allowed), as I recall, about things like “greatest year of my life” and “love my band so much” and “grew so much as a person”.

Well. All right then.

By hook or by crook … without necessarily becoming the second coming of Frederick Fennell or of the commander of the US Marine Silent Drill Team (although perhaps something clicked after DMA week was done) … somehow, some way, s/he made it work, and it indeed worked, and s/he came out the other side victorious.

Maybe something happened that was perhaps not quite as dire as throwing him-/herself on top of what could have been a live grenade … but that had a very similar effect on the people around him/her.

Maybe s/he managed to be his/her band’s unlikeliest of heroes.

Maybe what s/he was really meant more, ultimately, than what s/he was able to do.

That’s what makes DMA so much of a big deal to me, I think.

We’ll find out what this summer reveals. See you on the other side…

July 25, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, Facebook, heroes, marching band, movies, social media | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments