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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.)

Hmmmm.

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

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

Significant or Successful?

And so, my annual Drum Major Academy teachin’ fortnight draws to a close.

(Actually, it did so a good couple of weeks ago, but life careens onward. You know how that goes.)

To be honest, although I’ve been a part of that rarefied world for seventeen summers, I’m consistently startled at the regularity of one thing: every summer, one thing in particular strikes me as important about what I just experienced … and every summer, it’s a different thing.

One year, it was an appreciation of how DMA staff members take care of business, and take care of their students, and just as importantly take care of each other in moments of crisis (as well as in every other summer moment, and outside of the mere delivery of the curriculum). One year, it was an appreciation of the DMA students, and how social media has allowed them to be their own best support systems, even after the week of instruction is over. One year, it was the recognition that if more groups of teachers were as silly and lunatic and creative as the crowd I get to work with … lots of parts of the world would be in better shape.

In each case, it was an acknowledgment that a DMA week is an intense and concentrated thing, one which has a lasting impact on people – and this is clear not just while six-member student squads do group hugs after the end of the final demonstration for the parents, and not just while the “veterans” (the second- or third-year high-school drum majors who are “crazy enough to come back and do this thing again”) link arms and shed a tear or two or thirty when we play them that song on the last evening.

Talking of veterans and rookies …

I guess I count as a vet, here. Crazy enough (or perhaps it’s some other motivation; yeah, I think) to come back and do this thing thirty-four times now (West Chester and UMass, times 17 summers; because math).

When the staff is briefly introduced to the students by name, early in the week, everybody looks up at the Powerpoint files projected on the screen above the assembled staff’s heads and reads the summary of what each of us do, where we’re from, and how many years we’ve been doing this DMA thing. With very few exceptions, the staff is introduced from newest to most-experienced. And in the last two or three years, I’ve found myself about third-to-last on a bench that usually is twenty or thirty people deep.

Heh. Means I’m old.

It does not, however, mean that I lack for moments in which I definitely don’t feel like a vet.

I’ve run indoor conducting-video analysis sessions a-plenty [side note: who else uses that word anymore?] … I’ve judged tons of squad marching-and-commanding competitions and led lots of pretty productive “postgame” discussions. Lately I’ve even begun to teach mace to absolute beginners (which, for this two-trick pony, is probably about right). But – maybe it’s a little bit about how my brain is wired, but – I look around that room and see so many people whom I consider teaching role models, the quality of whose work I would someday like to at least emulate.

I’d like to think that’s because teachers are always their own toughest critics – always looking for ways they can run that session just a bit better next time.

That feeling doesn’t completely dominate my perceptions all week. When collegiate members of our team, the “IMPACTs” or “CLIP staff”, are assigned to hang out in my TV room or with my company of competition squads, we each seem to learn a bit from each other, and they’re always very kind to suggest that they’ve gotten something out of watching me do my thing. Self-deprecating I may be, but not quite to the point of lockjaw. Shortly many of these kids (and sorry, but they are kids!!) will probably surpass their teachin’ elders, and it’s definitely better that way. Beats the alternative – not least for the sake of DMA. If I can do any tiny thing to make their experience one that they would wish to continue and even pursue as a vocation, … then great.

Two moments from this past two-week summer teaching hitch struck me particularly, with regard to this topic.

First, the out-of-this-world leadership speaker and music-education advocate, Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser, spoke to the West Chester students. He always slips the absolute universal truths in between the belly laughs. Addressing the precarious leadership role into which we’re placing teenaged people, he talked about the “why do you want to be a drum major?” and “are you doing this for the right reasons?” questions. Do you understand that you have the chance to make a difference in people’s lives, or are you just in it for the uniform and the glory? Is it for them or for you? “Do you want to be significant, or do you want to be successful?”

And then, on the last evening of the UMass week, the stellar lead clinician Heidi Sarver had her annual conversation with the students about their opportunity, the biggest of anyone at their school, to make the biggest impact on people in their school. After asking them to remember the people who were important to them when they were rookies – freshmen – she turned it around on them: a few years from now, I’ll ask the DMA students to think about that same subject, and they’ll imagine you.

It’s a pretty effective moment, because suddenly the DMA kids are fully aware that they’re part of a continuum.

And, it occurred to me even more strongly than usual that evening … so am I.

In the summers of 1999 and 2000 and 2001, when I really was a DMA staff rookie, there were people who took me under their wings … gave me a clue … helped me figure out all the mysterious elements that go into teaching at DMA.

I got to hang out in Heidi’s TV room. I looked over Fred’s and Darrell’s shoulders at their “squamp sheets”. I got to watch Jen run her mad, mad, mad morning-calisthenics routine. I got to just generally pick the brains of Jess, and Scott, and Jamie, and Mona. (And, yes, there were numerous others. I think these folks are nicely representative; but I’ve definitely left people out, which is not a good plan. You know who you are; you really do.)

Think of the people who made DMA special for you, my brain translated for me, that evening. And see if you can turn around, just like all those DMA students, and help the next generation as best you can. “Pay it forward” is a nearly-cliched aphorism at this point, but … that’s how this thing survives, and thrives. DMA, and band, and, ideally, the rest of the world too. Boiled down, that’s the point of this fortnight.

Which, ultimately, is thanks to the efforts and inspiration and forethought of the gentleman who thought the whole project up. Who made DMA special for everybody, and continues to do so. Who made it both significant and successful.

August 19, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, friends, GNP, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment