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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 31-Day Blog Writing Challenge, Day Eighteen: How Fast You Hit It

Today’s writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 18: “What am I afraid of?”


Let’s cut right to the chase.


A common fear.

I have a variation on that fear that also may be fairly common, but when I think on it, I find it curious.

I don’t mind heights that are enclosed.

If I’m in a plane, either 1,000 feet or 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet in the air, I look down with detached interest.

If I’m in a tall building, and windows are either permanently closed or are closed in that moment, I look down with less-detached interest.

When I was 12 years old (some ages ago), my family and I went up in one of the World Trade Center skyscrapers. From probably the observation deck on one of the very top floors, definitely a hundred-plus stories high, I looked out a window at the streets of New York City below, and marveled at all the Matchbox cars and relatively small medium-height office buildings which from the ground look really really tall. I can remember making noises that were definitely not “OH WOW!!” but instead … “huh! Cool.”

I have no interest in bailing out of the aforementioned plane. That would imply that there would then be nothing but wispy clouds and the occasional bird between me and the very hard ground.

I have no interest in being on the edge of a tall building’s roof. One gust of wind, one misstep, and, well … well.

When I visited the Hoover Dam, not far from Las Vegas, I did peer over the edge of the thing, and I was okay. The railing, which consisted of a lot of very firm-feeling concrete, was not going to let me go over the edge myself unless I actively worked at it. So, no danger there.

So, non-enclosed heights are not my thing. When I go up two steps on a stepladder, I’m pretty good. Up three steps, I’m starting to think a little. Up four steps, and I can feel myself nudge an invisible horizontal barrier that effectively communicates, “this is as far as this will go.”

I have a rather vivid imagination when it comes to “I wonder what it would be like to fall?”

As Arthur Dent said, in one episode of Douglas Adams’ wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, “It’s not a question of whose habitat it is … it’s a question of how fast you hit it.”*

So I tend to draw a conclusion, regarding this knowledge about myself, when I watch my college alma mater’s marching band do its thing, and particularly check out how the drum majors are doing, parked on the front sideline, near each 30-yardline or thereabouts. The only way those kids are going to be visible, as conductors, to the marchers on the field near the back hashmarks (and even further away!) will be if they get up on stepladders. Which they do. And those stepladders are not three or four steps high. More like six or seven. Those kids’ feet, when they get to the top of those ladders, are higher than the top of my head by at least a foot or two.

It just makes me glad I was a drum major in 1987, when the UMass band’s powers-that-be had not yet thought that stepladders were a helpful idea.

Hard to conduct when your fingers won’t let go of the ladder.


_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

*That line of dialogue, in context:

[Arthur Dent, while falling from a great height toward the surface of an alien planet, has landed improbably on the back of a large bird.]

BIRD: Then what the devil are you doing up here?!

ARTHUR: Falling!

BIRD ONE: Then get on with it! Go on.

ARTHUR: But the drop will kill me!

BIRD ONE: You should’ve thought of that before you started out. No point in saying “I think I’ll just go for a quick drop and if I get tired on the way down, I’ll jump on a passing bird”. It’s not like that up here! It’s all to do with the harsh realities of physics up in the sky; it’s power-to-weight ratios, it’s wing cross-sections, wing surface-areas, it’s practical aerodynamics! It’s also cold and extremely windy! You’ll be better off on the ground.

ARTHUR: No I won’t; I’ll be dead!

BIRD ONE: Well, it’s your habitat, not mine.

ARTHUR: It’s not a question of whose habitat it is; it’s a question of how fast you hit it!

May 18, 2016 Posted by | blogging | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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