Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

You Didn’t Have To Do That

[Ed. note: A brief tale here, and please forgive me if it comes off as self-absorbed and annoying. It’s not supposed to. We may even come up with different “morals of the story”. That’s okay, I think.]

 

I’ve participated in many UMass Homecoming Weekend alumni bands, in the nearly three decades (oi) since I graduated from there.

So, yes, I’m now that pushing-fifty guy, grey beard and all, who is still hauling a saxophone out there, dancing around like a goof, and generally enjoying the heck out of the experience, even if it’s raining, because it was fun then, so it’s fun now!!!

Another portion of my college band experience (other than toting a saxophone around) was getting to be one of the three drum majors during my senior year. Now, please understand: when I sign up online for alumni band activities and they ask what my instrument was … there’s no check-box for “drum major”, and even if there were one, that’s not an instrument!! and I wouldn’t check that box anyway. Really. You don’t believe me, but it’s true.

There have only been two Homecomings wherein I have played the alumni drum major game. One of them was seven years ago, when the alumni band was 925 strong, so it was pretty much all hands on deck. There were at least fifteen former drum majors out there, because it was necessary.

The other time was I think five years ago. That morning, as the weather looked less and less dire and I began to not worry so much about marching a Selmer Mark VI saxophone in the rain, my friend James, a former UMass drum major (who was a DM twenty years after I was), looked over at me and said, “Rob, is your mace in your car?” I said, yeah, it was; and it actually was still in the trunk from back in the summer when I brought it with me to the summer drum major clinic wherein we’d both worked. (Only out of sheer “I don’t have a free hand to grab it when I bring the rest of my life into the house after work”, not “who knows when I might need a twirling mace?”.)

Cool,” he said, “let’s just go out there and throw.” And so, in the midst of the alumni band’s halftime tune, James and I strode onto the Gillette Stadium field, conducted not a single note, and just chucked maces in the air indiscriminately. (We were two redheaded, bearded guys throwing maces. Hmmmmm. Didn’t exactly plan that visual way ahead of time, but okay.) I’m not usually the ostentatious-showmanship type … and though it seemed like fun, and several people subsequently thought out loud that it was fun to watch, I still did feel a wee bit like I’d stepped away from the pack of alumni who were actually playing their horns … and I felt a wee bit guilty. Like, come on, you had your chance in 1987, and took it, and thanks for playing, it’s done. Right?

I know, I’m weird. But that’s the way my head works.

Fast-forward to last weekend, Homecoming Weekend at UMass. I arrive and find a clump of band alumni gathering, early in the morning … and rumors begin flying.

So I hear you’re conducting ‘Let’s Groove’?”

Do you hear that?

So you’re singing Twilight Shadows?”

I’m … willing … … but I didn’t know we were playing the alma mater for halftime?

Gonna chuck a mace today?”

Ummm … it takes two hands to play sax?

Did I mention that, while being a team player and being willing to fill whatever role the organization needs me to fill, I am nonetheless reticent to grab that sort of spotlight?

And please notice particularly that, um, my former-DM colleague from five years ago, James his very own self, is standing over there without his trumpet, and is therefore well-suited for that job, whereas oh look! I’ve got my tenor with me and its reed is actually whole and complete and not dinged for a change?

Naw, I’ll hang with the crazy alumni tenor saxes, some of whom I’ve just met (because they’re relatively or VERY recently graduated from UMass and therefore, no disrespect intended, ARE CHILDREN!! and are tons of fun).

I’ll be fine.

(I didn’t have to do that, didn’t need to jump out in front of the group, in order for my life to be complete or something.)

At some point in the alumni band rehearsal early that afternoon, the current band director, Tim Anderson, wanders over in my direction and asks, “So, ya wanna conduct ‘Fight, Mass.’?”

Urp! Uh, Tim, there’s redheaded James right over there, yeah? I mean, I’ll do what you need, but, uh, really!

I wasn’t even one of “his” drum majors, since he’s been at UMass just the seven years. Again, sweet of him to ask, to keep track and to be aware, but super not-required … No, it’s okay.

Fifteen or so minutes later, we’re most of the way through rehearsing the music for halftime, which includes a couple of tunes by the current undregrads, “Let’s Groove” with just alumni, the finale of the “1812 Overture” with all of us combined, and then the UMass fight song. And one of the current drum majors walks by and says, “okay, so, we’re gonna put you on a ladder for ‘Fight, Mass.’…” As in, I’m going to climb one of the stepladders that the assistant drum majors use, and conduct for the band members too far from the 50-yardline to properly see the conductor on the center podium.

Well okay, it sounds like that would be helpful to somebody; and besides, the particular current drum major who came to talk to me … well, if she tells you to do something, you darn well do it.

Sweet of her to ask, though.

Then I get to the ladder.

Or rather, I discover why I would probably not be a great UMass drum major these days.  In the 1980s… no ladders.

I get four steps up that ladder and realize that there are two more yet to go. And getting to the top of the ladder will mean leaning forward onto a little bitty guard rail using only my lower shins.

And I’d swear that ladder is shifting in the breeze.

Have I ever mentioned, I don’t do super well with heights that aren’t contained by skyscraper windows or airplane fuselages?

So, current UMass drum majors, when you find the five indents on that ladder’s front guard rail, please know that I’ve “left my mark” on the band: I stood only five steps up, conducted that fight song rehearsal righthanded, and held onto that rail with a lefthanded Vulcan Death Grip.

At the actual halftime of the actual game, the bands played through the first two tunes, and as I dashed to the sideline before “Fight, Mass.”, suddenly so did everybody else, having been waved in that direction by director Tim. The halftime show had to be cut short for time.

I was not disappointed.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t have been happy to have gone only five steps up the ladder in performance … but I was also relieved … relieved of the opportunity to pitch off the thing and make the wrong kind of spectacle of myself with thousands of people watching and wondering.

Again, I didn’t go to Homecoming to stick out from the crowd. I went to Homecoming to be in the alumni band, in and amongst my friends, old and new. And that’s what happened, and as usual, it was glorious.

Not *quite* the end of the tale, though.

Rewind a few hours: just before the rehearsal had finished, director Tim was doing a series of last announcements – where to meet, where to go, what time, where to sit in the stands, all the non-glamorous details – and then I heard him get the band ready to do its final traditional end-of-rehearsal call-and-response thing. And I realized he was explaining to the assembled graduates and undergraduates that this former drum major guy from 1987 over here is going to lead it.

He’s what now?

I didn’t focus on this till afterward: while his noted predecessor always asked the band, “how are your FEET?, stomach, chest, shoulders, etc.?” so they could then shout about being Together, In, Out, Back, etc. … Tim has since handed that duty off to his drum majors. And he was handing it off now.

He didn’t have to do that, either. But he did. And it was very kind.

And yeah, even as I picked up my tenor afterward, and spent the rest of the day cheerfully and properly communing with great band-alum friends … I kinda did appreciate the gesture.

 

 

P.S. I am fully in control of my verb tenses at all times. In case you wondered.

P.P.S. But not in control of my sentence lengths.

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October 26, 2017 Posted by | band, drum major, friends, marching band, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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.

Heights.

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