Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Attitudes and Mannerisms

I read a New York Times article this afternoon that gave me pause. It also made me pleased that I wasn’t standing at that moment in a war zone, although I would have been pleased about that in any case.

It was about Blackwater, the company which was sub-contracted to provide protection to US government personnel at the beginning of our government’s foray into Iraq, eleven years ago. It was about an investigation into Blackwater’s activity in Iraq, specifically whether it had done some things badly, as well as whether it had done some bad things it shouldn’t have done at all, and on top of which whether the company’s personnel had taken a literal and metaphorical oath of loyalty to someone or some company that might put them into conflict with the people they were protecting.

And it was all very unnerving. In part, because guys holding automatic weapons can be unnerving even if they don’t actively mean to be. And guys holding automatic weapons who appear to be beholden to a company and not the government personnel they’re supposed to be protecting can be very unnerving.

It can also be even more unnerving when other government people come to investigate them, to see if reports of them doing bad things are true … and the guy in charge of the guys holding the automatic weapons basically tells the investigators to scram, but not before telling them that he “could kill them at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it”.

Unnerving, comma, very very.

From the Times article:

The next day, the two men [Richter and Thomas, the government inspectors] met with Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss the investigation, including a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Mr. Carroll barked that Mr. Richter could not tell him what to do about his cafeteria, Mr. Richter’s report said. The Blackwater official went on to threaten the agent and say he would not face any consequences, according to Mr. Richter’s later account.

Mr. Carroll said that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq, Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit.

Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine, Mr. Richter stated in his memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.

He added that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.”

Great heavens. Sounds like dialogue from a movie scene – the sort of scene that features a frowning Benedict Cumberbatch using that low, even tone of voice, and having that slightly lowered head and those fixed eyes. (I have no idea why that analogy should come to me.)

I have observed this phenomenon, the effect of attitudes and mannerisms equal to or greater than that of mere words.

Not in any situations involving automatic weapons, you understand; no indeed. Rather, happily, I’ve observed the truth of that last sentence in far more positive ways than negative.

I’ve seen groups – musical ensembles and others – whose way of operating clearly drew encouragement and inspiration and direction from their leadership.

That can cut both ways.

You may read that last sentence in the context of a performing ensemble which makes sloppy-sounding music and in which not everyone wears all their uniform parts correctly, or at all – and its director looks and acts the part, as well.

Or you may read it in the context of one of the world’s elite soccer teams, which meets an upstart’s challenge, plays well, and wins an important single-elimination-round match – after which many of its coaches and players strive valiantly to console the losing team’s seemingly inconsolable, openly weeping star player.

The members of each of those groups may have tended toward those behaviors anyway, to start with … but, one would suspect, their coaches or teachers or leaders or mentors will have encouraged – indeed, modeled – them, consistently.

As my grandmother used to say, “It ain’t off the ground they licked it.”

I once heard a saying: technology isn’t good or bad – it’s what you do with it. It’s the direction toward which you take it. And in this case, as the great Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser has said, “you will move in the direction of your attitude – positive or negative”.

I take all this as a healthy reminder, as I head into the summer drum major clinic teaching season, that a teacher is on stage every moment (except, perhaps, after the students have been properly room-checked and lights are out and we’re all on our isolated staff floor and giggling like idiots at some silly joke because we’re a little tuckered out from the day’s exertions but we don’t want to go to bed yet ourselves even though we really, really, really should).

And a sizable majority of what we show the people in our organizations comes from what we do and how we do it – not so much from what we say, although how we say it matters too.

I’m thankful to have been brought up in organizations whose leadership took me in what I would consider a very positive direction.

Such as, but not limited to: the summer arts program that will celebrate its 45th anniversary at the end of this week, with a staff reunion that will doubtless feature a whole lot of people remembering a whole lot of accomplishments and friendship and fun. And there’s a reason why the atmosphere of the place, at the very least in the 1980s when I was a camper and then a counselor, was so supportive of our efforts and our camaraderie, and it wasn’t a mystical haze of good luck; it was Priscilla Dewey.

Such as, but not limited to: the college marching ensemble which – on its way to winning a Sudler Award and participating in Presidential inaugurations and national band competitions and a Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade – has turned out a great many of the finest people I know, as professionals and people, whether they’re my lifelong friends or people that I still admire from afar, having never actually met (and the kind of people who would gather to accomplish things like this). It wasn’t an accident; it was (in great measure) George Parks.

Such as, but not limited to: … … well hi Mom! And Dad. (And my grandmother, she of the Killer Quote.)

Because it could all tip the wrong way. Matters could become at least sloppy and at worst truly awful, unless we pay attention and work on pointing people the right way, consciously and attentively.

Take a deep breath … look around to see who needs your help … treat people well … and the curriculum may not take care of itself but it’ll have a much stronger foundation on which to stand.

And far less unnerving.


July 7, 2014 Posted by | CRCAP, current events, DMA, education, GNP, news, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It Takes A Band

For a guy whose job as a music teacher and professional musician includes getting up in front of people and drawing their attention his way … my personality isn’t given to heights of “Lookit Meeeeee!” I’ve forced myself to learn how not to be UNcomfortable in these situations, or at least how to appear so; but it’s not my first instinct.

When I directed the bands at Holy Cross several years ago, part of the gig included standing on a five-foot-high podium at the fifty-yardline in front of a field formation full of marching musicians, or standing at the base of a set of bleachers full of pep band players, and in either case waving my arms madly – both to conduct the bands and to incite the crowds of sports fans to get up and clap along and sing along and say Yay. Usually the number of spectators was, um, more than a few. When I got to be one of the drum majors of the UMass band, the public face of that job was pretty similar.

People who knew me as a sixth-grade shy person would be startled to learn that I found a way to feign industrial-strength unselfconsciousness.

So, on two different weekends this month, I was given cause to revisit that situation: “everybody’s starin’ at ya. You are the main focus. Whatcha gonna do?”

The impetus for those instances? An astronomically rare set of circumstances.


It’s not often, if ever, that someone is offered the honor that I received this week. It’s certainly rare to receive this particular honor, in any field, twice. It’s some kind of ridiculous oddity to receive the honor twice in the same month.

Well, here I am: a statistical oddity.

On two separate days in September, I received an eMail from a college band director, asking if I could attend a ceremony that essentially was going to be all about the greater glory of me. I was brought up to be a humble and modest person, so my blood pressure immediately rose a bit at this. The basic idea of each of the eMails was: we’re pleased to let you know that we’ve made you a member of our organization’s Hall of Fame.

The word “thunderstruck” turns out to be really apt.

Each of these messages indicated that the nomination and election process was driven largely by band alumni input. Very honestly, this may have been the best thing about these eMails. Comforting to consider that a mutual admiration society was in place within the Holy Cross band alumni community, since I know I thought the world of the students with whom I got to work, there. And I got a sense, by way of ensuing conversations with a couple of my friends from the UMass world, that more than one alum took the time to submit a nomination with my name on it. To say I was humbled … would have been a good start, at least.

In this space, I have taken more than one opportunity to appreciate the people with whom I got to share band experiences, many of whom have remained my friends and colleagues since (and happily I expect these friendships to be filed under “lifelong”), and many of whom contributed to band performances that allowed me the rare and reverberating experience of hearing 250- to 350-member musical ensembles play my arrangements. Those tunes until then had only been theoretical, as I sat in front of my little computer and worked the controls of its music notation software, in a little tiny room by myself. (Which, in the musical world, is probably the most comfortable place for a shy person.)

So, three Saturdays ago, the HC band folks set up a little ceremony during halftime of their Homecoming game to make note of the latest addition to their list of Hall of Fame people. Curiously, the planned PA announcement didn’t materialize (technical difficulties, perhaps); you may not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t heartsick or devastated. The induction moment might not have meant a whole lot to most of the several thousand football fans present that day … but what was important to me was jumping on the podium to conduct HC’s alma mater one more time with lots of “my” alumni out there in the band formation. One more opportunity to make some music together, PA announcement or no. We all knew what was going on, anyway.

And then this past Friday night, as intermission of UMass’s “Multibands” concert began, I made my way from my seat to the backstage area (excuse me pardon me, excuse me pardon me, comin’ through, hot soup!, excuse me pardon me) and got to spend a bit of time with the UMass band leadership, including a gentleman whose praises I’ve sung before, and I’m happy to sing them again here.

Of course, the UMass band director from my era, George Parks, did great amounts of work to create an organization in which its members could find opportunities to contribute, and achieve, and excel, and even prepare for careers in that very field. But the opportunities that became available to me – the chance to play at being a drum major of a 250-member band, the chance to write arrangements for that ensemble and its associated basketball band and subsequently for many other groups at many scholastic levels – were made available through the efforts, encouragement, and generosity of the band’s current associate director, Thom Hannum.

If Thom hadn’t agreed to have the “Hoop Band” sightread a little pencil-sketch arrangement written by my scrawny 19-year-old self (…sight unseen!), and subsequently encouraged me to keep on writing … if he hadn’t helped Mr. Parks to understand that this Hammerton kid should help write the chart that would become the band’s “Bandstand Boogie” percussion feature shortly after I graduated … if Thom hadn’t pushed for me to have the chance to contribute to the “Hook” field production that UMass took to its first Bands of America appearance …

… then we’re looking at an alternate-universe episode of this show in which the main character’s professional career is very different and possibly not so satisfying. It might not even be a career in music. And it definitely doesn’t include the opportunity to direct the Holy Cross bands, and to form relationships with all those people.

Ultimately, it was best that there was no requirement for me to say a single word while I stood on the UMass stage. I’d have babbled. It might not have been a Hall of Fame moment. Instead, I unconsciously assumed the band’s at-the-ready position, while Thom offered a few paragraphs which represented some of the kindest words that I have been accorded, ever.

But if “speech!” had been called for, I was prepared to say something I’ve known for a long time: any successes I’ve had in the areas of music education and music arranging have been a direct result of the impact made on me by people I marched with, friends I made, student- and professional-staff members who taught the concepts and set the example … and of course, George Parks and Thom Hannum, who stand at the head of that very lengthy roster.


There are people out there who have said it takes a village to raise a child. My experience in the field of education demonstrates to me every day just how many people are working behind the scenes to help young people get where they’re going. It surely is true that baseball or basketball or football players don’t get a plaque or a statue in Cooperstown or Springfield or Canton, all by themselves. Even in individual sports like golf and tennis, the athletes who get enshrined in halls of notoriety didn’t become as successful as they did without parents and teachers and coaches and legions of other helpful people.

In my extremely fortunate case, it has taken a whole band community to surround an otherwise shy and retiring person and offer him opportunities to find successes as a professional musician … and more importantly, to create an environment where he felt supported enough – safe enough – to find them.

But I need to publicly thank Thom Hannum for heading that list.

October 21, 2013 Posted by | band, GNP, Hoop Band, marching band, teachers, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Seems I have a little bit of experience, now, with the passing of important figures in my professional life. And this afternoon, along came word that another passing had occurred. And the one who is no longer with us played a very large role in helping me think that maybe I could be a journalist when I grew up … and then, later, that maybe I could become a music teacher.

Other people who might write this essay would replace “journalist” or “music teacher” with “textile artist”, “documentary filmmaker”, “dance teacher”, “motion picture special effects designer”, “puppeteer”, “playwright”, “photographer” … or, yes, “Broadway star”. I know each and every one of those people (including the Broadway star), and many more besides.

Not an easy feat. In how many different disciplines would one have to be proficient in order to have so many students going in so many different directions?

As it turns out, Priscilla Dewey only had to be proficient in one.


In 1978, I was a twelve-year-old kid, going to summer camp for the first time in my life, and not too thrilled about it. I think my previous few summer vacations had consisted largely of me spending the days doing whatever fun thing struck me, all day, on pretty much my own schedule. Except perhaps if the family was going on a family vacation – but that was OK too.

Stereotypical day camp: Arts ‘n’ crafts. Obstacle courses. Groups of campers named after animals. Swimming. I had zero interest in any of it; in fact I’d taken swimming lessons a few summers prior to that — to no avail. So it was not going to be any kind of fun to have my summer weekdays wiped out by this.

After four weeks as a camper at the Charles River Creative Arts Program, I’d had my concept of day camp happily exploded in a thousand or so different directions.

Oh, early on in the month, I resisted. Even after the first week, during which I’d [1] taken part in the invention of a mad, mad, mad shadow-drama skit, [2] written an article for the camp newspaper, and [3] participated in my first fencing match, I still wasn’t sold on the concept of summer camp. Mysteriously, though, after the final day of the camp session – Arts Festival Day, which was a giant Presentation For The Parents (so they got some idea what their money was going toward, presumably) – I found myself immediately looking forward to the summer of 1979. Already, I could feel myself missing the campers who were suddenly my great friends, and the counselors who were so much fun (and pretty good at what they did, by the way).

During that first summer at CRCAP, I became aware of one person who clearly didn’t teach in any one of the subject areas that made up the camp’s curriculum – not art, or music, or dance, or writing or video or gymnastics (or the other sports that, too, were present in the camp course list) – but she was ever-present. Priscilla Dewey – known to most folks as “Nissy” – was the camp’s director, and she spent quite a bit of each camp day checking in with the various classes and activities that were taught throughout the several buildings of the private school campus that housed the summer program. This grandmotherly figure could very often be seen riding a relatively ancient bicycle from class to class, stopping to see what sort of showtune was being sung by 14- and 15-year-olds around a piano here, or what sort of painting or drawing was being created by an 8-year-old there, or what sort of improved tennis serve was being developed by 11- or 12-year-olds over there.

And all the time – constantly, consistently – she was encouraging all those kids to keep going, and to continue to pursue those activities that clearly interested them; and she was expressing almost starry-eyed wonder at the creativity that was happening. When members of the arts camp staff (myself included, years later) would try to do impersonations of Priscilla Dewey, the first phrases that would be used were always, “That’s wooonnnnnderful!” … “maaaaaarvelous!” … “faaaaaabulous!” … and in a sing-song tone of voice that might strike people as so relentlessly cheery and positive that it simply had to be phony. But it wasn’t.

[In fact, many years later, in reply to the publicity mailing that heralded the production of the first musical theater show I ever wrote – by a theater troupe established by, you guessed it, CRCAP-affiliated people – Nissy dashed off an eMail that said, and I quote verbatim: “Robbie, congratulations! How fabulous. It sounds so wonderful. Break a leg – I know you will!” She signed it, “Nissy”; but she didn’t have to. I’d have known who it was anyway.]

Nissy (whom I never ever called “Nissy” – it was always “Mrs. Dewey”, even after I graduated from college) didn’t teach any classes at the camp, at least not that I was ever aware of. I’m not sure, but I suspect that she would no more classify herself as a master musician, or painter, or filmmaker, or dancer, or poet, or photographer, or player of four-square (a major element of the camp’s athletic program!) … than she would classify herself as a jet plane.

What she did, in the early 1970s, was take her own enthusiasm for young people, and her considerable resources, and utilize them to create an environment for children to explore their artistic creativity. The discipline Nissy was proficient in was arts administration, but that’s a dry and clinical-sounding term. Her proficiency – her gift – was enthusiasm for, and belief in, the creativity of the humans around her.

She helped establish a summer arts program in which no activity was mandatory (so no, I didn’t have to take a swimming class); but where instead students were offered opportunities to explore the arts, to try new things, to use those experiences to develop interests in the arts … to hone skills related to the arts … to discover and express a love for the arts. All of which might set them on paths toward becoming lifelong participants, consumers and advocates of the arts, and, in more cases than are statistically likely, toward making the arts their profession. There are more than a hundred spin-off arts programs now in operation around the world that are built upon the model that started in 1970, in Dover, Massachusetts, under the enthusiastically watchful eye of Priscilla Dewey.

Just as importantly, every time she paused in her bicycling rounds to see what sort of weird or wonderful creative thing that campers or counselors were up to, we knew that she was genuinely interested in what we were doing, and who we were.

And in so doing, it’s fair to say that she was responsible for launching a lot of careers in the arts. For myself, I know that my first teaching and musical arranging experiences occurred at CRCAP. And, if my experience is anything to base a conclusion upon, she was responsible for a lot of lifelong friendships, as well. There are people, who operated both within and outside my areas of artistic interest, whose presence in my world I treasure, whom I never would have met had the creative environment that was (and still is) the Charles River Creative Arts Program not been established and nurtured.


Priscilla Dewey passed away today.

It’s a day of the kind which we couldn’t really imagine; or rather, although this day was inevitable (Mrs. Dewey was, after all, human), we just chose not to think about the world would be like without her in it somewhere.  Happily, on this very day, CRCAP is in business, chugging along in its usual second-week-of-the-summer fashion, in the midst of its 43rd season.  The foundation that was laid down turns out to be more than strong enough.

So. Godspeed, Mrs. Dewey. As legacies go, yours is a grand and significant one. It’s about creativity, and enthusiasm, and love. And I can imagine that perhaps you’ll no longer need that bicycle in order to get where you need to be, in order to see and enjoy what your legions of students are up to.

July 6, 2012 Posted by | arts, CRCAP, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments