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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

40 Years of “My Way”

[Ed. note: This piece was first published yesterday on the UMass marching band alumni website. You can see it, complete with illustrations and video links, here.  I was thrilled to be asked to write what turned out to be something of an historical research paper.]

 

Every tradition has an origin story.

The problem is, most often those origins are really difficult to pin down.

In the middle of some marching season, some year, the flute section begins to march doubletime at a certain moment in the percussion cadence … or the tubas decide to march separately from the rest of the brass block and call it a “tuba tail” … or the band plays a particular stands tune at a particular time in a couple of football games in a row and suddenly it seems like it happens that way all the time, without fail.

But rarely can anyone identify the moment a tradition becomes a tradition. Even more difficult to pinpoint who had the idea in the first place.

Not in this case, though.

In celebrating “40 Years of ‘My Way’,” the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band marks four decades of a perhaps inevitable tradition that had a very specific start date … encouraged by a very specific person.

On September 16, George Parks, 57, died en route to Michigan with the band – on a long shot ‘pinnacle’ performance he somehow made happen at the 110,000-seat Big House at [the] University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – like he made everything happen for all his years at the helm.

George and the band had stopped in Ohio to give a performance and to sleep, and George saw them through the show, led them in his favorite, ‘My Way’ (whose lyrics include: ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…’). Then he stepped down from the stage and collapsed of a heart attack.”

– author Betty Londergan, in her article “The Music Man of UMass”, published on her blog, “What Gives”, September 21, 2010

A heartbreaking coincidence. …Maybe.

 

Entering the fall of 1978, in his second year as Minuteman Marching Band director, George Parks decided he needed some sort of closing song for his band’s performances. From his own college marching experience, with the band at West Chester State College, he drew a version of Paul Anka’s anthem “My Way”, written for and most famously performed by Frank Sinatra. The arrangement, written by James H. Burden (who regularly arranged music for the West Chester marching band, as well as a little group called the Penn State Blue Band), was originally performed at a moderate tempo, to the accompaniment of a gentle marching percussion backbeat. But when Parks brought it to UMass, he eliminated most of the battery parts and turned the song back into a ballad, and soon presented it to the UMass community, with the help of the band, as something of a hymn.

Since then, at the close of the majority of its performances, the Minuteman Marching Band has gathered in a tightly-packed formation and played “My Way.” The band plays a verse in a quiet brass and woodwind chorale setting; sings a verse; and finishes with a playout that is slightly faster and a whole lot louder … immediately after which the battery percussion fire up their cadence, and the band exits the venue. For it seems, as long as anyone can remember, the same thing has happened, every show. Tradition.

Or very nearly the same thing. The original lengthy, trumpet-screamer ending was given a gentle rewrite by then-graduate assistant Michael Klesch ’90 M.M. The song’s performance tempo has slowed noticeably over the years. The sung portion (in recent years) has begun to include a few extra exclamatory additions. When current director Timothy Todd Anderson recognized tradition and left the the leading of “My Way” to Associate Director Thomas P. Hannum ’84 M.M., the conducting style, the “look” of the song, understandably changed a little. And, compared with renditions from the early 1980s, the length of the trombone section’s final, iconic three-note, octave-leap figure is now drastically slower.

As “My Way” has evolved, the band’s presentation of the song remains an encore that, in just under two and a half minutes, presents audiences with all the elements of a great, entertaining band performance (short, perhaps, of a mace toss).

But it’s become much more than that. And, one suspects, this is not at all accidental.

 

It’s not just a nice melody with pretty chords.

And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain / 
My friend, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain / 
I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / But more, much more than this / I did it my way

Parks fretted, in front of students at his what turned out to be his final summer Drum Major Academy session in 2010, that the lyrics to “My Way” were maybe a little selfish. (He wasn’t alone. Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina has said that her father “always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”) But Parks wove an affecting defense for why he preferred not to think of those lyrics as emblematic of self-absorption, so much as representative of self-discovery and self-confidence. Those, after all, were characteristics which he was helping DMA students to work toward: “you can’t do this job without a LITTLE bit of ego. Just don’t let it control you”).

Further, one can make a case that some “My Way” lyrics, ones which the band has never sung, might serve to illuminate Parks’ work and relationships with the UMass band. In the mid-1980s, he created a video montage of UMMB scenes, partly to the accompaniment of the original Sinatra “My Way” recording. The lyrics, likely by no accident, lined up with certain visuals: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew / When I bit off more than I could chew”, sang Sinatra, over the sight of the UMMB, in a Washington, DC snow squall, videotaping a short clip for ABC-TV’s 1981 Presidential Inauguration coverage — the “Happy Morning America” moment (ask a mid-1980s alum for details). And “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried / I’ve had my fill, my share of losing / And now, as tears subside / I find it all so amusing”, was the backing track for scenes of mid-1980s UMMB seniors shedding tears after their last postgame show.

 

Perhaps the largest part of the “My Way” tradition have been the connections that the song helps to foster. The connection between the UMMB and its audiences – home football audiences know that “My Way” is coming, and don’t leave the stadium until they hear it; and audiences that are newer to the UMass band experience quickly discover that … marching bands sometimes sing.

The connection among UMMB members – metaphorically and actually – as they gather even closer to one another and sing together.

The connection between the “baby band” and its alumni – a great many of whom have taken part in that same UMMB tradition – have played and sung that same arrangement; and now stand and sing and sway arm-in-arm, just as they did in their college years. With each other and with the current membership – in a relatively-new decade-old tradition – all together on the field at Homecoming.

And the connection between the UMMB and the high school bands who have the chance to watch a UMass show – when the “My Way” performance tells them that “band is a place for everyone” – and that it can be a refuge, a haven of great support and affection. And that it’s okay to show those feelings, in public.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to just the Pioneer Valley.

[Natasha Stollmack’s] most memorable high school experiences revolve around the Blue Devil marching band. ‘Attending Drum Major Academy at the Univ. of Massachusetts over the summer was a life-changing experience. DMA is a camp geared towards student leaders in band programs, and it was led by UMass’ incredible marching band director George N. Parks.’

Ms. Stollmack and [her] fellow drum majors quickly took a liking to Mr. Parks during the week they worked together at the camp. The group promised to keep in touch with him throughout their competitive season. … With warm memories of the relationship they developed with the legendary college marching band leader still fresh in their minds, the Huntington quartet was jolted during the opening weeks of school.

“’In mid-September, [Huntington director Brian] Stellato called us all down in the morning and shared with us the awful news of his passing,’ Ms. Stollmack said … ‘We were all shocked and devastated. We treated the rest of the season sort of as a tribute to him. I arranged a surprise performance of the song ‘My Way,’ which is the piece that UMass’ marching band shows always end with. The kids played it at the home show and it brought Mr. Stellato and the four of us to tears. It was one of my proudest moments of the season, seeing us all come together like that, most of the kids not even knowing who this man was. But they did it ‘with pride.’ That phrase that we use now is ‘because of Parks’. At the Carrier Dome, we had the most amazing performance in all of my years in the program. The four of us could barely keep our composure up on the podiums! I couldn’t have dreamed of a better group than this one. I love them all so much.’”

from an article posted on the Huntington (NY) Public Schools’ website, March 2011

And the “My Way” formula has found success in at least one other college-band environment.

In 1995, UMMB Hall of Famer Heidi Sarver ’86, ’88 M.M. was named director of the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band. Almost immediately, she began looking for a similar melody to utilize – to foster similar connectional impact to “My Way” – with her new band. Not long into that fall marching season, she came upon John Lennon’s “In My Life.” This author crafted an arrangement that followed the “My Way” play-sing-play structure, and condensed the original lyrics into a single verse. That arrangement is now in its 24th season of use by the Blue Hen Marching Band.

 

Two decades earlier, George Parks had brought “My Way” to UMass, in all likelihood, with a very good idea of what the song and its performances might become. He might not have predicted how important it would turn out to be, the very first time it was “performed” after his passing in 2010.

THURSDAY [September 16, 2010; gymnasium, Cuyahoga Falls HS, Ohio]


“People first sat on their sleeping bags, most with a hand over their mouth and a look of horror in their eyes. … Eventually people made their way towards each other and sobbed as they held each other close. … The band formed a huge circle over 380 people in the gym and started to hum ‘My Way.’ The hums became choking words as the singing got louder:

“’And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain
 / My friends, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
 / I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / And more, much more than this / I did it my way’

The lyrics of our beloved band song we perform at every game suddenly took on a whole new meaning as the band acknowledged the fact that this was the last song Mr. Parks ever conducted.

“… Many phone calls were made and the decision was made that we would continue on to Michigan. It was Mr. Parks’ dream to perform in Michigan Stadium with the UMMB and the Michigan marching band and that was what we were going to do.”

from “A Performance We Will Never Forget,” by Alyssa Berkowitz ’12, Monday, September 20, 2010

Over the course of forty years, George Parks’ way has become the way of the Minuteman Band.

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October 18, 2018 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Credit Where Credit is Due

Here’s a scenario:

So you’re new on the job, leading an organization with a certain amount of history and tradition; and of all the members of the organization, you’re the only new person. Everybody else all know each other; they all know how things have been done before; and the organization’s past successes have only cemented the feeling that the main job of the new leadership should be … just keeping things going exactly as they have been going for a very long time, and everything will be fine.

And of course as the new person you’re just looking to survive, never mind thrive.

Naturally you will wish to prove you’re the best person for the job.

Starred Thought: Prove you’re the best person for the job.

And also, if you are any kind of strong personality, or if you are the kind of person that possesses even a tiny bit of confidence, you will wish to demonstrate that you have a vision for the future direction of the organization.

And through all this you are walking a tightrope: I want to prove myself! And I don’t want to alienate people.

Starred Thought: It takes ten years to build a program; it takes just one to destroy it.

Starred Thought: Be a builder, not a wrecker.

So you look around, keep your eyes and ears open, make an effort to listen carefully to all the stakeholders and all the constituencies (or at least give that impression!), learn as much as you can about the history of the organization.

Starred Thought: Look for past traditions to uphold.

And you discover that, for weal or for woe, the members of your organization are really really fond of the previous leadership. You also discover that some of them are a little bit more passionate about this fondness, and about expressing this fondness, than is sometimes comfortable. You do your best to reconcile this enthusiasm with your interest in moving the organization forward, Toward The Future.

It is a hard tightrope to walk. A ridiculously hard tightrope. Especially if your predecessor happens to be seen as legendary.

So, at least at the outset, you play the game.

Starred Thought: If you act the part long enough, you become it.

In those first few moments of your time as the leader of this organization, what you don’t do is – in private or in public – dump on those that came before you. Whether you’re firmly confident in your abilities, or you quietly think to yourself, “what in the world kind of bear trap have I gotten myself into?” You don’t take shots at the people who have done your job before you … whether they’re legendary for good reasons or bad.

Starred Thought: The easiest way to mask insecurity is to cut other people down.

And so, you don’t. Especially in the very early stages of your time there, you make sure to go out of your way to publicly appreciate the foundation that previous leaders have laid, so that you can have this amazing opportunity to contribute to the long line of successes that have characterized the organization.

Starred Thought: Support people before they’ve demonstrated support for you.

So, you give credit where credit is due.

 

Here’s a new wrinkle to this scenario:

You are now several years into your time as leader of this organization. You’ve begun to find successes that you can call your own. Some of them are very, very significant – feathers in the cap, to say the least.

You might consider (or you might not) that now, finally, the time may have come when you don’t need to trumpet the accomplishments and the legacy of the leadership that came before you. After all, living in the past isn’t always a great strategy for moving Toward The Future. Appreciating and recognizing the past, yes, but not getting mired in it.

And yet the membership of the organization still hangs on to the legacy. Not in such a way that they’re dumping on you, no indeed … they’re just remembering fondly … but very very often there are references, remembrances, big and small, that continue to canonize the leadership that came before you.

Starred Thought: You can’t do this job without a LITTLE bit of ego.

Be honest. After five or six or eight years, wouldn’t you start to get a bit weary of it? No matter how much the remembrances emphasize the wonderful foundation that you are now getting to build upon. Can you honestly say you absolutely would never even think, quietly, in the most tucked-away corner of yourself, “…can we just ease up about that?” We’re five or six or eight years on now, after all. Is it not time to turn our eyes Toward The Future?

And is it unreasonable for people to allow you (the not-really-so-new-anymore leadership) to have this tiny thought? To allow you, with your growing record of leadership, to begin to shift the focus back in your direction? Or at least not to focus quite so hard on your predecessor’s?

I think it’s probably not unreasonable.

With all this in mind: I’ve become impressed with a particular gentleman’s willingness and ability to play this complicated game, to play it well … and to play it with respect for so many members of an organization, some of whom may not always have responded entirely in kind.

Starred Thought: To be a leader is to do the uncomfortable thing.

And one event in the last couple of days suddenly stood out to me: both as an example of this willingness and ability to play a very tough game, and as evidence that this gentleman all along has had the confidence to play it very well.

 

Two afternoons ago was the last weekday rehearsal of the UMass Minuteman Marching Band before the eighth anniversary of its previous leader’s passing. There have been eight September 16ths during which the current Minuteman Band leader has had to navigate those potentially treacherous waters.

Friday afternoon, the current director of the Band carved out a few minutes at the end of rehearsal so that the band could play “My Way”, the song that the Band’s previous director had established as a UMass band tradition.

Band members and alumni know that in general, they don’t really rehearse “My Way” after band camp is over; they just play it. At the end of most every public performance. Which means they play it a lot, but don’t use rehearsal time during the regular semester on it. (There’s too much else to spend that valuable time on.) So when they do break it out during the week, it’s at least as rare an occurrence as them not playing it after a gig.

The current band director sent his associate director to the podium to conduct the song. Which is now standard practice – the current director yielded that duty to that associate director almost immediately after his arrival at UMass. I imagine that his logic was something like, “that associate director, having been at UMass for more than three decades, can easily be seen as a comforting link to the past, through taking over the reins of this particular band tradition”.

There are people who, in that situation, might not have had that thought.

More publicly than a weekday band rehearsal, right from his first home football game at UMass, the current leader of the Minuteman Band has gone out of his way to acknowledge and appreciate that associate director in public performance settings. He’s pointed out to many, many audiences how important this new (now not-so-new) colleague of his has been, and is, to the Band.

Starred Thought: Saying “thank you” to someone else makes them feel like a million bucks, but it doesn’t cost you a penny.

And the current director of the Minuteman Band has made it a point to recognize and appreciate the legacy of his predecessor. Not just at Homecoming, when band alumni are all around and it would be politically expedient to do so … but consistently, time after time, opportunity after opportunity.

Giving credit where credit is due.

He could have decided not to do so at all.

He could have decided to do so for awhile, and then decrescendo, because after all, it’s been five or six or eight years now.

Instead, he decided to do so … and keep on doing so. Whether by invoking the name of his predecessor specifically … or by acknowledging the associate director gentleman who was at his predecessor’s side for three decades and more … or by putting in the effort, caring and love required to move the organization forward, Toward The Future – and preserving that legacy in the process.

Starred Thought: Go out of your way to treat people kindly.

If you’ve seen and heard the Minuteman Marching Band at the Rose Parade this past January, or at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City a few years ago, or at Gillette Stadium last weekend, or at any relatively mundane home football gig since autumn 2011, you’ve seen a band that plays and moves in an entirely familiar way. The Band’s sound and look, its style, its personality, its impact(!!) still carries with it the spirit of George Parks.

 

It’s a credit to the legions of band alumni that they’re devoted enough to the George Parks legacy that they have been willing to be vocal about not wanting to just push that legacy, that history, those traditions, aside.

It’s a credit to George Parks, and to associate director Thom Hannum, that their effort and caring and love for the Minuteman Band organization was more than fervent enough to inspire reciprocal effort and caring and love from their alumni.

And: it’s a credit to Timothy Todd Anderson that he has been willing to face more than a few slings and arrows, has walked that ridiculous tightrope, and has still doggedly, consistently, genuinely acknowledged and recognized the Minuteman Band’s past leadership, in the persons of George Parks and Thom Hannum especially, that has laid the foundation … so that he can maintain and continue the Band’s success, in an entirely recognizable form, out here In The Future.

Gotta give the guy credit.

Credit where credit is due.

September 16, 2018 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Way

Not long ago, I happened upon a YouTube video of a TED Talk, and the end of the thing got me to thinking a bit. Which, according to what TED Talks purport to be, is kinda the point.

These TED Talk things can be anywhere from profound to pretentious – behold, an eight-minute speech by someone who wishes to present Big Ideas! – which is to say, they can be hit or miss. Some deliver the goods, some don’t (in my estimation; take my opinion or leave it).

This particular Talk was presented by a Australian standup comedian called Alice Fraser, a performer of whom I wasn’t aware until probably a month ago or so, which is not her fault. She is funny in an understated manner that I appreciate a lot.

Ms. Fraser’s Talk begins with some fairly smart commentary on Cosmopolitan magazine quizzes and supermodel attributes, moves into a riff on mourning via a story about an odd funeral that she went to once, and then dances around the topic of public restrooms and their purpose (you had to be there, I guess), before swerving suddenly into the Good Bit.

This week, that Good Bit, the last segment of the Talk, got my attention mainly because of what time of the year it is now.

Hold on, I’ll explain.

Here’s a transcript of Alice Fraser’s last, Good Bit.

I feel maybe closer to death than a lot of people, because my Mum has been dying since before I was born. She was diagnosed with MS at twenty-five; and my whole life has been marked by a series of visits to hospital, increasingly often and of increasing seriousness, where parts of my Mum were stripped away. Every part – her balance, her ability to use her hands very well, her ability to go to the toilet properly – all of these things were stripped away; and every time, you think, ‘is that the part of the person [that has gone,] after which she is no longer a person? Memory; her love of books; her articulacy [If that’s not a word, it should be. -Ed.]; all of these things, one after the other, they go away. And every time, you think, ‘this is grief. This is mourning. This is death,’ –and it’s not. It’s not; she’s still there.

And, this is the thing: when somebody’s dying, and you know that they’re dying, what do you say to them? You say, ‘I love you’. You say ‘I love you’ a lot, a lot more than you need to. It’s not like she doesn’t know that I love her; of course she knows that I love her. It’s because you know beyond a certain point you won’t be able to say it anymore.

So how do we deal? We don’t deal with even simple grief, and we don’t have a way of dealing with complicated grief. And I’m not a particularly religious person; my Dad was Jewish, my Mum was Catholic, I was brought up Buddhist. I’m oppressed, repressed, and depressed. [laughter; gentle applause] BUT, the reality is, we’re all dying. Some of us are more dying than others. And the only thing that I can think of that’s worth doing, when somebody dies … is taking that last part of them, the part of them you remember the most – for my Mum, it’s her infinite sweetness and her care for other people – other people, it might be other things – and that one thing is what I want to do now. It’s what I want to practice. It’s what I want to get better at. It’s what I want to take forward, into my life. …

And the only way of remembering somebody, the only way of carrying them forward into your life, is by picking one thing, and doing that thing.

Thank you.”

 

It’s coming toward seven years, now, since the unexpected passing of George N. Parks, who was my college marching band director but a lot of other people’s too. Every early September since 2010, along with those other people, the community of people who were his students … as well as an extended community of people who weren’t UMass marchers but were his students too, or were affected by him in some way … we have all (collectively and individually) settled on different ways at different times to commemorate, or honor, or emulate, or carry on his legacy … or mourn. Sometimes somber, sometimes rooted in the humorous; sometimes looking back with sadness or smiles or both, sometimes looking forward with trust or trepidation or both. One year, the focus seemed to be on the funny stories. Another year, it was making note of the ways in which we (collectively and individually) continue to live our lives #BecauseOfGNP.

Ms. Fraser’s thesis may not fit this situation exactly, only because Mr. Parks’ passing was sudden, rather than gradual … there was exactly zero time to prepare, to work out how we were going to carry on that hypothetical “last part of them, that you remember the most”.

As well, as with many (arguably, hopefully all) people in the world, there may not be just one last part of someone that you remember the most. I was trying to think, what was that last part of Mr. Parks that I remembered the most? Intense performer; caring teacher; all those Starred Thoughts… By the time I’d thought for only a moment, I’d come up with many more than just the one part, and how do you narrow it down? And if you do, you leave off some other part of how he lived his life that seems worth not leaving off.

Four years ago at this time, I wrote a blog post in this space called “Lift Up … Up Up Up Up Up”, which was “three short stories that may offer some idea about just why George Parks impressed the hell out of me.”

The first story’s moral was: “Starred Thought®: Go out of your way to treat people kindly.”

The second story was about taking time to pay attention to people, and care for them, whether you’ve known them forever or you’ve just met them; and its moral was: “Starred Thought®: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The third story was about some sage professional advice about not throwing in the metaphorical towel, and its moral was: “Starred Thought®: To become a great teacher: 1. get a response, 2. care.”

The three stories, lumped together, described just how skilled George Parks was at holding other people up, lifting them up, propping them up when necessary. So, four years ago, that was my “last part” to carry forward into the world. But still, I end up considering the many other ways GNP made everybody around him better …

I am large; I contain multitudes.”

The song Mr. Parks brought to his band … the one which his band has in turn brought to its audiences for thirty-three years and more … said, “more, much more than this, I did it my way.” Which, as it turns out, is curious, if not ironic: with him, unless you only ever saw him at football games, there wasn’t just one single way that he reached out to people – not one single facet, not one single approach that was obviously dominant, obviously his way.

So everybody has their particular way of remembering. Everybody takes a different “thing” (if they even can narrow it down to just one thing) from Mr. Parks’ presence and effect on our lives.

Which may actually be the best “last part” to take forward, into our lives.

September 16, 2017 Posted by | GNP, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , | Leave a comment