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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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.

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

Safe As Band Rooms

This week, quite a number of people in my FB world will return to their musical ensembles – scholastic or church-related or community groups or whatever – stand in front of them, and try to find something to say that addresses the place we find our nation in. Not an easy job. (No easier is the job of the people who will return to their music – or other! – classrooms and try to find the right thing to say to their elementary and pre-school-aged charges. That’s certain.)

I will, too. So, I’ve been thinking furiously (and you may take that however you like). I’ve been remembering ensembles I’ve been a member of, throughout my life, and drawing inspiration from them.

Here’s what I think I would say to any of the ensembles that I get to work with. Here’s what I think I would say to any ensemble I’ve EVER gotten to work with — because there are groups full of people from my recent and distant past that I’ve been thinking of in the last day or so, as well, who happen to be wonderful people but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They all were – are – PERSONS, and as such deserve respect unconditionally.

Deep breath.

I feel like I have to say this, in this moment; but I also feel like there’s no need to say this, generally, because you all know this already; but I also feel like it’s worth saying at all times.

In this ensemble, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what instrument you play or what flag you wave or what voice part you sing, no matter whether you read music well or somewhat or not at all… no matter what…

When you are on this field, in this choir room, on this stage… you are IMPORTANT… you are WELCOME… and you are SAFE.”

Effectively, that’s what George Parks said (by way of his actions), for all those years. It’s what newly-minted NafME GNP Leadership Award winner Thom Hannum has done for all of his years – and specifically, valiantly demonstrated six years ago when a particular bereft band needed it the very most. It’s what was shown to me and to anyone within reach, by all the band directors and choir directors that I’ve ever played or sung for. And I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and for, a pleasant number of friends who are stellar band and choir directors, and they all personify that sentiment.

As role models go, they’re all far better than some of the public figures we’re fixated on now.

November 9, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, CCSUMB, choir, current events, GNP, HCMB, heroes, music, news, politics, SUMC, teachers, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment