Editorial License

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

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-Six: The Pen Is Mightier…

Yesterday’s writing prompt (there was a legit reason why I missed my deadline!):

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 26: “5 favorite blogs”.

As you perhaps have come to expect, I shall take one tiny liberty with this topic, if I may. Limiting this to just five favorite blogs is difficult. So I thought I’d list five favorite blogs written by people I know … and then five favorite blogs written by people I don’t know personally.

Still tough to get down to five each. But I shall bear up bravely…

 

By people I know:

A Different Kind of Beautiful”, a blog mainly about issues of music education from the perspective of my middle-school music teachin’ friend Joe Wright, who is down in the trenches all the time.

Sarv Blog”, the blog about Delaware music and Drum Major Academy thoughts and basset hounds and whatever else leaps to mind, by the estimable Prof. Heidi I. Sarver. I’ve linked to her posts a time or two here.

The blog section of the website of “J.H. Language Solutions”, a little business started up by Julie Gniadek, who in addition to being a pretty engaging writer and a standup citizen happens to be a former student of mine.

The blog section of the website of “Soothe Massage Therapy”, a little business started up by my friend (and erstwhile BU Band staff colleague) (and neighbor!, what are the odds?) Jenn Durkin. She never fails to make me snarf whatever I’m drinking as I read.

The eponymous blog of Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D. By day, a educator of educators at Seton Hall University. By night, a dogged blogger on the subject of Trends in Education Today, which means manning the parapets in defense of American public schools. Not only should he probably wear a cape and a cowl – that’s how hard he fights in support of the concept – but he wields that most insidious of weapons, actual research.

So go click on those links and give them the business! You won’t regret it.

 

And now for the folks I’d like to one day know personally (yeah, not super likely):

Steve Benen, the head writer of MaddowBlog, the online repository of all things goofy in politics attached to The Rachel Maddow Show. Eh, Benen or Maddow, I’ll take either.

Driftglass, a Midwest-based writer who for some time now has been wielding a pen in the effort to alert folks to various left-leaning political concepts. He’s a fun read, but it’s NSFW on the grounds of language. But he is impassioned, and thorough, and usually very funny.

The Rude Pundit … by day a community-college professor of literature; by night easily the filthiest writer of left-leaning and common-sensical political commentary that I’ve ever ever EVER read. If the aforementioned Driftglass is NSFW for reasons of language, The Rude Pundit is easily twenty times as NSFW for reasons of language and holy crap did he just write that?! If you click through and read, trust me when I tell you it’s not for the faint of heart, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. At the end of each article, you’ll be washing out your brain with soap, and I’m really seriously not joking about that … but there’s a great chance that if you can still form thoughts of your own, and you can peel away the layers of NSFW filth, foul and your filthin’ foul, your reaction may well be along the lines of “…yeah, but he’s right.”

(In the interest of maintaining a family blog-reading environment, I have linked you to one of his less profane recent articles. If you want to read the rest of his stuff … that’s on you. I’m serious. It’s great, but you may need a hazmat suit. Really. So why do I like his stuff? Because this is a decent person writing in an indecent manner.)

The blog section of Bear McCreary‘s website. McCreary is the film and TV composer responsible for scoring shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Human Target, and the Walking Dead. An absolute gold mine for a film-score nerd like what I am: he talks about things like orchestration and exotic instrumentation and the behind-the-scenes of film and TV musicmaking … and goes so far as to post notation of the various motifs he creates for various characters and concepts on the shows he writes for. It’s just dang cool.

And finally, the Politics Blog on Esquire.com, written nearly exclusively by the Boston area’s own local treasure, Charlie Pierce. If you’re a “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” listener, you occasionally get a little taste of his approach to current events. If you visit this blog, you’ll get five or six sharp, smart and very very funny politics essays a day. And sometimes his essays aren’t funny at all, but rather aggrieved and incredulous, and those are even better.

 

So. There ya go. People I try to take my literary cues from.

(Except the Rude Pundit. Zzzzzoiks.)

May 27, 2016 Posted by | blogging, Famous Persons, friends, Internet, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What, Me Worry?

I wasn’t worried when the bus lurched to one side, that fateful morning.

I was worried even before then.

This is a story of things that should have worried me, but didn’t. And a story of things that shouldn’t have worried me, but did.

There were more of the former than the latter, happily.

 

Some time during the 2004-05 school year, I got a phone message from my friend Heidi that said, approximately, “…Hey! Just got the football schedule for next year, and you’re on it. So. You comin’ down?”

At that moment, I was in my third year of directing the marching band at the College of the Holy Cross. Heidi was in her tenth year of directing the band at the University of Delaware.

At that moment, the Holy Cross band was a group of not quite forty absolutely sweet collegiate folks who were stalwart and sturdy marchers. At that moment, the Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band was a group of sweet college kids who were stalwart and sturdy, too; and they were also about ten times our size.

That might have worried some folks, but not me.

When I returned her call, my first question to Heidi was, “…do you know what a hell of a bad football game that’s gonna be?”

Delaware football was only about 15 months separated from its 2003 national championship win over Colgate University. Holy Cross played in the Patriot League, which long ago abandoned the silly idea of offering scholarship money for something like football. Perhaps you grasp the enormity of the challenge that faced the Crusaders?

Yeah, well,” she declared. “So should we schedule High School Band Night for that date? Get you a little more exposure.”

Hard to argue with that.

 

It wasn’t that the trip would have been lengthy. We had traveled to Bucknell University during that football season, and that took better than six hours on a bus. So.

It wasn’t the idea of our small-but-mighty band performing for lots of high school bands as well as the local home crowd. We’d had experience with that – the Bucknell game was their high-school band day, and after the trip was all over, I got a letter from Bucknell’s assistant athletic director, praising the band’s performance and good-natured spirit, and insisting that we were welcome to come back any time. So.

And the year before that, we’d gone out to UMass, to participate in their high-school band day, and that thing was full of just about 4,000 high school band kids, and Holy Cross wasn’t even the football opponent. So.

(Thanks to a number of happenings that day that were anywhere from inconvenient to too-sweaty to logistically-confusing to a-really-long-day, I took a bit of flak for the trip from some of my charges … but honestly I didn’t really factor those in. Partly because: look, kids, a Saturday football game when you’re in band is inconvenient, is sweaty, and takes up a whole day. And honestly, in spite of what it looked like from the field, surrounded by a sea of other band uniforms worn by people rather younger than you … hey gang, UMass has that Band Day organization thing down to a science, really. And didn’t you guys get a chance to perform at postgame, by your lonesomes, when all the kids were up in the stands and could see and hear you?, and didn’t they cheer loudly for you guys?, and wasn’t the UMass band on the sidelines the best audience you’ve ever had? Right. So suck it up, and ac-cen-tuate the positive.)

It wasn’t even the idea of yet another road trip. That was what Holy Cross did: made sure the band traveled to road football games. Because if there’s one thing HC alumni do really well, it’s show up at Holy Cross road football games. If the band isn’t there, they ask hard questions. I learned about this early – my first HC game was on the road at Harvard University, and given my experience of Harvard and being the visiting band there, I was a wee bit nervous. But there was this sea of purple in the visiting stands that cheered us before we played a single note, and I was properly enlightened. And quickly came to understand the value (and fun!) of being on the road in a purple jersey. So.

The band kids, of course, knew it long before I figured it out. And had a ton of fun, on the road, in enemy territory (except for the nearby alumni), chanting “HC! MB! HC! MB!” By the way, we don’t get intimidated easily, in case you missed it.

My HC higher-ups were all in favor of us going down to Delaware. Neither the team nor the band had ever been there, so … a whole new region of the country that would get to see us! But they were not super-in-favor of a double-overnight trip. We traveled a lot, and so we had to mind our budget, and two nights in a hotel would run into serious money.

 

So we created what I can only describe as the Itinerary from the Imagination of the Optimistic:

Load the bus Friday afternoon and drive into the night. Stay overnight Friday into Saturday morning at a hotel in southern New Jersey. Load the bus that morning and drive the rest of the way to Newark, Delaware. Play the game. Load the bus one more time, after the game, and drive straight home. Straightforward.

Did I mention that the game was a Saturday night game? Kickoff around 7 o’clock? So, load the buses after the postgame show, say, around 11, and get back to central Massachusetts as the sun was starting to come up.

That makes sense.

Actually, in the college world, it kinda does. Also, this being Holy Cross, quite a number of my band people were interested in getting to Mass on Sunday morning, rather than still being on the road home. And I had a church gig of my own. Which is where a bit of the insane part comes in (he said, selfishly, thinking of his own 8:45am Sunday-morning choir warmup); but y’know, it was going to be a great experience.

So I sold this trip hard. Straight from the top of the fall-2005 semester, I went full-court press on the kids. This late-September trip will be one of the absolute highlights of your marching life. The Delaware home crowd is 16,000 people who have been trained by their own band to cheer loudly even for the visiting bands. The Delaware band will replace UMass as the best audience you’ve ever seen – and you’ll go nuts for their show.

By the way, their band is about 380.

What?!

No,  they’re sweet people! They know how to play the game. My friend is their director; she’ll make sure they’re nice. They won’t eat you.

Three-eighty?!

Judge me, by my size, do you?” Do you guys play musically?

…Yeah.

Do you march well?

…Yeah.

Do you have a fun show?

We think so.

Do you trust me not to throw you to the lions?

…Well, in three years, you haven’t.

Right. Suck it up. You’ll be fine.

<*sniff*> O-okay.

 

We hit the road on time … got to the hotel on time … the next morning, the hotel staff said they’d love to have us back … we hit the road on time again … we found the Delaware campus … and our bus turned the corner into the parking lot adjacent to the Fightin’ Blue Hens’ rehearsal field.

And the bus leaned perceptibly to the left.

Not because the bus driver hit a curb or anything. No, our drivers were from the Silver Fox Bus Company (free plug) and for my money they were the best in the business, early in the day or late, clear weather or stupid.

No, that bus leaned to port because a bunch of the Holy Cross bandos on board suddenly were plastered to the bus windows, getting their first look at the particular three hundred and eighty people who were making music on the field, on the left of our bus.

Holy crap!”

No, I said, unable to repress a smile … that’s not our name.

They have more tubas than we have brass players.”

Didn’t I tell you? You’ll be fine. Relax. Sit back down, you’re making the driver nervous.

Yeah, I made a great show of confidence that morning. What was also true was that in the back of my mind, since we’d loaded the buses at the hotel in Jersey that morning, was the nagging question: what if this somehow doesn’t turn out to be the absolute best marching memory my gang will have this season? Have I bitten off more than I chew on this one?

The first moment that I knew I didn’t have to worry was when, shortly after my band pretended to relax, I saw a troupe of Delaware marchers heading for our bus. Drum majors, and other student-staff members, sauntering over, smiling.

I called out from the front of the bus, “hey Suzie? Jay? Come on up here.” The kids in the UD welcoming party had been on the summer Drum Major Academy “IMPACT” collegiate team … and so had Suzie and Jay, representing HC. “You guys have some greetings to do.”

As soon as the rest of the HC band saw, out the left-hand-side windows, the UD and Holy Cross IMPACT team mini-reunion happen, they relaxed for real. Hugs and handshakes all ’round, out there on the parking lot. It’ll be all right after all.

Didn’t I tell you?

And after that came moment after moment after astounding moment of knowing we didn’t have to worry.

At that afternoon’s rehearsal, after the two college bands had rehearsed the tune they would play together at halftime, they jointly passed the time while waiting for the high school bands to arrive. I looked over and saw our lone mellophone almost literally swarmed by the, um, many Delaware mellophonists. I saw our drum major hanging out with theirs. Memorably, I saw the Delaware and HC clarinet sections, intermingled, sitting in a big circle on the turf and playing duck-duck-goose.

(Man. Only in college.)

While the HC band ate their suppers, I stood with my friend Heidi, looked around, and marveled that these two former UMass drum majors seemed to have gotten their two college bands together for what amounted to a play-date.

The actual game began. By the third quarter, I had actually seen the Holy Cross football team hold their own with the recent national champions. My band played its fight song more than just ceremonially. (In the fourth quarter, the team ran out of steam, and the score ended up not an embarrassment but a mere loss. And at least as much of a moral victory, if you believe in that sort of thing. Which we did, that night.)

At postgame, I saw the Holy Cross band play the living snot out of their Earth, Wind & Fire opener, and I heard the fans in the stands cheering, but more importantly I heard the Delaware band losing its mind on the sidelines. No, those thirty-eight musicians weren’t bigger and louder than the 380 in gold and blue … but they were laying it all out there. And the gold and blue team was right with ’em.

And then the Fightin’ Blue Hen band took the field (and I mean they took it) … and by the end of their show, far from being intimidated or humbled or Mom I wanna go home … the Crusader Band people were standing (some of them on the offensive line’s benches), and adapting their usual cheer for to be pumpin’ ourselves up

UD! MB! UD! MB! UD! MB!”

 

Several years later, I had a Facebook exchange with one of (I say selfishly) “my” HC band alumni, which started out not really about that particular band trip. But something in the midst of the conversation reminded me, and I said so, of that absurd weekend in Delaware, and my alumni friend immediately responded, “Favorite band trip? Ever!”

About which I was, and am, pleased. I was worried … but a bunch of stellar college marchers took the hyper-optimistic game plan laid out by their director guy and turned it into a trip that, if it’s not my absolute favorite band trip ever, it’s certainly in the top two.

The final, clinching proof of that?

We loaded the bus at around 11pm, after the lengthy Band-Day postgame show was over, and headed north. People caught what sleep they could … the bus, at one point, was unnervingly silent … but as the sky got lighter, and the bus crossed into Massachusetts from Connecticut, on Interstate 84, I thought I heard band members quietly singing Billy Joel songs at each other, and with each other. And, far from hearing other band members gently asking them to quit it … I heard more of them join in. And laugh. And suggest the next singable songs. All the way to Worcester.

As we drove up the hill toward campus, I found the bus driver’s PA mike, and murmured into it (it was 5:30am, after all), “I have no business expecting you guys to be in this good a mood. I would travel with you anywhere.”

And the bus lurched to the left again … but only because that’s what buses do when they have to navigate the main parking lot at Holy Cross.

That trip began ten years ago tonight.

I can’t find my car keys sometimes … but I remember the Delaware trip like it was just this afternoon.

No worries.

September 23, 2015 Posted by | band, DMA, marching band, music, UDMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments