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


Some stories should be told. Other stories should never be told. Some stories sit right in the middle there.


If you’re a regular reader of this space, you know that my church gig (adult choir and other sundry permutations of sacred music) has provided moments both inspiring and loopy.

This morning’s service managed both.

So far this program year, our choir has brought a rather impressive “A” game. Yes, the program year is only two weeks old; but what a fortnight! Many voices, all in rather good form. The choir sound rushes past me, and I set aside a fraction of my otherwise-engaged brain just to enjoy. I have the best seat in the house, I think.

We’ve also picked up right where we left off, back in June, in the sense of humor department. Our bass section has not lost a step in this regard. The altos that traditionally sit in front of them have continued to develop their ability to dish it right back to the basses where appropriate (and funny). The tenors are quite frankly lagging in their traditional role as the cut-ups of their choir; but we’ll watch some game films and they’ll solve a few things, I’m sure.

Before last week’s service, the choir retreated to our rehearsal room to go over a few details before the morning began. Our senior pastor came in, with the intention of making a couple of brief remarks and then leading us in prayer. “Morning, choir! It’s been a long summer. I’ve missed you.” Not missing a beat (appropriate for musicians), one of our basses cracked back, “Yeah, where ya been?”

This week, the choir got up and sang a curious anthem, a quodlibet (hotshot music major term for “partner song”) combining the gospel song “I Believe” and J.S. Bach’s “Ave Maria”. Hit it out of the park. After service, a couple of folks from out of the congregation tracked me down to tell me they’d had tears in their eyes, during that anthem. (“For the right reasons, I hope,” I joked; but thanked them kindly.) And the other anthem of the day was a nice, slow 12/8 rendition of three verses of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”. Considering how much work the Quodlibet had been, I figured that “straightforward and well-known” would be a wise choice for the other music slot. When a group knows a melody real well, it gives them the opportunity to sing and not worry. …Sure enough.

By contrast: toward the end of every service, one of our pastors briefly summarizes some of the “opportunities for service” that are scheduled for the coming week (better known as “announcements”). This morning, as our associate pastor did so, he came to an announcement that dealt with a few books that our congregation is being encouraged to read, in preparation for some conversations later in the year.

He came to one of the book titles, and faithfully read it out loud. For the sake of dignity in this space, I shall not include that title here. Sometimes a reader’s imagination can fill in a blank or two. In this case, please take my word: I’m sure that the book’s author had regarded his title as completely innocent.

But a number of choir folk recognized that a phrase inside that rather lengthy title could have been interpreted in a way that (let’s just say) had nothing to do with the church Sanctuary, but rather with the public restroom next to it.

Yes. Our bass section (and I think a few folks across the Chancel in the soprano loft) took note of the opportunity for toilet humor. In church.


The sequence of events ran thusly:

Our associate pastor read the title of the book.

There was a brief silence.

Followed by the continuation of the announcements.

Followed by a moment where a number of choir brains processed that title and its alternate meaning.

Followed by a moment of rustling.

Followed by one of the most intense moments of silence that arguably should have included a *snort* sound effect from somebody, but miraculously didn’t.

The service moved on. “They sang a hymn and went out.” Thanks be to God.


Earlier this evening, I sent an eMail to a trio of bass gentlemen which said, in part, “You should know that during this morning’s service, [at that Moment,] … I could not allow myself to make eye contact with any of you.”

In fact, as I think of it, it was also guaranteed divine intervention that my brother-in-law Kevin, at the organ console which faces toward the alto/bass side of the choir loft, couldn’t allow himself to make eye contact either.  If either of us had done so, it might have been all over except for the murmurs of the parishioners in the congregation who would have been wondering why half the choir was crying.

One of my bass section colleagues replied to my eMail, saying that another bass “nudged me right about the time I was about to open my mouth. And it was one of the few times that I actually said, ‘Don’t go there.’” That nudging bass reported that he had just chewed the inside of his cheek and looked at the floor. And the third bass (yes, this might as well be Abbott and Costello) eMailed me, “For once in my life I decided to remain silent.”

I wonder if anyone grasps just how large a bullet we dodged, this morning?

So: the moral of the story, if there really should be one? Don’t skip church on a Sunday. You never know what’s going to happen – or what’s just barely not going to happen.

September 15, 2013 Posted by | choir, humor, SUMC | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Obligation

Far too early this morning, I arose from my Sunday-into-Monday slumber, staggered to the kitchen, and rounded up some form of breakfast that would convince my system that it was fed and that it should therefore function well.

It had been a busy, BUSY weekend. Plenty of enjoyable moments, to be sure; plenty of musical productivity, and plenty of fun … but nearly every moment was scheduled, from early Saturday morning through late Sunday afternoon. Therefore, after foolishly committing far too much time to the local NFL team’s trials and tribulations (they won, but it was by no means a smackdown of the other team – let’s just say that it was as if they forgot that a regulation game is four quarters long) … I had descended onto the local mattress at a high rate of downward velocity. And the approximately seven hours of sleep that I’d gotten overnight was nice, but I thought it hadn’t quite made up for the sheer amount of running around I’d done for the previous 48 or so. Groggy? Heavens yes. Or, as I might have put it this morning, “mmmmmmblrrrg.”

After a brief re-invention of breakfast (following the discovery that the milk I’d endeavored to pour all over my corn flakes had decided, overnight, to go sour on me – a taste that at 5 o’clock in the morning is really aggressively awful), I sat to the computer and examined the online world.

In my eMail inbox, amidst the overnight spam – man, you buy something from an online outfit ONE lousy time and they think it’s okay to eMail you four times a day about their latest sale – was an item that caused the day to make a sharp turn into “okay after all”.


I have this friend and colleague who on top of the rest of her busy schedule has become a dogged blogger. Apparently, another member of the blogosphere had recently made my friend a recipient of her “Very Inspiring Blogger Award”. Honestly, I must concur – since my friend’s blogging philosophy has been this: she is compelling herself to write, to the tune of one item every single day without fail, all year (2012) long. And late last night, following some of the rules of the Awarding, my friend decided to commemorate her Award by blog-posting only a little bit about this Award, and much more about other people who inspire her, in print and not.

I made that list.

A desperate, flailing attempt at modesty will prevent me from including the exact text of her perhaps overly kind assessment of my blogginess … although nothing is preventing you from hopping over to her blog post to read for yourself … in fact, at a couple of other times in this space, I have linked over to her fine work, and I will do so again, now. Her blog is called Creative Exfoliation, and it’s terrific.

(Ah.  The mighty Mutual Admiration Society is alive and well.)

The task she has set herself, though, is one that clearly I have not matched; this one-a-day-without-fail deal. When she announced her goal, I remember thinking back to my one single attempt at that feat. I was thirteen, so perhaps you can predict where this is going.

I’d been given a diary as a Christmas present. It came complete with one new Peanuts comic strip per page, and other Linus Van Pelt-related illustrations scattered throughout the book. I was very thankful, and determined to give it proper attention.

I made it to February vacation.

And by the time it was Washington’s Birthday, thanks to lots of homework and piano lessons and other elements of a seventh grade schedule, I was pretty much reduced to listing what I’d done on each day’s diary page in bullet points. [] School. [] Home. [] Practice (not much). [] Read letter from Julie. [] Dinner. [] Homework. [] To bed.

I saw the writing on the wall, if you’ll forgive the phrase. Good effort, anyway.

I suspect that when I started this blog, I went in knowing it was not likely to be The Daily Dispatch. Some days have seen two separate posts – rare, but it’s happened. Some weeks go by without any new contributions. Some weeks, I’ve got ideas but no time. Some weeks, I’ve got no ideas. Some days, I’m pretty sure I won’t write anything, and then a little tiny thing happens and either I’m irritated by it or it makes me grin like a loon, and do I launch a little essay into the online world.

And, when my friend announced her intention to write daily, really genuinely every day, I also remember having two distinct reactions: first, I very much looked forward to it … and second, I hoped that her goal wouldn’t start to feel like an obligation, and thereby turn her feelings toward writing, like my morning milk, sour.

There’s enough in life that we have to do, or else. Gotta get up … go to work … make a buck … make a payment … tend to family (kids, or mates, or parents, or all of the above simultaneously) … hit the treadmill, or the sidewalk, or the punching bag. Life, death and taxes, and all that. In fact, one of the reasons that early in my life I was not planning to be a music major was: I enjoyed music enough that I didn’t want it to become something I had to do. I liked the idea of musical activity as an avocation, rather than a vocation, because I never wanted it to become work.

In retrospective, from where I am now, professionally, it was weird and faulty logic; but at the time it made sense. And as it turns out, although not every day is utterly 100 percent bliss, there’s more than enough about being a working musician, a gainfully employed music teacher, to keep it from being just a job.

So, as it happened, I wasn’t the most impressed with my own teaching this particular morning. But that early-morning notification (which was by no means required!), that my writing was somehow, somewhat, in some way, actually helpful to another writer? …made it so I didn’t obsess about it quite so much.

October 22, 2012 Posted by | blogging, writing | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment