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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Safe, Part 2

A week shy of nine years ago, at the memorial service for George N. Parks, UMass’ late, great marching band director, UMass Minuteman Marching Band associate director Thom Hannum made a terrific eulogizing speech.

In that brief talk, he described how Mr. Parks had done so much over the years to make his band members – and his band alumni, when they returned to campus for Homecoming Weekends – feel safe. That no matter whether it was in Old Chapel or on the practice fields, Mr. Parks’ priority was to make sure UMass marchers felt “safe at home”.

My recent visit to campus reinforced the old quip that the UMass campus isn’t really the UMass campus without some ongoing construction somewhere. So many new structures have gone up that depending on where I stand and in what direction I look, the place can look lots less like the campus I remember from my time as a student in the 1980s. Time marches on, as does progress, I guess; but it can be a bit unnerving. I used to be able to see from this building all the way to that building, but now there’s stuff in the way…

Meanwhile, one of my stops on campus was down the road from Boyden Gym and across the street from the Mullins Center and down the hill from South College and up the road from the Campus Center: the George N. Parks Minuteman Marching Band Building.

Which assuredly did not exist when I was a student. Old Chapel was the band’s base of operations, and although it barely contained the growing band and its equipment, and was in worse and worse shape as the years passed … it was the place we gravitated to. “Let’s meet at Chapel,” we’d say, sometimes using it as a launching pad to other destinations, and sometimes staying right there. It was architectural comfort food.

On that campus visit, I came to the realization, quite unexpectedly, that the “new” building, now eight years old, is an entirely familiar sight now. I’ve been in it many times now – certainly enough not to get lost in it anymore. Enough to know how to get from the cavernous main rehearsal space to Dr. Anderson’s directorial office without needing to ask a passing band member for directions.

More importantly, there have now been eight years’ worth of band members for whom the Parks building is indeed home. For whom their band home has never been anywhere else. Yes, Old Chapel exists; and enough is said about it that students have to know its importance in UMMB history. But the Parks building is the place to which they go. Not to storage units off-campus … not to condemned converted apartments on the outskirts of campus … but to an actual on-campus locale. A building that is not (as George Carlin misstated, arguably) just a place for their stuff. It’s where the band literally and figuratively lives now.

True, Mr. Parks didn’t live to see the grand opening of his brainchild project. (If you’re a particularly spiritual person, you may be inclined to make the case that he actually did see it, looking down on it all, etc.; this is probably not the blog post for that conversation.) He didn’t get to see it go into operation. He didn’t get to see how much the band’s functioning would end up centered on this building.

Ah, but given the man’s fertile imagination … oh, for darn sure he did.

Someone who could imagine his band entertaining football crowds with halftime shows based on the music of, say, Danny Elfman’s Batman score (with Batman and the Joker running around on the field) … Phantom of the Opera (Christine and the Phantom running around, that time) … the Little Mermaid (with a fearless eight-year-old singing the “Part of Your World” finale) … Hook … Gladiator … Zorro … Pirates of the Caribbean (the band forming an actual pirate ship, and the guard taking it down with fabric Kraken tentacles) … and then seeing all of that done …

Someone who could imagine his band being taught by DCI Hall-of-Fame music educators, and then convincing those people (seeing their potential long before DCI conferred those honors on them) to come work with his band and stay for literally decades …

Someone who could imagine a summer clinic that could pass the marching-arts and specifically drum-majoring traditions and skills on to generations of students, and building a nationally-known clinic that let him see many of those students join his band, help lead his band, help lead their own bands, and help teach the next future generations of drum majors …

Someone who could imagine his band becoming accomplished enough to attract the attention of people like the Sudler Award committee, and then over the course of years and years at the helm putting that band in position to receive that award …

Someone who could imagine his band performing at New England Patriots and New York Giants games, the Canadian Football League championship game, a Presidential Inauguration (or several), a Bands of America Grand Nationals exhibition (or several), and the University of Michigan’s vaunted “Big House” … and then making all those things happen …

surely someone with that kind of fertile imagination could imagine – far beyond a mere set of sterile architectural drawings – a state-of-the-art headquarters for his band which would surpass the physical capabilities of the legendary Old Chapel for supporting his band’s activity, yes; but which, more importantly, would become its new home.

And which would come to be thought of as its new home … and then eventually would come to be thought of as, well, just plain its home.

I wondered, awhile ago, as I considered the fast-approaching ninth anniversary of Mr. Parks’ passing … from where would my annual commemoration of that event take its inspiration?

Turns out, that inspiration was taken from the memory and legacy of one of his greatest strengths: unfettered imagination, merged with dogged, stubborn determination, all in the service of his students.

Including those students whom he never met, but who – thanks to those strengths of his – now have a place where they feel … safe at home.

[Ed. Note: An episode of my new podcast, “Two Minutes Great”, is being posted simultaneously with this blog post; this week’s episode offers up a little bit of evidence of that active Parks imagination, in the form of part of his band-building-groundbreaking-ceremony speech. You can find the podcast here.]

September 16, 2019 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, Thom Hannum, UMMB, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Go Team

[Ed. note: The following is a rant. If you’re a fan of American football, this rant will not make you happy. There’s nothing I can do about that.]

I have problems with football.

With respect to the professional ranks, those problems include, but are not limited to, concussion protocols, Ray Rice and his fist, and the fact that Colin Kaepernick is better than at least half the league’s quarterbacks and still can’t get a gig.

With respect to all levels, but particularly the high school and college strata, those problems also include a concept that I have occasionally pointed to in this space called unearned swagger.

At least once, I recall hearing my college marching band director suggest that football and band are equally weird activities, with participants dressed in equally weird outfits … it’s just that football people have managed to convince everyone that their activity is cool.

And, of course, with perceived cool comes great opportunity for lording it over everyone else.

Case in point: this report from CollegeMarching.com:

It was a great day for the Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjack Marching Band on Saturday until a visiting Graduate Assistant Coach, Ben Seifert, from Tarleton State University[,] decided to stay on the field during halftime.

What happened next is still a bit of [a] head scratcher.

During the Lumberjack Marching Band’s halftime show the coach refused to move off the field. The band carried on with their show expecting him to leave the field or at least stay out of the way of the band. He didn’t[;] and as Kitty Hall, a piccolo player, marched towards her spot which he was standing on[,] he raised his elbow directly in line with her face. The result was a serious bruise along her nose and upper lip and a very angry band wondering why he would not move.

The band also reported that he told other marchers to go around him while he stood there.

After I got elbowed, my nose and head hurt for the rest of the game,” tweeted Hall afterward. “I’m prone to headaches and this set one off almost immediately.”

Naively, I note that Coach Siefert is working for an institution of higher learning, in which adults are hired to facilitate the education and development of America’s youth – with all the human and educational responsibility that implies. In a perfect world, it is understood that assistant football coaches, just as much as assistant professors, are educators. At its core, higher education’s mission is much more to develop American youths’ heads than to elbow them.

Yeah. I know. Naïve of me. Particularly when it comes to college football’s prevailing attitude toward, well, the rest of the world, seemingly.

True, there’s more than a hint of dramatic tension inherent in this college marching band aficionado’s view of all this. With very few exceptions (Boston University, sa-LUTE!), college bands depend upon the sport of football to provide a venue in which to do their good work.

Which they do, year in and year out. For five or six or seven home games a year at least, they lose their minds cheering for a pack of athletic specimens who in general represent the crowd that made band kids’ lives miserable in middle school.

(And, in a relatively new tradition called the Team Walk, long before kickoff many bands form a tunnel and play the school song exuberantly … while the football players walk in street clothes through that tunnel en route from the bus into the stadium, heads down, earbuds plugged firmly in, sparing hardly a glance of acknowledgement of their fellow students.)

Meanwhile, CollegeMarching.com continued its account of the Ben Seifert incident: “We spoke with Lumberjack Marching Band Director[,] Dr. Tamey Angelly[,] about the incident. She explained that the athletic departments of both universities have been discussing this matter and will take swift action to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

In a statement, Dr. Angelly continued: “[Hall] has recently received a letter of apology from the member of the coaching staff and I know that Tarleton administration is handling the situation appropriately.”

Jim Rome‘s and Bill James‘ recent Twitter snark directed at high school and college marching band participants is one thing. Sticks and stones versus name-calling, and all that. We band folks can withstand that sort of thing; hell, we’ve got all kinds of experience shaking it off.

But the raised elbow that Tarleton State University graduate-assistant football coach Ben Siefert directed at the marching activity … injured a student.

That Neanderthal move was premeditated assault. And further, it demonstrated the arrogant mindset of that subset of the higher education community, the football team, that seems to consider that football is the apotheosis of human achievement – and therefore is placed firmly above all the other organizations and institutions that create the Saturday-afternoon environment that props that myth up. And that this reality therefore allows its purveyors to address those supporting characters with disdain at best – and in this case, with physical violence. Because what is football, really, if not a game of channeled violence? Its participants and fans practically take pride in that characteristic.

So here’s the upshot of all the vitriol which I have just now completely unapologetically launched:

Ben Siefert doesn’t need merely to be made to apologize. He doesn’t need merely to be reminded how to properly represent his school, or how to properly treat other humans. He doesn’t need merely to be reprimanded by his head coach. He doesn’t need merely to have his situation “handled appropriately” by his school’s administration. He doesn’t need merely to be suspended from his job, or merely to have his graduate assistantship taken away from him.

Siefert needs to be bagging groceries, or delivering pizzas, or sweeping corporate office hallways after hours, by the end of this week.

Tarleton State University graduate-assistant football coach Ben Siefert needs. to. be. fired.

Go Team.

(And by “Team”, of course, I mean “group of legal professionals whose services ought to be engaged in the filing of assault charges.”)

September 11, 2019 Posted by | band, education, football, marching band, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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