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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

40 Years of “My Way”

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

 

Every tradition has an origin story.

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

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

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

Not in this case, though.

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

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

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

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

A heartbreaking coincidence. …Maybe.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Wrong, Just Different -or- Shades

Faithful readers of this blog will already be aware that I’m kind of a UMass guy.

Four years in the marching band there, and pretty much the rest of my life rooting and writing for them.

Also a journalism degree. Also many lifelong friends.

Good place. Beautiful scenery. Amherst, the quintessential college town, looking largely the same as it did thirty-one years ago when I was a rookie tenor saxophonist just trying to find Orchard Hill.

(Except for a relatively colossal and totally out-of-place six-story office building that’s going up at the join of North Pleasant Street and Triangle Street, looking for all the world like a Borg cube just went all eminent-domain on a Norman Rockwell painting. Not that I have any feelings about that, no indeed. <*grrrr*>)

I’m a little attached to the joint.

So, just about twenty years ago this moment, I was stepping outside the ol’ comfort zone: starting work as the graduate assistant for a college marching band that was one of UMass’ direct competitors, at least as far as football conference rivalries went.

At least until the school disbanded its football team, the Boston University Terriers were a regular part of the UMass football schedule. The two bands saw each other annually. There’s even a painting, hung up in the lower level of UMass’ Campus Center, that purports to be a panoramic depiction of a home football game in Amherst, complete with the UMass band on the field … except that if you look closely, you can see that the band on the field is wearing the red blazers and white fedoras of the BU Band of the 1980s and 1990s. Whoopsie. Get me quality control, stat.

And the first few conversations that I had with BU band folks gave me the polite but distinct impression that they hadn’t always appreciated the UMass band strutting into the friendly confines of Nickerson Field in Boston, and using its relative size to seem like it was stomping all over the marching Terriers.

(Somewhat futilely, early that 1995 season, I gently suggested to my new BU colleagues that UMass didn’t really go places aiming to do terrible things to any other bands. Well, except maybe Harvard’s – which thanks to BU’s Beanpot tournament experiences was at least something we could bond over. Anyway, in New England, when your band is 250, or 300, or 350, it’s kind of an act of aggression just to step off your buses.)

My new boss at BU, band director Joe Wright, was a University of New Hampshire grad, so he had no particular dog in that fight, other than being kinda cheerily feisty about both schools. And happily, he also had (um) a sense of perspective. Before I was even officially on board as his able assistant, he had suggested to me that he felt it would be valuable to add my UMass experience to his staff.

If it was an olive branch, I was happy to grab hold of it. It seemed an oasis of “your UMassness is okay” in an ocean of New Boston University Things and Procedures and Surroundings.

 

Starred Thought: Do what works” was my philosophy as I prepared to run my first brass-and-woodwinds music sectional. I’d asked if there were particular exercises or activities that the BU winds had traditionally done. Joe had looked at me and said, “well, we don’t really have a music technique program per se, so … create something.”

When your band experience (at least on the brass and woodwind side) includes instruction by the drum major and arranger and brass caption head of the DCI world-champion Garfield Cadets (ya know … the guy who’s writing the shows for a little group called Carolina Crown, nowadays?) … you go back and ape everything you can possibly remember him doing.

And I did. Partly it was smart stuff, and had shown itself to work; and partly, in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, it was something I could latch onto for dear life until I got my feet under me.

(It came as a great relief when one of the band’s seniors … who had the opportunity to be the most territorial about “the way we’ve always done things” of all the undergrads present … quietly supposed, midway through band camp, that she really liked the things I was doing, especially all the work with breathing exercises. “I was chatting with my section and we were saying we’d never really gotten into that before, so that was cool.”)

But I tried my hardest not to talk a real lot about that group in Amherst, and not to identify what I was doing as all Minuteman-like. I think this was mostly out of respect for the fact that it was a new situation, and partly to keep my new friends from getting that look in their eye again. We would like to keep these new friends, period, please and thank you.

 

August turned into September, and I seemed to be keeping enough friends to get by, and mysteriously, the Commonwealth Armory was feeling more and more like home. It wasn’t UMass’ Old Chapel, but it probably had a comparable amount of history. It was a huge brick building with not much else in it but space for a whole football field, and it was where we … ahhh, the BU Band was starting to be “we”! … stored our stuff and rehearsed our show.

[A brief aside: yes, the BU Band rehearsed inside a brick building. You may rightly ask, how can anyone rehearse marching band shows inside an echo chamber like that? It’s a good question. When I would conduct a long tone in a wind sectional, the echo that followed the release of the note lasted a complete seven seconds. The answer to your question: … you get used to it. And I did.]

[It’s amazing how clean and clear the sound is when you get out there, across the street from the Armory, in the open air at Nickerson Field, for halftime, though.]

Something that struck me early on … and which I did adapt to … but which I still noted … was the contrast between how they do things here, compared with how they do things there. Many of the BU marching commands and terminology were very similar to what was used at UMass. Some were assuredly not. It was my job to figure out the differences and not screw them up.

At UMass, we went to the ready. At BU, we went to stand-by. At UMass, it was “left turn harch!” At BU, it was “four-count-turn-to-the-right… one, two, ready, move.” (I had my own thoughts about that, but we didn’t have many of those commands in the actual show, or in many parades, anyway.)

And while UMass’ PA guy, Jim MacRostie, was all stentorian bombast and kept 99 percent of the time to the written script … the BU band’s announcer, Scott Monty, was clearly influenced by the free-wheeling irreverence of Ivy League band narrations, and honest to Heaven, we had NO idea what silly and sometimes borderline-inappropriate jokes he was going to deliver next, while introducing the band at halftime.

It was a good lesson. In Amherst, they do it this way, and it works. On Commonwealth Avenue, they do it slightly (or very) differently … and yes, it works.

Every so often, I would gently soft-pedal a possible adjustment to how we did what we did … and as the season went on, I would even occasionally whisper, “tiny UMass tactic which might help clarify this” … and folks started to get the idea that I wasn’t really trying to create “little UMass” on the Charles.

 

Once, in late September of that first BU semester, we were running a music rehearsal session that focused on our rather sizable folder of stands music. The BU band stands book was actually two overstuffed marching folios (per musician) full of tunes. If you were a BU bando, you put one of them on your lyre, and you put the other one next to you on the stadium bench. I quickly discovered that the reason they had that many tunes available is because it made life better at hockey games – wherein you play eight bars of a tune, the puck drops, and you stop playing and immediately get a different song ready. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It was a dizzying thing to catch up with … especially since the focus of the UMass marching establishment, at least when I marched, was always almost completely on the halftime field show. In Amherst, in the stands it was usually trombones barking out John Williams’ “Superman” fanfare, or the trumpets wailing out a charge that either came from Temple University or West Chester University (I was never sure which), or everybody dancing to the “go-fight-win” cowbell cheer. And that was about it.

So my band director boss Joe stopped the rehearsal, looked over at me, grinned, and said, “at the risk of ‘dissing’ my able assistant here … in the stands, we did a whole lot better than the University of Massachusetts last year.”

I’m pretty sure a number of the BU bandos were waiting to see how I’d react to that.

What can I say? The truth will set you free. I smiled, and said, “no, you’re probably right about that.” And he smiled. And they smiled. And we went about our business. And nobody came to console me afterward, possibly because I didn’t need consoling. Hmm. Three weeks into the BU life, and I’m feeling comfortable, even though instead of maroon, I’m wearing scarlet.

Ooo. How ’bout that. Two shades of red. Different, but related. Didn’t see THAT comin’, did you?

Yeah, neither did I, until that September.

 

Previously, in this space, I’ve described “because we’ve always done it this way” as one of my least favorite phrases. Again, lesson learned: the first way you learn to do something is always going to be your default. But there are alternative ways of doing it which, as it turns out, can work well too.

And, in the best of situations, the new ways that work perfectly well … can also help you understand why the old ways work so well.

Wouldn’t trade that experience with the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue for anything. Go Terriers.

And, as well, go Minutemen.

September 20, 2015 Posted by | band, BUMB, marching band, music, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Y’All Doin’?

I am reminded, by the Internets which may relied upon to remind us of important milestones like this (but may also be relied upon to utterly downplay other, slightly more earth-shaking anniversaries), of the thirtieth anniversary of a major moment in American cinematic culture.

A currently faintly-viral online article, posted yesterday, notes:

If you’re currently sat behind a desk, be it school or office, consider standing up, walking out, donning a trench coat and heading to a museum, in honour of the fact that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off took place 30 years ago this very day.

We know this thanks to a stunningly in-depth investigation by BaseballProspectus.com, which in 2011 managed to track down the exact game Ferris, Sloane and Cameron were watching at Chicago’s Wrigley Field (the Cubs vs the Braves, 5 June, 1985) by analysing who was on the field and how they fared in each inning.

It’s crazy to think it’s been 30 years since the John Hughes movie was released, and it still resonates and is shown in indie cinemas today.

Sure, it might not be as easy to feign illness in 2015, not least because you’re more liable to leave a trail of social media (plus dads don’t tend to wear trench coats and trilbys anymore, making it harder to emancipate your girl from high school), but that sense of needing to escape, even just to mooch about in town and try and gather some sense of perspective, is still something most of us can relate to.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off followed Hughes’ other cult classics The Breakfast Club and Sixteeen Candles and made $70 million at the box office despite having a budget of just $5 million and taking him just six days to write the script.”

If you’re currently a member of a particular group of collegiate musicians from those mid-1980s, this story probably of reminds you of two specific people.

One was the noted director of a noted college marching band who, shall we say, had an eye for great ways to make his band cool.

Attuned in a unique way to trending pop-culture phenomena – long before anyone used “trending” as a verb form – George Parks had already established a knack for putting music in front of his band that translated into instant audience recognition. Themes from the Superman and Rocky movies … Earth Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove” … the Frank Sinatra cover of “New York, New York” … just por ejamplo, prior to fall of 1986.

And in the years that followed, UMass audiences saw drum majors portraying Batman and the Joker (mere moments after Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit theaters) … heard the Phantom of the Opera demand of Christine (played by a nice lady from the color guard who was genuinely named Christine), “make your choice!” … saw Jack Sparrow hijack the drum major podium for the closing chords of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” show … and heard an 8-year-old girl, with nearly three hundred backup band members, sing about how “any star I choose watches over me, so I know I’m not alone – not really alone” …

to name just a few. He knew it wasn’t just familiar music that would win the day, although that surely was the core of the show. He knew that planning something visual, something unusual, something singularly memorable, was crucial.

So. Fall of 1986.

It wasn’t that “Twist and Shout” was a new tune. The Beatles had covered it two decades prior. And it wasn’t that the music was especially riveting, other than being catchy and danceable – although Michael Klesch captured the best elements of the Beatles’ vocals with his wind arrangement for the ages.

It was that there were new toys to be played with. No – more accurately, there were new toys to be employed in the master plan.

That season, the era of using megaphones to amplify the director’s voice during rehearsals had ended. The new technology was a set of loudspeakers that were fed a signal from a wireless microphone. No matter where the instructor was – high up on the viewing tower, down on the sideline, or somewhere on the field, her or his voice always came from the intersection of the front sideline and each 30-yardline – perfectly audible.

(This occasionally caused humorous rehearsal moments. “Turn and face me, please.” “WHERE ARE YOU!?”)

It also allowed Mr. Parks to make announcements to the halftime audiences without sending the text to the press box ahead of time.

It also allowed him to reproduce a particular iconic movie scene very faithfully. (It’s so iconic that all you have to type in the YouTube search box is “fer”, and it comes up in the first ten search possibilities: “ferris bueller twist and shout”.)

Makes sense: in “Ferris Bueller”, during his “Day Off”, Matthew Broderick ascended a Chicago parade float, and hijacked a dancing marching band’s performance of “Twist and Shout”, lip-synching the song into an unplugged microphone, to the astonished delight of the parade spectators (and the consternation of his school friends, Mia Sara and Alan Ruck).

Therefore, on the field at UMass, a member of the pit – whose skill set definitely included lead-vocalizing, and who looked more than enough like Matthew Broderick to pass in a crowd – hijacked a dancing marching band’s performance of “Twist and Shout”, actually singing the song, to the delight of football audiences. (About the only thing we didn’t include as part of that tune were two band members portraying the Sara and Ruck characters, now that I think of it. And the dancing Oktoberfest girls. But I digress.)

And this percussionist fellow didn’t just strut around on the sideline. He was not tethered by a microphone cord. He was set free to roam the grounds through the magic of wireless technology.

Hey, this was the mid-1980s. Wireless amplification was a big deal.

And so was our singer. He skipped and bounded along the sideline … off the sideline … past the restraining fence between field and stands … up into the stadium seats … singing and dancing and high-fiving (also a fairly new and exciting invention, at the time) and clearly enjoying the hell out of himself and the experience.

You couldn’t watch him do his thing and not grin. Unless you had to be playing a wind instrument, in which case grinning made playing tougher. But whatever stressful things were going on in his life, in the two minutes it took to perform the tune, our vocalist clearly had set them aside, and nothing else mattered in the world than having a blast singing, and making sure everyone anywhere near him was having a blast watching him do it.

It was as if the crowd turned into one giant colon-and-closed-parenthesis, long before emoticons were invented. Couldn’t help but smile.

Whenever the band’s introduction to the tune began, he would don the wireless headset, point at the crowd and call out:

How y’all doin’!?”

Same call, every single time. And the audience was always doin’ great, and let him (and us) know it.

In our more fatigued moments, the phrase might have been spoken with just a touch of gentle mockery … yeah, we’ve played this thing nearly enough times now that “how y’all…!” is starting to be cliché. BUT … when push came to shove, when it was showtime, and when we had to be honest with ourselves … it was perfectly indicative of our band’s personality.

You’re gonna love us, whether you like it or not!

It’s of zero surprise to me, or anyone else I know from those days, that this gentleman is still doing this sort of thing, for a living. Seems to me he was designed, from the get-go, to front a band – preferably a Jimmy Buffet-style band, but whatever.

The first Saturday that we put “Twist and Shout” out there, in front of a live audience, I would say I learned a little something about stage presence, bravado, reckless abandon, and sheer joie de vivre, from him.

In fact, the next season, the band played “Twist” again … well, it was a crowd favorite, so why not? … and as one of the drum majors, I was tasked with conducting it. During our pregame performance at the University of Delaware, after cueing the final chord, I turned around to the audience, both arms flung in the air so as to say to the crowd, “you’re gonna love us!…”

And nearly injured our vocalist guy. Didn’t realize he’d climbed up onto the conducting podium for the last few bars of the thing, and was standing right behind me. Caught him high on the shoulder; nearly knocked him clean off the box. Whoops. Sorry ’bout that, chief…

But that whirl and YAY!! of mine had not been previously wired into my personality or performance. At all.

And what does that formerly shy person blame for that personality adjustment? Well, hanging around that particular band director, of course. Hard not to pick up on the energy!! and such …

But also, I am very willing to admit … it came from working to rise to our vocalist’s level of performance.

So, Dave Soreff

how y’all doin’?

🙂

June 6, 2015 Posted by | band, drum major, entertainment, friends, GNP, marching band, movies, music, social media, Starred Thoughts, technology, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment