Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Attitude Adjustment

In no way should the very tall, balding, bearded, bespectacled gentleman have needed to do what he did.

But he did. And it said a lot about who he was, before I even saw him “in context.”


I stood at the registration table for the weekend event and noted that my housing assignment appeared to be screwed up. This was long enough ago that I really don’t remember exactly what the issue was; only that suddenly, attending an event that would last from Thursday morning to Saturday noon was looking a little more dicey, since one does prefer to spend evenings in some form of lodging, rather than, say, not.

The tall gentleman happened to be standing very near the registration table, which made it easier for him to detect the waves of “…uhh…” that were coming off me.

In that moment, in addition to staring down the barrel of two nights without an assigned place to sleep, I was the following things:

[] A newbie at that weekend event.  [] Recognizing exactly zero other people attending that event. (Not recognizing anyone yet, as it happened; but in that moment it was the first day of pre-school all over again.)  [] Not even a resident of the state in which I stood swaying gently.

Upon inquiring about my predicament, the tall gentleman looked me up and down, and said, “Well, come on upstairs.”

I trailed along after him, with all my baggage (interpret that however you like), as he ascended a set of stairs and headed down a couple of hallways to a small office. One short and amiable phone conversation later, he’d set things right, by setting me up with a proper dorm room assignment, and my weekend was off and running.

Half an hour removed from that little episode, I mused that the tall gentleman could easily have passed that duty off to one of his lieutenants. I mean, I was a newbie from a whole different state with an issue that quite honestly was probably very small, considering all the other responsibilities he had … considering he was the fellow in charge of the entire event.

But he saw a moment where he could be helpful to someone, knew what needed to be done, and determined that he was in the best position to do it. Regardless of rank or station. (Likely because of rank and station, in this case; but still.)


And so, for the next ten summers after that, I made my way north to Plymouth State University, for the New England Band Directors Institute; secure in the knowledge that the event, dreamed up by the tall gentleman and put together by the New Hampshire Band Directors Association that he led, was an event during which all the attendees were viewed as valuable and important, and were taken care of, and were almost instantly seen as old friends. Even the new ones.

A mentor of mine once suggested that “a band is a reflection of its leadership.” And NEBDI was assuredly a reflection of its leader, PSU’s director of bands, Professor Gary Corcoran.

At an NEBDI edition a few summers after my housing-assignment rescue moment, I took time to thank Gary again for his above-and-beyond effort, and he responded exactly true to form: in so many warm and unassuming words, you’re welcome, and don’t mention it, and anyone would have done it, and glad it worked out, and you’re welcome. It was almost as if all of us faithful NEBDI attendees were his kids, and he made sure to take care of us.

(In many ways. When he was addressing the group of attendees, he very often sounded like a gentle father figure … and then he would get a tiny mischievous glint in his eye, announcing the Friday evening attendees’ party at a tavern down the road – and calling it the “attitude adjustment session”.)

Three summers ago was the most recent NEBDI I’ve gotten to, for various reasons. By that time Gary had retired, but was hanging around the summer workshop event – at least partly because the NHBDA board had determined that they should award Gary their equivalent of the lifetime achievement award. He’d been at PSU for an amount of time that, rounded to the nearest whole number, was approximately forever. In that time, he had (amongst other things) built NEBDI up into an event that was known nationwide as a unique professional-development conference for school band directors.

At the Friday-evening dinner (which preceded the attitude adjustment session), the Association formally honored its longtime leader. When summoned to make a little speech, Gary got through a few appreciative sentences before choking up, just a little. And when he finished his remarks, the resulting standing ovation lasted long enough that he sheepishly tried to get us to siddown … and tried again … and again. We just wouldn’t. He was clearly not comfortable with the idea that he was getting this ridiculous, protracted standing-O … but we figured he had it coming.


Gary Corcoran passed away this past Friday at the age of 74.

I’m pleased that on several occasions, I took advantage of the opportunity to make sure he knew how much I appreciated his work – both in the larger, sweeping, lifetime-achievement sense, and also in the rescue-a-rookie-from-his-own-administrative-incompetence sense. And every time I took advantage of that opportunity, I couldn’t help but notice that although he only ever saw me three days a summer … so, a total of 27 times ever … he always knew exactly who I was, no re-introduction necessary. And always seemed a little startled that anybody thought he was a big deal.

He was a big deal.

And I hope the New England Band Directors Institute continues for as many more summers as is humanly possible – if only to stand as testimony to how big a deal he really was.

Godspeed, Gary.


July 10, 2018 Posted by | band, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain -or- Your Pledge Dollars At Work

[Ed. Note: Here’s a piece that will probably run this week in The Chronicle, the weekly electronic newsletter of the church at which I gig.]


File this somewhere under ‘Behind the Scenes’, and cc: it to ‘Your Pledge Dollars at Work’…

Last month, I helped represent SUMC musicians at a pair of workshops offered by the local chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association. (‘Your Pledge Dollars at Work’: there were tiny fees attached to them – and there’s a ‘staff professional development’ line-item in our church budget for this sort of event. This line-item exists in no other church budget that I know of. And whenever I’ve utilized this money, it’s translated into noticeable improvements in how the choir does its thing, here.)

The second session, ‘Music and Worship for Today’s Church’, was more helpful for choir directors than for choir members: it mainly dealt with repertoire selection and worship-service planning. It seems there are quite a lot of music ministry staff members out there who are allowed to select hymns for their Sunday worship services.

Honestly, when I grasped that, I had a jaw-drop moment. Because I have an idea of how hard it is to draw up the game plan for one Sunday morning, let alone all of them. Certainly, I could crack open the hymnal, pick my favorite hymns, plug them into the three hymn slots, and be happy. But around here, it’s not that easy, and for very good reason.

Sometimes it hits you over the head; sometimes you may not be as aware of the themes that permeate SUMC’s Sunday mornings. But every week, there’s a focus – a program of the church like Social Justice or Outreach, for example, or a larger idea like ‘hope’ or ‘responsibility’ or, as was the case this week, our ambitious and exciting ‘Pave the Way’ capital campaign. And everything – hymns, sermon, prayer content, even the children’s message – everything addresses that somehow.

You might be right in thinking that this makes planning a service easier. At least it narrows down one’s wide range of choices of material to use. And that includes the choir’s anthems.

Pastor Joel is the only senior pastor I’ve ever worked with (and Kevin and I have now worked with a bunch of ’em) who sends us ‘bulletin forecasts’ ahead of time, usually three to four weeks ahead of any given Sunday. When we get them, we get some idea of what specific readings, prayers, and preaching will be utilized – and from this, we can determine what anthems will complement the message of the day. So in order to accomplish this forecast, Pastor Joel needs to get his game plan together at least a month early. And he does, regularly.

Lest you thought perhaps a pastor only works on Sundays! It’s NOT true. In our case, we’re more than getting our Pledge Dollars’ worth. Unfortunately, sometimes, to appreciate someone’s skill-set, you have to be a little bit ‘on the inside’ to have the proper perspective. I’m pleased to be in position to see what needs to happen Behind The Scenes, in order that people can walk out of church on Sunday morning feeling ‘spiritually fed’.

And on the rare occasions when someone asked me, ‘why’d you choose that hymn?’, and I tell them to send their cards and letters to the tall guy in the corner office … I’m not passing the buck, and I’m not deflecting their question gleefully. I’m referring them to the gentleman who’s doing a ton of work on their behalf.

Anyway, I just thought I’d relay this thought or two. Any questions? Feel free to run up to the Chancel after service and ask!”

October 26, 2015 Posted by | choir, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missed Opportunities

For the past nine summers, I have traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for what is a very worthwhile three-day conference, all about issues that middle- and high-school band directors care about. This summer’s edition just finished; and there were lots of neat little moments in it.

At times I was learning a new thing or two that I could apply to my ensembles, instrumental or not. At other times I was reconnecting with music-teaching colleagues that I get to see only once a year, or in some cases less often than that. And the weekend is always an opportunity to play in a very good wind ensemble and a very fine sight-reading lab jazz band (all full of band directors). In fact it’s my only chance all year to sit in front of a pile of second-tenor-sax parts, not worrying about taking any solos in public, and playing big band music. Fun.

At some point during the weekend, a somewhat informal banquet is held, in order to bestow awards and to let the guest clinicians have a moment to pontificate off the podium. Some conductors are far better on the podium and clutching a stick, than they are behind a lectern and only allowed to use words … while some have proven to be at least as nimble with a turn of phrase as they are with a twitch of the baton.

Friday night, one of this summer’s guest clinicians, the conductor of an important university band program from an important university in Texas, stepped up to the lectern and took that speaking opportunity. He started by suggesting that he was going to be speaking very very seriously, something of a contrast from his approach since Thursday morning – but then he allowed himself a tiny grin, to suggest that perhaps that was a joke, too.

As I have chronicled here before, certain regional accents help me to consider their owners’ punchlines to be that much funnier. The work of Roy Blount, Jr., and a few more personal acquaintances of mine, have only reinforced my perception. And throughout the weekend it had been so, to some degree, with this gentleman. Over the years, the conference has featured a number of conductors from the deep South, and from Texas, who said blunt things but utilized their accents to infuse those blunt things with just a little bit of humor; and sometimes that can make all the difference in the world. If you can get people to laugh, it’s easier to sneak the message in under the radar, after all.

So, our speaker said that he wanted to talk about “legacy” – presumably in the service of causing band directors to get introspective about their profession, which was of course the point of the conference. He didn’t say that last out loud; I filled in that context for him, inside my head, but that’s where I expected he was going. I thought he was going to go unexpectedly for Very Deep Thoughts, to effectively play against the dominant impression he’d built up over the two workshop days prior, the “bluntly humorous Texan” image.

So, I tried to anticipate. Legacy. What does it mean? How can that definition apply to our line of work? What kind of foundation are we leaving for the next generation of teachers to build upon?, etc. etc.

As it turned out … nope. It was all just a way of framing what was not much more than a stand-up act. And one that was not only not terribly funny after all … but which struck me at least as a protracted rant about how things were perfect in the sixties and seventies, and look how it’s all gone to crap.

When we [the generation of band directors in their mid-forties through retirement age] started out, the previous generation left us things like…” … and then came a list of band director and band program characteristics established during the 1950s and 1960s. He painted a picture that evoked the first forty minutes of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, or most of the movie “Pleasantville”, with its “Mad Men” wardrobes and haircuts, and its more military-band-inflected conception of what band did, what it sounded like, what it looked like, what it was.

Here’s what we’ve left you [the next generation, those in their twenties and thirties] with…” … and then came a list of changes and innovations in the school band world that have arisen between the mid-1980s and now. The way that list was delivered strongly suggested that our speaker didn’t think much of the items on that list. With a certain amount of disdain in his voice, he noted all the new ensemble titles (“symphonic winds… wind orchestras…”), the proliferation of “educational music compositions” (admittedly, some music written with school bands in mind is a little tough to take – particularly some of the associated program notes. “This work reflects the triumph of the human spirit, the challenge of our world, and our hopes for the future” probably describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony much better than it does “Soaring Medium-Easy Overture for Band”) … and our speaker’s list of “New Rules for Marching Band”, in which he cheerily expressed thinly-veiled contempt for (por ejamplo) drum corps-inspired innovations in repertoire, instrumentation, uniforms, color guard activity and marching style.

I’m sure he was going for some laughs, too, but it came off (at least to my ears) as just being a stick-in-the-mud. It reminded me faintly of a letter to the editor that was published in my local newspaper several years ago, ’round about the time a local town was considering renewing a tax cap override that routinely threatened to gut local school budgets, among other things. The letter not only implied, but actually said things like, “back in my day, we didn’t have all these frills like music and art and computers and we got a fine education, so why do today’s kids need all that extra stuff that costs money?”

At the end of each subcategory of “they left us this … we’re leaving you these other things”, our speaker asked the “upstart” generation: “what will you leave the next generation?” Which would have been a great, thought-provoking question to ask, had the setup not been much more than standup comedy, and thin material at that.

Well, sir, contrary to the rose-colored-glasses view of the first half of the twentieth century that was being proffered … I would posit that all the qualities and characteristics of the school band world were in fact not perfect in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s. Drum corps has actually contributed a number of positive things to the marching activity (not the least of which is a marching style that allows feet not to be heard through horns), and not really much more silly-looking things than what can be seen in some of those black-and-white photographs of the Faber College Band back in the year ought-five. And here’s a question I’d love to ask a lot of music professors: when’s the last time you actually stood in a functioning high school band room, full of students who were born after the Internet came into common use?

In short … which I never am … the speech struck me as the band director version of “get off my lawn.”

Did I get any positive thing out of the speech? Yes. At least this: a renewed appreciation for the people with whom I get to teach, when I work for ten days every summer with the Drum Major Academy. Because those people have worthwhile things to say, and they can express those ideas effectively. They draw their audiences in with humor, rather than pushing them away. And their audiences, the DMA kids – the future high school drum majors (and who knows? some of them might be the future band directors in this world) – always, without fail, go away from those presentations with looks on their faces that I sure didn’t see after this Texas university music professor’s speech.

So at least I thank him for that. And you, for reading this.


Rant over. Stand at … ease.

July 13, 2013 Posted by | arts, band, DMA, drum corps, education, humor, marching band, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment