Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Resting On Laurels

Many of my friends and colleagues have many George Parks stories. I do too. And in the days leading up to today, a day in which we’re marking the sixth anniversary of his passing, I’ve been reminded of one in particular.

Probably not so coincidental, this reminder: the story is about beginnings, and it’s come back to me during many Septembers, including the ones before 2010. September is when school years (at least here on the east coast) and church program years crank back up again. Bands are band camping … choirs are getting back into organized singing again … many folks are packing up their summer gear … fall sports teams are working out again … kids (and graduate students) are once again setting aside afternoon and evening time for homework … everyone seems to be getting back to the old grind.

The story I’m thinking of has to do with my very very first football game as a collegiate marching person.

 

The mighty UMass marching band had completed its first pregame show of the 1984 season, and its first halftime show, and its first postgame show. I had sung my first uniformed “My Way”, and the band was encircling its director in the dusty parking lot outside the UMass football stadium in the way that only it can.

I was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled at what we’d just accomplished. I’d never been in a band that big, that powerful, that entertaining, before. Just eleven months before, I’d visited the UMass campus on a Saturday and saw the UMass marchers light their home stadium on fire. I had determined that this school was where I needed to be, and that band was where I needed to be. And lo, I was now a member of that group. And it was just as great — WE were just as great — as I had remembered. The audience cheered. The band danced (where appropriate). I was astonished at my good fortune.

We stood in a 230-person blob, around a portable podium upon which stood the same band director whose navy three-piece suit, red beard, and ability to stand on a very very narrow stadium railing had gotten my attention, at that game nearly a year before. This was the moment. This was MY moment.

Well, gang,” Mr. Parks asked, “…how’d it feel?”

We roared. That good. Only far-and-away the best band performance of my life.

Good, good! … Because we’ll never see THAT band again.”

Yeah! Only the most awesome show in the history of– … … sorry, wh’-what? Come again?

Lots of work to do on Monday. Detail to the ready…”

And we came to attention one last time and how were our FEET? Together … in, out, back, frozen, up … substandard?

But … but … but “Crown Imperial” was bombastic (with a 48-count sustained final chord, no less)! Stan Kenton’s “Malaguena” ripped the crowd’s faces off! Lionel Richie’s “Hello” was … well, strangely placid, –but that just proved we could play anything in any style and nobody was messin’ with us! Right?

It wasn’t until two and a half weeks later — at the end of a midweek rehearsal, in fact — that Mr. Parks declared that the UMass band had “emerged”. That was his way of saying, okay, we’ve gotten ourselves back to the level of performance where we ought to be. Back to what the band should sound like. And in the mid-1980s, it usually wasn’t until the autumnal equinox that Mr. Parks looked upon his creation and declared it good.

Which I imagine may have frustrated people sometimes. In the fall of 1984, it confused this particular freshman, who had repaired to supper with his family after that first home game still reverberating from the experience of surviving and thriving on a college football field.

Took a while, but I figured it out.

 

Some time ago, I saw a video clip of a pre-band camp student staff meeting, in 1993, the year UMass was slated to play its first-ever exhibition at the Bands of America Grand National Championships. Mr. Parks was chatting with his student leaders and saying, well, gang, last year was such a great year, and ya know what? That band doesn’t exist anymore. That band is gone.

Odd thing to say, if you want to rev up your troops on the eve of battle … but his point was: this year’s band is not last year’s. It’s not even the same as last year’s.

The roster is not exactly the same. The drum majors are not necessarily the same people. The repertoire is new. The drill is new. The seniors (some of whom amassed four years of UMass band experience and institutional knowledge) are gone — and their shoes are about to be filled by rookies (some of whom have never even marched before).

We got work to do … and if all we bring out there, onto the practice field or the Alumni Stadium field or the Hoosier Dome field, is our memory of our reputation or the achievements of the ethereal past … if we don’t dig in and put in just as much work as the bands that unleashed “Phantom of the Opera” in 1990, or that made Delaware fans want to throw their babies in 1987 or 1983 or 1981, or that represented Massachusetts at Presidential inaugurations in 1984 or 1981 … all of the members of which are now out in the big world and not here to help

… then we may not live up to the standards that they set.

All right, but … what about all that stuff I wrote, in this space, three years ago, about excellence being in that band’s DNA? It wasn’t untrue. And yet, while you can build a foundation … if you don’t maintain the house on top of it, the thing tends to deteriorate.

As the great Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser says: “If you plant corn, you get corn. If you plant tomatoes, you get tomatoes. What do you get if you plant nothing? … Weeds.”

 

So, for example, for the last fifteen Septembers, when starting the first choir rehearsal of our church’s program year, I’ve quietly borne in mind that no matter how great Music Ministry Sunday sounded back in June, and regardless of the fact that we don’t graduate seniors but instead benefit from having people singing in the choir for decades in a row … we can’t rest on those laurels.

That’s why, for example, the Drum Major Academy that Mr. Parks started has continued, and the curriculum has seen some adjustments and refinements. A couple of summers ago, after an especially memorable day of DMA teaching (and watching my colleagues teach better than I do), I posted on Facebook, “DMA lives … and *evolves*.”

That’s why, for example, teachers attend professional development workshops in the summer, when arguably they should be sipping adult beverages on the beach. If you stay in one spot, you get stagnant.

Starred Thought: “Bands (choirs) (organizations) (people) never stay the same. They either get better, or they get worse.”

That first college home football game of mine was thirty-two years and one week ago. And I still think about the fact that “we’ll never see THAT band again”, and consider how good that is to remember. And to consider, in spite of the fact that he’s no longer with us, how great it is that I remember who said it, and why he said it, and that he wasn’t saying it to tamp down our enthusiasm but to pump it up.

These things don’t just happen by themselves, gang. Gotta get in there and work for it.

Starred Thought: “Never. Assume. Anything.”

Whenever it is that I have finally rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible … if I’ve had even a sliver of the impact and influence on the world that George Parks had, and still has … I will be (at least metaphorically) in heaven.

At the end of a Drum Major Academy week, Mr. Parks used to look out at the group of high school drum majors that he was training, and say, “As a band leader, you have the greatest opportunity to have a permanent lifelong impact on the people in your school.”

Right back at you, sir. And you took full advantage of that opportunity.

We’ll never see that band again.”

And we’re all the better for it, #becauseofGNP.

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September 16, 2016 Posted by | band, DMA, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The More You Know…

Early today, a friend and colleague posted online, on the subject of a recent news item from a town near where he works. Specifically, he was “tempted to weigh in”, but was concerned that “only a combination of the broadcast media and Facebook as a source for my information leaves me potentially under-informed to do so.”

In other words, he was doing what so very few people do, these days: he recognized that he might not have had all the information he needed to make an informed comment, and so he didn’t make a comment.

I’ve trod this path before, but I’ll tread again: the comment section of any online article is not a place you want to visit if you’re heavily into temperate, restrained, thoughtful discourse. No indeed. And neither are talk radio programs, most cable news television chat shows, or the halls of Congress. And, sadly, this is not new. I remember hearing blowhards on the radio when I was ten and thinking, “ya wanna go read up on this before you toss your two cents in?” Or fourth-grader words to that effect.

As it happens, the comments that followed my friend’s post constituted the most thoughtful, measured and civilized debate I’ve read in a very long while. It’s the company you keep, I guess.

 

By coincidence – well, no, actually I should say this: in the world of potential blog topics, I’ve found a curious utter lack of coincidence. Somehow, way too often for it to be statistically likely, I’ll take note of a news item … and then two other way-too-similar ones pop up within the next 12 hours. It’s remarkable…

Anyway, by lack of coincidence, today I took note of a news item having to do with a school where I used to work … involving a gentleman around whom I used to work … and I had to wrestle with several issues at once.

I used to direct the athletic bands at the College of the Holy Cross. I spent a fine four years there, working with some terrific people, in an atmosphere that was assuredly very positive in many ways. And in spite of the relatively smaller crowds that women’s basketball drew, some of my very favorite memories of the Cross came at the Hart Center gym when Bill Gibbons’ teams were squaring off with their Patriot League arch-rivals.

For one thing, the women’s game always seemed to me like purer basketball. The men’s teams played with a ferocity that tended to turn the game into an almost endless succession of slams and bangs, with occasional artistry thrown in. The women slammed less, passed more, and one could almost imagine that Dr. Naismith’s game really had started out looking more like Maya Moore, Rebecca Lobo and Elena Delle Donne than it looked like Shaq, LeBron and the Round Mound of Rebound. (Nothing against Mr. Mound.)

Also, from a band director’s (and, I think it’s safe to say, a band member’s) perspective, if the HC women’s team and coaching staff was at all representative of the college women’s basketball community … then I can hypothesize that on average, women’s teams are more likely than men’s teams to give a damn about the band!

Maybe it’s because on average they draw smaller crowds than the men’s games do, so they appreciate anyone and everyone who shows up, and especially the bands that are always on duty, always cheering for them, always making sure that their gym is a miserable place for opponents to play in. And the women’s teams express that appreciation.

An indelible memory, for me, came prior to a league playoff game that Holy Cross was hosting during spring break. As often happens, band alumni came back to fortify the pep band’s ranks while classes weren’t in session, and as we were setting up drums and getting ready to do musical battle, I noticed a nice lady standing next to me, holding a pan of something that smelled very much like yummy baked goods. And that’s what they were. “These are for the band,” she said. Well thank you!, I said, and to whom to I owe thanks? “Oh, I just made up a batch this afternoon. Thought you’d like them. …I’m Bill Gibbons’ mother.”

Okay, let’s be clear. The mother of the women’s team’s head coach just baked brownies … for the band. Not a bad place to do business, eh?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say; Mrs. Gibbons must at least have provided a good example for her son to maybe follow. And her son very often followed it. Before every women’s home game, Coach Gibbons made it a point to walk over to the band bleachers, look up at the kids and call out, “we got ’em tonight, right? We can do this! Thanks for being here! Let’s go!” or something similar. The route from the locker room to the home team bench area did not take him past the band; but he made sure to take that detour.

When I left Holy Cross – not because I didn’t love the job, but because I couldn’t afford to be both a full-time public school teacher and a part-time college band director (the hardest professional decision of my life that was ever obvious), I sent a number of letters to various College “stakeholders”, expressing my thanks for their help in making my experience as good as it was. And Coach Gibbons sent back what was by far the longest and most expressive reply. It wasn’t boilerplate; it wasn’t “here, administrative assistant, send a letter, the usual gratitude template, signed, blah blah blah”. It was “if there’s ever anything I can do for you, just ask,” and it was sincere and genuine. No administrative assistant helped him … his capitalization wasn’t that good.

When I got to see Coach Gibbons at work, which was mainly at home games, he was an intense guy. In the heat of Patriot League battle, he was always working the sidelines, always in motion, always keeping the referees aware of important things, always totally into what he was doing. Nothing was held back – it seemed like the only speed he knew was “full throttle”. And it seemed to me that while he was tough on his players when they needed reminders about things like rebounding, he treated them well in public when they were working hard, even if they weren’t winning (according to the scoreboard) at that moment – and I always got the feeling that with Coach Gibbons, tough love was still love.

 

The news item of yesterday: a former HC women’s basketball player is suing the school, the coach and a couple of athletic department administrators. She is accusing Coach Gibbons of verbally and physically abusing his players at games and practices, and accusing the college of “perpetuat[ing] a culture of denial and feign[ing] ignorance over his actions”. The lawsuit says that this former player “was in fear of physical pain, [and] suffered emotional abuse and fear of retaliation at the hand of defendant Gibbons”, and that her “love of basketball and self-esteem had been damaged.”

As I read all of this in several online articles, I admit that I did so from the perspective of someone who has watched this lawsuit’s main defendant work, who has admired his work, and who thought he had a pretty good sense of what this gentleman was all about. And who was prejudicially predisposed to not necessarily buy everything this former player was selling.

I have never watched a Holy Cross women’s basketball practice. I don’t know whether Coach Gibbons is Dr. Jekyll in one place, Mr. Hyde in another. (Although, if the Coach pleading his case to the referees after a particularly awful call was Jekyll, I suppose maybe I’d prefer not to see Hyde?) I’m not privy to his interactions with his players in the locker room, away from public scrutiny. I simply do not have enough information to feel comfortable saying that the Coach is never ever so intense and out-of-control that he would do things to his players that the lawsuit accuses him of doing. Plus, I haven’t been to a Crusader women’s game for seven years. Things change. People change. Nothing is impossible … although some things are very very improbable.

So here I am … admiring my friend’s ability to admit his incomplete knowledge of a situation and his subsequent decision to refrain from commenting (and to solicit others’ assistance) … while at the same time I’m getting ready to comment.

I am still yet to achieve perfection, I fear.

But at least I know a little tiny bit of something about the man, and his program, and his school.

 

Plenty of online commenters instantly assumed that Coach Gibbons was the worst of the worst. The Midwest area director of an organization which supports survivors of abuse by priests weighed in (without offering any evidence of having conducted any more of an investigation than reading the New York Daily News article). There were the usual yahoo comments by people who were more interested in making a joke than in making a point. One comment wondered how the Coach would be treated in prison (thus bypassing due process and heading straight for “Orange is the New Black”). One commenter said, oxymoronically, “I will await the evidence as it unfolds. But the fact that Holy Cross is a Roman Catholic institution sways me to thinking that the allegations are well founded.” [To be clear, Holy Cross is a Jesuit school, and for many reasons, I suspect that this could be a distinction with a difference.] And one commenter painted with a different but equally broad brush: “Coaches can be such a—holes.”

I bet none of these people had ever seen a Holy Cross women’s basketball game.

In school, they told me: write about what you know.

So okay.

Based on what I know of Coach Gibbons … which may be incomplete knowledge, but it’s all I’ve got to go on, and it’s a hell of a lot more knowledge than is exhibited by the aforementioned parachute-drop artists and trolls … if I learned that he had in fact exhibited patterns of behavior that would merit serious consideration of this lawsuit, I would be surprised and disappointed.

One of his fellow central-Massachusetts college basketball coaches said that Gibbons was “a person who represents basketball the right way, certainly off the court with everything that should be done for your players – getting involved with community service, making sure they’re accountable academically, that they’re representing the college the right way off the court. There is no one as classy a person. If I had two daughters, which I don’t, I would love them to have an opportunity to play for Bill Gibbons.”

It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. From the get-go, Coach Gibbons absolutely struck me as an intense guy. But he also struck me as somebody who cared more about his players as people than he did about how many wins, how many championships, etc. He struck me as a decent guy – as somebody who, if he were about to make a comment to a reporter that he knew was going to draw a fine from the Patriot League, would stop and take a deep breath. He wore his heart on his sleeve … but in my dealings with him, he was nothing but a class act. Intensity … but with dignity.

I’ll be very interested to see what happens here – to see who comes out of this looking good. If the allegations are true, I’ll be disappointed, but such things happen. If it turns out that a reputation is tarnished that didn’t need to be … I’ll be more than disappointed.

October 18, 2013 Posted by | current events, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Have We Learned Nothing From “Drumline”?

[ABSTRACT: It figures … the big story of the first day of March Madness 2012? One of the bands makes national headlines by screwing up. Great.]

 

While I’ve been a playing member, assisting instructor, and director of high school and college bands, I’ve had a decent amount of experience with the question of “how should we behave?”, specifically while wearing any apparel directly identifying us as band members.

 

During my freshman year with my college band, on one early-season game day, I overheard a member of the band’s student staff quietly reading the riot act to another marching member about profanity in uniform … i.e., there is none, please. Read the handbook.

 

Same band, same year, in Washington, DC, for Ronald Reagan’s second Inauguration: as I have chronicled previously, we observed a member of another band smoking in uniform. Setting aside whatever you think of smoking, and whatever your particular band’s controlled-substances policy happens to be … either everybody smokes or nobody does, gang: it’s the definition of “uniform”. It didn’t help that the smoker was on his own, with his uniform jacket hanging open. Sigh.

 

While serving as grad assistant for bands at a member school of the America East collegiate athletic conference, I got to observe the behavior of another band, which I was quietly pleased that we did not emulate. Our men’s basketball team made it to The Big Dance, so we traveled to Kansas City with them, to root them on to victory. We were involved in the second game of the afternoon at Kemper Arena, and while the first game was going on, we sat in the stands behind one of the other bands and watched – politely scouting not just the two hoop teams (for use when our team, we were sure, would meet one of them in the second round) but also the other two bands.

To kill the suspense: our team froze in the headlights. They got beaten mercilessly. Welcome to the world of national-level basketball competition. We went home the next day.

But by the end of that first game, a lot of us were shaking our heads: the band sitting in front of us, from the University of Southern Northwest Eastview [names have been changed to protect the guilty], had done nothing but make awful remarks about everyone and everything around them, except of course for themselves, and sometimes those remarks didn’t feature strictly the King’s English. What we took from that tournament experience was: well, there’s a band we don’t want to be like, no matter how well they play.

 

During one football game early in my first season as director of a small college band from central New England, the action was getting pretty suspenseful – a close score, the other team (in our view) benefiting from a couple of cheap shots not flagged by referees, and our team getting flagged for fouls they of course did not commit! In frustration, one of our low brass guys (a fine gentleman) expressed his view of the officiating somewhat loudly and very profanely. Instantly I ran halfway up the stands to where his section was and described for him exactly how often I ever wanted to hear anything like that. “I don’t care if you’re right – and you probably are – but you’re in uniform. Never again.”

To his credit, he immediately (before I finished my first sentence) turned all kinds of colors, apologized, and indeed, he uttered not one more word outside the dictionary for his remaining two and a half years with the band – although his enthusiasm never dimmed. For the rest of my time with that band, my formerly-profane friend and everybody around him were people with whom I was happy to travel anywhere, any time.

 

So, yesterday, during the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, at a game between Kansas State University and Southern Mississippi University, which was nationally (or at least regionally) televised, a Kansas State player of Puerto Rican origin named Angel Rodriguez stepped to the foul line and was greeted by several members of the Southern Miss pep band chanting, “Where’s Your Green Card?”

Take a moment on your own to imagine how many things are wrong with that utterance. I’ll wait here till you get back.

Yeah. Me too.

From a distance, it might be easy for almost any of us to righteously declare, “here’s what I’d do in that situation, if I were in charge of that group.” I don’t know all the details about this incident … or details about this band that I would probably know better if I were among the band’s leadership: were all the kids chanting? Just some of them? Is it a student-led pep band with an advisor, or do they have a faculty or staff-level conductor? What’s the band’s history with regard to public behavior, or more secluded on-campus/off-hours behavior, or even hazing? Do they have a good or bad reputation? …

But it may be that none of that matters. The chant was ridiculous on its face … even if it wasn’t a full-band chant … even if it was an isolated incident (as the president of Southern Mississippi University has asserted in her official apology to the world).

Reportedly, the Southern Miss athletic director either has dragged or will drag the SMU band director in front of the Kansas State player (and, presumably, other KSU officials) to offer his/their own apology, and this is at least what ought to happen. I don’t want to spend time preaching about what else the school “should” do about all this – I wouldn’t want the whole Internet world to be telling me what to do if I were in that band director’s shoes, because as I said, the whole world doesn’t have all the information it needs in order to make the right decision about that particular situation. And I don’t want to be the equivalent of an Internet commenter/flamethrower, all knee-jerk righteousness and long-distance pontification. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, and it ain’t no fun.

But yesterday my imagination inevitably went to “what would I do in this case?” – from the perspective of someone who has led similar ensembles which were very much in the public eye, and yes, they were on national TV too.

If it were my band … as much as I would have tried to “set the example” and otherwise lay out codes of conduct for my band (which I’m reasonably sure the SMU director would have tried to do; I am presuming he’s a decent sort of fellow who likely doesn’t deserve to have to deal with this sort of silliness) … I am pretty sure that if my team had won its first-round game (SMU didn’t) and stayed in the tournament’s host city, my band would not have. With the blessings of my athletic director, I hope I would have sent my band back to the hotel, had them collect their luggage, and headed straight to the airport. I hope I would have had the opportunity to instantly, in that moment (with the blessing and presence! of the athletic director) approach the opposing team’s bench and offer an immediate apology to the entire team. I’m even pretty sure I would have considered sitting the band down and having them not make a single sound for the rest of the game; possibly from the safety of our bus outside.  It’s okay: our cheerleading coach would have understood.

I hope I would have done something appropriate, in that moment. Obviously, the only way I would know exactly what I would have done in that situation would have been to be in the middle of it. Happily, with the bands I’ve been associated with, I never had occasion to know.

 

The official statement from SMU’s president reads thusly:

We deeply regret the remarks made by a few students at today’s game. The words of these individuals do not represent the sentiments of our pep band, athletic department or university. We apologize to Mr. Rodriguez and will take quick and appropriate disciplinary action against the students involved in this isolated incident.”

The problem with this is that whether the chant does or doesn’t represent the sentiments of the band, and whether this is in fact an isolated incident, that’s not the point now. Whatever uniformed members of a school band do – good or bad – affects public perception of that school. Observers of a band’s behavior are not required to do heavy research in order to find out whether they should condemn or admire that organization or that school. The WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) rule applies in these cases, for better or for worse.

And in this case, thank you so much to the possibly isolated members of the Southern Miss band for reflecting poorly not only on their fellow band members, not only on their school, but on pep bands in general, because that’s how the public reacts: with scorn for bands.  All bands.  Yours and mine.  They’re all unruly college kids.


My college band director once made a statement in an article about our band that wasn’t technically one of his Starred Thoughts®, but it could have been, and it may be the point of all this:

There are standards — standards of behavior, standards of how to project the image of the band, which is the image of the university, which is of course the image of themselves.”

March 16, 2012 Posted by | band, GNP, news, Starred Thoughts, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment