Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

You Didn’t Have To Do That

[Ed. note: A brief tale here, and please forgive me if it comes off as self-absorbed and annoying. It’s not supposed to. We may even come up with different “morals of the story”. That’s okay, I think.]


I’ve participated in many UMass Homecoming Weekend alumni bands, in the nearly three decades (oi) since I graduated from there.

So, yes, I’m now that pushing-fifty guy, grey beard and all, who is still hauling a saxophone out there, dancing around like a goof, and generally enjoying the heck out of the experience, even if it’s raining, because it was fun then, so it’s fun now!!!

Another portion of my college band experience (other than toting a saxophone around) was getting to be one of the three drum majors during my senior year. Now, please understand: when I sign up online for alumni band activities and they ask what my instrument was … there’s no check-box for “drum major”, and even if there were one, that’s not an instrument!! and I wouldn’t check that box anyway. Really. You don’t believe me, but it’s true.

There have only been two Homecomings wherein I have played the alumni drum major game. One of them was seven years ago, when the alumni band was 925 strong, so it was pretty much all hands on deck. There were at least fifteen former drum majors out there, because it was necessary.

The other time was I think five years ago. That morning, as the weather looked less and less dire and I began to not worry so much about marching a Selmer Mark VI saxophone in the rain, my friend James, a former UMass drum major (who was a DM twenty years after I was), looked over at me and said, “Rob, is your mace in your car?” I said, yeah, it was; and it actually was still in the trunk from back in the summer when I brought it with me to the summer drum major clinic wherein we’d both worked. (Only out of sheer “I don’t have a free hand to grab it when I bring the rest of my life into the house after work”, not “who knows when I might need a twirling mace?”.)

Cool,” he said, “let’s just go out there and throw.” And so, in the midst of the alumni band’s halftime tune, James and I strode onto the Gillette Stadium field, conducted not a single note, and just chucked maces in the air indiscriminately. (We were two redheaded, bearded guys throwing maces. Hmmmmm. Didn’t exactly plan that visual way ahead of time, but okay.) I’m not usually the ostentatious-showmanship type … and though it seemed like fun, and several people subsequently thought out loud that it was fun to watch, I still did feel a wee bit like I’d stepped away from the pack of alumni who were actually playing their horns … and I felt a wee bit guilty. Like, come on, you had your chance in 1987, and took it, and thanks for playing, it’s done. Right?

I know, I’m weird. But that’s the way my head works.

Fast-forward to last weekend, Homecoming Weekend at UMass. I arrive and find a clump of band alumni gathering, early in the morning … and rumors begin flying.

So I hear you’re conducting ‘Let’s Groove’?”

Do you hear that?

So you’re singing Twilight Shadows?”

I’m … willing … … but I didn’t know we were playing the alma mater for halftime?

Gonna chuck a mace today?”

Ummm … it takes two hands to play sax?

Did I mention that, while being a team player and being willing to fill whatever role the organization needs me to fill, I am nonetheless reticent to grab that sort of spotlight?

And please notice particularly that, um, my former-DM colleague from five years ago, James his very own self, is standing over there without his trumpet, and is therefore well-suited for that job, whereas oh look! I’ve got my tenor with me and its reed is actually whole and complete and not dinged for a change?

Naw, I’ll hang with the crazy alumni tenor saxes, some of whom I’ve just met (because they’re relatively or VERY recently graduated from UMass and therefore, no disrespect intended, ARE CHILDREN!! and are tons of fun).

I’ll be fine.

(I didn’t have to do that, didn’t need to jump out in front of the group, in order for my life to be complete or something.)

At some point in the alumni band rehearsal early that afternoon, the current band director, Tim Anderson, wanders over in my direction and asks, “So, ya wanna conduct ‘Fight, Mass.’?”

Urp! Uh, Tim, there’s redheaded James right over there, yeah? I mean, I’ll do what you need, but, uh, really!

I wasn’t even one of “his” drum majors, since he’s been at UMass just the seven years. Again, sweet of him to ask, to keep track and to be aware, but super not-required … No, it’s okay.

Fifteen or so minutes later, we’re most of the way through rehearsing the music for halftime, which includes a couple of tunes by the current undregrads, “Let’s Groove” with just alumni, the finale of the “1812 Overture” with all of us combined, and then the UMass fight song. And one of the current drum majors walks by and says, “okay, so, we’re gonna put you on a ladder for ‘Fight, Mass.’…” As in, I’m going to climb one of the stepladders that the assistant drum majors use, and conduct for the band members too far from the 50-yardline to properly see the conductor on the center podium.

Well okay, it sounds like that would be helpful to somebody; and besides, the particular current drum major who came to talk to me … well, if she tells you to do something, you darn well do it.

Sweet of her to ask, though.

Then I get to the ladder.

Or rather, I discover why I would probably not be a great UMass drum major these days.  In the 1980s… no ladders.

I get four steps up that ladder and realize that there are two more yet to go. And getting to the top of the ladder will mean leaning forward onto a little bitty guard rail using only my lower shins.

And I’d swear that ladder is shifting in the breeze.

Have I ever mentioned, I don’t do super well with heights that aren’t contained by skyscraper windows or airplane fuselages?

So, current UMass drum majors, when you find the five indents on that ladder’s front guard rail, please know that I’ve “left my mark” on the band: I stood only five steps up, conducted that fight song rehearsal righthanded, and held onto that rail with a lefthanded Vulcan Death Grip.

At the actual halftime of the actual game, the bands played through the first two tunes, and as I dashed to the sideline before “Fight, Mass.”, suddenly so did everybody else, having been waved in that direction by director Tim. The halftime show had to be cut short for time.

I was not disappointed.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t have been happy to have gone only five steps up the ladder in performance … but I was also relieved … relieved of the opportunity to pitch off the thing and make the wrong kind of spectacle of myself with thousands of people watching and wondering.

Again, I didn’t go to Homecoming to stick out from the crowd. I went to Homecoming to be in the alumni band, in and amongst my friends, old and new. And that’s what happened, and as usual, it was glorious.

Not *quite* the end of the tale, though.

Rewind a few hours: just before the rehearsal had finished, director Tim was doing a series of last announcements – where to meet, where to go, what time, where to sit in the stands, all the non-glamorous details – and then I heard him get the band ready to do its final traditional end-of-rehearsal call-and-response thing. And I realized he was explaining to the assembled graduates and undergraduates that this former drum major guy from 1987 over here is going to lead it.

He’s what now?

I didn’t focus on this till afterward: while his noted predecessor always asked the band, “how are your FEET?, stomach, chest, shoulders, etc.?” so they could then shout about being Together, In, Out, Back, etc. … Tim has since handed that duty off to his drum majors. And he was handing it off now.

He didn’t have to do that, either. But he did. And it was very kind.

And yeah, even as I picked up my tenor afterward, and spent the rest of the day cheerfully and properly communing with great band-alum friends … I kinda did appreciate the gesture.



P.S. I am fully in control of my verb tenses at all times. In case you wondered.

P.P.S. But not in control of my sentence lengths.


October 26, 2017 Posted by | band, drum major, friends, marching band, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


As today is Throwback Thursday in social media land, I have had occasion to think backward to thirty years ago, and to eight days ago, both on the same topic.

Throwing things. (Not backward, if I can help it, as will become clear shortly.)

Very early in my time as a freshman in the UMass marching band, I saw something I had genuinely never seen before: I saw someone throw a mace.

For the uninitiated, this is not the mace that people spray to make other people to go away. It’s not the mace of medieval times, although it must be an ancestor. It surely counts as a weapon – in fact, the TSA reportedly frowns upon them as carry-on items.

This is a version of the traditional signaling baton used by drum majors since time immemorial to communicate to a band things like “when to go,” “in what direction to go,” “when to stop,” “when to play,” “how fast to play” … and, in more recent band history, “oh, Lord, the drum major is going to have to catch that thing somehow.”

The mace has informational but also showmanship uses. Everybody anywhere ever has seen at least one baton twirler, yes? Well, in a way, it’s just an overgrown version of twirler weaponry. A meter-plus long, with a point on one end and a tennis-ball-sized counterweight on the other – unless you’re using a British mace, in which case it’s more like five feet long, and the counterweight’s size is closer to a softball or even a volleyball, and it’s got jingling decorative chains all up and down it, and if you squint you might mistake it for a Buckingham Palace guard who hasn’t eaten in a while.

Over the course of the twentieth century, drum majors have figured out more and more mesmerizing ways of spinning and twirling these things. Baton twirlers mostly twirl betwixt the fingers on one hand; twirling a mace is usually less about finger dexterity and many maneuvers require both hands in order to be successful … but in either case, it’s impressive when done well and it’s rather obvious when one fumbles.

This applies to both mace spinning … and mace throwing. One can huck this thing up in the air (keeping it spinning) and catch it. Sometimes it’s a low toss, incorporated seamlessly into an improvised twirling routine. Other times, it’s a high toss, a maneuver designed to elicit responses from halftime show audiences as the mace reaches grand heights (oooooo!), with a successful catch being anything that doesn’t hit the ground, no matter how the drum major snagged it (yayyyyy!).

My parents, ever mindful of topics their 18-year-old college bando son blathered on about, bought me a mace for Christmas that year. I cheerfully took it out into the backyard (must not be seen by the general public until one is totally ready for one’s debut) and went to work teaching myself to spin this thing, just like I’d seen drum majors Mike, Neil and especially Jeff do. Spin and twirl, toss and (ouch) (hey) (oh, oww) (woo!) catch. As will often happen, I self-taught myself just enough that it took a lot of work to unlearn some really poor habits later; but I’ll skip over that minor glitch.

During the showmanship portion of my drum major audition, in spring of my junior year, I worked hard to emulate the mace work of my college band director, George Parks, who was and still is known as a pioneer of modern American drum majoring. To that end, I aped one of his signature tricks: huck, execute a somersault, and come up just in time to catch. (Afterward, two of my observer-friends noted that this was very foolish – either because it would’ve been lame if I’d missed the catch, or because Mr. Parks was likely to remember, and expect me to pull that stunt again sometime. Eh, “no risk, no reward”; but they both were correct.)

Since then, I’ve noted that during my senior drum major season, I was basically a two-trick pony in performance. Stride up the fifty-yardline, execute an about-face, execute a one-handed rifle-spin (Trick #1). Stop the mace, gather myself and huck (Trick #2)!! And catch, most of the time. I suppose you could label my Senior Day toss, when it sailed about fifteen yards to my left instead of returning straight down to me and stuck, point-down, in the turf, as Trick #3; but I think that was really just Insane Blind Luck For The Ages.

I could also do execute a two-handed mace spin, but never did so in performance.

So, recently, and particularly eight days ago, when I’ve been called upon to teach a beginner mace class as part of the Drum Major Academy week, I’ve agreed cheerfully to do so … but I’ve been glad to have a bit of advance warning. I can do this basic stuff, but I rarely think about how I’m doing it.

Sounds fine, yes? I’m well past the point of consciously thinking, “crown up, point up, chop, recover, re-grab, start all over again, crown up, point up… –d’oh!!” And mostly, when I huck, I do so in such a way that the thing responds to gravity but doesn’t appear to be hunting me like some metal bird of prey. I will reach up and forward, aiming for the center of the spin, and catch the mace without dislocating a finger.

This summer, though, I did have to pause and think and analyze and confer with a colleague or two about how best to teach that two-handed spin to DMA students who had little or no experience with a mace. I felt the same weight of responsibility to get it right as when I was teaching beginner instrumentalists. Don’t teach bad habits – again, one does not wish to force people to unlearn what they have learned.

Starred Thought™: You find out how well you know a subject when you have to instruct someone else.

What terminology do you guys use?, I asked my staff mates, one of whom re-wrote the book (or the DVD) on the subject!! Just so I don’t teach in a way that will force you to need to translate into your language when some of these kids one day move to the intermediate or advanced class. Cleverly disguising (not really) the fact that I was trying to figure out how to break down the spin into small, more easily-explainable sections. Just like proper teaching procedure says: explain, break down into elements, evaluate, correct, re-assemble, pick up speed … re-evaluate … and around and around it goes.

And away we went. I stood on a podium, facing at least a hundred teenagers with sharp metal objects in their hands. My first emphasis was on reinforcing the rules of Don’t Hurt Yourself. And make sure you’ve got enough room between you and everyone else here – left and right, front and back. Then we advanced to the “hold the mace like this; rotate your wrist like this; the faster the thing revolves, the lighter your grip can be and the more the mace’s momentum will spin it up into your hand again like magic!” stage. Then it was on to the “don’t just blindly huck now, but instead practice tossing the mace a few feet in the air without rotation and catching it without death and destruction” stage. Followed by the “here’s a way of winding up for a toss that uses scientific pendulum concepts” phase. Followed, startlingly soon, by the “okay, we have to stop now, Heidi is waiting for us with the rest of the students and is tapping her foot” moment.

Several students thanked me for the session afterward. I told them they were entirely welcome, and that I was glad to have had lots of staff assistants out there as helpful co-teachers. And thought to myself that I was both disappointed and pleased that I had not made a recording of the lesson – I still think I have a ways to go before I can be nearly as effective a teacher of Sharp Spinning Object Technique as my colleagues.

But I did see quite a few of them fumbling their rifle spins less and less, and getting the hang of that two-handed spin more and more. I was also pleased that I did not see them working hard on their high tosses, as a hundred people in close proximity all working on that at the same time is nothing you want to see. Go home and be alone in your backyard. And wear a bicycle helmet or something, early on.

Curious. While I was working to pass on the concepts of an activity in which everything depends on rotation and revolving objects and other circle-y ideas … I noted that thirty years later, events had come full circle, from my backyard to (potentially), theirs.

August 7, 2014 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, GNP, marching band, Starred Thoughts, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment