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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Welcome Will Not End

One of the topics that gets covered during a George N. Parks Drum Major Academy clinic week, as we offer three hundred high school drum majors and color guard captains a metaphorical box of tools with which to survive and thrive in their new autumn jobs, is that dangerous word: traditions.

Ya know,” our lead clinician quipped this week, “the stuff you do two years in a row.” And then you can’t figure out why it was so important, but you keep doing it.

DMA has a few traditions of its own.

One of them, which we’ve been upholding for most of three decades, is an event that I will freely admit to enjoying, even though it can be one of the more melancholy moments of my professional year. It comes toward the end of our last evening with the students. It’s an odd moment to have this kind of “heavens, we’re done” feeling, considering we still have about eighteen hours left – the next day, we do one more morning of clinic activities and then an afternoon demonstration show for family and friends.

The moment comes after our lead clinician has spent better than an hour emphasizing to the assembled high school band student leaders (among other ideas) the importance of making sure that the freshmen – and the upperclassmen! – keep believing in the magic of band. Which, out of context, may strike people as a spectacularly Pollyanna-ish and corny thought, but take my word for it: at the end of this particular lecture session it makes all the sense in the world. The thought comes at the end of a very intense four days.

Such that, in the last few minutes of the session, when our lead clinician brings the DMA instructional staff onto the stage of the little auditorium so she can properly acknowledge us, the students clap and cheer madly. And when she brings the veterans (students who “are crazy enough to come and do this a second or third year”) onto the front edge of the stage, a lot of them are teary before they even get there, never mind when they’re handed a little souvenir DMA “vet pin”, never mind when they’re called to execute a salute and the rest of the non-veteran students and the staff clap and cheer madly.

Such that many of the non-veteran students are also a wee bit teary. The instructional staff does generally keep it together.

At least until!…

Well, here’s the tradition that I both love and (in a simultaneous, slightly out-of-body moment) wonder whether the outside world would think it’s as great as I do.

We play a recording of this one particular tune from the mid-1980s that seems specifically designed to lay waste to most everybody’s composure.

Everybody links arms and sways. Some of us (who have actually heard the tune two or three or thirty times before) sing along. (Some of us sing in five-part harmony with full orchestration. Um, guilty.) A lot of people suddenly realize they’re in the middle of the last time we’ll be together doing this, for a while or maybe ever.

Rewind thirty years.

Can you guys help me with something?”

It was DMA, at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, during the summer of 1987. The collegiate assistants were gathered at the edge of the practice field where DMA marching and teaching activities were conducted. At the time, it was a much smaller group than it is now – only the UMass band’s three drum majors and a couple other student field-staff members – and after the morning sessions, they’d grab lunch and head back to the UMass campus to continue prep work for the upcoming band camp and marching season; then they’d come back to Hampshire for the evening indoor lecture sessions.

Our band director had asked the question.

Many words have been written in this space, previously, about this gentleman, nearly all of which basically glowed in the dark. We did, and do, think very highly of him.

But nobody’s perfect; and occasionally, we humans looked at our very human band director and wondered what exactly was going on in that mad brain of his. Sometimes there was a plan, and we just didn’t know about it right away. Sometimes there was a plan, and we never did find out what that plan was.

This time, he had a project for us – but he didn’t tell us the whole plan.

Yeah, I found this song, and it’s kinda neat, but I can’t quite understand some of the lyrics, the way it’s sung. Could I ask you guys to take a listen and see what you can make out?”

(Kids, gather ’round your old man and listen to him tell stories of the days before the Internet.)

So we sat down around a picnic table in the middle of that field, fired up the boom box, and pretty much shredded the cassette tape of this, um, more than faintly cheesy-sounding tune.

Back and forth, over and over, we closed our eyes and bore down on what we were hearing, and tried to glean what this tenor pop singing fellow was getting at. A shame that I don’t know where the notebook has gotten to, the one in which we wrote what we thought might have been the lyrics. Or maybe not a shame it’s gone: it’s pretty likely that we got most of the refrain correct, perhaps half of the first verse, and exceptionally little of the second.

None of us knew who Michael W. Smith was, before that morning. That knowledge might have helped. There were a number of lyrics that … well … they couldn’t possibly be religious, could they? We’re a state university, after all.

(They could.)

Packing up the dreams God planted / In the fertile soil of you

Was this song even intended for the UMass band in any way at all?

(It was.)

The fertile soil of you?” What kind of writing is that?

(I know. Trust me. I know.)

Can’t believe the hopes He’s granted / Means a chapter of your life is through

Hmm. Maybe it’s for senior day, or the Band Banquet, or something.

Was this song really meant for too-cool-for-the-room college students, this fairly sentimental-sounding piece of pop fluff?

But we’ll keep you close as always / It won’t even seem you’ve gone

(Even this.)

(After all, our director was one of the world’s foremost authorities on making corny pieces of music into beloved elements of the legacy and lore of one’s college band.)

Hmmmm.

We did our best. We gave him his notebook back. We went to lunch. And (while he was, as it turned out, engaging someone else somewhere else in this project too, since a lot of us now know the lyrics “chapter and verse”, as it were) … we didn’t think about the song again until a few months later, when we were playing an arrangement of it.

The UMass band already had a tune that it performed to close all its performances. So that wasn’t it. And we played this Michael W. Smith tune at about three performances total. We listened to the recording, the one which we DMA helper-types had transcribed almost completely wrong, in maybe only a couple of other non-performance moments. Our director just thought that the song said some things that applied to our band, which he loved very much – or certainly he wanted them to apply to us.

‘Cause our hearts in big and small ways / Will keep the love that keeps us strong

And then, possibly helped along by the fact that band people can just be that way sometimes … we bought into the thing. Hook, line and sinker.

And then our director decided to apply the tune to his Drum Major Academy curriculum.

Fast-forward thirty years, to now …

And here we are. Standing on the stage in an academic auditorium, many of us surreptitiously thinking, “I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying”, and at least as many of us (even those relative cynics amongst us) thinking about how the lyrics have it just about right … as they apply to the staffers who have been doing this relatively forever, but also to the students who have pretty much just met each other, and none of us really want to part company just yet.

There are lots of reasons why I look forward to the summer week or weeks of DMA. For many reasons, I could argue that in fact it is “the most wonderful time of the year”, and not that wintry month during which lots of people buy and wrap stuff. Talk about traditions!…

I’m thinking, here of one particular reason. It’s a reason which is hopefully not the biggest, since the Drum Major Academy purpose is to teach young people not just to conduct and call commands and teach and lead but to take the tools we offer them and utilize them throughout their lives to be decent to other people.

But one thought that regularly leaps into the forefront of my mind as summer approaches is this: I get to spend time with, and hang out with, and joke and be silly with, and learn to be a better teacher from, this pack of marvelous professional educators (and collegiate future-educators) … many of whom I only get to see once a year. As well as, frankly, a great many DMA students who bring some remarkably positive attributes with them as we meet for the first time.

And a few of those students, some of whom have been in my indoor conducting-video sessions or in my outdoor squad-competition companies, have crossed over to the staff side of things … and now are teaching me how better to teach. And thanks partly to the marvel that is social media, but mostly to the rather intense experience that we share each summer, we’re friends and borderline adopted-family; and those song lyrics are Pollyanna-ish and corny and sentimental, but they’re also true …

 

And friends are friends forever

If the Lord’s the Lord of them

And a friend will not say never

‘Cause the welcome will not end

Though it’s hard to let you go

In the Father’s hands we know

That a lifetime’s not too long

To live as friends

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August 5, 2017 Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, friends, GNP, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-Two: …The Melody Lingers On

Today’s writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 22: “10 favorite songs”.

 

Let’s limit this to pop tunes. No jazz; no showtunes; nothing classical … otherwise it would have to be my 100 favorite pieces of music, and even then it might be tough to narrow such a list down.

In fact, the heck with it: probably my 25 favorite songs. So sue me.

 

Uptown Funk (the cover by Tim Akers & The Smoking Section)

Love Shack (B-52s)

I’m Happy Just to Dance With You (Beatles)

School of Rock (Jack Black)

Saturday in the Park (Chicago)

Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic (Police cover by Shawn Colvin)

Not Ready to Make Nice (Dixie Chicks)

100 Years (Five for Fighting)

I’m On Top of the World (Imagine Dragons)

Boogie Down (Al Jarreau)

So Good (Al Jarreau)

I Go to Extremes (Billy Joel)

When In Rome (Billy Joel)

Crocodile Rock (Elton John)

Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight & the Pips)

Doing It All For My Baby (Huey Lewis & The News)

If This Is It (Huey Lewis & The News)

Sweet Freedom (Michael McDonald)

Keeping the Dream Alive (Munchener Freiheit)

Louisiana 1927 (Randy Newman)

Dress Cool (Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band)

Peg (Steely Dan)

That’s Why I’m Here (James Taylor)

Whenever You’re Ready (James Taylor)

Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)

 

[This list is of course subject to change.]

May 22, 2016 Posted by | blogging, music | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Mashups and Men

One of the curious terms that has sprung up in the music arranging world in the very recent past, thanks in this case to the influence of the pop music world, is the mashup.

As in, “this is a mashup of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.” A couple of tunes that have at least a little to do with each other. Maybe they don’t have that much to do with each other lyrically, but somehow they’ve been jammed together, put into the same key, perhaps linked by a compromise between their two rhythm-section grooves, and away we go.

When I first heard of the mashup, I listened briefly to one, and thought, “perhaps you meant a medley, yes?”

It can seem that way, but of course a medley is one tune, then another, distinct and separate, connected only by clever transitional material. In a mashup, the tunes appear to do something that is impossible in physics. Two objects can’t exist in the same space … but two songs sometimes can.

Some mashups are sheer unadulterated brilliance – “I would never have thought of putting those two items together but don’t they work!” And some are square peg / round hole creations. But it’s been interesting hearing different arrangers’ efforts.

The example I quote above, as you will have figured out via the link, is an actual arrangement done by Elle Brigida, a terrific arranger who has written charts for the Cape Cod-based women’s a cappella group Cape Harmony for the past couple of summers, and has hit it out of the park on a regular basis. When Cape Harmony closed its shows with that one, this past summer, nothing could follow it.

Another great example of utterly inpsired mashing was done by Northeastern University band director John Leonard, for the field show performed by the Central Connecticut State University Blue Devil Marching Band. In the finale of a space-music show, full of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” show through with moments from the new Star Trek movies’ and the “Halo” video game’s scores, John’s rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is sailing along, when suddenly, if you listen closely for the mellophones and saxophones, you can hear a secondary melody from Holst’s “Jupiter” movement dancing around amidst the “Rocket Man” melody.

During one of CCSU’s band camp music rehearsals, my instructor colleague and I realized what we were listening to, and had a moment of complete jaw-drop. Wow – John made that work. That is really cool. We found an Easter egg!

Some time ago, though, I figured out two reason why I had initially kinda looked askance at the concept (because I surely did), other than – as with every kind of musical form, in the right hands it can work and in the wrong hands you need a crash helmet (or possibly a forensics expert).

The first reason was … gang, you all may think you’ve created a new musical form, but as it turns out, every kindergarten kid in America has sung a partner song.

Okay, I can be fairly relaxed about that reason.

But the other reason is one that, if I don’t exactly want to launch a crusade about it, at least it inspires me to make a suggestion:

Can we give it a more dignified name?

Mashup” sounds … well … ham-handed, to me at least. “Mashup” is what you do to peas, when you’re four years old and don’t want to eat them for supper anymore.

When a musical mashup really works, to the point where you only realize after a few moments that you’re listening to two songs work out a negotiated settlement … that’s so much more sophisticated, and therefore, I think, deserves a better moniker than what it’s got.

Anyone got any alternative ideas? Other than partner song, which tends to put me in mind of farmers and dells.

I don’t. But I’d like some.

 

[Ed. note: this article has been cross-posted at the Blog section of my new website, HammertonMusic.com.  More on that project, here, in a bit.  For now, do please visit me there!]

November 2, 2015 Posted by | arranging, HammertonMusic.com, music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment