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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

My Way

Not long ago, I happened upon a YouTube video of a TED Talk, and the end of the thing got me to thinking a bit. Which, according to what TED Talks purport to be, is kinda the point.

These TED Talk things can be anywhere from profound to pretentious – behold, an eight-minute speech by someone who wishes to present Big Ideas! – which is to say, they can be hit or miss. Some deliver the goods, some don’t (in my estimation; take my opinion or leave it).

This particular Talk was presented by a Australian standup comedian called Alice Fraser, a performer of whom I wasn’t aware until probably a month ago or so, which is not her fault. She is funny in an understated manner that I appreciate a lot.

Ms. Fraser’s Talk begins with some fairly smart commentary on Cosmopolitan magazine quizzes and supermodel attributes, moves into a riff on mourning via a story about an odd funeral that she went to once, and then dances around the topic of public restrooms and their purpose (you had to be there, I guess), before swerving suddenly into the Good Bit.

This week, that Good Bit, the last segment of the Talk, got my attention mainly because of what time of the year it is now.

Hold on, I’ll explain.

Here’s a transcript of Alice Fraser’s last, Good Bit.

I feel maybe closer to death than a lot of people, because my Mum has been dying since before I was born. She was diagnosed with MS at twenty-five; and my whole life has been marked by a series of visits to hospital, increasingly often and of increasing seriousness, where parts of my Mum were stripped away. Every part – her balance, her ability to use her hands very well, her ability to go to the toilet properly – all of these things were stripped away; and every time, you think, ‘is that the part of the person [that has gone,] after which she is no longer a person? Memory; her love of books; her articulacy [If that’s not a word, it should be. -Ed.]; all of these things, one after the other, they go away. And every time, you think, ‘this is grief. This is mourning. This is death,’ –and it’s not. It’s not; she’s still there.

And, this is the thing: when somebody’s dying, and you know that they’re dying, what do you say to them? You say, ‘I love you’. You say ‘I love you’ a lot, a lot more than you need to. It’s not like she doesn’t know that I love her; of course she knows that I love her. It’s because you know beyond a certain point you won’t be able to say it anymore.

So how do we deal? We don’t deal with even simple grief, and we don’t have a way of dealing with complicated grief. And I’m not a particularly religious person; my Dad was Jewish, my Mum was Catholic, I was brought up Buddhist. I’m oppressed, repressed, and depressed. [laughter; gentle applause] BUT, the reality is, we’re all dying. Some of us are more dying than others. And the only thing that I can think of that’s worth doing, when somebody dies … is taking that last part of them, the part of them you remember the most – for my Mum, it’s her infinite sweetness and her care for other people – other people, it might be other things – and that one thing is what I want to do now. It’s what I want to practice. It’s what I want to get better at. It’s what I want to take forward, into my life. …

And the only way of remembering somebody, the only way of carrying them forward into your life, is by picking one thing, and doing that thing.

Thank you.”

 

It’s coming toward seven years, now, since the unexpected passing of George N. Parks, who was my college marching band director but a lot of other people’s too. Every early September since 2010, along with those other people, the community of people who were his students … as well as an extended community of people who weren’t UMass marchers but were his students too, or were affected by him in some way … we have all (collectively and individually) settled on different ways at different times to commemorate, or honor, or emulate, or carry on his legacy … or mourn. Sometimes somber, sometimes rooted in the humorous; sometimes looking back with sadness or smiles or both, sometimes looking forward with trust or trepidation or both. One year, the focus seemed to be on the funny stories. Another year, it was making note of the ways in which we (collectively and individually) continue to live our lives #BecauseOfGNP.

Ms. Fraser’s thesis may not fit this situation exactly, only because Mr. Parks’ passing was sudden, rather than gradual … there was exactly zero time to prepare, to work out how we were going to carry on that hypothetical “last part of them, that you remember the most”.

As well, as with many (arguably, hopefully all) people in the world, there may not be just one last part of someone that you remember the most. I was trying to think, what was that last part of Mr. Parks that I remembered the most? Intense performer; caring teacher; all those Starred Thoughts… By the time I’d thought for only a moment, I’d come up with many more than just the one part, and how do you narrow it down? And if you do, you leave off some other part of how he lived his life that seems worth not leaving off.

Four years ago at this time, I wrote a blog post in this space called “Lift Up … Up Up Up Up Up”, which was “three short stories that may offer some idea about just why George Parks impressed the hell out of me.”

The first story’s moral was: “Starred Thought®: Go out of your way to treat people kindly.”

The second story was about taking time to pay attention to people, and care for them, whether you’ve known them forever or you’ve just met them; and its moral was: “Starred Thought®: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The third story was about some sage professional advice about not throwing in the metaphorical towel, and its moral was: “Starred Thought®: To become a great teacher: 1. get a response, 2. care.”

The three stories, lumped together, described just how skilled George Parks was at holding other people up, lifting them up, propping them up when necessary. So, four years ago, that was my “last part” to carry forward into the world. But still, I end up considering the many other ways GNP made everybody around him better …

I am large; I contain multitudes.”

The song Mr. Parks brought to his band … the one which his band has in turn brought to its audiences for thirty-three years and more … said, “more, much more than this, I did it my way.” Which, as it turns out, is curious, if not ironic: with him, unless you only ever saw him at football games, there wasn’t just one single way that he reached out to people – not one single facet, not one single approach that was obviously dominant, obviously his way.

So everybody has their particular way of remembering. Everybody takes a different “thing” (if they even can narrow it down to just one thing) from Mr. Parks’ presence and effect on our lives.

Which may actually be the best “last part” to take forward, into our lives.

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September 16, 2017 Posted by | GNP, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Sixteen: They Can’t Take That Away From Me

I marched with UMass in the late 1980s, and I saw a gentleman clearly having a ball doing his job.

I assisted with Boston University’s marching band in the mid-1990s, and I watched another gentleman in his element: in the midst of a group of student musicians, teaching, leading, encouraging, holding feet to fire occasionally, with humor and wisdom.

Regular Blogge readers will already (likely) have read my various notes about my time writing for the Delaware band, and the dominant impression that their director leaves with anyone who has watched her interact with her charges for twenty-plus years now.

In some form or another, it is or was their dream job, certainly in that moment. Nowhere else I’d rather be, etc.

Part of my answer to the question, “what’s your dream job?”, is rooted in my observations of those folks.

Yep. My dream job: directing a college band.

Actually, to really fully answer that, I would have to say, “directing a college band which is performing a field show full of music from Star Trek”, but I think I’ll refrain. I mean really.

One out of two ain’t bad. And I got to do it, for a time.

I have chronicled, in this space, the two-day road trip that I took with the College of the Holy Cross’ marching band, wherein they played nice with the University of Delaware band, and wherein I spent about thirty-six hours totally immersed in what I wanted to be doing.

In the late summer of 2002, the perfect storm occurred: a small college very near where I lived posted a job opening, for athletic-bands director. It was a college whose band I knew fairly well, since my alma mater and that school had played football regularly while I was a marcher. It would have been a ten-minute commute.

It was part-time – administratively VERY part-time – but that was okay. I applied, I interviewed, they liked me, they offered me the job. Spectacular.

And it was.

Ten years ago next month, I made (what was to that point) the hardest professional decision that was ever obvious: I gave that gig up.

Well, it was so part-time that it wasn’t possible to maintain my full-time public-school music teaching gig and do the Holy Cross job, each, at the level I would have liked to. And, since my full-time job was funding my house … the conclusion I reached was very sad, but very necessary.

I scheduled a meeting with whatever band members were still local, three weeks after classes had ended. They thought it was to talk about next year. In a sense, it was, but not exactly. And, to their enduring credit, when I described my decision to walk away from all this … they spent probably four seconds’ worth of jaw-drop, and then they immediately swung into “how do we move forward?” mode. As much as a band director’s ego could be massaged by an extended period of wailing and gnashing of teeth … much better to see a group of band members become, or continue to be, great leaders.

Starred Thought: “A Drum Major (leader) does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether s/he likes it or not.”

Starred Thought: “A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.”

Holy Cross was in good hands, no matter who my successor would be.

As I’ve said many times, at least I can say I did that job for four years, as well as I could; worked with spectacular people; had great experiences … and was in front of a college marching band full of people that worked hard, played hard, entertained people, and with whom I would have traveled anywhere.

I miss it. Thanks to Facebook and such, happily, I get to stay in touch with lots of the good people of Crusader Band Nation. So I get lots of opportunities to flash back to great memories and funny stories.

But I miss it.

But … I did it. And nothing can take that away.

May 16, 2016 Posted by | band, blogging, BUMB, GNP, HCMB, marching band, music, Starred Thoughts, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment