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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

Reworking

Today I spent six hours in the middle of the day at a retreat. Participants included all of the professional staff members of the church wherein I do my church musician thing. Under normal circumstances, one might be inspired to run screaming from such a concept – metaphorically or actually – because most six-hour stretches of time spent in the company of a “consultant” or “facilitator” or “coach” stand a very good chance of being Life Imitates Art, As Long As Art Is An Excruciating Episode Of “The Office”.

Fortunately, life didn’t imitate that art. It was, I think, not a waste of time at all.

It helps when the consultant is also simultaneously an actual, active purveyor of the craft. In this case, the nice lady was a pastor herself.

We did a little writing (no fooling, we journaled) … we did a little molding of clay, and not metaphorically but physically (when’s the last time I made something out of clay? The fifth grade, probably) … we paired up and discussed … we gave our personal weather reports (“sunny, with occasional passing showers, thank you!”) … we did all those touchy-feely things that with the wrong sort of guidance can make six hours seem like six months, only without the enjoyable changing of the seasons.

Most importantly for this space, we did a little writing with pens, on notebook paper.

Which meant that we couldn’t really go back and move this paragraph over here, for example.

So, I was thrown back to the days of taking essay exams in little blue books. One had to organize one’s thoughts a bit before setting pen to paper.

It was mere coincidence, I think, that the notebook I chose to write in had a blue cover.

*sigh*

So the first question was in response to the reading of a verse from the Biblical book of Jeremiah. The first six verses went like this:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter as done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

(The Lord goes on to remind nations or kingdoms of the Old Testament’s Middle East that the Lord may be thinking of rewarding you, but if you’re not listening to His voice properly, He may change his mind and visit disaster upon you (Noah!). And if He was considering wreaking havoc upon you, but you turn away from whatever evil, etc. etc., He will change His mind and not wreak, after all. The Old Testament God was many things, but vague He was not.)

I didn’t exactly get hung up on the word “reworked” from the fourth verse – I did read and hear the rest of the passage – but the word did stick with me, enough that I thought it was worth addressing in the context of how a church staff might look to the future, and plan, and do.

So, with no ability to do drag-and-drop editing, I uncapped the pen and waited for the ink to flow. And, in short order, it did:

Is what we’re doing ever “set in stone”? Is how we do what we do ever set in stone? A wise philosopher once said, “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.”

Is it possible for us to let go of our conviction that the “tried-and-true” methods, our “long-standing traditions”, are always going to be appropriate to meet our needs? Can we recognize that the task at hand may be different enough from what it used to be, that we may need to exchange our favorite tools for new “implements of construction”?

Can we convince ourselves of this – and those whom we help to lead – without conveying the impression that the old ways are uniformly outdated and unworthy? Can we honor the old, while adapting to (and embracing) the new?

Can we agree that “reworking” is not the same as replacing?

Not bad for having no opportunity to edit, and sculpt, and hone, and craft. Maybe not Pulitzer stuff, but ah well.

In many fields, not just those of church music, church staff, high school band design staff … that’s the challenge: not letting the past control us – but not innovating quite so thoroughly that we don’t recognize our “sport” anymore. Drum and bugle corps fights that battle every summer. Whether a person strikes you as a traditionalist or a stick-in-the-mud can depend on whether you’re that person or not. Depending upon one’s point of view, the fellow touting the latest innovative technique or concept or approach … might also be thought of as a troublemaker, stirring up the pot for the sake of stirring it up.

We (church leaders, public school music ensemble directors, … lots of other occupations, too) walk that knife-edge all the time. Maintain the status quo, rework, or replace?

It’s a challenge, fraught with risk – of going too far, or not going far enough, often depending upon which stakeholder you ask.  Sometimes we get both kinds of feedback simultaneously, in response to the same decision.

May we have the perspective (even when we’re up to our keisters in alligators, as the saying goes) to recognize it as the opportunity that it also might be. This suburban choir director hopes to be surrounded by people who are willing to open their minds a bit … even while he’s serving up some of the “old chestnuts” for them, too.

August 11, 2014 Posted by | choir, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alumni Affairs

This space doesn’t usually feature pure diary entries. The writing might sometimes resemble journalism, but it’s rarely my journal.

Having said that …

I’ve been away from the blog for a solid month now. WordPress may be wondering if I’m still alive. For that matter, so, perhaps, have you. (If you’ve been actively wondering, then I am humbled; and I might well be extra-motivated to never let a whole month go by again. I’d probably be even more tail-between-the-legs if this were a subscription-based service!)

It’s called “July”.

No snark there, actually. My opportunities to sit and write tend to decrease during this month which, for us east-coast teacher types, traditionally is a little less full of the day-in-day-out-ness that is otherwise our lives. In theory, we’re lounging on the beach or in the mountains or wherever. In reality, we’re just as likely to be not-lounging on a straight-backed chair in the middle of a professional development workshop; but that’s a topic for another time.

Schedule items have been packed into this particular July pretty tight. My calendar looks like a game of Tetris. Social visits and the annual Drum Major Academy fortnight; rehearsals and meetings and errands; conferences and family gatherings … comparatively, my August appears almost blank. This is an illusion, guaranteed, and it always is; but for the next few days anyway, I get to throw it into a lower gear.

So much for this not being my diary.

What has struck me about this July’s events and discussion topics, though, is the common thread that has run through them all: alumni.

(Or, as a certain Latin scholar and friend of mine wishes I would put it more often: alumni/-ae. It’s a little unwieldy in print, but the combined masculine/feminine endings beat the heck out of making it into a neuter-gender Latin word.)

Webster’s Dictionary defines an alumnus as “a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school, college, or university”. With a certain amount of raised eyebrow, I note that the secondary Webster’s definition is “a person who is a former member, employee, contributor, or inmate [italics mine].”

Boy howdy.

Early in July, the summer arts program which is responsible for a lot of my formative experiences in the arts celebrated its 45th summer with a reunion event. Assuredly, there were plenty of Charles River Creative Arts Program alumni milling about, exchanging “long time no see” hugs, stories and belly laughs. (Given some of the lunatic anecdotes that evoked those belly laughs, one might reasonably recall the phrase “inmates running the asylum”! Ah, artistes.)

I did note how few social interactions there seemed to be between us ancient relics and the current staff members, that night. There seemed to be an innocent but discernible separation between the two groups. But then, I thought back to the 15th-year event (when I was a current staff member) and tried to remember to what extent we’d been instructed to mingle with the old-timers; and really couldn’t. Anyway, it was us forty- and fifty-somethings over here; the twenty-somethings over there. Maybe I’m just used to doing an abnormally large amount of multi-generational stuff in my life. Whatever.

Mid-month, and then again a couple of nights ago, I made what has become something of an annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod to attend a concert or two put on by a group of collegiate a cappella singers called Cape Harmony. The various editions of this group, since I first stumbled upon them six summers ago, have been very good at the game of women’s a cappella. For one thing, they have to write very careful arrangements, since by no fault of their own they work with a rather more limited range of pitches, high to low, than do their male counterparts. For another, a cappella singing in general is a high-wire act: there’s no instrumental accompaniment into which to sing your notes. If anyone is flat or sharp or otherwise misaligned, the whole project could come crashing down very suddenly.

What I find particularly enjoyable about this group, though, has just as much to do with the actual people in the group. Or rather, the people who were in the group and are still connected to it, electronically or in person. They still support the organization in lots of ways – and current members always make sure to acknowledge that support on their website, during concerts, and indeed when they sing the Wailin’ Jennys arrangement of “The Parting Glass” and bring any attending alumni onstage to sing with them. Too often, organizations can forget where they came from; but even as Cape Harmony are now completing their ninth summer, clearly they haven’t forgotten.

The back half of my July was dominated by the ol’ Drum Major Academy. Each summer, for four July days in eastern Pennsylvania and five days in Massachusetts, a rather inspiring collection of personalities get together, nominally to help prepare six hundred or so future high school band student leaders, but also to enjoy each other’s company and very often giggle a lot. There are former staff members whom we don’t get to see much, thanks to distance or circumstance; but the names predictably pop up in conversation (and at least one very-long-time-no-see example did visit this past week). In addition, many staff members were once DMA students. As I’ve noted recently here on the blog, some of those were very specifically my students – “in my TV room”.

Accordingly, I was inspired to take a rather harder look at the students who sat in those TV room chairs this summer – and for the first time, I spotted a couple of students whom I felt were strong enough (in skill set and mindset) to be recommended for future inclusion on our “IMPACT” staff, the group of collegiate drum majors and other student leaders who assist the DMA instructional staff with instruction and logistics.

(On top of which, last week’s DMA session took place on the campus of UMass, which has a certain band alumni history and presence of its own, previously chronicled in this space at some length and in some detail. So I was kinda surrounded by a definite sense of continuity.)

Sadly, this summer has seen some of the less positive effects of alumni involvement.

When news of the firing of Ohio State University’s marching band director broke, a couple of weeks ago, I was with my DMA colleagues at West Chester University. Because my mobile Internet access device is, um, limited (i.e. can’t display multiple windows in its antique little browser), I couldn’t open the links that would have allowed me to read news articles with titles like “Ohio State band director fired over ‘sexualized’ culture”. I had to wait till I got home to my desktop Mac. And once I did, I discovered accounts of an Ohio State investigation that revealed a band program full of frankly awful activities and traditions, such that the University saw fit to relieve the band director of his duties – some of which (including oversight and, frankly, the modeling of proper behavior) he seemed not to have carried out so very well.

Amidst the allegations of “an environment conducive to sexual harassment within the band, creating a hostile environment for students”, I found a couple of details which got me thinking specifically about the whole concept of alumni, and their role in organizations of which they formerly were members.

In the comments sections that followed the news articles from the Columbus Dispatch, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, some commenters demonized the director and some canonized him. Inevitably, the ones that claimed to be former members of the Ohio State band were the most vociferous in support of their former director.

Myself, I have my own fond memories of my college band director, and I do recall supporting him vociferously at a few crucial moments, and not absolutely always doing so with a great deal of charity toward the University that employed him. So, from knee-jerk-reaction or emotional standpoints, I don’t have trouble imagining that there are people prepared to rise to their director’s defense. There is, as you will shortly see, a difference, though…

The current assistant band director told investigators that “OSU’s Marching Band is unique in that it has a large, active, proud, and at times stubborn alumni base that can be resistant to change.” Ohio State is not alone in this, though. Every single college band I have ever been associated with in any way has featured one of these. Either by direct interaction or anecdotal observation, I found those bands’ alumni bases to be inspiring and challenging – either by turns or occasionally in the same breath. While I would agree that Ohio State may have more history and tradition to draw on than most bands do, I would nonetheless suggest that it is not, in terms of alumni involvement, at all unique.

Several details in the University’s investigative report stood out, to me, in this context. Most alumni associations are (or ought to be) focused strictly on fundraising and moral support (and, of course, cheering loudly from the bleachers at halftime). Alarmingly, according to the report, the OSU band alumni organization appears to have stepped over a few very reasonable lines:

[The band director] stated that the Marching Band’s alumni network publishes an annual directory that includes nicknames for some members, and he provided its latest version. Many of the printed nicknames included in the new June 2014 TBDBITL directory are sexually explicit, including some names given to new members in 2013.

Several witnesses stated that sexually explicit tricks [according to the report, tricks are “acts that individual Band members perform, either on command or at their own volition. … The tricks are usually connected to the students’ assigned nicknames”] were not performed in front of [professional band staff]. They were instead performed at student house parties, dinners sponsored by alumni [italics mine], and during down time on trips.

The misconduct described [in the main body of the report] … is highly sexual, frequent, and longstanding as part of the Marching Band’s culture. … The misconduct occurred in multiple locations involving the Marching Band, including practice at the stadium, bus trips, alumni events [italics again mine], and off-campus parties.

The band’s now-former director had held his position for just two years, but he had served as assistant director for the previous ten years, and as a graduate assistant before that. And before that? He was a band member for four years – graduating with Ohio State’s class of 2000. From fall 1995 onward, he had never not been in the Ohio State band program.

He was an alum, too.

One might think that this would give him an advantage at times: he’d been part of the organization, and probably was more familiar with its traditions, inner workings, and “players”, than other people who also may have been candidates for the position. But it’s entirely possible that in this case, familiarity bred not contempt but rather complacence, and complicity. The investigative report states:

Witnesses did not, however, report any significant change, or effort to change. In fact, only one witness stated that there had been transition in the culture of any kind. Another witness stated that speaking with Band directors about the culture was futile. She added that [the director] wants to be a cool guy in the Band. Similarly, [one other witness] stated that [he] just wants to be their [the students’] friend.”

For most alumni, the very act of being an alum may suggest that indeed, you can “go home again”. Every once in a while, alumni bump into the rather harsh reality that you can physically go back, but the organization is made up of a whole new crop of people, and former members are just that: former members, forced to live vicariously through the current membership.

Sometimes alumni can deal with that reality, and work to support the organization. Sometimes they can’t, and end up looking like rabid Little League parents, at best.

So. What traditions do we uphold? Hopefully, only the ones that make sense. How can alumni best support the organizations of which they once were an active part, and which they still love very deeply? They – we! – walk a sometimes very difficult tightrope indeed, one which sometimes forces us to reconcile our favorite memories with more current realities. We want the best possible experience for the people who come after us … but not everyone has the same vision of what that experience ought to be. And on occasion, that experience may necessarily be different from the experience that came before.

August 7, 2014 Posted by | arts, band, current events, DMA, marching band, music, news, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment