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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

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

How Y’All Doin’?

I am reminded, by the Internets which may relied upon to remind us of important milestones like this (but may also be relied upon to utterly downplay other, slightly more earth-shaking anniversaries), of the thirtieth anniversary of a major moment in American cinematic culture.

A currently faintly-viral online article, posted yesterday, notes:

If you’re currently sat behind a desk, be it school or office, consider standing up, walking out, donning a trench coat and heading to a museum, in honour of the fact that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off took place 30 years ago this very day.

We know this thanks to a stunningly in-depth investigation by BaseballProspectus.com, which in 2011 managed to track down the exact game Ferris, Sloane and Cameron were watching at Chicago’s Wrigley Field (the Cubs vs the Braves, 5 June, 1985) by analysing who was on the field and how they fared in each inning.

It’s crazy to think it’s been 30 years since the John Hughes movie was released, and it still resonates and is shown in indie cinemas today.

Sure, it might not be as easy to feign illness in 2015, not least because you’re more liable to leave a trail of social media (plus dads don’t tend to wear trench coats and trilbys anymore, making it harder to emancipate your girl from high school), but that sense of needing to escape, even just to mooch about in town and try and gather some sense of perspective, is still something most of us can relate to.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off followed Hughes’ other cult classics The Breakfast Club and Sixteeen Candles and made $70 million at the box office despite having a budget of just $5 million and taking him just six days to write the script.”

If you’re currently a member of a particular group of collegiate musicians from those mid-1980s, this story probably of reminds you of two specific people.

One was the noted director of a noted college marching band who, shall we say, had an eye for great ways to make his band cool.

Attuned in a unique way to trending pop-culture phenomena – long before anyone used “trending” as a verb form – George Parks had already established a knack for putting music in front of his band that translated into instant audience recognition. Themes from the Superman and Rocky movies … Earth Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove” … the Frank Sinatra cover of “New York, New York” … just por ejamplo, prior to fall of 1986.

And in the years that followed, UMass audiences saw drum majors portraying Batman and the Joker (mere moments after Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit theaters) … heard the Phantom of the Opera demand of Christine (played by a nice lady from the color guard who was genuinely named Christine), “make your choice!” … saw Jack Sparrow hijack the drum major podium for the closing chords of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” show … and heard an 8-year-old girl, with nearly three hundred backup band members, sing about how “any star I choose watches over me, so I know I’m not alone – not really alone” …

to name just a few. He knew it wasn’t just familiar music that would win the day, although that surely was the core of the show. He knew that planning something visual, something unusual, something singularly memorable, was crucial.

So. Fall of 1986.

It wasn’t that “Twist and Shout” was a new tune. The Beatles had covered it two decades prior. And it wasn’t that the music was especially riveting, other than being catchy and danceable – although Michael Klesch captured the best elements of the Beatles’ vocals with his wind arrangement for the ages.

It was that there were new toys to be played with. No – more accurately, there were new toys to be employed in the master plan.

That season, the era of using megaphones to amplify the director’s voice during rehearsals had ended. The new technology was a set of loudspeakers that were fed a signal from a wireless microphone. No matter where the instructor was – high up on the viewing tower, down on the sideline, or somewhere on the field, her or his voice always came from the intersection of the front sideline and each 30-yardline – perfectly audible.

(This occasionally caused humorous rehearsal moments. “Turn and face me, please.” “WHERE ARE YOU!?”)

It also allowed Mr. Parks to make announcements to the halftime audiences without sending the text to the press box ahead of time.

It also allowed him to reproduce a particular iconic movie scene very faithfully. (It’s so iconic that all you have to type in the YouTube search box is “fer”, and it comes up in the first ten search possibilities: “ferris bueller twist and shout”.)

Makes sense: in “Ferris Bueller”, during his “Day Off”, Matthew Broderick ascended a Chicago parade float, and hijacked a dancing marching band’s performance of “Twist and Shout”, lip-synching the song into an unplugged microphone, to the astonished delight of the parade spectators (and the consternation of his school friends, Mia Sara and Alan Ruck).

Therefore, on the field at UMass, a member of the pit – whose skill set definitely included lead-vocalizing, and who looked more than enough like Matthew Broderick to pass in a crowd – hijacked a dancing marching band’s performance of “Twist and Shout”, actually singing the song, to the delight of football audiences. (About the only thing we didn’t include as part of that tune were two band members portraying the Sara and Ruck characters, now that I think of it. And the dancing Oktoberfest girls. But I digress.)

And this percussionist fellow didn’t just strut around on the sideline. He was not tethered by a microphone cord. He was set free to roam the grounds through the magic of wireless technology.

Hey, this was the mid-1980s. Wireless amplification was a big deal.

And so was our singer. He skipped and bounded along the sideline … off the sideline … past the restraining fence between field and stands … up into the stadium seats … singing and dancing and high-fiving (also a fairly new and exciting invention, at the time) and clearly enjoying the hell out of himself and the experience.

You couldn’t watch him do his thing and not grin. Unless you had to be playing a wind instrument, in which case grinning made playing tougher. But whatever stressful things were going on in his life, in the two minutes it took to perform the tune, our vocalist clearly had set them aside, and nothing else mattered in the world than having a blast singing, and making sure everyone anywhere near him was having a blast watching him do it.

It was as if the crowd turned into one giant colon-and-closed-parenthesis, long before emoticons were invented. Couldn’t help but smile.

Whenever the band’s introduction to the tune began, he would don the wireless headset, point at the crowd and call out:

How y’all doin’!?”

Same call, every single time. And the audience was always doin’ great, and let him (and us) know it.

In our more fatigued moments, the phrase might have been spoken with just a touch of gentle mockery … yeah, we’ve played this thing nearly enough times now that “how y’all…!” is starting to be cliché. BUT … when push came to shove, when it was showtime, and when we had to be honest with ourselves … it was perfectly indicative of our band’s personality.

You’re gonna love us, whether you like it or not!

It’s of zero surprise to me, or anyone else I know from those days, that this gentleman is still doing this sort of thing, for a living. Seems to me he was designed, from the get-go, to front a band – preferably a Jimmy Buffet-style band, but whatever.

The first Saturday that we put “Twist and Shout” out there, in front of a live audience, I would say I learned a little something about stage presence, bravado, reckless abandon, and sheer joie de vivre, from him.

In fact, the next season, the band played “Twist” again … well, it was a crowd favorite, so why not? … and as one of the drum majors, I was tasked with conducting it. During our pregame performance at the University of Delaware, after cueing the final chord, I turned around to the audience, both arms flung in the air so as to say to the crowd, “you’re gonna love us!…”

And nearly injured our vocalist guy. Didn’t realize he’d climbed up onto the conducting podium for the last few bars of the thing, and was standing right behind me. Caught him high on the shoulder; nearly knocked him clean off the box. Whoops. Sorry ’bout that, chief…

But that whirl and YAY!! of mine had not been previously wired into my personality or performance. At all.

And what does that formerly shy person blame for that personality adjustment? Well, hanging around that particular band director, of course. Hard not to pick up on the energy!! and such …

But also, I am very willing to admit … it came from working to rise to our vocalist’s level of performance.

So, Dave Soreff

how y’all doin’?

🙂

June 6, 2015 Posted by | band, drum major, entertainment, friends, GNP, marching band, movies, music, social media, Starred Thoughts, technology, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment