Pomp and Circumstance

MONDAY, JUNE 13, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1, Edward Elgar....again!

Since entering high school in 1980, I have been involved in at least one commencement exercise every year, totalling well over forty. Most of them have involved the playing of Pomp and Circumstance, repeated many times.

In June of 1981, I played in my high school band at the Awards Convocation, and for the first time, having heard it hundreds of times before, played this ubiquitous melody. There were about 100 seniors reverently marching into the York High School Gymnasium, and it took several repeats to get even this modestly sized class into their places

At UNH, we would be enticed (by a $30 or so check) to come back on to campus and play for commencement, which was usually a week or so after we'd moved home for the summer. We always played good old P&C 1, over and over again. We would get punchy sometimes. The other tuba and I would try alternating notes. The trumpets would hold their horns upside town and press the valves with the tops of their fingers. People would start switching instruments. There was all sorts of silliness. One year, controversy erupted when the conductor suggested that it was the year to play something other than P&C. He was tired of it. Word got out, graduating students objected, editorials were written, and an administrative directive came down to resume P&C. That didn't help our attitude much.

In my first teaching job, Waterville High School processed in to Pomp and Circumstance, and recessed to the Triumphant March from Aida. That was what was done. No further negotiation required.

Boston University, for which I was involved in nine commencements, did not use P&C No. 1 at all. They used an interesting medley of processional marches, including P&C No. 4, which I frankly like better. I think it kept things fresh for the band. P&C No. 1 was not a tradition for BU. It may well have been mandated that it be something else. I honestly don't remember. All I know is that we didn't have to play it.

For Andover High School, it was back to P&C. I certainly was not compelled to upset the apple cart right away and start making wholesale changes to their traditions, no matter how weary I was of this melody. Maybe down the road, with a little more clout, I might be able to enlighten this community with some better music.

In addition the five schools which I either attneded of taught, I can also claim over a dozen schools over the years in which I was invited in to help with thier commencements. Most of them, but not all, employed good old P&C.

Recently, as I was preparing to rehearse P&C for my tenth year in Andover, I had this revelation: It's not about me. It's not about the band. It's about the graduates and their families.

What I did not mention earlier in these remarks is that in 1981 at York High School, the first time I played this, it gave me goosebumps. This was really it! These people were finishing high school, and this music was a huge part of marking that for them. For most of their lives, they heard this tune, and imagined the significance. Here I was playing it for them. My turn was coming!

In 1984, when it was being played for me and my classmates, it absolutely was electric to hear that melody as I marched into that gym. I also remember feeling exactly the same way as I heard it boom through the speakers at UNH's Cowell Stadium as we entered the field in May of 1988. I frankly don't remember a thing about the music when I received my Masters at BU.

I have decided that it does not matter one bit how weary I am of Pomp and Circumstance, not does it matter how weary the band is of the same. It simply isn't about us. It is a significant, important, and traditional piece of music for this occasion. Once a year, I can happily find the joy in this piece, and perform it with every bit of attention and reverence that the graduates and their families deserve. They are entitled to our best effort, without clowning around, without trading instruments, and without the slightest hint of contempt. I will not reduce their joy whatsoever by even suggesting that there is any banality to this music, by word or by deed. For many, it may be one of very few times , if not the only time, they ever hear it live. I will not have my fingerprints on a substandard performance of it, just because I have played it so many times.

This change in approach has actually made me like it better. I also do know that every kid in the Andover band will see exactly what I mean in the next one to three years.

If necessary, let's at least save the elitist attitude about Pomp and Circumstance for the teachers' hospitality room at the district festivals, but give it all due reverence in public, especially with our students. It will not take long for that reverence to become genuine if you let it.