Much will be written about the life of George N. Parks,
Professor of Music and director of the legendary “Pride and Class of New
England” – the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band.
In addition to his 33 years guiding the Minutemen, George
was a husband, father, brother, son, student, teacher, mentor, friend and
colleague. In essence, he was just like you and I. Except … he wasn’t.
Today, as George is being laid to rest, my writing serves
1. As grief therapy for me, and
2. To frame the impact of George N.
Parks’ life on all of us in music
First some background: I had the pleasure of knowing George
for 30 years. We first met in 1978 when I was a senior in high school and
George was burnishing his legend as the Drum Major for the renowned Reading
Buccaneers Drum Corps. In 1983, my friendship and professional relationship
with Thom Hannum (long time UMASS Band associate director) brought me to UMASS
to help Thom with his master’s thesis and to work with the UMASS Band for a
year. This was my first chance to work with George on a professional level. It
was there that I learned these life lessons: work hard; do your best the FIRST
time; always commit to excellence. Many of George’s lifetime fiends and
colleagues were there at the same time: Heidi Sarver, Michael Klesch, Linda
Hannum and of course Thom Hannum to name a few. These are some of the people
who I see immediately in my mind whenever I think of George.
I left UMASS to find my own career path – first in the
musical instrument industry, then settling in as a full time non-profit
executive, music education advocate and researcher.
For the next 25 years George and I would frequently cross
paths. Make no mistake, George and I had a warm and cordial relationship, but I
would never describe it as close. Friendly, yes. Close, no.
It is because of this arms-length relationship, my
perspective as a commentator and advocate for music and arts education, as a
researcher in the field and as a student of its history that I can say with all
George N. Parks is a historical figure that future
generations will recognize as a giant in the annals of music education.
It is fitting that George worked at his craft in the very
state where Lowell Mason gave birth to public school music education in the
1830s. Mason pioneered public school music programs, just as George helped
pioneer instrumental music making and reshaped the marching band as we now know
it today. It is also appropriate that one of his last acts on earth was
preparing his UMASS students to perform in the “Big House” where the legendary
William D. Revelli led the mighty University of Michigan Marching Band. Revelli
was director of the Michigan band for 36 years – George was director at UMASS
for 33. William Revelli was the pioneer of the marching band during his era,
just as George was a pioneer and innovator in our modern era. The Michigan Band
rehearses in Revelli Hall, just as the UMASS band will soon rehearse in the new
George N. Parks Band Building. The parallels go on and on.
It is no coincidence George has been referred to by friends,
colleagues and columnists as a “pied piper” – not only for his UMASS band
program, but for ALL music programs. Another great force of nature, John
Phillip Sousa, was also referred to as a “pied piper” –responsible for sowing
the seeds of the instrumental music movement in his role as “The March King” of
the early 20th Century. George was cut from the same cloth – always
looking for places to take the band; always prepared to put on a show. He
criss-crossed the country sharing his ideas, wisdom and music with all who
would listen … just as Sousa did.
As a Drum Major, conductor and showman, there was arguably
none better than George. He is, without question, the greatest drum major who
has ever graced a parade route, football field, or band hall. Anyone who has
ever seen him work his mace – the spins, throws, signals and the triumphant
planting of the mace into the field (a signature of his Drum Major
performances) knows what I mean. Students flocked to his instructional
academies from all over the country (and from overseas) heeding the words to
“always do your best… the FIRST time.” I do not know of many teachers, of any
sport, art form or profession, with more than 3,000 students showing up EVERY
YEAR for weeklong boot camps led by the master of the field himself!
George personally trained three generations of leaders.
These leaders are now spread across this nation in all walks of life. There are
not just thousands of them or even tens of thousands of them. All told, George
personally worked with more than 100,000 young men and women during the course
of his career, including UMASS Band, his Drum Major Academies, plus his guest
conducting and clinic appearances. He trained and shaped them – hundreds at a
time – yet connected with each of them personally.
When we measure the success of a music educator based on the
number of students that he or she has touched, 5,000 students is rightfully considered
a big success. Now consider that the fabled “Big House” at the University of
Michigan is not big enough to hold all the people George has taught through the
course of his shortened career. It is through this lens that the real context
of his contributions begins to come into focus. He was a pied piper, indeed.
George did not create great musicians – he helped create
great people. Lots of them.
My last extended conversation with George came when I was a
speaker at the College Band Directors National Association meeting in Stoors,
Connecticut (fittingly, an association founded by William Revelli). I had
completed a presentation that included the role of college band directors to
advocate for and protect music programs in a No Child Left Behind environment.
We spoke about the challenges to music education in Massachusetts and he shared
his concern that musical opportunities were being denied to students. This is
where his focus always was – creating opportunities for young men and women to
discover their own greatness through music.
Today the memorials being posted on Facebook, Twitter and on
web sites across the internet are a tribute to a generous man who has touched
and inspired the lives of so many. They are the manifestation of his
accomplishments, embodied in the students he was committed to inspire. This is
one way his life may be measured.
Another measure will be by his family and his friends.
His professional life and his contribution to our country
will be measured not by his students or colleagues – but by our nation’s
When the historians have their say they will recognize
George N. Parks in his rightful place – standing shoulder to shoulder with
William Revelli and John Phillip Sousa. It is not a place he sought nor a
comparison he would ever make. It is, however, a distinction he has so clearly
And just as Revelli and Sousa are revered today, so too will
be George N. Parks … far into the future.
And for all of us whose lives he has touched, we are all the
better for it.
Thank you, George.
On a personal note:
To his wife, Jeanne and his children Michael and Kathryn, my
sincerest and deepest condolences.
To his close colleagues and my friends Thom, Michael, Linda,
Colin, Timmer and Heidi, my family and I share our thoughts and prayers with
each one of you as you work through all the emotions of this sudden loss.
To honor George you may make a donation to the George N.
Parks Memorial Fund, with information at