Ten Things Marching Band Taught Me About Genealogy

Six years ago today, we lost a man who touched the lives of thousands of young men and women. George N. Parks had the innate ability to see the good in everyone, and to inspire them to do their best; to learn from their mistakes and do even better next time. I first met him in 1982 when I joined the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band, and my life was changed forever.

Those of you have heard me speak may have heard me reference him in my presentations. His “starred thought” lessons were brief and to the point. Not only were these thoughts incredibly important to band and to life in general, I have been able to apply those lessons to genealogical research in many ways. I first wrote about this six years ago when he passed, but it is time for an updated look.

If you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Creating a research plan is an important part of the research process. Without a plan, your research can end up scattering you all over the place, going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. A good research plan can keep you out of trouble, focused, and more productive in your research.

There are no problems; there are merely opportunities for creative thinking.

Conflicting information is going to happen. Brick walls will happen. These challenges are there to be overcome, not to stop you in your tracks. When it comes to genealogy, thinking outside the box is critical. Try looking at your problem from a different angle. That may open up new avenues you didn’t see before.

The more difficult the conditions; the more you have to seem to like what you’re doing.

It is easy to get frustrated. When you can’t find information, when the evidence conflicts with your theories, when there are multiple possible solutions to your research question, it is easy to get stressed, making it difficult to focus. Sometimes you just have to clear your throat, clear your head, and plow full-steam forward. Even if you’re pretending to know what you’re doing while stabbing away in the dark, the very movement will help you to focus and make progress.

Anytime you have a group of over 20 people, people stop thinking. You have got to make sure there’s thought!

Undocumented or unexplained online family trees and database. Enough said.

Anyone can make a mistake

When you are using information published by others, be it an article, book, blog post, online database or family tree, or written on the back of the napkin, you must be wary of errors. Everyone makes them. Genealogy journals are filled with articles correcting previously published information. This is not always the fault of the original author (although sometimes it is due to research problems). Often it is because new evidence has come to light that throws previous conclusions into doubt or disproves them entirely.

Adopt, adapt, and improve.

It is important to look at work made by others and incorporate it into our research. But, it is equally important to review previous conclusions (whether our own or those of others)

in light of new sources, information, and evidence. Conclusions may have to be modified or changed completely, but it is easy for us to improve on that earlier work and create more sound conclusions based on currently available evidence.

Make sure your traditions are sound.

Good research habits are the most important contributor to proving that the people in your pedigree chart are actually related to you. A good strong foundation in the basics will minimize errors in your conclusions.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.

We will make mistakes in our research. We are human. Every genealogist at one time or another has had to break out the chainsaw and remove massive limbs from the family tree. As we are faced with evidence that contradicts our conclusions, it is important to not freak out, but to review all of the evidence again to come up with the most sound conclusions possible.

The key in life is participation!

It is easy to use databases put together by volunteers, government agencies, non-profits, or private companies. It is easy to use books and articles written by others. But getting into the original records and sources to verify everything that has come before can help prevent you from perpetuating errors. It is also one of the most fun parts of genealogy.

Take music and your studies seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Genealogy is fun, an important contribution to history, and to remembering our individual as well as our shared pasts. But unless you are working on genetics and medical history to save the lives of family members, there is no such thing as a genealogical life-or-death emergency. Relax and enjoy. Remember to take a break once in a while and read a fiction book or take a walk. Then you will be more prepared to deal with the person who still believes the myth that any individual ever changed their name at Ellis Island.

George taught me a lot of things about life and living. He changed the world, one person at a time. The hundreds of thousands of people who worked with him through DCI, the UMMB, Drum Major Academy, and the countless clinics he held and competitions he judged will remember him to the end of days. I leave you with one of his “starred thoughts” that I think sums up genealogists quite well:

“The essential condition of everything you do must be choice, love, and passion.”
~ George N. Parks (1953–2010)

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