When you think military, music is probably one of the last things that come to mind. In reality, though, the U.S. military is one of the largest employers of musicians in the country.
Gunnery Sergeant Roger H. Wright Jr. has been a member of “The Commandant’s Own” United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps for almost 17 years. He played the soprano bugle for 16 years and now serves as the music placement director. “My story in the drum corps started with coming right out of high school.”
Wright wanted to join the Marines, and “The Commandant’s Own” presented a logical next step in his musical career. “I had played music from elementary school all the way to high school, and it seemed like a natural progression from what I’d learned,” he says.
“The Commandant’s Own” is one of two premier Marine musical units whose members are selected through a competitive audition process. The corps puts on public concerts and field performances in the United States and abroad—including past performances in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Edinburgh, United Kingdom; and Oslo, Norway, to name a few—with 450 shows each year and 50,000 miles traveled.
“The Commandant’s Own” is only one of several special military bands throughout the branches of service (see our Web Exclusive, “The Military’s Best”). These include two from the Air Force, four from the Army, one from the Coast Guard, two from the Marines and two from the Navy.
Esprit de Corps
Every military band’s mission is simple: play music. Their goals, though, strike much deeper into the American spirit.
“Our job is to maintain morale, not only in the troops, but in the American public and for recruiting,” Wright says. “I believe the role of ‘The Commandant’s Own,’ in a phrase, is to spread the Marines’ name—to represent the esprit de corps of the Marine Corps.”
The same sentiment echoes through the Army bands. “In a word, we tell the Army story through music,” says Staff Sergeant (SSG) Derek Hansen, group programs and marketing coordinator for The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” “That doesn’t mean necessarily that we play the Army theme song all day long, but a lot of what we do is patriotic. We want people to feel good about the flag. We’re the best non-threatening force of the U.S. Army.”
These groups play not only for members of their own service branch, but also to engage the public. “We go into these communities, and it’s kind of like July 4th every time we perform,” Hansen says. “We play a full range of concert material that ranges from orchestral to big band. It’s a great time to feel good about America and about the flag.”
Among the Pros
Musicians interested in the military can follow one of two routes. First, they can join small bands attached to units throughout the country. Upon entering the military, recruits choose a career path—engineer, journalist, chef and even musician. These musicians generally join the military right out of high school or college and will receive extra preparation through a music training program before being attached to a band.
“They do a musical mission as well as a regular mission,” Hansen says. “The Army assigns them as the needs arise. If they need a trumpet [player] in Germany, they’ll send one over. You’ll get your job transfers just like in the regular Army.”
The second option involves auditioning for one of the military’s premier ensembles with any of the four major branches. In contrast with unit-level groups, these musicians often enter the service after graduation from one of the elite music conservatories.
These positions are much more competitive and will land applicants in a permanent-duty station for an extended period of time. Their primary mission involves performing music at home and abroad.
“All of the positions for the band are audition-only,” Hansen says. “When we have an opening, we’ll post it on our website. It’s very competitive. Everyone that comes in usually is coming straight out of a conservatory. Whoever wins the audition gets the job.”
In fact, according to Senior Master Sergeant Gilbert Corella, deputy director of the Marketing and Outreach Office and special events manager for The U.S. Air Force Band, the auditions are comparable to auditions for a professional music organization—entrants are even asked to perform behind a curtain during the audition.
“We consider ourselves in every way a professional musical organization,” explains Corella, who began his career as a tubist with The U.S. Air Force Band’s Ceremonial Brass.
An assignment in one of the premier bands is similar to being part of a civilian professional musical group. Members go through the same stringent audition process and are offered a job—they just need to complete basic training before playing with the band.
“Coming into the [drum corps] itself, the only type of challenge I had was that I had just spent four months in Marine training and boot camp, so my chops weren’t where everyone else’s were,” Wright says. “I had to get my chops back into performance shape to keep up with everyone else, but then I fit right in.”
Another difference between the two career paths for musicians—civilian and military, that is—involves job security. As an enlisted member of the military, members of the premier bands enjoy the benefits of life as a government employee.
“I’ve been here 22+ years,” Corella says. “That’s what’s unique to one who is a member of the Air Force—our permanent-duty status.”
Unlike other members of the military, these individuals can largely be confident that they won’t be deployed overseas. That wasn’t always the case, though.
“It doesn’t mean we’re non-deployable,” Hansen says. “They can still deploy us, like they did in World War II. In World War II, they said it would be a two-week deployment, and it ended up being a two-year deployment. That’s the only time [The U.S. Army Band has] been deployed. It’s very unlikely that will happen again because of the mission that we have.”
Musicians performing with the military’s premier bands can stay in the band as long as they continue to excel musically, and the variety of performances for each group—which can range from Presidential inaugurations to Christmas celebrations— will keep musicians on their toes. As musicians progress, they may also take on an increased administrative role.
“They’ll stay with the band for their entire career, if they so choose,” Hansen says.
Just as each branch of the military has its own unique qualities, each of the bands has its own mission and appeal. The Army Old Guard Fife and Bugle Corps is the only classic fife and bugle corps in the armed services. This elite group recreates the performances of musicians from George Washington’s Continental Army.
“The Commandant’s Own,” comprised of 80 musicians ages 18 to 43, is a traditional drum and bugle corps. Like civilian drum corps, “The Commandant’s Own” performs public field shows. They even performed an exhibition at the 2007 Drum Corps International World Championships.
According to Wright, approximately 40% of the musicians in the group have previous drum corps experience, and almost all of the musicians have previous marching experience. Likewise, the members of the group benefit from their age, which he claims leads to “better chop maturity.”
Other service bands work to maintain several different performing groups under one umbrella. The largest of the military bands, including The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” The U.S. Air Force Band, The U.S. Navy Band and The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, each encompass several smaller ensembles.
For example, The U.S. Navy Band has seven performing groups, which range from the standard concert and ceremonial bands to a jazz ensemble called the Commodores and a country bluegrass group called “Country Current.” The Navy Band began in 1925 with 75 members and now includes 172 enlisted men and women.
And The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” actually consists of eight different performing groups, all stationed at Fort Myer, Va. The ensembles range from the standard concert band and herald trumpets to The U.S. Army Blues and a pop vocal group called “Downrange.”
Even the military academies play their part in the world of military bands. Each of the major service academies—including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy—has various bands.
One service academy that you may not have heard of has its own unique band and sound—the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has a band in the style of the British Royal Marines.
“Our marching is trained by the Royal Marines,” says Captain Ken Force, director of the Regimental Band of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “We bring a Royal Marine drum major during the summer. It’s very unique.”
The Regimental Band represents the Merchant Marine Academy as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation. Based in King’s Point, N.Y., the band plays at events throughout the country and occasionally internationally. The band will even play at the Presidential inauguration in January 2009. Graduates from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy may go on to become officers in any of the armed services.
“We do the same thing professional bands do, except we do it with midshipmen,” Force says. “It’s so much; it’s so rich. We’ve been all over the place.”