Military bands offer musicians great jobs, similar challenges to orchestras


Staff Sergeant Jacob Chmara, 33, of The President's Own United States Marine Band, tunes his tenor saxophone in the hallway backstage before performing at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall on campus of the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA, on July 12, 2014. Chmara, who lives in the district, joined the band six years ago. Members of The President's Own don't have to go through basic training before joining. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Look on YouTube for the tenor Matthew Loyal Smith, and you’ll find him hitting strong high C’s in the showcase aria from Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment.” Look onstage, and you might find him at Strathmore with the National Philharmonic, or at the National Gallery of Art, or at the Washington National Opera, where, like many singers, he will supplement his income performing in the chorus: this season, in “The Flying Dutchman.”

Look on his Web site, and you’ll find a picture of him with Nancy Reagan. That’s because Smith, also like many singers, has a day job. He’s lucky to have one that includes health benefits and a housing allowance; and he’s even luckier to be a full-time singer. He is a staff sergeant in the United States Army Chorus.

In musical circles, there’s a lot of disgruntlement that the government doesn’t do more to subsidize the arts. In one area, though, the government does plenty. The military is one of the largest employers of musicians in the Washington area; indeed, the Army’s Web site claims that the institution is “the oldest and largest employer of musicians in the world.” The combined budget for the nation’s military bands was projected, in 2013, at $388 million (before sequester-related cutbacks). Each of the nation’s five service branches has a flagship band, four of them — the Marine Band (“The President’s Own”), the Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”), the Navy Band and the Air Force Band — based in Washington, with annual budgets in the range of $2 million. These budget figures don’t include musicians’ salaries. A musician who wins an audition with one of the premier bands enters the service at the military pay grade of E6, which, when benefits and housing allowances are factored in, amounts to around $56,000 — with built-in annual raises.

Yet all of this funding doesn’t protect military bands from some of the challenges that face private-sector ensembles: shrinking budgets, aging audiences and larger questions of purpose.

“I’m always trying to compare what we’re doing with the orchestra world,” says Col. Larry H. Lang, the commander and conductor of the Air Force Band, “because I do think there are a lot of similarities. We’re struggling for audience, and relevance.”

The President's Own United States Marine Band performs. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )
‘Pay my rent and eat?’

What is the point of making music? If orchestras offer an exalted answer, the military offers a pragmatic, functional one. In practice, however, there may not be as much difference between the two as it first appears. Both kit the players out in distinctive uniforms; both have traditions that can be off-putting to first-time audiences; both are focusing on education and outreach. And both see themselves as ambassadors representing the interests of our nation — the military bands explicitly, as part of their mission statements, and symphony orchestras in the name of cultural diplomacy, from the Cleveland Orchestra’s tour of Russia in the 1960s to the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 performance in North Korea.

And the world of military bands offers, for musicians who choose to take the plunge into military life and a non-union job, a haven where not only brass and wind players, but also harpists, cellists, percussionists and even singers can support themselves as musicians.

“Oh, I can pay my rent and eat?” says the clarinetist Lucia DiSano, a staff sergeant and one of the Marine Band’s newest members. She is an Eastman graduate who auditioned four or five times for the group before she got in. “And I get to do this thing that I love and people will pay me for it?”

Barry Hearn, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, played in the military for nine years, seven of them with the ceremonial branch of the U.S. Army Band, before winning his NSO chair. The ceremonial band is a grueling assignment involving lots of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, standing for hours in heat or cold, playing a relatively limited repertoire. The NSO offers air conditioning, world-class conductors and the whole symphonic repertoire. Nonetheless, Hearn says of the ceremonial band, “It probably will always be one of the most rewarding jobs I will ever have the opportunity to do.”

Emily Leader, a violinist who joined the Army Band at 31, after years as a freelance orchestral musician, has seen musical diplomacy at work when the frosty mood at a diplomatic function with representatives from Jordan turned warm after musicians performed arrangements of Bedouin music.

“If you think of music as gigs,” says the violinist, who used to support herself playing one “Nutcracker” after another, “what is the end result, and what is of importance? It’s neat to think you might have had a more significant role.”

Flexibility and fine skills

Washington’s elite military bands are hardly a secret. Each performs more than 1,000 times a year (the Army logs some 5,000 performances), from funerals at Arlington Cemetery to summertime concerts on the Capitol steps. But the bands do not tend to be on the radar of the mainstream classical audience — or of musicians. “I don’t think people even realize it’s an option,” says Smith. “You’d be surprised, with a job this good, that people don’t know about it.”

Chmara, of The President's Own United States Marine Band, assembles his tenor saxophone. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

“I don’t think any of us in the strings, or very few of us, planned to be in the military or knew about the strings job,” says Leader, who freelances occasionally with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Leader heard of the military bands from a friend at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “I said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and she said, ‘It’s a great job.’ ” Eventually, Leader auditioned — a process much like for an orchestra, starting with playing anonymously behind a screen — and won a position. “The good news,” she says, “is you’ve won the job. The bad news is you’ve got to go to boot camp.”

Members of the Marine Band, established in 1798 to provide music for the White House, do not have to go through basic training. Musicians with the other elite bands have to deal with it. “It was a great weight-loss program,” Leader says wryly. She cites a drill sergeant who, hearing that she was in the band, subjected her to corny musical references for the rest of her training. “ ‘Make music with that M-16, soldier!’ I actually was a good shot,” Leader says.

To win that audition, you need to be a crack musician — and a flexible one. “You can’t just sing an operatic aria,” says Casey Elliott, the associate music director of the Navy ensemble the Sea Chanters. “It needs to be Broadway and jazz and pop.” Good sight-reading skills are essential, and singers have to be ready to perform in any of 20 or 30 languages at diplomatic receptions. “I’ve sung in Japanese, Hebrew, Urdu, French, Polish, Swahili, Zulu,” says Elliott. In effect, military performers have to be as versatile as studio musicians — which, indeed, some of them have been.

“Obama is a huge jazz fan,” says Col. Michael Colburn, the recently retired 27th commander of the Marine Band (“The President’s Own”). “We support [his events] with jazz combos. During the Clinton administration, it was more string quartets.” The Marine Band tries to satisfy every request. “The only time I had to say no to the White House,” Colburn said, “was when they called asking for a bagpipe band. We cannot come up with a bagpipe band.”

Reducing the numbers

In each service, the premier band is part of a larger musical network. The premier bands have traditionally stood apart; the Army Band, for instance, does not share a budget with the 99 Army service bands around the world. Things are changing, though — and shrinking. This fall, the Navy will gather all of its bands under one umbrella, according to Capt. Brian Walden, who as leader of the Navy Band will head the whole enterprise. “It was a result of streamlining and efficiency,” he says. Two Navy bands also will be deactivated in the process. The Army is losing 13 of its 99 bands as the entire force scales down; the Air Force already has gone through a painful contraction. “When I came in 24 years ago, there were 21 bands,” says Lang, the Air Force Band commander, “and now there are 10.”

The issue is partly money and partly effectiveness. Some of the military ensembles date back to the heyday of big bands and choruses; today, such groups appeal more to an older audience. “It’s indicative,” says Col. Thomas Palmatier, the commander and leader of the Army Band, “that it’s now called the Army Music Program, as opposed to the Army Band Program. It’s much more inclusive of a wide variety of musics and genres.”

In the field, meanwhile, the profile of war has changed; gone are the days of civilian musicians entertaining the crowds. “We have reacted to the need to put popular music groups on the battlefield,” Palmatier says. “We’ll have a rock band or brass quintet, something that can fit into a helicopter, go out to a combat outpost and spend a couple of days not just performing, but helping with what they do.” The civilian music world, too, is looking toward smaller ensembles to animate contemporary music and younger audiences.

Suddenly, no more ‘Taps’

Music doesn’t always have to be high art. It can also be a powerful tool of communication. In focusing on this side of music, the military espouses a social function of the art form that orchestras, increasingly, are trying to tap into as well.

“I’d like to think that we’re about the cheapest and most effective publicity tool the Air Force has,” Lang says. “There’s no other more effective way of telling a very positive Air Force story than through music. We’re pennies on the dollar for what they would have to spend to reach the same number of people” in some other manner.

He adds, “I think if [detractors] really had a chance to come and see how effective we were, how powerful music is when we’re trying to work with diplomatic efforts; when we’re trying to help a wounded warrior recover; when you’re trying to introduce a young person in school to music: I’m seeing every day how powerful and effective it is.”

Many orchestra conductors might make the same argument.

The bands are often called a waste of taxpayer money, although they represent a tiny fraction of the military’s budget. Getting rid of musicians, Palmatier says, would not be cost-effective. “Unless you reduce the strength of the army by that amount, you haven’t saved any money; you just turn them into something else, and end up contracting what they did,” he says. “And you find out they did a lot.” He adds, “9,000 of those [services] are funeral honors. You can wave your hands and say you don’t care, but suddenly, no more ‘Taps.’ ”

However pragmatic the goal, any serious musician is bound, at times, to want to reach a little higher when it comes to the actual music-making.

“I do feel like we’re doing some substantial things musically,” says Colburn. On July 12, at the concert marking his retirement and succession by Lt. Col. Jason Fettig, the repertory demonstrated his ambition: arrangements of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” Percy Grainger’s “Early One Morning,” and even some songs by Charles Ives, in which the soprano and Gunnery Sgt. Sara Dell’Omo, who served as emcee for the evening, valiantly strained to convey the tongue-tripping lyrics, with a mike, over the ensemble.

Is it art? Is it function? It was notable that the band, although it played brilliantly, seemed to have a sense of restraint in, for instance, Bernstein’s voluptuous rhythms. When it broke into the military marches accompanying the retirement ceremony, the music moved into higher gear — the music the group was formed to play.

By the same token, the NSO does not play pop music as well as it plays the classics. Every musical institution has its specialty. The military bands, though, seem to reach more broadly than many civilian groups. They also offer their musicians a wider range of opportunities. Elliott, the Navy singer, has learned to produce CDs. Fettig, the Marines’ new commander, got a master’s degree in conducting from the University of Maryland, on the Marines’ dime. When a pinched nerve (since resolved) hampered Leader’s violin playing, she was switched to an administrative role. “With most organizations,” she observes, “if you’re hired to play and you can’t play, you’re out of there.”

“I’m not going to lie and say it is the most musically fulfilling job in the world,” says Staff Sgt. Emily Ross, who plays clarinet in the Army’s ceremonial band. “But I like that there are opportunities.”

“It’s definitely a different job than what I had in mind as a dewy-eyed 20-year-old at Eastman,” Ross adds. “But I’m earning my living playing my instrument, [which is] more than I can say for a lot of my fellow graduates.” And, she adds, “I’ve definitely more positive feelings about the military in general.”

The military bands perform public concerts free of charge throughout the year. For more information, click here.

READ MORE:

On Bands: A Postscript

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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