Colonel Michael J. Colburn, the 27th commander of the United States Marine Band (“The President’s Own”), conducts his final concert before his retirement on July 12, 2014, at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall on campus of the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA. (Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post )

For a long time, I have wanted to write about Washington’s elite military bands. They enjoy a kind of two-edged reputation. On the one hand, it’s well known that they employ some excellent musicians (“some of the best freelancers in Washington,” said James Ross, the conductor and head of the University of Maryland’s conducting program, who has worked with the Marine Band and taught its newly-minted leader, Jason Fettig). On the other hand, we core-classical types tend to feel that they’re not quite our thing — even though each of these groups have chamber series presenting classical music played by crack musicians, free of charge to the public.

I finally sat down and tackled the subject this summer; the result appears in this Sunday’s Washington Post, and I hope you’ll read that article (here’s the link) as well as my addenda in this post. Sometimes I set out to research an article knowing in advance the kinds of things I want to say. In this case, though, I was motivated purely by curiosity, and a sense that I was neglecting a part of my beat by not knowing more about these institutions. I therefore conducted a number of largely open-ended reviews, curious to see what kind of story would crystallize out of the varied experiences of a somewhat random assortment of band members and officers.

I’m sure I could have gotten a different article and a different range of perspectives with a different cross-section. I didn’t talk to the guitar player in the Navy’s rock band who toured for 8 years with Ray Charles, or the Army Chorus singer who has starred in a number of major productions of “Porgy and Bess.” As the Navy Band’s communications manager and erstwhile saxophonist Adam Grimm said, “172 players, 172 cool stories” — multiplied by four, since I talked to each of the four service branches with elite bands in the Washington area. (That would be the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines; the Coast Guard band is based in New London, CT.)

From the interviews I did conduct, two main points emerged. One is that bands, despite their functional status, are facing some of the same challenges as civilian orchestras. The idea that some of these problems — declining audiences, budget cuts, existential questions about one’s function — are not exclusive to “art” music was something I hadn’t considered before.

“I’ve been doing this 24 years,” said Colonel Larry Lang, the commander of the Air Force Band. “I can’t remember a time when we weren’t defending ourselves. It’s nothing new. It’s like in the civilian sector, arts and music in schools are always under attack by people who think they’re extracurricular, when you and I would think they’re primary. It’s the same in the military. We believe we bring an important role; the detractors will never go away. It’s the same with symphony orchestras.”
The second point is that the satisfaction level of musicians in these groups seems to be pretty high — and that our assumptions about what kinds of music are more “worthwhile” are not necessarily borne out in the day-to-day experience of military musicians. For a working musician, the significance of playing a pickup gig with an orchestra may pale in comparison to playing “Taps” at a funeral, providing a family with a profoundly meaningful experience.

The musicians I talked to also felt, and demonstrated, that the military has been actively helpful in letting them spread their wings, be it with freelance gigs or with extra training. Most of the public-relations officers I talked to, for instance, were former active band members who were pleased to be able to get hands-on training in arts administration, with an eye to their future careers. (I neglected to stress in the article that band members, like all members of the military, can retire with full benefits after a mere 20 years of active service, meaning that many can consider a career switch in their mid-forties, and have the luxury of a support cushion when doing so. Colonel Michael Colburn, the 27th commander of the Marine Band, retired this summer in a July concert I mentioned in the article; now 49 years old, he’s going off to head the band program at Butler University.)

Sgt. First Class Emily Leader of The U.S. Army Band. “Pershing’s Own” plays in uniform – but also subs for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. (photo:: Sgt. First Class Chris Branagan).

I was particularly struck by the story of Barry Hearn, a trombonist with the NSO who had nine years of military band experience before winning the NSO audition. Hearn had subbed quite a bit with the NSO before he got the seat.

“The army was very happy and willing to accommodate the occasional inconvenience to the army so that I was able to do both my military tasks and go across the Potomac” to perform with the NSO, he said. “It was such a morale boost for myself that they were willing to let me pursue this.” Though, he adds, “I never felt unhappy in the Army, so it wasn’t as if being in the National Symphony alleviated my unhappiness in the Army… It’s good for the Army as well to show that their musicians have that ability to cross over into the classical world if they wanted to.”

Hearn decided to extend his Army service and signed a six-year enlistment: a firm commitment to the government. “When you sign that contract it is just about in blood,” he said. A year later, he won the NSO chair.

“Colonel Rotondi was the band commander at the time,” Hearn said, “and he was very sympathetic for how rare it is for these orchestra jobs to become available, so he decided to fight on my behalf to get me an early release from my six-year enlistment.” A whole string of superior officers, all the way up the chain of command, had to approve this special dispensation, and it was by no means certain; but every one of them signed off on it, and Hearn was out within a year. “That for me is an example of the culture that the army band and the military band program has for people who have interests outside the military,” Hearn says. “There is no assumption of disloyalty if you want to take a different musical path.”

That’s probably partly because the band commanders are all musicians themselves. Colonel Thomas Palamatier, the Army Band commander, is the longest-serving musician in the Department of Defense. When he entered the military, he was a tuba player looking for a way to finance his education. “My total plan was to come in, spend three years, and get the educational benefits, get my doctorate,” he says. “I thought I wanted to be in university teaching…. All of a sudden, it’s 37 years later.”

After all of this interaction with members of the bands, I was not fully prepared for the Marine Band concert I attended on July 12 to feel quite as “other” as it did. I am not entirely unfamiliar with the military world, and yet to this seasoned concert-goer the military uniforms and mores, the spic-and-span band members and support staff standing around the lobby at intermission to answer peoples’ questions, the energetic emceeing from the stage with spoken program notes between each piece, took a little getting used to. I quickly realized this was provincial on my part; I’d wager that to a majority of Americans this particular concert format would be a lot less off-putting than the kinds of orchestral and chamber performances I usually attend. The real point, as many band members could have told me before I wrote this piece, is that however different the goals appear, all of these ensembles, civilian and military, are in fact working in the same direction.

The US Army Band, US Navy Band, US Air Force Band and US Marine Band, and their various offshoots, play a range of concerts, free of charge, throughout the year (click on links for more information). Classical fans may be most interested in the chamber concerts hosted at places like the Church of the Epiphany.