As a band musician, I have always known that the military was a career option. It is common knowlege that all branches of the US Armed Forces employ band musicians, pay great salaries and benefits, and offer the experiences of a military lifestyle such as seeing the world and taking part in public civic ceremonies.
The only problem was, you had to join the military: Boot camp; “sir, yes sir”; deploying to combat zones; 4-year enlistment. I remember thinking, I love band, and the military has great bands, but I could never do that.
I did exactly that. I enlisted in the US Army as a bandsman for at least 4-years. I will go to Basic Combat Training (in Georgia in July!), I will say “sir, yes sir,” salute the flag, swear to obey the commander-in-chief, and if required, deploy to combat zones.
I want to write a few words about how I got here in order to help musicians considering it and my family and friends, many of whom don’t understand how I could do this. I’ll start with what I learned about the military during my education and career. Later I’ll explain how I managed to get the job and what lies ahead. Keep in mind, I am just a raw recruit and I have much to learn about this career and lifestyle. These are just my experiences.
I began my career in high school band. I loved playing in band (and orchestra). I loved the music. I was good at it. I decided this would be my career, which left me with a choice: what would I do after high school band?
I would have to go to college, obviously. In college there were bands: not only concert bands, marching bands, orchestras, and jazz bands, but also percussion ensembles, steel bands, world music, indoor drumline, chamber ensembles. It was paradise; 5-years of bliss.
I could study education and work as a school music teacher. Or practice all my excerpts and audition for a symphony orchestra. Or I could join the military. Nope, I could never do that last one. I just wanted to play in band. I guessed I would have to just stay in school where the bands are.
So, I went to grad school and played in more bands. An outgoing student had just accepted a job in a group called the Hellcats. This was fascinating to me, and I had a chance to meet and learn from this former student during my time in grad school. The Hellcats are a group within the US Military Academy Band at West Point. This student, with two degrees and related experience, had gone out, taken the audition, won it, and was now going to be an Army Staff Sergeant.
By the time I was finishing my graduate degree, I knew I couldn’t stay in school. School bands are great! But they are just for students, and you can’t stay a student forever.
What’s a band?
What I had come to realize is that the kinds of bands I loved in school, don’t really exist outside. A school band is large; real bands are small, often just one person. In a school band, if you can play, you’re in; there are real bands like that, but they don’t pay, and they are not nearly as common as orchestras. In a school band, concerts happen regularly and serve the school; real bands have to make their own performances happen; something I wish I was taught in school.
School bands are a great vehicle both for serving the community and training young musicians. If playing music is to be a career, though, things are very different.
A place for me
As a player, you can either compete for the top spots, or make things happen on your own. When I left graduate school, I decided to try the later. I won’t go into how that has gone for me in the last six years, but it wasn’t what I expected. I have realized that the military bands have already created a job for me with large bands serving the community, and small bands playing incredible variety of music.
The Military Branches: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard all have bands. The main bands are known as Premiere Bands. These are the top groups in each Branch: The Army Band, The Navy Band, The Marine Corps Band, etc. These represent the very best of what american concert band is. Also, the bands stationed at the military academies (like West Point) are considered premiere bands. Some branches have other premiere bands, notably the US Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and the US Army 3rd Infantry “Old Guard” Fife and Drum Corps. These bands recruit the very best musicians from all over the nation, military and civilian. Competition is as fierce as any top-tier orchestra.
But the branches also have other bands serving all over. These “regular” bands are simply soldiers, marines, and sailors who’s military job is to play music. In the military everyone has a job whether it’s infantry, tank mechanic, pilot, cook, or hundreds of others. In the Army, you audition for a special band recruiter and if you’re good enough, you get that job when you enlist. The job (called a Military Occupation Specialty, or MOS) defines the advanced training program you do after basic training.
The army has the most “regular” bands of all the branches. There are 10 combat divisions, each with it’s own band. There are bands attached to each major training station, likely due to the amount of ceremonies, and bands attached to stations dispersed all over to serve the country and showcase American and Army values. There are Army bands in Europe, Asia, Hawaii, Alaska, and all over the USA.
A “regular” active-duty bandsman practices, rehearses, and performs. The bands put on concerts both on- and off-post, perform for military ceremonies, and do outreach activities such as school visits, parades, and philanthropy events. The bands configure themselves as large concert bands, large and small marching bands, jazz bands, pop/rock/latin bands, and chamber ensembles. They often tour locally. When deployed to combat zones, the primary mission is to entertain the troops and they often travel to distant outposts to do just that.
When I was in school, I didn’t realize how good I had it. That’s because I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to continue to play they way I was, and make a living at it, once I was out of school. From a distance I can see that I should have considered the military much sooner.