On Perspective

Music and the military are not exactly two things most people would consider compatible. After nearly 18 years in the Army, even I wonder how they get along. Music is a tool that brings people together and builds bridges; the military is first and foremost an organization that blows stuff up. They don’t call ’em the armed forces for nothing.

Military bands are comprised of people who serve, but their mission is far different than most others in the military. Music by its nature enhances emotion, and military training often tries to inhibit it. Individuals draw the line between being musicians and soldiers in wildly different places, and our inability to find a common ground stirs up conflict, even within our own community.

Military musicians, as much as music educators, are always playing defense. We are the proverbial low-hanging fruit. We are viewed as a “nice to have” rather than an essential part of the mission. Combat arms in the Army are never going away, but music has to fight for dear life.

In defending military musicians, I have occasionally argued that band soldiers can do anyone else’s job but not just anyone can do ours. But this is akin to defending music education because it helps math skills. It’s a good argument to lift the spirits of our own soldier/musicians because it reinforces their worth, but it’s not the best argument to defend outside attacks. Musicians’ skills are highly specialized and take years of training prior to joining the military. I’ll fiercely defend the skills of my soldier/musicians, but… let’s not pretend our job is as risky (or as relevant to the Army) as that of an explosive ordnance disposal expert.

Having said that, making music is the still best use of our time because no one but professionals can do what we do at a level that adequately represents the service.

I’ve promoted soldiers in the premiere bands of the military to the paygrade of E-6 (Staff Sergeant in the Army) after only a few months in service. This accelerated promotion is one of the perks of winning a position in the finest ensembles in the world. I generally say something like: “Congratulations, you’ve earned this promotion. You deserve it. You are bringing extraordinary skills to this organization that have taken you years to hone and develop. Wear your new rank proudly and with confidence. But consider that after only four months of service, you will wear the rank of a non-commissioned officer who averages around ten years of service, who is responsible for the lives and training of many other soldiers, and who has probably deployed in harm’s way multiple times. When people on ‘the outside’ see a Staff Sergeant, this is what it means to them. You have to live up to this expectation.”

Every day, I make a concerted effort to maintain this perspective myself. Every time a stranger thanks me for my service, I know they’re assuming I’m putting my life on the line everyday, which of course I’m not. But I have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in both places rockets exploded nearby that wouldn’t have discriminated against me because I’m a musician.

So where is the line between soldier and musician? If we military musicians compare ourselves to others in the military, we will lose most of the time when it comes to danger, intensity, competitiveness, etc. But if we compare ourselves with the 99% of Americans who don’t serve in the military, well then we’re pretty darn hardcore. Compared to most soldiers in the Army, my time in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is negligible, but my non-military friends think I’m an American hero because I’ve been there. My time there counts as much as any other American’s.

Military life takes its toll, regardless of what job we have. My kids have attended countless schools and left friends all over the world because we move every couple of years. I’ve missed anniversaries, birthdays, celebrations, performances, concerts, and reunions because I’ve been away from home for months at a time. Frankly, I don’t have a lot of friends because all the people I share a common interest with work for me and have to call me “sir.” I volunteered for this life and don’t regret it. I feel very fortunate to serve my country doing what I know and love best, but I salute and support anyone who wears a uniform. And if I’m in uniform at the grocery store and you thank me for my service, I will accept it with a great deal of humility.

Great pieces are inevitable

Great pieces are inevitable.

Let me explain what I mean by first explaining what I don’t mean.

I don’t mean that if a composer, artist, or writer sits down and creates something that it’s certain to be a masterpiece. Oh, if only that were true.

No, I mean all great pieces have a sense of inevitability. It begins, takes the listener through an experience, and then ends exactly the way it’s supposed to. Voila. To quote Salieri from Amadeus, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment.

Great pieces of art, literature, or music seem effortless, natural, or logical, as if they were conceived that way from the very beginning of their inception. But if you ask the composer how the piece was born, you’re more likely to get an answer like “I beat my head against the wall for seven months.”

The greatness of the best artists, composers, and authors discourages many from trying to create their own work. “I could never create anything that perfect,” they say. “Every time I try to write, it’s never any good.” I wish I could play like that. I wish I could compose like that. I wish I could paint like that. I wish I could sculpt like that.

Not everyone can create art that will change the world, but to stop trying because the first efforts are less than wonderful is the wrong approach. Would-be creators must realize that when we read a marvelous novel or hear an amazing symphony, we are experiencing the final product. We are spared having to read the passages or hear the harmonies that didn’t make the final cut. And because we experience a great work from beginning to end, people might naturally think it was written from beginning to end.

But there’s tons of errors and mistakes and loose ends and rabbit holes and dead ends during the creation of a work. And the beginning is rarely where the piece actually started. Before there’s a finished product, there’s a buttload of editing, rewriting, and throwing out the trash. Only Mozart (here we go with Amadeus again) wrote music “as if he were just taking dictation.” The rest of us mortals write our first draft and then put ourselves through an emotional wringer: “well that sucks…that’s bad…this might work…that’s awful…I have no original ideas…I peaked when I was 14…what if I took this and moved it here?…then maybe I could salvage that…but if I do that, then this will have to…” etc.

Over the last year, I’ve written some silly poems for my kids a la Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. It’s a lot of fun and quite rewarding. I like my finished creations, but I’m telling you they don’t come easy. It took me a long time to identify exactly why a good poem is so satisfying, but I figured it out: it’s because it’s inevitable. Success of a poem often hinges on economy of material. The last word of a poem not only completes a thought or idea, but is a natural consequence of a rhyme set up earlier. Only that word could satisfactorily end the piece. Displace one word and there would be diminishment.

If you read one of my poems, you might think I’m a terrific poet. I assure you I am not. Well, maybe I am! I don’t know. If you measure my worth as a poet by how naturally poetry comes to me, then I am a disaster. But if I’m measured by the quality of the finished product, then maybe I’m not terrible. In any case, don’t think for a second that I can sit down and write a few lines and poof there’s a poem. My process is laborious and painful. I constantly refer to the rhyming dictionary. I can’t toss off rhymes in freestyle rap like Lin-Manuel Miranda. My mind’s not that quick. It takes a while.

But even Miranda has to work at it. His early sketches of HAMILTON are filled with corrections and missteps. That show is the result of years of development, rewrites, and workshopping. There are whole songs, awesome ones, that had to be cut because they didn’t move the story along. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, but they don’t come out of his head ready for the publisher; they will be rewritten and reworked, and a lot of them will be thrown out completely.

And when he writes, even he doesn’t know where his story will go! He originally imagined his novel Misery would be shorter, but to his surprise his protagonist Sheldon turned out to be more resourceful and determined than he (both the character and the author!) originally thought.

The secret to being a creator is to create. Getting started is the hard part. The only way to do it is to make yourself do it.

When I compose a musical passage, I usually have a pretty good idea where in the piece it’s going to happen. But sometimes while I’m struggling to figure it out I realize it would be better somewhere else. When writing poems, if I have two rhyming words there’s usually a logical antecedent/consequent order. BUT…sometimes it occurs to me that an idea is clearer (or funnier) if I reverse the order. I think these “a-ha” moments could be mistaken for inspiration, but they only reveal themselves as a result of concentrated effort.

Frank Ticheli wrote that composing sometimes feels like the music reveals itself, as if it directs where it needs to go and the composer is simply following its natural inclination. When that happens, it is indeed a marvelous thing because the resulting product will likely feel natural, logical, or inevitable. The final piece was there the whole time, just waiting to be discovered.

So it may be inevitable that a piece turns out the way it does. It’s only in retrospect that we realize where in fact the final destination was, and that all the wrong turns we took were necessary to find it. The final product might appear as a straight line, but the journey is anything but.

This essay, which I hope made a coherent point, probably took you 5-10 minutes to read. It took me many hours in eight sessions to write. It takes great artists months, even years to write works that take minutes to consume. So if yours isn’t perfect right off the bat, you’re in good company.

March on Rome

So some ESPN sports commentator named Jim Rome tweeted:

B6UJProCcAEHAdk…and among the tweet rebuttals from band directors, students, and band enthusiasts was this one from the U.S. Army Field Band:

…which garnered enough attention across the country that Fox News interviewed a representative from the band.

I’ve been thinking about it enough in the last 24 hours that (gasp!) I thought I’d write a blog entry, which is about as rare as parallel fifths in a Bach chorale. And since I’m in the Army, I’ll give you the bottom line up front (BLUF–it’s the Army, we have an acronym for everything):

We need to stop apologizing for being musicians.

We got bullied by Jim Rome because we’ve allowed ourselves to be bullied into thinking that we’re second-class citizens or that what we do doesn’t matter. We get called “misfits” or “geeks” or “dorks” and we laugh it off because it doesn’t really bother us (or we self-identify with it), but avoiding conflict for so many years has done a lot of damage. How many times after learning you are part of a band has someone said, “Hey this one time…at band camp…” Do we honestly think that’s funny? Has anyone ever thought that was funny? ‘American Pie’ is twenty years old, people; we’ve been forced to endure this lame joke for a long time.

We apologize for being musicians when we allow others to think that we’re somehow outcasts. We apologize for being musicians when we advocate for music education by stating how the work we do is going to make our students do better in OTHER disciplines. We apologize for being musicians when we allow others to diminish our accomplishments.

When you tell a fellow soldier you’re a musician in the Army, the response is as varied as the Army itself. Some think it’s really cool, others think you’re a waste of taxpayer money (or worse: someone who’s holding a position for a REAL soldier). A band officer once said something that has stuck with me: whatever response you get from someone after learning that you’re a musician is their way of expressing envy.

People wish they could do what we do. Or they don’t realize how difficult it is. Maybe that’s part of our problem. Maybe we make making music look too easy. Maybe we don’t realize how difficult making music is ourselves. I work at the U.S. Army Field Band and what those people do every day is positively astounding. The students in the band room at Somewhere, U.S.A. are also absolutely incredible. And if they’re not, it’s because they’re doing something amazingly hard, and they’ll get there with the right teacher, the right equipment, the right support, and a whole lot of work.

And when they learn to play that instrument really well, and then simultaneously march a complex drill all while making instantaneous minute adjustments in their playing and marching by using all of their senses and using their entire bodies and both sides of their brain…we are not going to let anyone think that getting there was easy or inevitable.

There is a tiny bit of truth in Mr. Rome’s tweet in that he’s implying that only people in band get band. I’m suggesting that we do a better job of articulating what we do to those outside our circles. The first step is to recognize our own amazingness. Then we can go to bat for our art, our activity, our passion, our “thing”, and share it as much as we can.

Okay, that joke above about parallel fifths…that was pretty dorky.


Composing in the desert

You often read about artists and composers who are inspired by nature or their surroundings. Many are convinced that the quality and the type of art they create is a direct result of the environment in which it was created.

If this were true in my case, the music I’ve written lately would be brown, drab, boring, and just flippin’ ugly.

Against my better judgment, a few months ago I accepted the offer of a commission for a grade four band piece. I did this after less than a month in Kuwait…not enough time to really know how much time I would be able to devote to creative work or whether or not I would be able to concentrate on it. As it turns out, I’ve had plenty of time to dedicate to writing music since I can decide what to do with whatever spare time I have. (I miss my family terribly, but it’s easier to get work done when your four-year-old isn’t barking at you to run with her every two minutes.) Plus, I’ve found solace in the Starbucks that’s mere yards from my “pod” (living quarters); it’s a little slice of home here in the desert, and if I don’t look out the window it feels pretty much like a Starbucks back at home. I grab some coffee and a chair, plug my MacBook into the wall with my three-octave MIDI keyboard and voila, I’ve got my own studio.

So, with some free mornings and hours open to composing, I had plenty of time to write Keynote Address for my old chapter of Delta Omicron. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out, and I think it stands up to any of my other personal favorites despite being written in some of the butt-ugliest country you’ve ever seen.


Kisses from Daddy

IMG_1459The jar has 540 kisses. One for each kid. Three per day for 180 days. When the jar is empty of Daddy’s Kisses, Daddy comes home.

Well that’s the happy ending we’re all looking forward to, but let’s not dance around the subject: leaving home this morning was a horrible experience. Saying goodbye to my wife and kids was absolutely heartbreaking. It was especially wrenching to see my child, who’s infamously under control, at long last unleash her emotions through inconsolable sobbing.

What’s difficult to accept is that the kids are innocent victims of circumstance. Now it’s not necessary to feel sorry for them; they’ll be all right. They (we) will get through this experience and when it’s all over our family will be as strong as ever, of this I have no doubt. But they did nothing to deserve this extraordinary stress in their lives. Most of their friends will never have to experience this kind of separation from anyone in their families, though there are a handful of military kids who “get it.”

As for me, I feel a little guilty over feeling so blue. After all, this deployment is expected to last no longer than 180 days, less than half of what most others give. How many service members have gone on multiple year-long (or more) deployments? Plus, I am headed to a comparatively safe place, not to say that I won’t take the occasional trip into a hostile fire zone. I’ve worn the uniform for nearly fourteen years now and managed to spend only seven days “downrange.” I’d say I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and have no reason to complain.

This deployment is unlike many others, however, because I’m going alone. I’m not traveling with a unit. I have no band of brothers to lean on. I am an Army of One. This is somewhat uncharted territory for a guy accustomed to the chaos and destruction of a busy house of three kids ranging in age from four to 15. As if the butt of a cosmic joke, on the flight to my training area, I had a row of seats to myself on a nearly full flight. It was as if I was Pigpen and no one wanted to sit next to me. Back at my point of departure, there were small groups of soldiers and airmen in uniform, clearly traveling together. I currently envy that camaraderie and hope that I will find it with my new unit and fellow soldiers.

As I embark on this crazy adventure, my biggest wish is that this experience is as rewarding and meaningful as my previous deployment (of only seven days) to Iraq in 2004, where the Soldiers’ Chorus of Heidelberg brought Christmas to soldiers who needed a taste of home and a reminder of what they were fighting for. I find myself considering the underlying premise of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ questioning the worth of putting the lives of a squad of soldiers to save just one. Will the contributions I make during this deployment be worth the sacrifice of being away from home?

The answer has to be yes, and so I must work to make it so.


Website Version 4.0

Once again, I saw fit to update my website, and this time it’s the closest to what I think I always wanted when I began the process. Finally, here’s the blog properly integrated with all the information on the music. Finally, here’s total control over the layout and style, even though I’m still learning how to understand HTML and CSS. Finally, now I can make new additions, blog posts, pieces, and recordings from anywhere and not necessarily my home computer.

There’s still a long way to go to really make it the way I’d like it, but for the first time ever, I feel like I have the proper foundation upon which to build. Perhaps a little paradoxically, I’ve preferred the look of the last two versions of the site, but I like the control I have now, even if I don’t yet know how to wield it. The big thing is that I finally feel like I have the content and the layout properly separated, so if I need to make a change in how the site looks or behaves, it can happen globally instead of having to change every single page. I also love how, thanks to an excellent theme foundation, the layout of the content adapts to the device you’re seeing. So the site looks good on an iPhone as well as a large screen.

Finally, there’s the opportunity for anyone visiting my site to leave comments on any given page. I may decide to take this down if the inconvenience of filtering out spam isn’t worth any positive dialogue that might ensue, but for now the option stays.

I welcome any civilized and thoughtful comments, and thank you for visiting my little useless waste of cyberspace!


Command is busy

So maybe the reason I haven’t had time to blog is that I’ve been in command of an Army band, which (guess what?) is a full-time job.

But maybe I just might have three minutes to write about the few pieces I’ve been able to eek (eke? eak?) out during this busy time.

The most significant piece I completed was ‘Leaps and Rounds‘ for brass quintet and band.  I’m quite proud of this piece and I’ll make it a point to write about it in some detail in the future because I think it might actually be an interesting short essay.  I also wrote a march in a very short time; as in, “I think I’ll write a march” to “It’s done” in four days.  Actually, the story behind that one is pretty interesting, too.

But the most recent piece is my farewell gift to my band, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band.  The piece is called ‘A Summer Breeze,’ and with its composition I am halfway through my take on the seasons (‘A Winter Flurry‘ was first).  I think it’s the most ridiculously happy piece I’ve ever written, a light, fluffy, jolly, tuneful, summery overture.  The Band will premiere it at the Change of Command concert on the 5th of July when I reliquish command.  Well, actually, we’ll play it at our Independence Day concerts on the 3rd and 4th, too.

I hardly ever blog

See?  The last time I posted something was in 2009.  TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO.  Sheesh.

Oh, well, I just logged into WordPress and guess what?  I actually remembered my username and password!  That was one of the highlights of my day.

And I’m positive reading this blog entry was yours.

‘The Kings March’ premieres

I had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of my first beginning band piece The Kings March this afternoon.  The piece was written for the Kings Glen Elementary School band and was played by the combined fifth- and sixth-graders; over 200 kids!

I have always loved writing music for younger players, but this was the first time I had written for first-year musicians.  It was a challenge, but I think I succeeded in writing something that was compositionally sound, had educational merit, and most importantly, be actually playable!

For other composers out there, I can’t recommend writing for kids enough.  Every time I saw one of the students from Kings Glen, either from my visits to the school, or just at the neighborhood pool, someone has come up to me to thank me for writing the march for them.  They are so grateful and excited!  No matter what the grade level, students take enormous pride in performance when they feel that sense of ownership.

Thanks again to Kelly Stratil and the fantastic students of Kings Glen Elementary!  Let’s go band!!

Reagan statue dedication

This morning the Army Chorus performed in the Capitol Rotunda for the unveiling of a new statue of Ronald Reagan. Many political heavy-hitters (particularly republicans, of course) were in attendance, including John McCain and Michael Steele. Nancy Pelosi was the host, as is customary for a Congressional event.

Performing for the Nation’s leaders is a big deal and an enormous privilege and responsibility, but it’s amazing how commonplace it seems. I’ve been to the Rotunda four or five times with the Chorus now (see, I’ve already lost count), and I figured this event would be like the others. For some reason, however, this turned out to be a particularly moving event.

We knew we were in for something special when Nancy Reagan came in the room and received a generous, warm round of applause (from everyone regardless of party affiliation).  The colors were presented, we sang the National Anthem, and the speeches began.  Republican and Democratic leaders praised Reagan and spoke eloquently about the America he loved and worked for.  Sure, there was some politicking in there, but the tone was respectful, and when it was time for us to sing I think it’s fair to say that the room was feeling especially patriotic.

So then we sang America the Beautiful.  And it was stupendous; a perfect, emotionally-charged, musical performance.

I often say that the job of military musicians is not to make great music, but to represent the excellence and professionalism of the military.  Which we do by making great music.  An added responsibility I have is to use what we have to offer to appropriately support the events we attend.  There are times when we should be center stage and others when we should allow the spotlight to focus on others.  This was an event I just felt great about afterwards because we sang the perfect song at the perfect time, and to try to elbow our way in further would be to make it less effective.  We came, we sang, we said “goodnight everybody.”

When the entire event goes well, then all parties involved look like heroes.  We received some terrific kudos from bloggers and the press:

Peggy Noonan: “The U.S. Army chorus sang the national anthem so beautifully, with such harmonic precision and depth, that some dry eyes turned moist, including those of the crusty journalist to my right.”

Paul Kengor: “…the crowning touch came before Nancy spoke, and before the statue unveiling. It was the sole musical selection for the program: the U.S. Army Chorus singing, a cappella, “America, the Beautiful.  This love-song for the nation captivated the room. It was beautiful. I caught a camerawoman struggling to hold up her long-lens as she wiped tears flowing down her face.  But what struck me was the perfect choice of that patriotic hymn, unwittingly tying together not only the thoughts of Rev. Black and others, but the origins, ends, and legacy that was Ronald Reagan’s career.”

Michael Doyle: “The 87-year-old presidential widow spoke briefly, declaring the statue sculpted by North Carolina resident Chas Fagan to be ‘a wonderful likeness of Ronnie’ and praising the ‘lovely, lovely singing’ of the U.S. Army Chorus.”

Great stuff!