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.

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.


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.

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!

Memorial Day

This was my Facebook status for a short time: “Memorial Day is a day we reflect on the sacrifices American men and women have made to secure the freedoms we all enjoy. It is also a day to have our pictures taken with superstars.”

And superstars there were at the national Memorial Day concert given by the National Symphony on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.  Among the performers were Laurence Fishburne, Gary Sinise, Lang Lang, Trace Adkins, and Katie Holmes.

The actual performing demands for the Chorus were pretty minimal, and frankly, once we arrived on site there wasn’t that much for me to do.  Erich Kunzel was conducting the orchestra so I just made sure the military folks were treated well.  Apparently, they hadn’t in years past.

On the day of the dress rehearsal, some of our guys had the opportunity to speak with Trace Adkins after his sound check.  Yikes, this is a BIG guy.  And what a voice!


And onto more stars…how about Laurence Fishburne…


…and Katharine McPhee…


…and Gary Sinise…


But here’s the big one…where you find Katie Holmes you’re sure to find Tom Cruise!


Both of them were very kind to stop for photographs after the show…



A brief observation on movie stars, having not spent much time around them: these people know how to pose for a picture.  It seems like not much of a talent or skill, but point a camera in their direction and ask for a photo and they’re instantly poised to be on the cover of People.  That was actually a fascinating thing to watch.

Dr. Tim Sharp visits

A few weeks ago I attended my first American Choral Directors Association convention in Oklahoma City.  It was a terrific experience allowing me, the accidental chorus conductor the opportunity to network and learn from those in the choral music world.

As I ventured from workshops to concerts, I kept thinking to myself the Army Chorus should be here.  The Air Force Singing Sergeants and the Navy Sea Chanters were there in the exhibit hall with booths, and we had a handful of guys from our organization, but there were no performances by military vocalists.

Perhaps because I had no scruples, I went to the ACDA website and fearlessly fired off an email to the Executive Director, Dr. Tim Sharp (going straight to the top–shameless!).  The jist of the message: we’d love to be a part of a future ACDA event.

FIVE MINUTES LATER comes the response: he’s coming into DC anyway and would love to see a performance.  Well, rats, we didn’t have one during his visit, so I offered a rehearsal as a consolation prize, and he agreed!

The bottom line is that he did come visit, but the bummer was that I couldn’t meet him.  My new daughter Allie was born and I was suddenly not so interested in anything but her (I hope no one would fault me for that).  But I was delighted to see that Dr. Sharp not only came to see the Army Chorus, but he also brought his family along for some sightseeing, and even did some conducting of the group!

So thank you Dr. Sharp for visiting us in Washington, and I sincerely hope that I will get to meet you in the future!

Chain of Command

The official picture from my first trip to the White House:


A couple of nights after this picture was taken, we went to sing at the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s quarters for a holiday party.  Here’s me and the Chorus with Admiral Mullen and his wife:


And although I don’t have a picture of it, a few nights after that we performed for General Casey, the Army Chief of Staff.  So I basically began at the top of the chain of command and worked my way down.  Since then, there have been two more White House jobs but we’re still waiting for those pictures.  I’ll post them when I get them.

This morning was our dress rehearsal for the Inaugural Parade.  As I type, I’m still thawing a bit, but I’m coming along.  I shouldn’t complain, because the weather could be A LOT worse.  Early reports expect the actual day of the event will likely be comparable to today’s weather.  Even if it’s really cold, it is going to be an AMAZING event to be a part of.  The Army Band supports the 3d U.S. Infantry Division (The Old Guard) which is the official escort for the President, so we render honors at the Capitol, then lead the official party to the reviewing stand at the White House.  This morning there were a few onlookers who saw the rehearsal, but I can imaging what those streets are going to look like lined with thousands of people.  I am thrilled to participate in this incredible historic event!

Great pictures

I have a couple of neat pictures to post here tonight.  The first one is THE BEST picture of me conducting, ever.  How great is it that it’s from the Army Band’s concert in Avery Fisher Hall?


The other picture was taken tonight while we were waiting to perform for the President in the White House.  It was my first time visiting; I’ve never even taken the regular tour!  President Bush stood with us for a picture after our performance which I’ll post when I get it.  In the meantime, here’s a shot of me and a couple of the guys in the East Room taken with an iPhone.  That’s SGM Andy Patterson, first tenor and Chorus group leader on the left, and MSG Al Maly, bass section leader on the right.


Just another day at the office!