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 other occupational specialties. Music by its nature releases emotion, and military training by its nature often tries to inhibit it. Where individuals draw the line between being musicians and soldiers differs greatly, and our inability to find a common ground often stirs up conflict, even within our own community.
Tensions run high because 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 and that the converse is not true. But this is akin to defending music education because it helps math skills. It’s a good argument to lift soldier-musicians’ spirits because it reinforces their worth but not so good to defend against 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 it at a level that adequately represents the service.
I’ve presided over promotion ceremonies of soldiers in the premiere bands of the military as they accept an accelerated promotion to the paygrade of E-6 (Staff Sergeant in the Army). It’s one of the perks of winning a position in the finest ensembles in the world. I’ve used the same talking points every time, and here’s the jist of what I say: “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 at the same time, realize after only four months of service, you will wear the rank of a non-commissioned officer who has averaged around ten years of service, who is responsible for the lives and training of many other soldiers, who has probably deployed in harm’s way multiple times, and who has learned from ten years of mistakes. When people on ‘the outside’ see a Staff Sergeant, this is what it means to them. You have to live up to this expectation.”
I make a concerted effort to maintain this perspective. I think of it every time a stranger thanks me for my service, because I know they’re assuming I’m putting my life on the line everyday. Which of course I’m not. However, during my brief trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, rockets exploded around me that wouldn’t have discriminated against me because I’m a musician.
So where is the line? If we military musicians compare ourselves to others in the military, we might very well think we don’t measure up on the “hooah” scale (intensity, danger, 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.
The 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 have to move every couple 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 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.