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.