Music and the military sounds like a bizarre marriage, and it is. It often surprises me, however, that when it’s done well, music serves the military. It keeps soldiers in step, makes them march a little taller, makes them feel good and proud about what they do, and picks them up when they’re feeling down. Music is usually a centerpiece when the Army (or any branch of the military) celebrates long-standing traditions in ceremonies. A military parade or review without music just isn’t the same, and most high-ranking people recognize this fact. They might not necessarily be great listeners, but they see how music effects the people they command and recognize music’s power to build bridges across cultures, to soothe, and to excite.
But even after 8-1/2 years in the Army, I still have to laugh sometimes at what I do. It takes a different kind of artistically-minded musician to accept the grind of military life. For example: This morning I go for a run around Washington as I do nearly every week. I’m out for about an hour and cover probably six miles. Running by Arlington National Cemetery always makes me run just a little faster than I would somewhere else. I figure those thousands of servicemen and women buried there gave everything for their country; maybe I can give a little more running near them. I cool down in the shadows of the Iwo Jima memorial, and I look at those Marines hoisting the American flag as I stretch. Then after a shower, what do I do? I sit down to study Shoenberg.
Well, of course! Because the Gurrelieder has everything to do with winning the War On Terror! This makes perfect sense!
This ranks up there with a command inventory at the 82d Airborne Division Band, where nylon straps in O.D. green designed to hold combat packs at the knees of a fully loaded paratrooper are counted in the same breath as sousaphones and clarinet reeds.
Also funny how military terminology invades (see, there’s another one) the musical vernacular. Sometimes if the ensemble doesn’t stop immediately after I cut them in rehearsal I will show the hand signal and call out “cease fire” as if we’re at the rifle range. No one thinks twice about this. Using the right kind of language is important because we have to be able to articulate what we do to people for whom the military is the only life they know. So when speaking outside of the band building, we don’t rehearse, we train. We don’t work with people, we coordinate with them. And we definitely don’t perform concerts, we conduct band operations.
It’s a strange clash of cultures, but it’s also a lot of fun.