West Point Musician's Career Comes "Full Circle"

By West Point Band Publicity
West Point Band

News story photo
Sgt. 1st Class Diana Cassar-Uhl
When the West Point Concert Band takes the stage at Monroe-Woodbury High School on March 31, it will be a special homecoming for some of the performers.

“I was eleven years old, a few days before I started 6th grade, when I came to my first West Point Band concert,” Monroe native Sgt. 1st Class Diana Cassar-Uhl recalls. “My friend Diana Marshak and her family brought me, and I was immediately hooked. I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, a clarinet player in the West Point Band.”

The adults in Cassar-Uhl’s life had other ideas for her future. Smart kids don’t become musicians, they become doctors and lawyers, so they can make lots of money, they told Diana, but nothing excited her like music did … especially after John Lynch came into her life at Monroe-Woodbury High School.

“He was the new band director when I was a freshman, and I didn’t like him at first,” she laughs. “Mr. Lynch made me work hard for his approval. His praise didn’t come for free.”

During her four years at Monroe-Woodbury, Cassar-Uhl went after every opportunity for musical excellence, earning first chair in the Orange County high school all-county band each year, even as a freshman. “The adjudicators that year were from the West Point Band – I had no idea one of them would be my colleague just 8 years later,” she said. Her last two years, earning first chair in the county entitled her to a rehearsal and performance with the West Point Band. It was the most motivating experience of her high school musical career, even more so than her performances with the All-State Band. Lynch accompanied Cassar-Uhl and the other first-chairs from Monroe-Woodbury to the West Point Band building and made sure they were prepared to represent themselves well and get the most from that fantastic opportunity.

It was that kind of commitment to his students, as well as his extraordinary musical talent, that set John Lynch apart as a band director. Today, he is the Director of Bands at the University of Georgia, and he has a long legacy of students who went on to prestigious careers in music, as both performers and educators. Mike Tiscione, also a Monroe native and Lynch protege, performs trumpet with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He will be the featured soloist, under Lynch’s baton, at the March 31 concert. Tiscione, then a high school student, first performed as a soloist with the West Point Band nearly 20 years ago, as the winner of the band’s first Young Artist Solo Competition.

Encouraged by Lynch and her other music teachers, Cassar-Uhl went on to double major in clarinet performance and music education at the Ithaca College School of Music. “I tried hard at the music education track, but I always knew I could never live up to the standard Mr. Lynch had set for me – I didn’t have it in me to be that kind of band director. He was so selfless, so exacting, and as invested in his most challenged student as in his most promising. It wasn’t in my heart the way performing was. I felt like I’d be cheating the students I was supposed to be serving.”

In February of her senior year at Ithaca, Cassar-Uhl saw, posted on a bulletin board, an advertisement for a clarinet vacancy in the West Point Band. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I knew that people stayed in those positions at West Point for an entire career, 20, 30 years – I had to win that job because it could be years before the next opportunity would come up.” If she didn’t win the job, she was scheduled to student teach at a high school for 8 weeks, during a ninth semester. “I knew it would be either basic training or student teaching,” Cassar-Uhl laughs. “I felt much better prepared for basic training.”

She enlisted the help of several faculty members at Ithaca, all of whom wholeheartedly supported her quest to win the position. “My wind ensemble conductor let me miss a concert so I could take the audition, but it meant I had to miss performing a work I had waited years to play. He told me ‘win that gig, and I bet you’ll get to play it someday.’ He was right – I played it here in 2006.”

Cassar-Uhl won the job at West Point just weeks before Ithaca College’s graduation. Some administrative waivers were necessary so she could drop the music education portion of her double major, but she had already satisfied all of the requirements for the performance degree, and could graduate. “It was such a great feeling to graduate from music school knowing I had already won not just a job, but the job I had wanted since 6th grade,” she said. “I knew how lucky I was. I couldn’t wait to start my life at West Point.”

She arrived to the band in September of 1995, after a hot summer at basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “It was everything I dreamed it would be – I was so proud and happy,” Cassar-Uhl says of the early years of her career. She recalls performances at West Point, in schools, and in communities with the Concert Band, Marching Band, and with the West Point Clarinet Quartet from 1996-2008. Highlights include playing for Pope John Paul II upon his arrival to Newark Airport in 1995, a performance at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in 2000, and many solo and chamber ensemble recitals and concerts.

“My time with the West Point Clarinet Quartet was very special,” Cassar-Uhl recalls with a smile. “We worked hard and traveled a lot, but we had some amazing opportunities along the way.” Perhaps the most significant of those opportunities was a recital at the International Clarinet Association convention, “ClarFest,” in Salt Lake City in the summer of 2003. Not only was the quartet honored by the invitation to be featured at such a prestigious event, West Point Band alumnus Larry Combs, then-principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony, had agreed to be the quartet’s 5th player for a Mozart quintet. “I had my 7-month old baby with me,” Cassar-Uhl remembers about the event. “She cut her first tooth the night before the biggest gig of my life – but it didn’t matter. We shared the stage with Mr. Combs and were proud of our performance for our peers.”

Sgt. 1st Class Cassar-Uhl was also honored to serve as a judge for the International Clarinet Association’s Young Artist Competition at that convention. “Despite not being cut out to be an educator myself,” she explains, “I was extremely committed to music education, and I wanted to leverage my position as a performer in a premier military band for the benefit of students and their teachers whenever I could.” Cassar-Uhl was appointed to the Education Outreach section of the West Point Band in 1996, and served the organization in that capacity through last fall. “When I passed the torch, it felt like sending a kid off to college,” she remarks. “It was so fulfilling to be able to produce events like young people’s concerts, artist-in-residence programs, and young artist competitions for the students from the same locality – sometimes, even the very same teachers – that I came from. It didn’t feel like work to me, because I remembered how great the West Point Band was to me when I was a student musician, and I was so happy to facilitate experiences for tomorrow’s potential Soldier-musicians and audience members.” Cassar-Uhl is especially excited that part of this concert will be shared with student musicians from Monroe-Woodbury High School.

The March 31 concert at Monroe-Woodbury, under the shared direction of Lynch, Monroe-Woodbury High School’s Rick Reagan, and West Point’s Lieutenant Colonel Jim Keene, will be Sgt. 1st Class Cassar-Uhl’s final performance with the West Point Band. She is leaving the Army after 17 years of service to finish her master’s degree in public health at New York Medical College and pursue a second career – this one in maternal and child health. “It wasn’t an easy decision, and it’s one that took many years to finally arrive at,” Cassar-Uhl shares. “But it’s time. My three children need more of me than I can give them as an Army musician, and my calling to public health has become a passion I can’t put off any longer.” She’s not sure exactly where her new career will take her, or if there will be time for clarinet playing on the side. “I think, at first, I’ll be kind of relieved to put it away for awhile,” she says of the pressure she’s felt since making music her career. “I know it’ll be there if and when I find I miss it.”

She will end her professional career on a high note. “The chance to play under Dr. Lynch again, after all these years – in my home town, even! I couldn’t ask for a better end to this story.”

What: West Point Concert Band, with guest conductors Dr. John P. Lynch and Mr. Rick Reagan, featuring Mr. Mike Tiscione, trumpet soloist
When: Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Monroe-Woodbury High School, 155 Dunderberg Rd., Central Valley
Free and open to the public

For concert information, cancellations and updates, call 845.938.2617 or visit www.westpointband.com. West Point Band news can also be found by following us on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

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