Rocking Into the Future

By Jonathan (Jay) Koester
NCO Journal

News story photo
Photo credit: Jay Koester, NCO Journal
Staff Sgt. Iaian Thompson belts out a tune during a rehearsal of a rock group at the U.S. Army School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va. The group was a combination of Senior Leader Course and Advanced Leader Course students preparing to perform at the end of their course.
Walking through the halls of the U.S. Army School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va., what you’ll hear is different than you might expect. Sure, there is music echoing. But instead of traditional John Phillip Sousa marches, you’ll hear riffs of Latin jazz, country and rock ‘n’ roll. Rather than a large group of students rehearsing in a concert room, there are small groups rehearsing a variety of music.

Deploying during the past decade of war has taught the leaders of U.S. Army Bands lessons that are being put to good use today in-garrison. For starters, said Sgt. 1st Class Ron Johnson, the deputy commandant at the U.S. Army School of Music NCO Academy, leaders have realized that not only are large concert bands difficult to deploy to far-flung areas, the audience for those bands is limited anyway.

“We’re looking at relevance, at what Soldiers — especially in the deployed environment — want to hear, which is not Sousa marches,” Johnson said. “There is still a place for ceremonial music; we do train the ceremonial marching and that sort of thing. But there has been a deliberate shift in focus to an entertainment-centered framework.”

As part of that entertainment focus, the Army School of Music teaches Army musicians how to create five- or six-person teams that are mobile and flexible. The change from large concert bands to small teams performing a wide variety of music adds to the challenge of being an Army bandsman, said Command Sgt. Major Joseph Camarda, the command sergeant major of the Army School of Music.

“What we’ve done in the past seven or eight years is we’ve bolted on a whole dimension of popular music — everything from country to Top 40 and anything else,” Camarda said. “It can be rap, to Dixieland, to jazz. We’re trying to have the capability to perform anything that our audience is really passionate about. That’s been quite an undertaking because it’s the same musicians who are doing the whole span. One day they’re performing at a military ceremony, the next day they’re marching down the street, at night they’re performing at a function where they are jumping around on stage entertaining hundreds of people in a rock concert. The same Soldier has to have the skills to be able to make those changes and be able to deliver that spectrum of entertainment.”

Change in training

The challenge of delivering that wide spectrum of entertainment was a large part of the reason Army Bands deconsolidated their training from the Navy and Marines in October 2010. The Navy oversaw the curriculum at the School of Music for about 50 years. But leaders in Army Bands wanted to change the training drastically. There were two main reasons for the change, Camarda said.

“We were getting requirements from [U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command] to do things like weapons immersion, military training, Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills. Those are requirements for all [Advanced Individual Training] Soldiers,” Camarda said. “We found being tucked into the Navy curriculum, we didn’t have the flexibility to infuse those things into their curriculum. That was becoming more frustrating, and that was a big component of the change. The other component was the Navy and Marines were unwilling to move away from a very academic approach. They like the traditional products they are providing. They like the traditional way of educating musicians, and we were looking for something different. “We went from a six-month training program for our AIT students down to a 10-week training program for Army musicians,” he said. “It allows us to be a lot more specific in meeting the Army’s intent in our training. We’ve moved away from an academic approach for teaching music, to a more realistic approach — training professional musicians to be Army musicians.”

Being an Army musician today means a lot more than sitting behind a music stand and playing musical scales. It means knowing how to move on stage, how to inspire a crowd and even how to market the show to a new generation.

“We’re teaching them how to be performers, which is something that until quite recently we almost thought was an inherent skill,” Camarda said. “What we’ve realized during the past couple of years is a lot of the skills that make a musician able to perform for people and be entertaining, we can actually teach them those things. “This is giant leap from what we traditionally did to where we are trying to go,”

he said. “We are now building [musicians] for the Army who are capable of going anywhere — entertaining Soldiers in the deployed arena and civilians in any city. We want to be competitive with any kind of entertainment people might find in those cities.”

Reducing the course from six months to 10 weeks, putting the students in small groups and focusing on performing all led to a course that is more useful and meaningful, said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Wallace, horn instructor and brass branch chief at the Army School of Music. In the past, students would have six months of academic training, but then arrive at their unit unprepared for the variety of duties awaiting them. “The new course is more applicable to what we really do in a unit,” Wallace said. “Everything they are doing now is 100 percent applicable to what they will do in a unit. We’ve trimmed all the fat: Here is what you need to be a success in an Army Band.”

“In the past, we taught them music, similar to being in college, but they did very little performing. It was very introverted,” Camarda said. “Now it’s absolutely the opposite; we’re teaching them to perform. Any time you go through this building now, you’re going to see Army small groups either rehearsing for or giving a performance.

“That’s a very motivating factor, when you know you are going to be performing for people,” he said. “You don’t have to force somebody to practice. You just say, ‘At the end of the week, you are performing for 50 of your peers.’”

Top-tier professionals

The high level of performance Army musicians are expected to reach by the end of 10 weeks of AIT means musicians have to be highly accomplished just to get in the door. The days of a musician joining Army Bands out of high school is mostly over. Many arrive at AIT with master’s or even doctorate degrees. Under the Army Civilian Acquired Skills Program, most Army musicians come in as specialists.

“These changes have sent us into a whole new dimension of recruiting,” Camarda said. “We used to be able to recruit musicians who were out of high school, who were talented young people, and then train them to be Army musicians. Now, it has escalated to where we’re recruiting top-tier professional musicians, either who have been working professionally already or are from colleges or music conservatories around the country. They have to have some significant and highly developed skills for us to have the flexibility we need.” The higher skill level of musicians joining the Army is part of why the length of AIT was shortened, Johnson said.

“Because we’re able to recruit much higher-quality musicians, we’re able to, one, shorten our AIT down to 10 weeks and, two, focus on performing and entertainment instead of having to focus on the basics of, ‘can you play your scales or not?’” Johnson said. “We can assume that, when you are coming in with a master’s degree, you know something about playing scales.” Instead of music basics, the Army teaches the young musicians flexibility and how to be a Soldier, Camarda said. “Most musicians in the civilian sector tend to specialize in a section of music,” Camarda said. “Some people are jazz players or country players. The thing about military musicians is they have to span the whole spectrum from patriotic, small-group music, to full concert band, to popular music, to swing, to Latin, to jazz … everything. They have to put on the different hats and learn the different styles, which is pretty much unheard of. Very few people do that anywhere else. And they have to be a Soldier, too.

“Some people we’re training how to be more conservative, to be able to do the military portion,” he said. “A lot of other people are inherently quiet or conservative, and we have to train them in how to become a rock star on stage. That’s the task of our school, to create the musician who can do these extremes.”

Though some might be surprised that people with advanced degrees are enlisted musicians in the Army, Camarda said that often stems from a love of playing an instrument that the musician has practiced for years.

“A lot of people come in with advanced degrees, and in any other profession they would have become officers,” said Camarda, who himself has a master’s degree in music education from Columbus State University. “In music, these individuals are so passionate about that skill they’ve learned, that that’s all they want to do. They come in specifically to contribute that skill to the Army. In order to cross over to the officer ranks, they have to set that aside and take a management position. So even with advanced degrees, they make a conscious decision, ‘Hey, I’ve trainedmy whole life to be a musician; I want to continue to be a musician.’ So they come in as specialists. They are serving as an E-4 with, in some cases, a master’s degree. But they are doing what they love to do, and to them that’s more important.”

Special bands

Most Army Band musicians are part of the 42R military occupational specialty. They go through AIT at the Army School of Music, and they are assigned to field bands around the world. Most Army bands people see perform are those field bands. But there is also the 42S MOS, which are the “special bands.” The four special bands are The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.; the U.S. Military Academy Band at the U.S. Military Academy, N.Y.; and the U.S. Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Md. Getting into these bands is by audition only, and it is a stabilized assignment for a musician’s entire military career. Musicians typically enter these bands at the staff sergeant level.

Master Sgt. Michael Parnell, a trombonist and the unit historian for The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” said his goal as early as his freshman year at the University of Kansas was to develop his skills to the level to join one of the Washington, D.C.-area Army bands. His professors encouraged that effort and told him about the many benefits to being in Army Bands. “I was looking at the big picture of benefits,” Parnell said. “The pay is fantastic by comparison, and that’s a big component. It’s a permanent duty station. To have a stabilized gig where your spouse can have a career is fantastic. The benefits package was a big piece of it for me.”

Even with the changing musical tastes of the nation, and the efforts at the Army School of Music to focus on small groups, Parnell sees a strong future for the large concert bands. For one, concert bands are still a huge part of the musical education system. And many missions and formal ceremonies call for a large concert band. “The missions and ceremonies that we do are very important,” Parnell said. “The military supports the troops with entertainment, and we are the entertainment for that. For instance, a change of command ceremony — we’ll have a band that will play traditional marches, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’ patriotic music. That’s what that culture expects when they go to a ceremony. It’s what they’ve grown up with.”

NCO leadership

With such an educated group of professionals, the leadership of NCOs in Army Bands changes, but remains important. Leading a group of Soldiers with a high level of skill and high level of education requires NCOs to listen more to those whom they are leading, Johnson said. Sgt. Joshua Head performs in a brass quintet at the Gator Inn dining facility on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Va. The performance was a culminating event for a group of Advanced Individual Training students. “You can fit one brass quintet on a Black Hawk, so we can hit those little forward operating bases in the middle of nowhere,” said Sgt. First Class ChristopherWallace, horn instructor at the Army School of Music. “This is the kind of training that will help people be ready for that.”

“Other MOSs, their NCOs are leading privates,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to do that on a typical basis, because everybody does come in as E-4. One thing we try to teach our folks coming through the course is that you do have a higher level of maturity. The last stats I saw showed the band field as being the most educated of all MOSs. As a result, our NCOs and senior NCOs end up working with some very smart people. They will have as their subordinates some people who may be coming into the Army straight out of working in Nashville for a living or working on a cruise ship for a living, which is pretty significant as far as musical experience that they are bringing into the Army with them. So we have to teach our guys that sometimes you have to shut up and listen and allow your subordinates to step up, and to listen to their ideas because a lot of times the subordinate is a better player, maybe even has more experience.” When creating the small groups that are the focus of Army Bands today, you need senior NCOs who know how to blend all the personalities and skills into a musical whole, said Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Graham, a senior group leader at the Army Bands NCO Academy.

“Senior NCOs in the band field today need to know their own strengths and weaknesses, along with those of their Soldiers,” Graham said. “Then they need to know how to employ everybody’s strengths to come up with those creative teams.” Senior NCOs can end up leading nonbandsmen while deployed, Graham added.

“It’s not uncommon to find yourself as a senior NCO, the commander of a vehicle forward-deployed in a convoy, and you are the highest-ranking person in that convoy,” Graham said. “You still have to know all the basic Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills.”

Hearts and minds

Performing for Soldiers while deployed is one of the most rewarding parts of being an Army musician, said Master Sgt. Michael Schucker, director of operations, plans and support at the Army School of Music.

“That’s the most rewarding time as a bandsman — when you’re deployed,” Schucker said. “You travel off the big base, you go to this little base that just popped up, and you perform for people who don’t have Internet. They get mail once a week; they get hot meals once a week, and you can bring something to them. The USO doesn’t go there. Toby Keith is not going to play there. Those are the best gigs. It might be for 10 people, but it’s rewarding because you are really giving them something.” Most Soldiers don’t realize just how much traveling Army musicians do in war zones, Schucker said. While some Soldiers may never leave the relative safety of a large base, Army musicians are constantly traveling and could leave the base hundreds of times during a deployment.

“People think, ‘You’re in the band, you’re not a Soldier. You don’t do this, you don’t do that,’” Schucker said. “But we do. We deploy just like everybody else. We do [physical training] tests. We do Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills. As a matter of fact, when we deploy, I don’t think anybody travels more than the band.” “One of the most dangerous things in-theater is moving, traveling from place to place,” Camarda added. “Our bands do that continuously. That’s what they do: perform, pack up, move, perform. They often do their own convoys and security. They can be in danger more often than those who have jobs that keep them on the [forward operating base].”

One often-overlooked aspect of performing for deployed Soldiers is the effect those performances can have on local nationals, Wallace said.

“We want to get out there and reach these Soldiers in hard to reach places where they don’t have a lot of support,” Wallace said. “We go in and entertain them and help them unwind. That helps them do their jobs better. Additionally, we always run into local nationals, and they see our culture, our music. They see us having a good time; they realize we’re all basically the same. Then they relax more around Americans and our troops, tend to open up more and work with us a little more cooperatively. I’ve seen that in Iraq.” The last decade of war has changed the Army, and that applies to Army Bands, as well. Army musicians are now more flexible, more mobile and more skilled than ever before. They are ready to march, or rock, into any situation and entertain a crowd. They are prepared for whatever comes next.

“We’ve already adapted to an Army at war,” Camarda said. “Now we’re looking ahead and seeing that the Army has different types of struggles. Those struggles may involve maintaining the support of our citizens through this financial hardship. How are Army Bands going to remain a relevant and important tool for the Army to ensure it has the continued support of our people? We’re already thinking of ways to get in front of that and provide the Army with the best product possible to help that transition.”

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