Monday, June 23, 2014

Public music: the U.S. military bands

The US Army band warming up before a concert at the Capitol

Each of the five branches of the U.S. military has a main band organization, and four of the main (or "premier") bands have their homes in the D.C. area. But these groups are not just the traditional concert or marching bands—they often encompass many other ensembles: choirs, a jazz bands, orchestras, rock groups, country music groups, or even a Celtic ensemble. Since the bands are paid for with public money, all of their concerts are free, and there are many of them. For example, over the summer on every weekday at 8pm there is some form of military music concert on the west steps of the Capitol building, a short walk from the Library of Congress where I work. So far, I've been able to see the Air Force band and the Army band (I tried to see the Marine band, but that concert got rained out; I'll have to see them and the Navy band later).

I also went on a special tour of the Marine band complex and their music library, which may be the biggest performance library in the world. 


That's a lot of music!

The Marine band has the special responsibility to provide music for anything the White House orders, and that means the Marine band has to be able to do anything at the drop of a (presidential) hat: chamber orchestra, marching band, sting quartet, various other chamber groups, or even a bluegrass ensemble. The Marine band library needs six librarians to keep track of all their music. The library also serves as an archive for John Philip Sousa's personal papers, and even some historical instruments.


Some historical drums and other instruments

Who plays in these military bands? If someone wants to be a professional classical musician, they quickly find out there aren't many openings for them. And the spots that do open up in the professional orchestras often do not pay very well. Professional wind players especially have a difficult time finding jobs The military bands, however, pay well with guaranteed retirement benefits (something being cut recently in major orchestras), and a member can retire after only 20 years. Like any major orchestra, a potential member does a blind audition, but unlike the orchestras, they have to go through basic combat training, too. But these groups aren't just for wind players—most of the bands have strings associated with them, and Air Force band has two cellos and two basses that actually play with the band.

If you want to know more, the Army band records many of their concerts and makes them available on YouTube. The Marine band also tours around the United States. The Marine band records an album every year (they are recording this year's pretty soon), but it is hard to get the recordings, because the band can't sell them, just like they can't charge for their concerts. I had some friends who would go to military recruiting centers and sit through a presentation just to get the free music. If you are ever in the D.C. area, I suggest you should go and see one of these bands.


The US Air Force band at the Capitol. Notice the cello player on the right.

Vocab: orchestra, concert band

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