Command Performance

Command Performance

Last week I headed down to Baltimore to attend the annual conference of the Conductors Guild. Believe it or not, I had never been to Baltimore, and also had never attended a Conductors Guild conference. So when they asked me if I’d like to be a part of a panel on music and the media, I took the opportunity to attend the whole shebang and in the interim attempt to catch as much of the city as I could—indulging in my usual vices: some great restaurants (larger-than-life crab cakes and appropriately spicy Thai), ghost-ridden pre-20th century saloons, a fabulous used book and record store, plus a really well-curated art museum which also happens to always be free.

As interesting as discovering Baltimore was, the conference proved to be even more compelling. New music was a major focus of the four days of symposia. Marin Alsop delivered the keynote address. Four sessions, entitled “The New Music Project,” were devoted to member conductors and publishing representatives sharing information about recent orchestral compositions (replete with scores and excerpts from live performance recording) in the hopes that the other conductors in the room will get excited about these works and program them. (I was deeply moved by a presentation of Meira Warshauer’s Symphony No. 1 Living, Breathing Earth.) This forum wasn’t limited to compositions issued by the major publishers, either. Many self-published works were featured and a number of the composers were on hand to directly make contact with the guild’s membership—which is something many composers should consider doing in future years. A composer attending the conference last January in Toronto wound up garnering an orchestra performance in May—not bad odds if you ask me.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the conference for me was the involvement of the commanders of the bands from each of the five branches of the United States military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines. Whatever your view might be of our nation’s current military endeavors, there’s no debate that some of the highest level ensemble playing occurs in these groups. And their programming is as dynamic as their playing. A concert given during the conference by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band featured performances of music by Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg—and that was the old music! And anyone who thinks that concert attire is too formal should check out the elaborate uniforms of these groups which are a key ingredient of their concert presentation.

A panel assembling the five band commanders—Col. Michael Colburn (“The President’s Own” United States Marine Band), Col. Dennis Layendecker (U.S. Air Force Band), Commander Kenneth Megan (U.S. Coast Guard Band), Col. Thomas Rotondi (The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own”), and Capt. George Thompson (The U.S. Navy Band)—was the talking heads highlight of the entire conference. Hearing these guys talk about what they perceive the role of the conductor to be was truly mind opening. In military bands, there are no divisions between music director, executive director, and union rep—the commander is all of the above and then some. According to Col. Layendecker, “We can send [the musicians] to jail if they mess up.”

But before you dismiss all of this as terribly undemocratic and inappropriate protocol for civilian ensembles, Layendecker went on to say that band commanders become deeply involved in the lives of the musicians; often being the ones that musicians turn to in order to get them out of a jam. Consider these other comments from Layendecker: “Authority requires engagement.” “We don’t make the sound; we’re facilitators.” When’s the last time you heard a conductor of a symphony orchestra say things like that?

According to Col. Colburn, there is a 90 percent retention rate of band members and most stay over twenty years. These bands are extremely well-funded and frequently commission and perform new works. For example, Colburn premiered Rakowski’s fiendishly difficult Ten of a Kind, the only band piece ever to be a Pulitzer finalist, and will premiere a new Rakowski piece in the near future.

Ultimately these ensembles are public relations for the United States military. As Commander Megan put it, “Our goal is not to create beautiful music but to represent the coast guard.” Yet it’s remarkable that the mechanism the military has chosen for its PR is music making on a very high level. In our constant talk about the dearth of funding for the arts in the United States, I wonder if people even consider the activities of these bands as part of that economy. I’m curious to find out what other countries support such a broad range of musical activities in the military and to what end.

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5 thoughts on “Command Performance

  1. William Osborne

    Every year the United States Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) hosts a large, extremely well-funded trombone festival. My wife and I have been invited to perform on it three times. Two of the performances were of our music theater works (both of which are strongly feminist,) and the third was a series of works for computer and trombone written by various composers for Abbie’s “Wired Goddess” project. The army folks loved the two music theater performances. They even bused in a load of officers from an army retirement center. The Wired Goddess concert, however, didn’t go over well. Most of the works are less approachable than the theater works I have written for Abbie. The program also included Anna Rubin’s work “Landmine” which strongly protests the use of those weapons. It was an awkward moment, but we were on tour and it didn’t seem right to take it off the program just for the military.

    The top Washington bands are fabulous. The first trombone in the Army Band, for example, is a woman with a Ph.D. from the Indiana University School of Music. The military has its pick of the country’s best wind players. Many retire to high-paying professorships – for example the trombone professors at Eastman, Ithaca, and the U. of Illinois are all from those bands.

    This should be no surprise. The budget for US military bands is larger than for the entire NEA. The facilities Pershing’s Own have are mind-boggling. Especially during the Reagan administration, the band had so much money they hardly knew what to do with it. The have the best sound system I have ever used, and a state of the art recording studio.

    The best jazz big bands in the United States are the D.C. military jazz bands and the NORAD jazz Band in Colorado. In fact, to my knowledge, they are the only full-time big bands left in America. One realization is important before joining up. The band members are soldiers first, and musicians second. You have to be a certain type of person to survive in those groups.

    To partially answer Frank’s question, the military bands here in Germany cannot compare at all. Germany still uses a draft, so the pay is low, and men have to go in when they are 19, which is before students here study in conservatories. Almost all of the Washington band members are college grads. The D.C. bands also employ a very large number of women, while women are virtually non-existent in most European militaries. In fact, so many women play in U.S. military bands that The International Women’s Brass Conference devotes a large part of its festivals to presenting them.

    My most memorable experience of a European band was of an Alpine regimental ensemble in Turin. They have this incredible ability to run while they play – a sort of high stepping unison run far faster than a trot. I remember when I first saw them. They started playing in a large piazza. The sound was pretty awful, but then suddenly they took off in this march-run and were half way down the street in an instant. It was quite a glorious sight. My mouth fell open. The only question is whether they use this technique to run into battle, or away from it…. Hopefully the latter.

    William Osborne

  2. William Osborne

    Here is more information related to Frank’s question about US military bands and their relation to the larger musical economy. On September 23, 1997, the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, subordinate to
    the Committee on Education and the Workforce, published a report that listed government funding for numerous arts and cultural organizations. According to the report the US spent:

    176.2 million on military bands
    110.0 million on the National Endowment for the Humanities
    99.5 million on the National Endowment for the Arts

    In 2007 the budget for the NEA was up to 124.5 million, but still only about two-thirds the budget for military bands.

    What does it say about our country when it spends more on military bands than the NEA or the NEH? It’s Orwellian, but Americans accept it as if it were normal.

    William Osborne

  3. William Osborne

    The sentence should read: What does it say about our government when it spends more on military bands than the NEA or the NEH?


  4. Somebody

    What Does it Say?
    Well, William, it says that the US art organizations need better lobbyists, pehaps sexier ones that can get bigger and better ear marks than those military studs with big guns.


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