Inside The U.S. Army All-American Marching Band

Mike Lawson • Archives • February 20, 2012

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By Rachael Tolliver and Steve Arel 

Most musicians dream of performing on a world stage, leading their own band, or composing symphonies that will be remembered through time. For others, music is a vehicle to other goals. However, without education, experience, leadership, and a little luck, it is harder to realize those dreams.

In an effort to help foster an understanding and development of high school music programs throughout the country, in 2008 the U.S. Army started the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band to showcase the talents of America’s high school musicians as part of the halftime entertainment at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. According to Brian Prato, the director of operations for U.S. Army All-American Marching Band, the band, the high school, and the local communities all benefit from this ensemble.

“This event is positive PR for each band and the high schools – it gives accolades to the school, which is important right now when you look at a lot of programs that are under the microscope for budget cuts,” Prato explains. “It is important that the public understand these are good kids and why they are good kids is because of the activities they choose to participate in. We don’t see music education as extracurricular; it is a part of a well-rounded education.”

The band, made up of 125 senior high-schoolers from across the country, performed a 13-minute patriotic routine during halftime of the 12th annual Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas on January 7th, 2012.

“We had a lot of different halftime entertainment before 2008. But we wanted something that represents the same characteristics as the Army All-American Bowl: loyalty, dedication, hard work, teamwork, and integrity,” says Prato. “It is an opportunity for a high school marching musician or color-guard members to be recognized for their achievements just as a high school running back is, because they are all very good at what they do. And the Army gets to highlight Army core values to a generation of kids that needs to learn those values.”

During that first year, Prato said a lot of the kids were from the same schools and event organizers made about 65 tour stops, but by year four they had 100 tour stops. “A tour stop is a selection at each kid’s high school, where we have an assembly to talk about how great they are,” Prato adds. “The community and hometown gets to recognize them for how good they are, and the school gets to recognize them as well.”

One of those students was Abel Alvarado from Spring Branch, Texas, who played trumpet as part of the 2009 AAB band. Now a 20-year-old junior at the University of the Incarnate Word, Alvarado is one of a handful of senior ROTC Cadets who are also All-American Bowl marching band alumni brought in to help with logistics for this year’s members and to help out where needed. For Alvarado, the chance to mentor the musicians, especially the trumpeters, is one he relishes.

Musicians and color guard members are nominated by members of their communities and selected by the National Association for Music Education. The nomination form must be filled out by a nominating teacher, and eventually the student must audition. But those who make it through the selection process receive an all-expenses-paid trip to San Antonio.

Michael Thompson, who serves as battalion executive officer for Miami Sunset Senior High School’s Junior ROTC program, was a member of this year’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl marching band, during which he served as a field general. As the ensemble’s drum major, Thompson was the first one onto the Alamodome field, directing the critical melodic movement during a halftime performance of the annual game featuring some of the nation’s top high school football prospects.

Thompson is the first Junior ROTC cadet to lead the marching band, now in its fifth year, says Prato. Some 30 students applied for the drum major role. Andre Feagin, the AAB band director, wanted someone who possessed charisma, a strong musical background and the ability to be a humble leader. Reviewing Thompson’s resume and video, Feagin said he knew immediately he had his on-field commander. It didn’t hurt, too, that he had experience leading his peers as a cadet.

“These leaders rise to the top,” says Feagin. “Michael’s background in JROTC was intriguing, as well as what he felt about music and what (his selection) would mean to his program.”

Thompson got an unexpected call from Feagin during lunch one day in late-May notifying him of his selection. When he applied, Thompson hedged on whether he could receive the nod. He figured he had the talent, but didn’t know how he would fare against students enrolled in specialized music-development schools.

“Michael understands esprit de corps, the code of conduct and the order of things,” said Tyrone O’Neal, Miami Sunset’s band director.  “With Michael, his concern is the mission. Everything is geared toward the mission, and everything that deviates, he eliminates that and stays focused.”

Thompson said his All-American teammates were the best in the nation adding, “The only thing I had to do is make sure I’m ready. When I’m ready and confident, I have the mindset that nothing will go awry once the performance comes.”

Thompson, who’s considering a senior ROTC scholarship, plans to attend the University of Miami after graduation and major in nursing. He had decided against medical school and becoming a physician because he said medical school is too long, and he wants to be in a position more quickly to help people.

Prato said that Thompson’s academic story is similar to that of other band members in that the group is made up of motivated, loyal, hardworking students guided by integrity and honor.  For example, the average GPA for the 2012 band is 3.7 out of 4.0, 67 members play at least one other instrument. “Our bands are made up of kids who are from high-end competitive marching bands who travel a lot, and kids from the inner city, and kids from small country schools where their bands are only 53 members,” Prato notes. “If you can march well and play well, and are a good community citizen, you can be an Army All-American.”

Thompson and his high school band director know this first hand. “You don’t have to come from the largest band program in the district to have quality people,” says O’Neal. “What matters is not where you’re at, but what you do while you’re there.”

Rachael Tolliver serves as a strategic communication specialist and an editor/writer for U.S. Army Cadet Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

Co-author Steve Arel also serves at Fort Knox, where he is the command information chief for the U.S. Army Cadet Command.



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