Pershing to President, America’s Military Bands, Part II – History and Organization: An Overview of Bands, Orchestras and Ensembles in our Military Service, Career and Education Opportunities

Mike Lawson • Features • November 6, 2017

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SBO asked a four experienced band directors and others active in music education to share their thoughts about the importance of military bands.

The directors in our roundtable discussion include:

John Stroub – Both the Executive Director of the Kentucky Music Educators Association and also the new Artistic Director of the Great American Brass Band Festival.

Dr. Terry Austin – from Virginia Commonwealth University, the 78th President of the American Bandmaster Association and a board member of the Sousa Foundation.

Ms. Cathy Kersten – Executive Director of the Florida Marching Band Championships, Director of “Music ‘n Motion” and also the Auxiliary Coordinator for the “Second Time Arounders” recently featured in SBO.

Lee Butts – former University of Georgia Redcoat Band Drum Major, founder of the extremely active and involved Redcoat Band Alumni Association and Board member of the “Second Time Arounders.”

We are also extremely pleased to have input from U.S. Navy Capt. Kenneth C. Collins, II.

What do you see as the value and role of the military service bands, orchestras, and other musical organizations?

John Stroub: I never leave an event at which one of these groups performs without feeling that the audience members’ lives have been enhanced. Without the provision of connections at events like this, the public will likely come to feel disconnected from the military, along with which will come distrust and a lack of support.

Dr. Terry Austin: They provide a wonderful “face” for our military in terms of interacting with the public. People who may have no other connection with the military can find a meaningful connection through hearing these bands perform. It is highly significant that these bands all end with a tribute to all services as veterans of each service stand proudly as their service song is played. I think this ongoing honoring of the military in this way is important and necessary.

Lee Butts: In addition to being the epitome of performance, they are a strong, positive public relations group that has the customer’s face. Appearing in high visibility large audience events such as parades and television specials, both here and abroad, they are a cost-effective means of presenting their service and the entire country!

Capt. Kenneth C. Collins: Our bands are a unique asset for the military, serving as a powerful communication tool that is a true force multiplier. Music is a vehicle for making meaningful connections with communities here at home, as well as international audiences. It conveys powerful messages whether it’s telling the stories of our Navy Sailors at a public concert, or the 24 notes of taps to signal the importance of a fallen shipmate’s service to the nation.

What is the value of military musical organizations in the music education world/environment?

John Stroub: Bands are very popular in schools with many young students participating. Military bands provide professional models and inspiration for these students, which helps them direct their focus as they develop their musical skills. Additionally, school band directors admire these groups and their own concepts of sound are elevated as they listen and learn.

Dr. Terry Austin: The premiere bands are our role models! We view these organizations in much the same way that our string colleagues view professional symphony orchestras. To have ensembles made up of some of the finest musicians playing the same music you play is inspiring and helps students have something to aspire toward. From a personal perspective, it is a very useful exercise as I prepare to conduct a piece to think “If I were conducting the Marine Band in this piece, what would I bring to the table?” That mindset can change my perspective about how I approach rehearsal and how thoroughly I prepare.

Cathy Kersten: The Marine Band from Parris Island used to come and perform for our students at our (Florida) state contest. In addition to instilling a strong Patriotic spirit in all that heard them, it also raised the possibility of becoming a member of a military service music organization both as service and as a career.

Lee Butts: Military music organizations are examples of ways to continue to be involved, and expand, the music education and experience of the formal music education experience.

Capt. Kenneth C. Collins: When we go into schools, whether elementary schools or a university, one of our goals is to inspire a culture of excellence and service to our country. We also understand that the students are getting a wonderful opportunity to work with world-class professional musicians.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) is looking for measurable to evaluate military service organizations. What would be meaningful measurable?

John Stroub: This represents the eternal struggle of music and other forms of art whether in government, schools and even our households. In 1938 Winston Churchill said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race that fails to salute the arts with reverence and delight which are their due!”

Dr. Terry Austin: It may be intangible. I’ve never heard of one of our military bands in less than a “sold-out” venue. The atmosphere is always electric with excitement as people fill the concert hall. Many have never heard one of these bands and are looking forward to this first experience. But many have heard them before and can’t wait to hear them again! I can’t help but think that hearing one of our fine military bands enhances public perception of our military and the country as a whole. There is certainly a feeling of patriotism that is present at the end of these concerts. Experiencing the excellence of these organizations must make people think about the excellence of the rest of our entire military.

Capt. Kenneth C. Collins: We are always looking for the best ways to maximize resources and make sure that everything we do is in direct support of Navy mission objectives. We are already testing out a number of performance measurements to make sure that we are reaching the right audiences with the right product for the right mission.

Did you, or anyone close to you, have any involvement in a military musical organization?

John Stroub: I’m best acquainted with some National Guard and Army Reserve musicians, who serve their country by providing music through their bands and other ensembles. Their own lives are dramatically enhanced by this experience, in large part because they know that they spread joy and patriotic pride throughout the year.”

Cathy Kersten: One of my favorite Florida bandmasters, who was always so positive and enriched the high school students he worked with left the teaching profession a few years ago to become part of the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. I saw him a few weeks before he left boot camp and to see the joy and excitement he had to be able to be part of the US military and to touch the hearts of ALL Americans, not just a few students, well that lifted my spirits and deepened my commitment to working with our Florida high school bands and band directors!

Capt. Kenneth C. Collins: Bands are the most effective tool that we have to tell our Navy’s story. Music is the universal language, and as military musicians we see that first hand. Whether at a small town in the American heartland, or a street festival on an island in the South Pacific, or a small school in Africa, music connects people from all walks of life to both our Navy and our nation.

Writer’s General Comments:

My own experience, somewhat dated, includes enlistment in the Florida National Guard 51st Infantry Division Band to satisfy my military obligation and patriotic duty under the Universal Military Training commitment then in place. This enabled me to utilize my musical talents, skills, and passion in a very practical manner even after my high school and college band days were complete. I was joined in this military band by a half dozen other former members of Al Wright’s legendary Miami Senior High “Million Dollar” Marching Band.

It was through this experience that I first appreciated the disciplines learned through my previous educational music involvement and was exposed to the value of music in the military traditions and ceremonies. These ranged from diplomatic receptions, recognition events, military reviews, and even weddings and funerals. Music is as important as the flag and battle streamers proudly presented at all military and government functions including inaugurations.

The issues and questions raised by the GAO about the worth and value of military bands and other music organizations are essentially the same as those frequently heard at school board and university regents meetings across the country. The value of culture, including music and art, is the same as the value of freedom, it may only be quantified when it’s lost!

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