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U.S. Army Bands Saxophonist Staff Sergeant Devin Thomas

Staff Sergeant Brianna Williams • America's MusiciansJune 2022 • June 15, 2022

Staff Sergeant Devin Thomas has served as the saxophone instructor at the U.S. Army School of Music (USASOM) Virginia Beach, Va. since 2021.  Before assuming duties as an instructor, he completed a tour with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe Band – the musical ambassadors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Prior to his enlistment, SSG Thomas earned a BA in music performance with an emphasis in jazz studies from California State University and recently completed a MA in education and human development from George Washington University.

Q: What led you to pursue music?

A: My family had music playing at home as far back as I can remember. I picked the saxophone because I thought it looked cool and stayed with it to impress girls. The more I played, the better I got, which led to more encouragement. When I was finishing high school, I had no serious educational aspirations, but I knew I liked saxophone, so I decided I would go to school for that.

Q: Who were your inspirations in your early musical years?

A: Dennis Brown, my high-school band director at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, VA. One of the few black teachers I had, even in that racially diverse area. He was a great saxophonist but had a reputation across the state of Virginia as one of the best music educators. He never allowed his ensembles to settle for anything less than excellence. It set my expectation for what working with a capital P “Professional” would be.

Q: Who are your current musical inspirations?

A: As a saxophonist I’m really drawn to the compositions of Wayne Shorter, the harmonies of Joe Henderson, the melodicism of Patrick Bartley, and the soulfulness of Jason Marshall.

Q: Why did you join the Army?

A: I had earned my bachelor’s degree in saxophone performance and was gigging around Los Angeles, and I quickly realized I wanted more financial stability. The Army gave me the security I was looking for, along with flexibility to pursue my own musical interests.

Q: What led you to apply for the saxophone instructor position at USASOM?

A: I had some fantastic leadership as a young soldier. The USASOM saxophone instructor at the time made a concerted effort to acknowledge my musical strengths while offering advice to shore up my blind spots. My direct supervisors at each military assignment since then have each carried on in that fashion. I wanted to continue that tradition and help create foundational experiences for future soldiers.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of teaching at USASOM?

A: Hearing from former students about how successful they’ve been in their respective Army bands, how my guidance benefitted and how my example showed them how to be awesome! 

Q: What was it like to represent the US musically in Europe?

A: Opinions of the U.S. and military alliances can be varied across the globe. When people see me in uniform, I am effectively the face of the NATO alliance, U.S. army, U.S. government, all U.S. citizens, and all black people.  It felt like a huge responsibility to represent all those things, but it was a privilege. I had the opportunity to make personal connections with audiences. One good performance, one pleasant conversation, had the power to change any apprehension or confliction an individual feels towards us. Every dollar spent on music was a dollar not needed for bullets.

Q: What musical opportunities have you had outside of the Army?

A: I wrote a piece right before I enlisted in the Army, one of the last things I did before I shipped off to basic combat training. I got a bunch of friends together from school, booked a recording studio, and recorded this big band chart. I submitted it to Downbeat while I was in advanced individual training at the Army School of Music, and right before I got to my first duty station, I found out I had won the Downbeat Student Music Award for Outstanding Composition.

Through Downbeat and other successes writing music, it gave me motivation and confidence to try writing for different ensembles. As a member of the Icarus Saxophone Quartet at Fort Leonard Wood we didn’t have a ton of ceremonial music, so I took it upon myself to write music for the quartet, which ultimately won the Army Music Performance Team of the Year in 2015. I appreciate the army recognizes talents beyond the job I was hired for and gives me opportunities to grow and further develop my musicianship.

Q: What is next for you as an Army musician?

A: I was promoted to staff sergeant in July 2021, and I intend to continue rising in rank. The higher I get, the more soldiers I can positively affect. Officer, warrant officer, senior non-commissioned officer – so long as I can help soldiers and continue serving the country through music, I’ll be happy. I have met and served with some phenomenal military musicians; I would love to record music that showcases my battle buddies and encourages young musicians to consider serving their country through music.

https://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/specialty-careers/band.html

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