Why I Serve with Music

SFC Zackery Pride • America's MusiciansJanuary 2023 • January 15, 2023

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston hosts the Medal of Honor Reception for U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew O. Williams at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington, Va., Oct. 29, 2019. Williams will be awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 30, 2019, for his actions while serving as a weapons sergeant with the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3336, Special Operations Task Force-33, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on April 6, 2008. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Keisha Brown)

Many people say they started playing from an early age. They were banging away on the piano, the desk at school, or even pots and pans in the kitchen. Others may have been introduced to their instrument through their local school band or orchestra. Some might have found a way to express themselves musically without any direct parental or environmental stimuli. All these individuals had one thing in common, the desire to make music.  

My story is no different. I may not have banged on pianos or pots and pans, but I always loved music. My mother, a prolific pianist, organist, and vocalist in the church, was my most direct inspiration. At the time, her excellence in expressing herself mind, body, and soul was all I knew. 

At the age of six, I listened to my future mentor, Ms. Terry Ferguson, play the violin, viola, and cello beautifully. Her passion came through each passage. Her cello playing was my lure. I was hooked to the lower sounds of the wooden vibrations. I signed up for orchestra the same day.  

We were given the opportunity to choose our instruments. I immediately was drawn to the biggest one, the double bass. As quickly as I chose, I was denied. I was too small for it. Ms. Ferguson gave me the violin instead. It was small and fit me perfectly. For eight years, it was my joy. But the bass was always in the back of my mind and as soon as I could, the switch was made.  

During my freshmen year in high school, two big things happened. I finally became a bass player, albeit a very clumsy one. Learning a new instrument was like learning a new language. 

The second was joining the JROTC program. The instructor taught us the importance of service by duty and sacrifice. This got through to me easily. Practicing my instrument for hours was a duty and a sacrifice for a kid who wanted to play with his friends.  

He later suggested I join a military band, but my goal was to be in an orchestra. I ended up getting a wonderful education from my high school in Atlanta and a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio. I left my JROTC hopes of joining the military behind for now.  

After college, I left for New York City. The year was 2000. I was enjoying great success as a freelance musician in the city until the following year when the entire world changed. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up to a phone call from my best friend and drummer, Jason Brown. He told me a plane had hit the tower downtown. In my drowsy state, I couldn’t comprehend his meaning. My imagination went to the biplanes of WWI. I thought a lone person in an Orville and Wilbur Wright style plane mistakenly flew into the extremely large building. My sympathy was with the unfortunate pilot, until I looked outside of my window and saw the black plumes flowing from the structure. I wondered how on earth did that small vehicle cause that much smoke to emit? That was until I saw a commercial plane flying into view from my peripheral. Slowly, as it dove towards the second tower, everything was starting to become clear as I quickly awoke to the reality of the day.  

I went outside and did something no one ever does in New York, speak to their neighbors. Everyone was scared, distraught, and confused. We couldn’t communicate with the outside world and only had ourselves for theories. We thought we were at war and the airplane attacks were just the beginning. Thankfully, that was not the case.  

When the television resumed its reception, we learned we had been attacked by terrorists. I knew instantly I wanted to serve and help protect our country. I didn’t see how playing music could help at that moment. I later realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.  

It took several years after the towers falling for me to join the Army Band. During that time, I performed with a new sense of purpose as a civilian. Music meant so much more than having fun. I wanted to inspire people and make a difference.  

After the attacks, I decided to go home to my family in Georgia and became a graduate student at Georgia State University. I had the good fortune of hearing a recording featuring the U.S. Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors. I was enamored by their precision, beauty, and power. One of my classmates was a retired Army bandsman. He suggested I try out for one the bands in Washington, D.C.  

I did and was fortunate to be accepted into the The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” One of my first assignments was to play for a USO show hosted by the Sergeant Major of the Army. We performed during the Christmas holidays in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The service members were overjoyed to have a bit of home on their long deployments. While I was there, I remembered 9/11 and that question of what I could do to serve.  

The ancient Romans stated the purpose of military music was, “To fire up attacking troops and to uphold their spirits while they endure privations and fatigue.” I have seen and felt it repeatedly since I joined over 15 years ago. Over the years, the messaging has changed, but the purpose has not. We are here for the service members, their families, the heads of state, senior leaders, and most importantly, the American people. That is why I proudly serve. 


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