Military Band Career? 7 Reasons to Consider

Curious about a military band career? Here are 7 reasons to investigate this option.

by Amy Mertz

1. It’s a full time job in music.

In addition to a handful of “premier” bands (United States Navy Band, “The Presidents Own” United States Marine Band, United States Air Force Band, United States Army Band “Pershings Own,” United States Coast Guard Band, Naval Academy Band and West Point Band, to name a few), there are over 60 additional instrumental ensembles that need staffing.

According to Sergeant 1st Class Bradford Danho, a saxophonist in the Jazz Ambassadors, the official touring big band of the U.S. Army, “My job is literally to play the saxophone for a living. We get to play jazz and represent the Army to people all over the country. It truly is a great opportunity!” He holds a B.M. in Music Education from the The Hartt School and an M.M. in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas. In fact, all of the musicians interviewed for this article had equally impressive credentials as well as an interest in pursuing a life in performance.

While the repertoire is not always as varied since many performances revolve around ceremonies of one kind or another, if you want to spend your life playing music, this could be a good option.

2. Loan repayment.

If you’re reading this article, then you’ve probably accrued at least some student loan debt. The good news is that if you join a service band, the military may take care of some of that debt. On the other hand, if you have too much debt, the military may not allow you to join up. There doesn’t seem to be a specific dollar amount threshold. To learn more about your chances of joining a military band if you’ve accrued student loan debt, talk to a local recruiter. The rules do change, so be sure to get current information. At present, loan repayment is no longer available with the Army bands.

3. The salary.

In addition to a signing bonus (not available through the Army bands), many of the musicians interviewed for this article cited the very reasonable full-time pay as an incentive for joining a military band. While it is unlikely that a person will become wealthy by joining the military, the salary, loan-forgiveness, and benefits (see #4) can be an enticing package.

4. Benefits.

All members of the military, including band members, get benefits. This includes health benefits, the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), and education benefits that can either be used by the service member or transferred to a dependent (child or spouse). Education benefits can vary, but individuals with the full Post-9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program eligibility may have their entire tuition and fees covered at most public and many private institutions.

5. You can have a life outside of the military.

Most of the individuals interviewed for this article pursue music as well as other activities outside of their military duties. Some gig with local symphonies, teach lessons, or are adjunct professors at local schools and colleges. The more a person travels, the harder it is to be highly consistent with outside music and other activities, but most military musicians are able to participate in some way.

Navy Musician 1st Class Jenny Stokes, who received her B.M and M.M. in Bassoon Performance from New England Conservatory, is able to pick up her kids from school. Army Sergeant First Class Alexis Bainbridge Sprakties, B.M. Horn, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music; M.M. Mannes School of Music – The New School; D.M.A (in process), University of Colorado Boulder College of Music, has an active freelance and teaching career on the side in addition to being a regular substitute with the Virginia Symphony and a high school clinician in the D.C. area.

That said, military responsibilities must come first. “If you agree to take a job as an adjunct professor or have a large lesson load, you have to make sure the people in that community understand that if a mission (performance) comes up last minute, you must complete that mission regardless of prior commitments,” says Army Staff Sergeant Victoria Eastman Chamberlin, B.M. Oboe Performance, Mansfield University; M.M. Oboe Performance and Orchestral Conducting, University of North Texas, and oboist in the 8th Army Band in Seoul, South Korea.

6. You get to see the world.

Career musicians in military bands tend to travel extensively.

As a saxophonist with the Jazz Ambassadors, Bradford Danho has performed in every state except Hawaii.

Victoria Chamberlin says, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live in Europe and Asia and immerse myself in another culture without the military.”

Alexis Sprakties recalls a memorable international trip: “Once I had the opportunity to play with my woodwind quintet at the border between North and South Korea and a North Korean guard listened from the other side of the fence. [He was] one of the most appreciative audiences I have ever had!”

7. It is unlikely that you will see combat.

Army Staff Sergeant Derek Stults, B.M. Performance and Education, the Hartt School; M.M. DePaul University; Professional Studies Diploma, Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, is a percussionist with the Concert Band within the U.S. Army Field Band. “Although I went through basic training, I was not required to go through any other combat instruction,” he says. “The military would exhaust every other resource that they have before calling me into combat.”

That’s not to say that you would never enter a war zone. “All marines, soldiers, and airmen that aren’t in a MACOM (major command) band or a premier band can be sent to a war zone to hold a gun,” says Petty Officer Third Class Ret. Joe Petrocelli.  “The Combat Zone airmen and soldiers would generally still play some ceremonial music, but would have to stand guard and the like.” On the other hand, members of the “President’s Own Marine Band” and the Coast Guard Band do not even go through basic training, and without combat training it is highly unlikely they would be deployed to fight.

Military Band Career

The downsides.

• Collateral duties

In every branch, members are expected to perform collateral duties. For some, those duties are all music related. Coast Guard Musician 1st Class trombonist Sean Nelson, B.M, Sam Houston State University; M.M., University of North Texas, wears many hats: he is the arranger for the Coast Guard Band; he performs with the concert band and the Dixieland jazz band; and he is music director for the Guardians Big Band.

For other military musicians, however, collateral can include anything from office work to technological responsibilities to janitorial duties.

• Extensive travel

If you don’t relish frequent travel, you could be in for a rude awakening.  Some of the bands are on the road upwards of 100 days a year.

• Proficiency of fellow musicians

Although admission into any military band requires an audition, outside of the premier bands, the playing ability can vary dramatically from musician to musician, leaving some players musically unsatisfied.

Despite the downsides, a military music career is still a path worth considering. Staff Sergeant Courtney Morton, B.M. Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, M.M. Flute Performance, Northwestern University Bienen School of Music, is a piccolo player in the U.S. Marine Band. She says, “Military bands offer you a life experience unlike any other civilian music job. You get to see and play for things that you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do.”

Alexis Sprakties agrees: she has performed for the President of the United States and for the Queen of England.


• To learn more about any of the bands mentioned in this article, including audition and recruitment opportunities, visit their websites.

• This article focuses on military bands in the U.S. only. Check options in other countries to learn what’s possible outside of the U.S.

 


Amy Mertz is assistant director for marketing and communications for military and veteran enrollment at Syracuse University. Previously, she worked in admissions and community programs at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music. She guided both undergraduate and graduate applicants through the admissions process, and also directed the Setnor Community Music Division.

Top Photo: Army Staff Sergeant Victoria Eastman Chamberlin, oboist, has traveled throughout Europe and Asia (Photo credit – Sergeant First Class Jerry Sam); Bottom Photo: Army Staff Sergeant Derek Stults, percussionist with the Concert Band/U.S. Army Field Band. (Photo credit – MSG Rob McIver, United States Army)

Comments

  1. Zachary

    I’m a Sophomore going to NC Hope Mills Southview High School. I am a military kid and have spent my fair share of time at various schools. I have been playing Trombone for a total of 5 years now and 7 by the time I graduate. Anyway my question is this: How do I set up an audition a band and how do I pick one?

    • Look at the audition requirements for any of the military bands you are interested in joining. They look for highly proficient players who have graduated from a college or university – typically music majors. The more experience you can get through private lessons, practicing, playing in school bands, attending summer music programs, learning some music theory, becoming a proficient sight-reader, and improving your listening skills by listening to lots of live and recorded music of different genres – the better your chances.

  2. LJC

    Downsides – Proficiency of Other Musicians. ?This gives the perception that non-special band musicians may not have as much education, experience, or more. There is in-career field training such as the near 100 year old Armed Forces School of Music which tests and evaluates musicians for proficiency before they graduate and enter the career field (except the Air Force). If they fail the School of Music and are not given an opportunity to retest then they are forced to select a new career field in the military non-music related. Soldiers in non-premier bands also regularly have to re-audition if the want to get promoted, and then attend additional training at the Armed Forces School of Music also passing a further audition otherwise, they are removed from the class and in some cases denied promotion. Meaning that, in some cases there are some musicians that fall below skill, with deployments and more competition for slots the lower performing musicians usually don’t get promoted and leave the service or in rare cases have their membership and MOS in the band revoked (I’ve seen it happen once).

    The reality is many people elect NOT to join the Premier bands because they don’t want to be in DC or NY or travel constantly or choose to be closer to home. In one of the bands I served in Texas, we had 6 (of 39) band members with Masters of Music and one has gone on to get a DMA from North Texas and STILL is in the Army Band because he wants to stay near his home. The majority of all of the bands I served in had usually 60-70% of the members with at least Bachelor’s in Music Performance, Jazz Performance, Composition from James Madison, Berklee, Eastman, North Texas, or at least two or three years of music school (enlisting because they ran out of money) along with many that had experience on Broadway, Drum Corps International, as Band Directors or touring and studio professionals. Our Senior Enlisted had a Bachelors and Masters from Cincinnati CM and had nearly 30 years (including 5 deployments) in the non-premier Army traveling the world because he didn’t want to be in DC or NY and travel constantly and had faster promotions.

    Not that it matters, but non-premier bands also get to perform for Presidents and Queens when they visit it’s just not as frequent. It’s a lot of extra security procedures compared to normal gigs but is a fun change.

    Comments on #7 –

    The people you interviewed on this topic have no experience or understanding of what deployments are like because it’s likely no in their unit has experienced it other than a month long visit to get a Central Command combat patch and go home. Boiling it down to “holding a gun” oversimplifies and diminishes the people who have been deploying over and over again year after year to play music, and provide security and expose themselves to danger by traveling off the bases to play music all the while the premier bands never have to worry about that which speaks to Jim’s “class divide”. Not to mention the people in past conflicts who died, were wounded, or left with severe physical ailments because of just “holding a gun”.

    Some bands have been engaged in combat or been in combat situations during Iraq and Afghanistan resulting in members being awarded combat action badges and in at least one case a purple heart for an injury sustained. I was a percussionist and a machine gunner we’d convoy around the city providing security for our vehicles as we convoyed from base to base performing. Other times we’d deliver armored vehicles to other units, guard civilians, join Quick Reaction force to support the base after an attack and more. Checking IDs is important but people forget we started doing that at major locations because civilians blew themselves up in our chow halls killing soldiers during my tour.

    My unit was attacked on one of these convoys as an Rocket Propelled Grenade passed between two of our vehicles and struck a wall with small arms being fired at us. We arrived at the performance area safely and performed for the graduation without issue. We also were caught during a mortar attack at Camp Sietz after playing a Halloween convert. We were outside loading our vehicle and the mortar landed 50 feet away inside the barracks. I joined the group responding and went to investigate at which point we discovered it was a dud and didn’t explode. A few of us began searching the base (which was completely dark) for a missing soldier. This is in line with performances we did off post in different parts of the city and more all with a potential to attack by IED on the way to the performance or attack stationary.

    These are two instances out of many that Army and Marine Corps Division Bands have experienced in the last 14 years. In this article, focusing on the premier bands which are a tiny segment but high cost portion of the career field presents an image that many won’t be able to attain. They represent an experience that is in contrast to the rest of the military band field so while it’s good to speak to regarding their experiences, it’s promoting a very small amount of slots that become available yearly instead of the larger amount in the non-premier units that in many cases offer more travel and options to live in Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Germany, and more other locations. In the case of the Army the premier bands, represent 3 of the 100+ Army Bands in operation (Active, Guard, Reserve) so promoting their experiences doesn’t provide as much information about the field as Jim stated above due to “class divide”. It’s essentially “lifestyles of the rich and famous” for military bands promoting something that rarely comes available and is great if you want it, audition and get it.

    For anyone interested here are some videos of the type of gigs and experiences that Army Bands have while deployed:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKsYLa-b4jc – 3rd ID Band Afghanistan AFN
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-KBkk4WibA – 3rd ID Band Slideshow includes convoys, helos, off-post experiences, etc
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZC5rUHcgYw – 10th Mountain Division Band AFN
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhzByzO0Dw4 – 1st Cav Iraq AFN
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrFyRlf8Dg8 – 1st Cav Salsa Band

  3. You likely would have achieved the noble intended goal that the article seems to seek had your writer done a bit more research (interviews with actual policy makers, reading the current regulations and doctrine that governs military music in this age, etc). The typical “# Things To Blah Blah Blah” format of bloggers rarely works effectively for topics of subtlety and nuances. I’m an active recording artist, composer and educator who went professional directly upon graduating high school via the military music system. The 22 years devoted to musical service in the military offered unparalleled opportunities in numerous areas of art and life. Those applied and validated experiences continue to augment my artistic opportunities 20 years after “retiring at 40 years old” from that military career. Military music was a great deal when I joined and it is one of the best employment options available to musicians in this age also. Thanks. Cb

  4. Monte

    I do applaud your efforts in writing this article. But as the former Proponent Sergeant Major for U.S. Army Bands, and Commandant of the Army Bands NCO Academy — the senior sergeant major for the entire Army bands career field — I wonder if the section titled “It is unlikely that you will see combat” might serve to bolster the argument of those who seek to slash funding for military bands.

    Respectfully offered,

    SGM(R) Monte Pursifull

  5. Jim

    Correction to #7, second paragraph:

    Air Force (“airmen”) musicians deploy to war zones only as professional performers, to entertain troops and engage in foreign community outreach. They are not required to assume security or other armed duties, although they do complete a Combat Skills course before departing, for safety purposes.

    Under “Proficiency of fellow musicians:”

    All Air Force ensembles require the same high-talent audition. Players in the Regional and Premier bands are considered substantially part of the same pool of musicians, with much less of the “class divide” that characterizes other branches.

    I would strongly encourage any potential applicant to research carefully the differences in mission philosophy and quality control among the various services, before committing. Do not be swayed entirely by starting salary level, loan repayment amounts, or the mystique and reputation of a particular branch.

    My career, divided nearly equally between Army and Air Force bands, could not possibly have revealed more contrasts. In the long run, the latter was a far better fit for my personal and professional values.

  6. Bob

    Couple of things the author should clear up (IMHO)
    1. The Naval Academy Band is not a “premier” band and hasn’t been for some time. It has been completely gutted and personnel from the DC Navy Band are required to travel back and forth between the 2 in order to keep it afloat.
    2. Please list the bands that still have a “loan repayment” program – go ahead… I’ll wait…
    3. Oh, and those that give a “signing bonus”

    • Author’s response:

      “Thank you for your comments. This article was written to provide a framework for why one might consider a career in the military bands, and based upon the experiences of those interviewed, these were some of the benefits. As we acknowledge in the article though, the rules and benefits are certainly subject to change. If one is interested in pursuing this career option it is important to reach out to contacts within each branch to get the most up-to-date and accurate information before making a commitment.”

    • Bob

      1) first and foremost, the Naval Academy band IS STILL a premier band in that that enter at E6, non-rotate, and still have the same highly competitive auditions for specific openings. Yes, it is true that they have been severely downsized and DC must supplement the band, but they still get paid the same as any other DC premier band, and what people remain are still highly skilled professional, premier band musicians. Basically it has become a strictly a ceremonial band now, which is what half of “Pershings own” is or the Army’s Old Guard, and Inwouldnt say they are “non premier bands” simply because they don’t give concert band concerts exclusively. An E6 non-rotational band is a premier band regardless of the mission.

      2) I cannot speak for other branches, but the Navy does have LRP. It just came back last year. They program comes and goes so often it’s easy to lose track.

      3) yeah, you’re 100% right on that

    • Deanna

      I don’t know how recent your experience is, perhaps more recent than mine, but I just received my final loan repayment in December and work with several others in the Navy Fleet Bands who are receiving loan repayment. When I joined, signing bonuses were made available for Marines who chose to play clarinet because they were undermanned on that specific instrument. These kinds of programs are more nuanced because their availability depends on funding and manning, and it varies per service. Certainly, if someone is interested in joining, I would encourage them to research all the services and then talk to their recruiter about what perks may or may not be available to them at this time. Sometimes there are tricks to getting the best perks – I delayed my enlistment until the fiscal year rolled over so I could get loan repayment. I hope that provides some clarification.

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