Moving in the Military Band

PCS.

AKA: Permanent change of station.

AKA: Like it or not, you are moving.

PCS. How three little letters can mean so much. You will be uprooted. Things will be chaotic. It will be very stressful. Say goodbye to your friends, coworkers and supervisors. You are leaving.

I recently heard that moving is the third most stressful event in a persons life. Preceded only by death of an immediate family member and divorce. Pretty serious stuff.

I have just PCS’d to Germany from Belgium. I was very happy in Belgium and would gladly stayed for three or four more years, but Uncle Sam said it was time to go. So I went.

Four hours down the road. I’m now a member of the 33rd Army Band. My NATO days are a fond memory.

You would be amazed and how much paperwork and hoopla is involved for such a short move. Granted, I did leave one foreign country to move to another one, but come on! It’s only four hours away!

So why am I writing about moving here at musicianwages? Because moving is a big part of life in the Army band. I’ve been doing this job for almost 16 years. This is my 6th band. If you consider Basic Training, Army Music school and a couple of combat tours in Iraq as well, I’ve moved 10 times. That’s a lot of moves.

Allow me to shed a little light on the PCS process. There are several steps that can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple of months depending on where you are coming from and where you are going to.

First you must clear your current post

You will run around the base getting paperwork and signatures from anybody and everybody. This always involves lots of backtracking, frustration and revisiting the same folks various times. An extremely important signature is always needed from someone who just left for a 3 week vacation. And when you go to get your last stamp and turn in all your paperwork, you’ll be thrilled to learn the office is taking a half day, because it’s Friday. Not to worry, they’ll be back on Monday, but you’re flying to Spain the next morning… Groan.

You must pack up your house

The good news is that the Army will pay a company to move you. They come to your house, pack up all your belongings and load them onto a truck. All you have to do is stand around and point (I usually buy them lunch, as well). This can be a bit unnerving as you watch the movers sprint from one room to the next grabbing random items (trash can, toys, bed sheets, toaster) throwing them all into a large box before sealing it up and labeling it… clothes.

You take a vacation

This is not mandatory, but I highly recommend it. And you are completely free to relax. There’s nothing lingering at work. No big project on the horizon. You are totally finished with your last post, and have yet to start with your new one. It’s as close as you can get to being unemployed, while still getting paid.

I left cold and rainy Belgium to spend a week on the sun drenched beaches of Spain (also highly recommended). Then I moved to my new home, cold and rainy Germany.

You arrive at your new post. You now repeat the process in reverse.

You find a house

You will be given between a week to ten days to franticly scour the area searching out a home in your price range. You’ll consider all the important questions – Do they take pets? Is one toilet enough for a family of four? What school district will we be in? Is it really a good idea to live on top of a bar? You will be given a monthly housing allowance based on your rank.

Of course, if lodging is available you could choose to live on post. You won’t receive a housing allowance, but you don’t have to worry about paying rent or utilities. Go ahead, keep it at 90 degrees all winter and 50 during the summer. It’s covered.

Personally, I prefer to live off post. This is mainly due to the fact that I enjoy driving AWAY from my work at the end of the day. But that’s just me.

You in-process your new post

Same deal as before. Run around visiting lots of folks you’ll most likely never see again until you need their signature to clear.

You get your stuff back

The moving truck rolls up and you get to discover what didn’t survive. The movers unload you, reassemble your furniture and place things in the room of your choosing. You can ask them to unpack all the boxes, but I don’t know anybody who has actually done that. And besides, then you’d miss the pleasure of discovering that all your workout shoes came over in the cooler… mmmm cold beer anyone? If anything is destroyed you will be reimbursed.

You go back to work, at you new job

Believe me, by the time you finally get to this point, you are READY to start playing in a band again!

If all this sounds like an inconvenience, I’m not doing it justice. It’s Much Worse. And I’m a bit of a nomad. I actually enjoy living in different places every few years.

I just don’t like moving.

Advice for New Army Musicians

I recently attended 7 weeks of “senior leader” training at the illustrious Joint Base Little Creek Ft. Story in Va Beach.   Since I’m seasoned (old) and having been doing this job for a while, this was actually the third time I’ve been an extended guest.

I did a lot of practicing, rehearsing, over-eating and binge drinking. But I’m not going to tell you about me.  Because by the time you civilians out there in cyberland attend this training (about 10-15 years from now, if you were to drop everything and enlist today) my experiences would be outdated, obsolete, and irrelevant… Although I imagine the boozing and gorging would still apply.

Instead I’m going to tell you about what I saw going on with the basic students – the Army’s newest crop of musicians. What they did, saw and felt. Much has changed since I went through 15 years ago. If you’d like to read about that check out my blog ……  But if you’d like info that’s more relevant what happening now, read on.

Let me break it down for you:

You’re looking at ten weeks of intensive Music/Army school. What used to be 6 months has been condensed, compressed, revised and redesigned.  You will not be taught how to be a functioning musician. It is assumed that you are already a  competent musician before you ship off to basic. You will only be refined and repackaged to be a functioning musician in the Army.

Notice I did not say Army music school.  You will be learning how to function as an Army musician, but you will also be learning how to function in the Army.  This is still training.  It’s true,  you’ve finished with Basic Training,  but until you graduate from A.I.T. (advanced individual training – what this is) you’re not a full-fledged member of the team. You are a trainee. And (hint hint) nobody is supposed to enjoy being a trainee.

During your time in training you’ll live in the barracks. Two to a room with your own bathroom. Men and women live on different floors. You’ll be told how to make your bed and where to place your shoes. Barracks life is similar to dorm life -minus the clouds of pot smoke and across campus streaking.

Here’s some good news – the Drill Sergeants you’ve grown so fond of during Basic Training are long  gone.  You now have Platoon Sergeants (they wear different hats). Platoon Sergeants have a similar role to the Drill Sergeants.  They are prepping you for all non musical aspects of Army life. From nutrition and wellness to moving under direct fire (in case you need to get the morning paper while people are shooting at you).  You’ll see them every morning as you learn to exercise the Army way. And if you have any issues (your car’s been repossessed, your kid’s been expelled, you contracted V.D… again) it’s their job to help you work them out.  Be forewarned – these are seasoned combat vets. If your jackass-like antics turn them from mentors into babysitters,  they will not be pleased…  and then you will not be pleased.  Stupidity is not a trait they value in potential bandsmen.

The next biggest influence on you life at school will be your MPT (music performance team) leader.  They are the ying to the Platoon Sergeants yang. While the Platoon Sergeants mold you into combat ready Soldiers,  the MPT Leaders will make you shine like rock stars!

Shortly after arriving, you will be split into MPTs based on your instrument and experiences.  Spoiler Alert- There is a Strong possibility you will be placed out of your comfort zone. Classical Trumpet player who doesn’t improvise, you may find yourself in a New Orleans style Brass Band; Latin Guitarist who loves Bossa Novas, get ready for SlipKnot and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

The MPT’s are student driven.  You’ll pick the songs and should have a sense of pride and ownership in your group. The MPT leader will act as a guide working with the groups to create the best product. With everything culminating at an end of course concert attended by all of the faculty and your fellow students.

These MPT’s will be a large focus of your time here.  You will learn staging, programming (how to build a set list), choreography – basically how to put on the most entertaining show possible.

We, the senior class,  got to sit in for some of these sessions.  Now I’ve been gigging for years and was pretty skeptical about “live performance coaching”.  But the information was sound.  And even I, grizzled and jaded, picked up a few tips.

In addition to all of this you will receive private lessons – you’ll take an audition when you arrive,  and you’ll need to pass a final audition to graduate (for more information on the auditions check out my last blog). You can also expect concert band, marching band, master classes, physical fitness tests, deliberately imposed stress and very little free time.

Some words of advice I was asked to pass on to you:

  1. Be prepared for your audition.
  2. Be physically fit (Basic Training should help with this).
  3. Be flexible (with your daily routine – not folding yourself into a pretzel).
  4. Know how to manage your time effectively.

Of the students I spoke to,  all the reviews were very positive.  They found the experience musically rewarding and physically exhausting.

You’ll make friends and meet a wide variety of people from our field.  Some of whom you may end up serving with down the road.

And after 10 weeks it will be graduation day.  You’ll stand with your classmates reflecting on all you’ve accomplished while anxiously anticipating the future. And on that fine day, I’ll tip my hat, extend my hand and say “Welcome to the team.”

Army Band Auditions

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on his shirt already, mom’s spaghetti” – Eminem.

I think Slim Shady captures the feelings associated with auditions as well as anyone.

Personally, I hate taking auditions.  I’ve always felt that they were staged, artificial, and at best a poor representation of my abilities. Back in college I sweated more over my piano proficiencies than any final exam.

It seems they’re always crammed into a stuffy little room while several people sit behind me scowling and scribbling down notes. Their pencils frantically trying to keep up with all the wrong notes belching up from the piano.  My fingers chunk across the keys like bulbous misshapen sausages, and lick and phrases that were burned into my memory the day before have all but vanished.  Leaving only hollow whispers of things that should have been so amazing.

But unfortunately for most of us, they are a necessary evil.  And if you find yourself heading into the Army…. auditions are a bona-fide GUARANTEE!

You’ll have to endure three auditions before you even get to your first band:

  1. Audition for a band liaison (liaisons are Army musicians whose sole purpose is to find and recruit capable musicians into the Army Band)- proving that you know what you’re doing AND that you would be an asset to the Army Band field.

    You’ll actually take an over-the-phone interview with a band liaison before the audition is scheduled.  They’ll want to know about your musical experiences, education, skills.  WARNING: if you’ve never heard of a minor scale, or can only play songs in the key of “C”,  you may need to head back to the woodshed before picking up that phone.

  2. Audition during your first week of Army Music School. Where you will be assessed, strengths and/or weaknesses identified.

  3. Audition during your final week of Army Music School (10 weeks later). Checking to make sure you can play at least the minimum level required to be functional in a band. (The minimum just ensures graduation. A higher score is always better).

And now the good news…

For that 1st Audition,  (the one that allows you to sign up for this gig) the ball in entirely in your court.

You can spend all day long practicing (assuming you have no life, no job, no family, no bills and no other responsibilities) and set up the audition when you’re good and ready. This will change after you’re in uniform.  – In fact, I’ve been told more than once, that people find more time to practice AFTER joining.

But once you leave for Basic Training, those next two auditions are coming whether you’re ready for them or not.

The audition consists of 4 parts:

  1. Patriotic music.  Shocking, I know.   The Star Spangled Banner, the Army Song. Trumpets get to play some bugle calls. You can do your best Toby Keith impersonation. The liaisons should be able to hook you with the proper versions.

  2. Prepared music. Pick 3 or 4 pieces that you can rock the house with, and “bring it”. They should be contrasting styles. The idea is to make yourself look (and sound) as good as possible. Don’t pick something that you can sort-of play, but hope to one day.   Play your stuff that knocks it out of the park. Playing with backing tracks/play-alongs is encouraged. If you’re in a band, see if you get have the guys play a tune with you, or better yet, bring the liaison to a gig. Pianists should have a solo piece ready to go.  This is the meat of the audition, dazzle ’em!

    …And when I say contrasting styles, I don’t mean country AND western. I mean country and samba,  baroque and death metal, trip-hop and dixieland.  The Army is a gig where versatility counts.

  3. Quickly prepared material. This used to be sight-reading,  but recently the Army realized that we almost never sight-read on a performance. So… they removed sight-reading from the audition (Which in my humble opinion, RULES). Now you get the music the day before the audition.  Giving you roughly 12 – 24 hours to become familiar with it. It will probably be around 5  pieces of music in contrasting styles.

  4. Additional skills.  This is essentially the “extra credit” part of the audition. You get to show off all the extra skills that make you more valuable than the next guy. You can sing, improvise (more for the horn and oboe types), double on trombone. Drop some street knowledge with a verse of “The Humpty Dance.”   Anything else that you can bring to the table, should come out here.

That’s it. Audition Complete.

*Preparing for auditions could be a blog all its own.  But I’ll just share a couple of tips that I’ve found beneficial.

  1. Have your stuff ready now.  Don’t wait until you’ve scheduled the audition to start putting your music together.  That’s stress you don’t need. Keep several pieces polished and ready to go At All Times. 

  2. Play your audition pieces for everybody. I grab anybody I can for 15 minutes and say “please listen to me play this.” Musicians, non-musicians it doesn’t matter.   I tell them to scowl and take notes (or just doodle) while I play.  Trying to replicate that “audition vibe.”  Once you’ve grown accustomed to this setting, the audition itself will be much less foreign.

Good Luck!

If you’d like further info on specific instrument auditions, or any other Army Band information, check out www.bands.army.mil/careers

The Road to Ireland – Through the Army Band

Whoosh.

With one fluid motion he pulled off his shirt and threw it down behind him. This act in and of itself impressed me, because it was a snug fitting, button up (plaid) T-shirt, and all but the top button were fastened.

“You wanna fight?!” he demanded, fists quaking eager to remove my teeth.

Why he thought being bare-chested would lead to anything more than pointy nipples was beyond me. It was the end of October and damn cold.

As the adrenaline coursed through my system I had several thoughts:

1. He was bigger than me.

2. He was drunk.

3. He was much angrier than I was.

No, I don’t want to fight.

“You wanna fight?!” The half-naked drunk screamed at my friend.

“Nobody wants to fight. We heard a woman screaming and wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

“That’s my F*cking girlfriend, and this is my F*cking country, so F*ck Off!”

There was about 10 of us and 10 of them (not including the screaming girlfriend). This would not end well.

Ahhh, the joys of being awake at 4am.

——

Photo by Martin Labbe

The band had been rehearsing for the Cork Jazz Festival for the past 6 weeks. The SHAPE band would play six gigs in total. Three for the Nato Jazz Orchestra (the flagship band of this organization) and one each for the Jazz Combo (run by yours truly) the Rock Band, and the Piano Trio.

It was our 1st major jazz festival in over a year and everybody wanted to make a good showing. The bands were running like well-oiled machines. Squeezing in extra rehearsals where they could find time. Hand picking songs that we hoped would go over with an Irish audience. I threw a U2 cover into my set. Everybody worked up their 70 minute sets and got ready to rock.

And rock we did.

The crowd loved every show. The smaller groups were an excellent contrast to the big band jazz of the Nato Jazz Orchestra. People followed the band from gig to gig. By the last couple shows, it was standing room only. Just getting to the bar took 20 minutes. I fulfilled one of my personal goals of playing original music at a major European Jazz-fest.

And when we weren’t playing, we were cruising around Cork. Ireland deserves its title “Emerald Isle” I have never seen a greener place. It looks like a postcard. Against my better judgement I kissed (no tongue) the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle. Saw some great musicians playing around town. Cork is a refuge for live music. That city has a stage in every bar!

And the people were warm and friendly. Always willing to share a story and a pint. And as long as they didn’t use too much slang we could understand each other just fine. Wonderful, wonderful folks.

Myself and the other members of the band expected to drink much Guinness, but instead fell in love with Murphy’s Irish Stout. A delicious beer brewed in Cork. Not to mention eating like kings. All of our meals were provided by the hotel, and they were spectacular.

So, you may be wondering what’s the point of this blog? Maybe I’m just sharing a story of a cool gig over a couple of pints with some friends. This is true, But it’s also true that I wouldn’t have had this story to share if I hadn’t enlisted in the Army band.

Oh, I imagine I could have found a belligerent, half-naked drunk or two without too much trouble. But an all-expenses-paid (and still getting a regular paycheck on top of that!) trip to Ireland, may have been harder to come by.

And what of the fateful night in question? That took such a sour turn following a great gig, bar hopping, fish and chips out of butcher paper and the long walk back to our hotel?

Somehow we diffused the situation. Which still amazes me, since that guy REALLY wanted to fight. After a little while the police showed up, and saved that girl from what was shaping up to be some serious domestic violence. And all of us (the band) retired to our respective hotel rooms to settle our stomachs, reflect on the evening, and prepare to do it all again the next day.

September 11th in the U.S. Army Band

It’s only days away from September 11th, 2011. It is hard believe it’s been ten years since the devastating and cowardly attacks on American soil. The chaotic images are burned into my mind. Vivid as if it was yesterday…

But in so many other ways it feels like an entirely different lifetime.

September 10th, 2001. Norfolk, VA.

For the past two months I’d been hanging with 25 other band soldiers learning how to be Staff Sergeants. We were learning how to run and rehearse our own group, how to be drum majors, how to conduct a military ceremony, and of course, taking more private lessons. Basically the next level up of Army music school.

It was great. The group was pretty tight. We’d go clubbing, go to the beach, go to Dairy Queen for ice cream (this was a very frequent stop) or just hang out drinking beers. Throw in some informal jam sessions and you’ve got my summer. Not too shabby.

As Sept 11th was approaching I’d been preparing the class for the day off. You see, I’ve been celebrating 9/11 my whole life. It’s my birthday.

“Don’t worry, I have connections. ” I’d said, “We’re getting the day off.”

Little had I known, my prediction was about to become a grim reality. By lunchtime the next day the towers had fallen and the pentagon was burning. Flight 93 had come down and all training on the base was suspended. We were told to stay on the post and remain vigilant. The rest of the day we huddled around the television unable to comprehend what had happened or why.

So here I am ten years later, beginning the downward spiral towards 40 and reflecting on the last decade.

I’m no longer a swinging single. Settled down with a family. This is a vast improvement over my previous life.

My body aches these days for no reason other than being alive. Some mornings just getting out of bed is a challenge. The gray hairs on my head seem to be gaining more ground everyday.

I’m a better player/composer then I was 10 years ago. Although I could’ve been far better, if I’d practiced every day… but I didn’t. It would come in phases. I’d be working towards an event, or playing with a new band. But other times I’d lose focus and find other, and far less productive, activities to keep myself busy. Life has a habit of getting in the way.

Some other changes are a direct result of 9/11.

These changes, however, were not instantaneous. After the attacks, I was just as pissed off as the rest of the country. I wanted heads to roll. I was anxious for our “High-SpeedSuper-Badasses” to go over there and flatten the entire area. And I carried that rage for a long time. But vengeance is not a healthy emotion. And I don’t have the energy to live with hate for ten years. Not to say I wasn’t excited when we caught Saddam (I was only a few miles from the hole they dragged him out of), or that it didn’t please me to hear that Osama is out of the picture… permanently.

Most of my changes came from being deployed. It is a life changing experience, both good and bad. Sometimes it’s strange for me to try to explain it, because unless you’ve been Over There you’re just not going to understand. This is not a criticism. It’s a fact. A good analogy is becoming a parent. When you first bring home that tiny, little person and you realize that you are completely and utterly responsible for everything that happens to her – the time babysitting your sister’s kids and multiple screenings of “Look Who’s Talking” go right out the window. Some things just have to be lived through.

I am more patriotic now. Not in a “my country is better than yours” kind of way, which has always struck me as really arrogant. More in a quiet unassuming way. Appreciating the sacrifices, tenacity and unwavering resilience of my fellow Americans, past and present.

My feelings towards the Army Band have changed. Before it was just a job – a fun way to pay bills while I figured out “what to do when I grew up”. Now I see it as a valuable service. Something far greater than me and my day-to-day happenings.

Legacy, tradition and brotherhood are words that tend to sound clichéd and antiquated. Soundbites tossed around by politicians to sway the vote. But that doesn’t mean they don’t ring true. Not only to the Band, or even the Army. But the military as a whole.

It’s very humbling to realize that you’re following in footsteps that have been laid down since the beginning of civilization. Citizens coming together to defend their homes, fight for their independence, or liberate their neighbors from oppression.

I feel a kinship with other Bandsmen. I meet Army Band Veterans from Vietnam and I can relate to their stories. As I’m sure they can relate to mine. I can share a beer with a retired Marine in a run down V.F.W. and understand where he’s coming from. I now know why my grandfather always watched War movies and the History channel. The desert (or the jungle, etc.) stays with you.

Ten years ago my life was one dimensional. I could describe myself in a single word: Musician. The past decade has brought perspective and depth. Suffering and change are valuable teachers. I can no longer encapsulate myself with a single word. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Top Ten People Who Should Definitely NOT Join the Army Band

This is the season of chilled beer and barbecued hot dogs, where grown men lounge in kiddie pools while small children launch bottle rockets at each other. Freedom and apple pie scent the air, while the Stars and Stripes fly proudly over many a green lawn. Hearts burst with pride over all things American, and people flock down to the local recruiter’s office hoping to meet Uncle Sam himself. In this spirit of patriotism, brotherhood, buffalo wings and “The Wal-Mart” I bring to you:

“Josh’s Super Deluxe All-American Top Ten List of People Who Should Definitely NOT Join the Army Band”

When I volunteered to write for MusicianWages.com I had one goal. To help interested folks make an informed decision before enlisting. Part of that goal involves steering away people who would not fit, and would make themselves (and everyone around them) miserable, by joining. This list is dedicated to you.

10. Drug Addicts.

Addict is a strong word, maybe I should have said “folks who enjoy inhaling from time to time, and don’t plan on quitting”. You may think this is obvious, but I was recently reading comments on a blog about cruise ship musicians (cruise ships like the military require drug tests) and was amazed at people’s questions. ie; “My friends and I all like to smoke marijuana, what happens if we fail the drug test?” or “I haven’t smoked pot in 6 days, do you think I’ll pass the test?”

Without divulging too much personal history, I’ll just say I understand the allure of certain illegal recreational activities. But if you want this gig (or any other that does drug testing) you need to ask yourself one question; What’s more important, getting high or getting the gig? If you’d rather go get stoned, the Army Band is not going to be a good fit.

9. Folks who fear exercise.

You will exercise… daily. If your idea of an “epic workout” involves struggling for breath after eating an entire pizza from the fetal position, you will not like this job. Now I’m not saying you need to be a fitness monster who climbs mountains and runs marathons. But you do need to be prepared for a moderate amount of fitness. And there is plenty of exercise in Basic Training. So if you are allergic to breaking a sweat, don’t join.

8. People who hate authority.

This is the Army. No matter how high on the food chain you go, there will always be someone higher up, telling you what to do. All the way up to the President, and he gets bossed around by the tax payers. In fact, if you can’t handle being told what to do you may have a difficult time with most non-Army jobs as well. Maybe… you should get a dog, grab your guitar and go play under the bridge.

7. People who want to be in the Army just to tell others what to do.

The polar opposite of number 8. The truth is (as much as I hate to admit it) you’ll probably be okay, but I find people like you utterly exhausting. Besides, I think one or two of you may have already snuck in… groan.

6. Elitist musical snobs.

If you’re too good to play country, or only want to play 4 hand marimba solos, or feel that anything other than 2oth century woodwind literature is beneath you. This is not your dream gig.

Being passionate about something is great. You will probably find some like-minded individuals. Or maybe you’ll introduce some friends to a style they were unfamiliar with. But the truth is you will play many different things. You may not like all of them.

Throughout US and Iraq I heard “Play some Skynyrd!” at practically every gig. Here in Europe they go crazy for “In the Mood”. So we play them all. And you will play your fair share of marches. If this sounds like a nightmare, don’t join.

5. People with a sense of entitlement.

Maybe you did mow Alanis Morissette’s grass when you were younger, or your dad’s neighbor’s dog did write a song that’s in “The Real Book”. It doesn’t matter here, we all start on equal footing. And the biggest culprits, I’m sorry to say, are my fellow college grads. I’ve known many great musicians over the course of my life. Many were formally trained with degrees, and many were not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate for furthering your education. But if your playing and knowledge can’t speak for itself, nobody will care if you have 3 Ph.D’s. And if you start waving your degrees in people’s faces to explain why you deserve more money, better treatment, and less BS than everybody else, you’ll just get under everyone’s skin.

And please, whatever you do, don’t try to explain to me why you shouldn’t have to deploy. You will instantly lose my attention and my respect. We’re a big team in this field, and everybody needs to do their share.

4. People who can’t leave home.

I grew up in a suburb of L.A. Many of the folks I went to school with are still there, trapped in some kind of invisible bubble. And there’s nothing wrong with that (LA is a serious city). But being in the Army is not bubble living. We move. If the end of your rainbow is the end of your street, you will not like this job. Every couple years (depending on how long you stay in) you will pack up and go somewhere new. Sometimes it will be better than where you’re coming from… and sometimes it won’t. But one thing is for certain, you’re going. So if you have an elderly relative to look after, or you just bought a new house and are looking to put down roots, maybe this isn’t the right job for you.

3. Lazy people who need to make a living and are content being mediocre musicians.

When I joined about 15 years ago there were a good number of seasoned band Soldiers with this mindset. They would just drink coffee, not practice and count the days until they could start drawing their retirement checks. Thankfully over the last decade-and-a-half most of these folks have been weeded out. The caliber of musician has risen, and a lot of great music is being made throughout the field. If you’re lazy and find the Army appealing because you won’t get fired, that’s fine, the Army could always use more truck drivers. Just don’t join the band.

Which leads us into number 2.

2. People who really want to be Infantrymen/Truck drivers/Tankers/etc.

I have nothing against any of the aforementioned jobs. If that’s what you’re into, go for it (although I imagine most readers of this site do not fit into this category). But please don’t join the band if you really want to be a combat medic. I don’t want to hear about how we should be spending more time in the field, or why we really need to do combatives.

I want to play music with my friends. That’s why I joined. If you’d rather be jumping in the mud than learning a new chord progression, the mud is waiting. Splash away.

And Josh’s number 1 type of folks who absolutely should not join the Army Band are:

1. Societal Misfits or as I like to call them… A**holes.

This is a small field. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. There’s a good chance if you sign up we’ll serve together. And if not with me, you’ll certainly end up with someone I know. We’re more than just coworkers, we’re friends. It’s like a big family. We eat, sleep, work, party and relax together (for a solid year if you deploy, minus the partying). We all need to get along.

So there you go. If you find yourself identifying with seven out of ten of these categories, maybe you should look elsewhere for employment.

I love my job. And I feel extremely fortunate to have found a way to make a living doing what I love. But the Army Band is not for everyone, and this blog is a testament to that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a can of spray cheese and a 6 pack of Budweiser with my name on it. “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

Getting Promoted in the Army Band

I held a variety of “regular” jobs before joining the Army Band. Everything from selling flowers on the corner to being the errand boy for an animation company. Some I liked (movie theater) some I didn’t (food service). But they all had one thing in common:

I never advanced.

I spent an entire summer slaving away at Baskins-Robbins coated in ice cream and hot fudge on training wages – an evil tool used by some companies to keep them from paying minimum wage.

Training wages – groan. I mean, I’m sure I wasn’t the first guy to leave the bananas out of the banana split.

To be fair, I had no interest in being promoted. I never intended to stay at any of these jobs. And most lasted no more than a summer.

Things changed when I joined the Army. I knew I was committed for at least 3 years, so I figured I’d try to move up the ladder a bit. I also had good supervisors that saw potential in me and helped steer me down the right path.

I started my career as a Specialist. This a standard for anybody joining the band these days – from “Ms. two P.H.D.s” to “Mr. barely got my G.E.D.” if you join the band, you’ll start as a specialist.

A specialist in the Army is not that bad. You’re an E4. This means there are 3 levels of people below you. You get paid a little more and receive a little more respect.

Unfortunately in the band field, a specialist is the bottom of the food chain. If you’re tired of being the guy cleaning toilets at the end of the day, you’ll have to move up.

Promotion up to Sergeant and Staff Sergeant (E5 and E6) are very much under your control. It’s based on a points system. The guy with the most points gets promoted. Period.

First you’ll have to get dressed up and appear before a promotion board. They’ll ask you questions about various Army topics. If you seem to know what you’re talking about, they will recommend you for promotion. Confidence is key. Deep into my first promotion board, I was asked for the date of a significant event in Army history. After about 5 seconds of fruitless brain-straining I answered with conviction; “A long time ago, Sergeant Major.”

Now all you need are points.

How does one get these points? A variety of ways. You will get points for your level of civilian education (those college degrees can help you here, no points for the G.E.D…. sorry). You will get points for your military education (truck driving school, combat life saver school, etc.). Deployments will earn you points, medals and awards earn points, being a great shot with a rifle on the range, scoring well on your Physical Fitness test all earn points. Your points are totalled up and the race is on.

The points for Sergeant are lower than for Staff Sergeant. After you make Sergeant your points do not reset. You just keep adding to them and working towards the next level. But you will have to attend another promotion board.

As each month rolls around the Army will decide they need so many new Sergeants in the Band. Let’s say it’s 5 for this month. They will then take the 5 promotable specialists with that have most points.

You may be saying this process doesn’t seem particularly musical. You’re right. It’s not.

But you are only competing against other band folks. And you can get points for music in round about ways – I received my first medal for arranging Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for Concert Band. Which in turn gave me promotion points. And most importantly, if you can’t play your way out of a paper bag, your supervisors will probably have absolutely no interest in sending you to the promotion board to begin with. So keep practicing!

As you move higher (E7 – E9) the system changes. Promotions are now selected by a centralized board once a year. You submit your records, along with a current photo and cross your fingers. Of course, the more you’ve done the better you’ll look.

It can be a very frustrating process. The list of chosen soldiers comes out once a year, and you’re either on it or you’re not. There’s no information on how close or faraway you may have been from being selected. Sometimes a list of guidelines will come out saying what the board was looking for, but there is no guarantee that they will be interested in the same things next year.

Two months ago the list came out, and I was selected to be promoted to Sergeant First Class (E7). This was (and still is) very exciting news! As for why it happened this year and not previously, I cannot say.

Perhaps it was the way florescent lights of the photo studio danced across my head. Illuminating my short-cut hair like sparkly gray pixie dust. Giving me that seasoned “old soldier” look that’s all the rage these days.

Music Degrees, $50,000 and the Military Band

I’ve been checking out some of the recent blogs here at MusicianWages, in particular, How to Actually Make $50,000 a Year and How Do I Get A Job After Music School and felt something really should be said about the military musician, since many of us have music degrees and make over $50,000 a year.

First off, making a living as a musician is –NEWS FLASH– not easy. Graduating from music school with a shiny new degree does not guarantee a job. Hey, it doesn’t even guarantee an interview – trust me. You might as well have majored in philosophy – at least you’d be able to hold a conversation.

How do I know? I have a music degree. It’s even from one of those big, fancy, well-known music schools. It’s landed me exactly ZERO gigs. But it does look nice in the filing cabinet along with my other important papers.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I loved college. I gained an enormous amount of knowledge about my craft, had some amazing (and mostly legal) experiences and made lifelong friends. But it didn’t get me a job. In fact, it put me pretty deep in debt.

I needed a job so I signed up for the Army Band. Went to work for “The Man” full time. Some have even said that I’ve become the man since I now cruise the building looking for unsuspecting and lower ranking coworkers, cackling with sadistic delight as I make them do push-ups while regaling them with stories of how much tougher it was “back in my day…”.

I mean, I even come on this site once a month tooting the Army’s horn – yes, pun intended. How much more assimilated could I be? – It should be noted that I volunteered for this gig. I don’t get paid a commission if people join the Army as a result of these blogs. I simply provide information and help interested folks make an informed decision.

I traded the bohemian life of an artist for a more reliable gig as a government employee.

I get paid every two weeks, and I get paid pretty well. No, I don’t drive a ferrari and I haven’t bought my vegetarian wife a mink coat. But we’re comfortable.

I don’t have a “day” job. I don’t need to live in my parents basement. I don’t have to go and constantly hustle to make sure gigs and money keep coming in. I have health and dental insurance for me and my family.

Of course, there are some trade offs. I have to keep my hair short and wear a uniform. Endure concert band and PT tests.

No bong hits in the drummer’s van after the gig.

But I’m not the first. Bach made his living as a church organist. Beethoven worked for a king. Stravinsky drove around collecting roadkill. These were musicians who also craved a steady paycheck. And (obviously) found a way to get what they wanted from their jobs.

Do I think I’m the next Beethoven? Not hardly. I’m just a guy that only wants to play the piano while still having a comfortable life.

Do I have to play music I don’t like? Yeah, sometimes. But I’ve played so many different styles of music, from Klezmer to Reggaeton, that things stay fresh. Not to mention helping me grow as a player.

I also get to perform my own music. I’ve composed and arranged music for Big Band, Concert Band, Jazz and Rock Bands. I was recently in Brussels playing a St. Patrick’s Day party for a bunch of Irishmen. We played mostly my originals, but also some covers, and of course, Danny Boy. We drank pints of Guinness and had a great time.

Sounds awful, right?

So what are the big fears? Getting shipped off to war? Working for/with people you don’t like? Waking up at 6am (or earlier) Monday through Friday?

  • You may get shipped off to war. As long as the US remains at war it’s a possibility. But on the bright side, the job has come a long way from the old days of strapping on a drum and marching rows of troops towards an advancing and attacking enemy.
  • You may end up working for/with people you don’t like. But how is that different from any other job? The good news is people are always moving around so it’s temporary. You’re rarely with the same person for more than 2 years. This can also be a negative, if you’re working with people you really like.
  • You will wake up early…. deal with it. If you really can’t handle this, DO NOT ENLIST.

But don’t take my word for it. While writing this I spoke with many military musician friends (Army, Air Force, Canadian Navy, Italian Air Force, Estonian Army and French Marines) about why they joined this unique club. Here are some of the responses I received:

I needed to pay off my student loans and I didn’t want to teach music all day then hustle gigs every night to do it. It would have been exhausting, and I would have had no life.

I was a Band Teacher but my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to play.

I was supporting myself by doing gigs. But, I wanted to start a family and Joe’s Bar wasn’t offering a health plan.

I didn’t want to go to college, I just wanted to play drums.

I was burnt out from several years on the cruise ships. But I wasn’t making enough money from gigs (on land) to support me and my wife. In fact she was supporting me!

I had a day job at a bank and did occasional gigs at night. This (the band) seemed interesting and the money was good, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I didn’t get the gig with the National Symphony.

I was driving all over the state for gigs. Now I get paid more for doing less work. The choice was easy.

So what is my point? If you’re tired of teaching piano to kids who don’t care and never practice, Or you’re worn out from haggling over your paycheck from the sleazy bar owner after the gig, Or if you don’t feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from your degree by slinging hash at Denny’s… maybe you should stop by the recruiter’s office. And bring your axe.

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain MusicianWages.com – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.

Experience

Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at Backstage.com and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to musicresumes@networkstours.com. You can also visit BackStageJobs.com (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • MusicianWages.com Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

48 hours in the Army Band

It’s a dark, gray morning. A cold fog weaves through the branches and covers the dead leaves. Light drizzle blankets us, pushing the temperature further down. The knit cap under my helmet droops over my right eye partially obscuring my view. My rifle is thick and heavy in my hands, 2o rounds locked and loaded, gloved finger resting on the trigger. Silently we inch forward, catlike through the icy mist. Stalking a prey we cannot see or hear, but can feel like they’re standing right on top of us. Suddenly the woods seem to go deadly still, my body tightens, eyes darting from tree to rock to log to tree to…

BOOM.

Thursday.

It was sometime between 10:30 and 11am that I sprained my ankle. We had been attacked during our foot patrol through a woodsy part of the base that most people are lucky enough never to see. My team (Rock Hard) was on the left side of the path and the attack had come from the right. The team on the right (Piranha’s Tooth, or something to that effect) instantly dropped and starting returning fire. In order to outflank the enemy, we, the steadfast members of Rock Hard, sprinted ahead out of the killzone towards a very steep hill. I attempted to charge the hill, lost my footing and came down hard. My ankle rolled to the inside and I felt a distinctive crunch. Through the chaos of gunfire and confused screams I hobbled back across the path to sit down against a tree.

Sometimes you have to do things you don’t like. This comes with all jobs – at least all the ones that I’ve had. I’m not a huge fan of training. Usually it involves being given an impossible situation in which you will fail. Guaranteed. In fact, seeing how you react to things falling apart is typically part of the scenario. So one day out of the year, all of the Army Soldiers from the SHAPE International Band, suit up and prepare for a long day of killing terrorists.

So back to the fog of war…

As I sat in the mud, my ankle screaming, various instructors came to check on me. Was I all right? Did I need to go to the hospital? Could I walk it off?

I assured them I would be fine. I just needed a few minutes off my feet, then I’d tighten my bootlaces and rejoin the fight. You might think this sounds macho (at least I did ). But it’s not. We (the band) were scheduled for an entire day of good Army fun (throwing dummy grenades at cardboard bad guys, navigate your way through that parking lot with this compass, treat your buddy for shock – or apathy) and leaving early would just mean I’d be back in a month finishing whatever I missed today.

Some folks love being out in the woods, running around, unloading entire magazines of blanks into enemy troops. Those people would happily come back in a month to run the whole scenario again. I’ve always been more of a “let’s talk it over” in a nice warm house with a big plate of nachos kind of guy. I was cold, miserable and hadn’t seen so much as a tortilla chip out here.

If I could push through the rest of the day, hobbling or not, I was good for another year. Damn right I stayed.

By the end of the day I’d helped clear a building of terrorists (who closely resembled Army Soldiers that worked down the street – I’m pretty sure I saw a Carolina Panthers sweatshirt peaking out from under a burqa), been turned into a fine paste during a mortar attack and sang the Army Song at full volume in a room full of CS gas (the same stuff the police use to mellow rioters, certainly not fatal, but hardly pleasant). I was covered in mud and limping.

Nothing Ibuprofen, Belgian beer and 12 hours of sleep couldn’t fix. I woke up on the couch at 2am with my leg propped up and all the lights off. Then it dawned on me – I hadn’t showered. The smell of sweat, grime and imaginary death still clung to me. No wonder my wife hadn’t tried to move me to the bedroom. I stumbled my dirty body upstairs and climbed into our clean, warm bed. Sorry, Dear.

Friday.

In the morning I woke up and gingerly walked into the kitchen to make pancakes for my wife and daughter. Popped some more pain pills and lounged in my pajamas for a couple hours. Shaved my head and took a much-needed shower. Drove into work at 1:30 to prepare for our jazz quartet gig in Brussels.

We played from 4 to 6. Two forty-five minute sets. All dolled up in our Dress Blues. A fancy meet-and-greet reception. I’d forgotten my music at the band hall – turns out I have most (but not quite all) of it memorized. So it was fine. They loved us (this may be an overstatement – the end of each song was met with a deafening silence. But during our break we received many compliments). The Chaplain even sat in on bass for a Chuck Berry-like jam at the end of the gig.

We got fed, they watered us (mmmm, beer). Handed us each a personalized commemorative coin, and promised to invite us back for more gigs in the future.

Back home by 8pm. Now I’m hiding in the office typing this. Neither I nor my wife expected me home so early (midnight is much more typical), and she’s having some girlfriends over for a “girl’s” dinner. She won’t allow me to pollute their evening with all my testosterone fueled man-speak.

“Hey there ladies, lookin’ good. Guess who sprained his ankle AND got a hang nail yesterday? This guy. And we were even OUTSIDE.”

The Benefits of Being in the Army Band

Free Health Care for You

Tikrit, Iraq.

Tired of limping around in pain,  I strap on my rifle and hobble down to the Aid Station for some painkillers.

After waiting for 20 minutes I head back behind the curtain to see the Doctor (a wise cracking Captain whom I’d visited before,  and with him an attractive young female Private, who was obviously in medical training).

“What’s the problem?” Asks the Doc. (the trainee just watches)

“My back is acting up again, Doc.”

“allright, take your pants down so we can take a look.”

How these two things are at all related is a mystery to me.

– I should mention that Iraq is unbearably hot in the summer.  Well over 100 degrees every day. I (like many deployed folks) got tired of having my underwear act as a disgusting sweaty sponge (showers were hardly a guarantee at this point in the war), and had stopped wearing them entirely.

“Uhhhh, Doc, I’m not wearing any underwear….”

The Doc and his trainee exchange glances.

“Nothing we haven’t seen before.”

I pull down my pants, hoping this will be fast.  To my total embarrassment the 2 squat down in front of me.

Doc to trainee – “You can see right here where he’s been injured… if you look over here you can see how the sciatic nerve is getting irritated…. and look at this…”

Free Health Care for your Family

Tired of being cool and having adult conversations (and friends) my wife and I decide to take the plunge and have a baby.

Between the regular monthly appointments, sonograms and running in to see the doctor whenever something seemed strange, I missed a lot of work. We even moved into the hospital for a few days when the baby actually arrived (which was a very long process, as she seemed to quite content living in her studio apartment in her momma’s belly).

I never had to use vacation days for appointments or recovery time.  I was told-

“Take care of your family.”

In fact, once we got back home I was given 10 days off of nonchargeable paternity leave!

Very useful while getting used to not sleeping, trying to figure out why the baby’s screaming (I have since realized cranky is her natural state) and taking care of my wife.

Free College

Go to school while you’re on active duty (either through the internet or in the evenings) and the Army will pay for ALL of it.

My student days played out like so:

Work all day playing music,  jump in my car and race across town for a couple of music classes, then turn around and drive home (eating subway in the car for dinner) to work on music homework for an hour or two before going to bed.  Exhausting.

Of course, you could study something other than music. But I’ve found my knowledge of “ii V I’s” and 12 tone serialism really kills at parties.

Lots of 4 day Weekends

Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Presidents Day, etc.  Just put in an out-of-bounds pass and you can hit the road to see the world.
Great for binge drinking with your buddies in New Orleans.  Or maybe for checking out the Cliffs of Dover with your family, and then watching your 12 month old daughter gorge herself on authentic English fish and chips.

30 Days Paid Vacation a Year

This is typically 2 weeks off during the holidays and 2 weeks off in the summer.

This is good for flying around the states on a whirlwind Holiday tour, visiting any and all family you can find and dazzling them with tales of European Christmas Markets and delicious Belgian chocolates.

Then in the summer heading out to Portugal. Where you and every other non portuguese speaking tourist can crowd around the one functioning automated subway token machine, trying in vain to get your token in time for the next train.  So you and your family can (eventually) sit on a perfect beach eating handmade cheese and drinking local wine.

A Healthy Paycheck

The current starting salary for a specialist in the band is $1,889.70 a month, and that’s on top of your free housing and a food allowance.  And if you happen to be stationed overseas you’ll also get a healthy Cost of Living Allowance (great for buying new keyboards and local beers).

Basically you’re paying for your car, your phone and cable.

I used to be hardcore and go without tv,  just showing up at a friend’s house on occasion to watch the Olympics, mooch a free dinner and maybe do a little laundry,  but that was me (and I was a bachelor then… and cheap).

If you land a couple civilian gigs on the outside (like many of us do) and you can pretty much pocket your ENTIRE paycheck. Not a bad deal when the rest of the country is in a recession.

Of course,  once you get married the money just seems to vanish.

“… yes dear, you’re right.  We definitely need a THIRD comforter for the guest bed.”