The alternative to live orchestral music: professional military bands.
I spent the last few years of my high school life living in the suburban throws of Northern Virginia and although I have a great deal of vivid memories from that time there is one that sticks out. I was sitting in the rear seats at DAR Constitution Hall in downtown Washington D.C. attending my first U.S. Air Force Band concert. The hall was quiet as the musicians took the stage and found their seats. Then the band broke into the National Anthem as a gigantic American flag came flying out from behind my head, flew across the ceiling, and came to rest in front of the stage. The remainder of the concert featured works by a wide range of composers including Richard Wagner, Percy Granger, and John Phillip Sousa.
The entire time I remember thinking to myself “This is great, and I didn’t even have to pay to get in here”.
Once upon a time in America (at the turn of the last century), professional concert bands were known throughout the country as the premier large ensemble for live music, not the symphonic orchestra. People would flock by the thousands to hear the Sousa and Goldman bands as they toured throughout the country playing popular tunes of the day in addition to opera and symphonic works arranged for their instrumentation.
And even though professional concert bands that offer musicians full time employment are all but extinct outside of the U.S. Military, that legacy from a century ago is still entrenched in today’s society. Just look at your local school’s music program for proof. Which classes enroll more students, the band or orchestra? But thanks to the United States government, we can rest assured that professional concert bands are here to stay into the next century and beyond.
Four of the best concert bands in the entire world are located within the bureaucratic stretch of Washington D.C., each representing one or the four branches of the United States Armed Forces; Army, Navy, Air Force, & Marines. Here are a few facts to help you put the bands in perspective:
- The United States Armed Forces is the single largest employer of professional musicians in the world.
- At 206 years old, the U.S. Marine Band is the oldest professional music ensemble in the United States.
- Musicians in the bands come from among the top music schools in the country; Juilliard, Eastman, Peabody, Indiana University, and more.
- Between June and August of 2004, the bands will present 48 free public concerts on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol - and this is in addition to their other regularly scheduled free concerts throughout the summer.
- Each branch of service also maintains several additional professional ensembles such as a full jazz band, chorus, ceremonial brass, chamber orchestra, and pop groups.
With concert schedules that keep them playing more than the New York Philharmonic, each ensemble requires a large support staff. In addition to musicians each ensemble maintains a full time staff of professional arrangers, copyists, music librarians, recording engineers, stage crew, and professional announcers. With such a vast number of professional ensembles all giving hundred’s of performances annually, you might think that when they came to your town you would hear about it every time you looked in the paper or turned on the T.V.
But that’s where you would be wrong. Since the mission of each ensemble is to provide musical support to troops and to promote a positive public image instead of competing for your entertainment dollar, they tend to rely on “low cost” forms of marketing. You’ll find their concert announcements in community calendar sections of local newspapers, as PSA (Public Service Announcements) spots on the radio, and through the local venue marketing efforts. Sometimes those efforts attract crowds in the thousands and sometimes only a hundred. For some special occasions, a band will invest in a higher profile marketing campaign, but it isn’t that often.
It’s a shame the band’s don’t have a larger budget to direct toward marketing initiatives sense the skyrocketing cost of orchestra tickets is making it difficult for even the upper middle class to afford attending on a regular basis. But fortunately, these military band concerts remain mostly free and open to the public at large. The concert atmosphere is relaxed and casual, not at all like a typical orchestra concert. They do a good job at making everyone feel welcome regardless of your level of cultural exposure or knowledge of classical music.
And not only is there no admission fee for most of their live concerts, but you can also download many of their recordings free of charge from their respective web sites – and the RIAA won’t dispatch a lawyer (lawsuit in hand) to your front door! I particularly enjoy visiting the Air Force Band site and rifling through the Airmen of Note files
Regardless of how much America’s orchestras are currently suffering (both financially and in terms of becoming culturally irrelevant) at least the future of classical music is safe within the confines of the U.S. Armed Forces. Go figure.
You can find a vast amount of information about each band on their individual web sites. I’m partial to the U.S. Air Force Band, but you should try to go hear them all and decide for yourself.