Marching band musicians top Army recruiting list

September 29, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Do you play oboe, clarinet, piano -- or baritone euphonium? If so, Uncle Sam Wants You!

To get you, he'll give you a bonus of $1,500 to $2,000 to enlist, not to mention $25,200 for college after a four-year hitch. And John Philip Sousa will become your patron saint.

Although the Cold War is over and the armed forces are being reduced, "Bands are still critical for morale and esprit de corps, and we've had troubling vacancies Army-wide," said Constance R. Hill, public affairs officer for the Baltimore Army recruiting battalion.

For that reason, the Army has put musicians right up there on the help-wanted list with combat troops, linguists, electronic warfare specialists and practical nurses. And the Army is offering enlistment incentives to get them.

College funds, but not signing bonuses, are also available for guitarists, drummers, and tuba, trombone and French horn players.

"We need them, but not as critically as the other instruments," Ms. Hill explained.

Applicants must be competent on their instruments and be prepared to audition when they apply, Ms. Hill said. "We don't train musicians," she said. Applicants must also meet current age, physical and educational requirements for enlistment, Ms. Hill said.

Enlistees may be sent to a military music school to improve their skills before assignment to one of the 47 Army marching, concert or ceremonial bands at posts around the world.

Recruiting continues despite the downsizing of the Army, Ms. Hill said, because various critical positions must be filled no matter what.

But while the Army is recruitingmusicians, the Senate Armed Services Committee is trying to eliminate the bands of enlisted personnel who supply ceremonial music at the military academies at Annapolis, West Point and Colorado Springs.

The academies have promised a fight, and the issue will be joined at noon today when a House-Senate conference committee begins debating the defense appropriations bill.

Military bands are more than just morale-builders for troops on parade. They become part of the community and are a frequent, familiar sight at local festivities. The First Army Band

from Fort Meade, for example, frequently plays at events in the Baltimore area.

Every time bureaucrats propose eliminating a military band as an unnecessary frill, they run into heavy flak. Sometimes they are forced to retreat.

It happened last month in Bay Ridge, N.Y., where an indignant community forced the bean-counters to back down, at least for awhile.

The 26th Army Band, stationed at Fort Hamilton since 1966, was scheduled to disband in January under Defense Department cutbacks.

Local people launched a lobbying effort, including a trek to Washington, where elected officials joined the cause.

When hundreds of people turned up Aug. 30 to say farewell at what was expected to be the swan-song concert, they got news instead that their campaign had paid off. The band received a reprieve, for at least two years.

"Let them [the Defense Department] retire one of their old tanks and leave my band alone," said Larry Morrish, a Bay Ridge resident and chairman of the Save the Band Committee.

When New York saluted the Mets for winning the 1969 World Series, the 26th Army Band was there. When the Iranian hostages were welcomed home in 1981, the band was there. And when the U.S. troops were given a ticker-tape celebration last summer following the Gulf War, the Army Band led them down Fifth

Avenue.

"We're linked, all of us, by that band," Mr. Morrish said. "You take the band away, you've taken our spirit away."

When the Senate Armed Forces Committee proposed eliminating the academy bands, chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said the bands should be made up of midshipmen and cadet volunteers.

The Naval Academy band director, Cmdr. Michael Burch-Pesses, said his 64 enlisted musicians offer a service that cadets and midshipmen don't have time for. The band was formed in 1852.

"The mission of any service academy is to provide leaders, not to train musicians," Commander Burch-Pesses said. "In many ways, what a band does cannot be quantified. It's really difficult to put a value on recruiting or on community relations. The band is an essential part of quality of life in Annapolis."

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