To Serve, or Not To Serve

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Band performing in a large gazebo with audience watching and ship passing in background.
TRADOC Band performing in the Gazebo at Ft. Monroe.

Don't get me wrong, your decision to serve in the US military is a profound one that can shape and change your life forever. It should be based on philosophical underpinnings deeper than school loan repayment or playing in the band. It was an honor that I did not understand, truly, until I committed to it. I served in the US Army in a MACOM band.

But this article is not about heroism and all the things bigger than ourselves. It is all about you and whether it would be beneficial to you to serve in the military as a clarinetist—this is a clarinet website afterall.

The military, and not just the United States military, has a long band tradition that goes back to nearly the beginning of war. Drums and trumpets calling out movements and announcing their presence has been a mainstay of military organizations for millenia! So you would be considering joining a tradition with a long heritage. But I said we were going to consider things other than those "bigger than ourselves", didn't I.

My question to you is whether you enjoy playing the clarinet? Think about the possibility of playing it daily and getting paid for it. Think about playing it daily and getting life insurance and health coverage for doing so. How about buying your "stuff" tax free? Food? Clothes? Tax free.

"But I don't want to die!" Ha. If you live in the US you are more likely to die from various crimes and accidents than you are in the military. Moreover, the bandsman (that's what you are called) fulfills a certain role in the Army (and I assume the other services). As the infantry and people who joined to shoot guns are called out to fight, the band takes their place as sentries back on post. That's not to say that in war, you are safe. It IS war, after all. But you are less likely to face it as a bandsman than you are in many other fields. I served from 2003 to 2006 and never saw combat, unless you call finding a seat on a Seoul subway, combat.

Maybe you are a strong player and think you have a future as a soloist and/or orchestral player. Good luck. It is much like trying to make the NBA or NFL—millions dream of it but few achieve it. Even if you do make a symphony orchestra, the pay and job security is questionable at best. Serve and you gain benefits that last you a lifetime mentally, physically and musically—you will only be a better musician from your experience.

The Army, when I served, and I believe the other services as well, had a tiered band system. There were the Infantry bands that are mostly strong high school players who decided to serve and were in the band. There were MACOM (Major Command) bands that were college level or higher, full of outstanding players—the MACOM players usually stayed in the "MACOM Circuit" of three bands: Atlanta, Newport News and Germany. Then there were Specialty bands like The Field Band and the US Army Band (Pershing's Own). These bands were loaded with players who each, on their own, could be a successful symphony player or soloist. The MACOM and Specialty bands were by audition only. Many, if not most, players who made the Washington DC bands made it a career and stayed 20 to 30 years.

[As I am researching this article, it appears there have been changes to the bands since I served in 2003. Check with your local recruiter for the latest details on the bands.]

I can attest from personal experience that you will be surrounded by musicians of the highest caliber. Most military programs offer some sort of college repayment which is a great bonus for musicians who either went to college first or who plan on going after serving. I was in the best shape of my life (I served when I was older, starting at 35 years old) and learned to sightread at an amazing pace. I toured with my band and performed as a soloist. I made lots of friends and professional contacts.

Ziguenerweisen for Clarinet and Band
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Sarasate - Ziguenerweisen for Clarinet and Band
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I'm guessing it is vividly clear that I support joining a military band. (You have to understand that I completed my coursework for my Doctorate in Music before enlisting. If I could do it over, I would have enlisted out of high school and worked my way up to a MACOM or Specialty band over a 20-year career.) You get to play with fantastic players in a variety of settings, playing fantastic music with lots of potential while getting paid for it as well. You can attend college while serving and or after and have a great retirement while you are still young. Imagine being 38 and retired, starting your second professional career anew.

Of course, you can serve for the bigger reasons as well. My recommendation, whatever reason sits best with you, find one and serve. You will be a better musician for it, have a great career opportunity and hold your head high having served your country.

Check out these sites for more information about military bands in the USA.

Emblem of the United States Marine Corps

United States Marine Bands

Emblem of the United States Navy

United States Navy Bands

Emblem of the United States Coast Guard

United States Coast Guard Bands

Emblem of the United States Army

United States Army Bands

Emblem of the United States Air Force

United States Air Force Bands

Be sure to explore Musix4me for the needed resources to become the best clarinetist you can be—yeah, there's an Army wink there.