The performance attire that roughly 100 UNT College of Music alumni don when they play concerts isn't the typical tuxes and black dresses seen on a symphony stage. Instead, they wear the uniforms of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
Each branch of the Armed Forces has several bands and ensembles that perform community concerts for the general public and veterans, as well as specialty performances – for the president and dignitaries, for government events and funerals at Arlington Cemetery – and which lead musician workshops in schools.
Musicians serving in elite military bands must win auditions, which are akin to those that major symphony orchestras require. Securing a position in an elite military band is an equally exclusive honor.
"The College of Music prepared me not just for winning an audition, but to do the actual job," says Staff Sgt. Ryan McGeorge ('04), who plays euphonium for "The President's Own" Marine Band. "There are many opportunities to play different styles and genres at UNT, one of the best parts about being there. I played jazz, Latin jazz and with small chamber groups and the Wind Symphony, the premier collegiate wind ensemble."
Culture of excellence
That versatility translated well to the various types of concerts the Marine Band plays, McGeorge says. Other alumni echo the same sentiment and Master Sgt. Andrew Layton ('99), lead saxophonist for the Army Field Band's Jazz Ambassadors, says that shared UNT background helps the members of his group play well together.
"The Jazz Ambassadors have more than 50 percent of its members from UNT and all of the saxophonists are alumni who attended between 1994 and 2009," Layton says. "It's great to know that I'm surrounded by the same level of musicianship. I know they're going to be prepared because of the experiences we had at UNT."
As Gunnery Sgt. Greg Ridlington ('95), a saxophone player in "The President's Own" Marine Band, puts it: "At UNT, there's a culture of excellence in the College of Music and particularly in the jazz lab bands. That is very much the case in the Marine Band. The expectation that you are going to be great and do what you need to do translated well for me from UNT to the Marine Band."
As a harp student, Chief Musician Emily Fisher Dickson ('98), who is in the Navy Band, participated in every ensemble she could – Harp Ensemble, Symphonic Band, Wind Symphony, Chamber Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra and others. Being a part of so many groups meant she had to sometimes learn music quickly – a skill she now values.
"The Navy Band is expected to perform many events, sometimes last-minute or with little rehearsal time," she says. "My experiences at UNT helped prepare me for this."
For many of the alumni, being able to both pursue a career in music and serve in the military has provided profound benefits.
"I'll never forget the cheers and tears when we performed 'America the Beautiful' for audiences just after Sept. 11," says Senior Master Sgt. Stacy Newbrough Ascione ('97), flutist for The U.S. Air Force Concert Band. "People were visibly emotional. Those experiences were more than just concerts, they reached people on a deeper level. That is why we, as musicians, entered this field in the first place. Music is a universal language, so being able to make connections with people from all over the world is really powerful."
Participating in a military band goes beyond the music, agreed Master Sgt. Tracey MacDonald ('01), principal oboist with The U.S. Air Force Concert Band.
"It's an opportunity to serve and reach out to the community," MacDonald says. "My favorite part of touring the United States is visiting small towns where our concert may be their only chance to interact with the military. I love shaking the hands of our veterans and thanking them for their service. It's humbling to see these amazing men and women come to their feet during their service song or be moved to tears hearing a patriotic song."
Keepers of tradition
The music played by elite military bands also serves an important role in the culture of the nation, says Musician First Class Sean Nelson ('10), who plays trombone in the Coast Guard Band.
"Military bands are one of the keepers of our musical traditions," he says. "We continue the tradition of American music, be it marches, patriotic music or the American songbook, as well as new music."
The music played by the elite military bands also can be used as an outreach tool, says Staff Sgt. Michelle Acton ('03), who plays saxophone in The United States Army Band "Pershing's Own," whether in parades or at wreath-layings at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"The band also can help ease diplomatic tensions by playing music from a visiting dignitary's homeland," says Acton. "And we provide a solitary bugler to play a soldier's final 'Taps' in Arlington Cemetery. These things make me proud. I am truly honored to do my job."
In his 22 years as a clarinetist with the Navy Band, Senior Chief Musician Jim Logan ('88) says he's had countless great experiences with the band, especially knowing that the band helps remind people of those in the Navy who protect the U.S. shores and interests.
"I've been a witness to history – inaugurations, openings of numerous monuments, including the World War II, Korea, FDR and D-Day monuments, and funerals for presidents," Logan says. "I've spent time at the White House and always enjoy being there. All I've seen and done in the Navy makes me feel very humble."
One of the most moving experiences for Sgt. First Class James Kazik ('00), staff arranger for The United States Army Band "Pershing's Own," was knowing that one of his song arrangements (a barbershop quartet singing an Irish lullaby) brought the general for whom it was intended to tears.
But, it's also amazing for Kazik to remind himself that he and other UNT alumni are among the most esteemed musicians this country has to offer.
"These bands are full of graduates from Juilliard and other high-level conservatories – and it shows that UNT is among the best colleges of music in the country," Kazik says. "Our audiences are getting the best of what our country has to offer."