When I joined the Marine Corps, my recruiter sold me on joining the band.
Frankly, it was a pretty easy sell, since I loved music. The problem was that she portrayed it as a pretty easy, cushy job. I quickly learned that it wasn’t.
I pulled from my own experience as a military musician and talked to other military musicians about their experience in this career field. Here is a list of the top ten things military musicians wish you knew about their life:
1- We All do the Same Training
It doesn’t matter if you are artillery, rifleman, intelligence or musician – boot camp is the same regardless. For Marines, we go to the same combat training as everyone else as well.
We shoot guns; do obstacle courses; go through the gas chamber; pass the same physical fitness tests. Once in the fleet, we have to pass our fitness tests and weapons qualifications the same as everyone else.
We also get REALLY sick of people expecting us to be weak in these areas. We can max out the score on our fitness test just and shoot bullseyes like everyone else. Just ask my husband, the 7 years in a row rifle expert.
2- We Get Deployed
My recruiter assured me that bandsman never go overseas. While I personally didn’t deploy until after I moved to intel, many of my band friends did. My husband was in Iraq twice as a bandsman.
When deployed, the band is usually assigned as security. This means you may end up on work details fixing things around the base, going on patrols, or guarding the gates. You may even bring your instruments along and play a concert or change of command while you’re there.
There are plenty of bandsmen with combat action ribbons and purple hearts. Because you are a basic soldier, airman, seaman, or Marine first and foremost.
3- Don’t Count on Taking Holidays Off
The band very rarely gets any of the big holidays off. You can plan on marching a parade or playing a concert every 4th of July, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, etc. If you are in one of the West Coast Marine Corps bands, you will be marching the Rose Bowl Parade on New Years Day every year.
In addition to holidays, because the band functions as a full unit, it can severely hamper performances when too many people are missing. As such, most bands establish a block leave policy. This means they establish periods of time every year where the entire band goes on leave. If you want to take off at any other time you are going to have to beg, plead, and jump through hoops to get it approved.
4- Dress Uniforms Can be a Real Pain
First, they have to fit just right. So if you gain or lose a few pounds, you have to pay for alterations or even buy an entirely new set. Second, they always have to be in perfect shape for every job. Military bandsmen probably spend as much time prepping uniforms as they do practicing! At least it feels that way.
Every material has to be washed and dried in a very particular way. Technically most dress uniforms should be dry cleaned only, but who can afford to do that all the time?! Then comes the ironing. Those creases better be perfect!
Plan to spend more than your uniform allotment each year on new parts. Shoes get scuffed; pants fray; medals get scratched; stains happen. I guarantee you that you WILL have to replace uniform parts far more often than you like.
If you live with a bandsman, please DO NOT wash their uniforms unless they give you very specific instructions, and you follow them to the letter. Unless you like buying new stuff all the time.
And don’t forget the hair! If your bandsman is male, they will need to get a weekly haircut to always look the perfect part. Please budget for this and don’t insist on doing it yourself unless you actually happen to be really good at it or they like to be bald. The women also will spend a LOT on haircuts keeping it short or hair products to keep it put up nice and tidy.
5- Semper Gumby- Everything is Always Changing
Please don’t get mad at us when things change. If rehearsals are not perfect, we will be staying late to fix it. If a performance goes poorly, we may have extra practices for weeks. If a General decides on Wednesday that he needs a band for his retirement on Saturday, our weekend is shot. If a president dies, expect multiple bands to be pulled to play at each location the body stops.
Now throw in the regular every day military stuff like physical training, field training, safety stand-downs, deployments, etc. Things change almost daily. If we say we’ll be home at five, then call to change that to six and then seven, we aren’t lying. It really happens that way. Sometimes they won’t even let us call.
In addition, orders to a new duty station can come down the pipes at any time. Sometimes you don’t get much time to prep and pack. It stinks, we know, but it’s all part of the military career life.
6- Please Don’t Interfere With Our Work
As all these annoying changes come down the pipes, please do NOT call our command to complain about it. It won’t help, and it will probably make things pretty uncomfortable for us at work. For some reason, no one ever thinks to complain to the rifle platoon CO, but they think the band CO is a fair game. They aren’t!
In fact, avoid talking to our command at all if you can help it. Military folks don’t take too kindly to civilians telling them what to do. We get it: you love us and want us to be happy. The best way to make that happen is to let us handle things.
Don’t take our personal issues to our command either. Sure, it can be tempting to vent to the SSgt about our love life, but it won’t help. Unless we are actually breaking the law (military or civilian), keep our personal stuff personal.
7- We Always Need More Time to Practice
Believe it or not, we don’t actually play our instruments all day. It takes a lot of admin and logistics to run a band. Every band member is assigned to a logistical area and has duties outside of music. We also have to make time for all our basic military training. Most of our time spent playing at work is done as an entire band or in small groups or sectionals.
We need time for individual practice. Whether we do it at home or at the band hall, it has to be done. If our individual parts stink, then we can be put on mandatory practice. If we bring the instrument home, please respect our need to spend a few hours playing.
8- We Want You to come to Our Performances
Whether it’s a formal concert, a parade, or even a change of command, we love to see our families int the audience. The kiddos love to see us too! Please come to every performance that you possibly can. We didn’t do all that practicing for nothing!
Yes, you may hear the same five tunes over and over. Come any way! We need you. We need to know that you care about and support us in what we do. Every now and then we require a designated clapping section because the audience isn’t all that into it. Nothing is worse than playing a rocking gig to a bunch of people who couldn’t care less. Once you start clapping, it tends to get everyone else going too.
9- Sometimes We Hate Our Job
Playing music all day sounded great when my recruiter said it. The reality was much different. Long hours, little respect from other military members, high expectations, few holidays, and not enough time with our families is challenging. We can get angry, depressed, and anxious.
Be there when times are hard. Support us. Show up for us. Give us the high five and pat on the back that we rarely get. At the end of the day, being in the military is hard work no matter what your job you fill. We need our families. Give us a little space to vent about how much we hate our boss, job, or life every now and then.
10- Live Your Own Life
OK, that may seem to contradict #9 a bit, but hear me out. The band has long weird hours. Please don’t just sit at home alone waiting for us to appear. Make friends (other band spouses are great) and have fun! When you can’t come with us to a gig, do something fun with the kids or for yourself.
Explore and get to know your duty station and surrounding areas. Get a pass to a local science museum or zoo. Swap babysitting with friends and have some grown-up time every now and then.
Just do us one favor – don’t try to play matchmaker for our single band friends. It always gets awkward at work when things don’t work out.
But I’ll Let You in on a Little Secret- We Actually Love It
The band can be a great time. You do get to play awesome music for some really amazing crowds. We all have our favorite gig stories, like playing for the president or in a movie. We usually get along pretty well with our coworkers, and shooting guns is also pretty darn cool. Every branch of the service has its premier bands that are even more fun to play in and who get to skip the whole pesky deployment thing.
So next time you see a military band member, I hope you can view them with a different perspective. These men and women are service members like everyone else, and their sacrifices to their lives and their families are just as great as other careers. And to all the amazing bandsmen families out there, thank you for being awesome! We need you and we love you.
If you want to become one of us get in contact with your local recruiter or career planner.