Showtime

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We began the morning with a sound check at Sumida Triphony hall in Tokyo, one of the finest halls I have ever performed in. At the beginning of rehearsal, there were a whole bunch of Central Band officers who had come to speak with the band. What I expected was mundane morning announcements; in fact, it was a sort of pre-concert ritual that added an air of profundity to what we were about to do. In a display of respect for both the performers and the officers, everyone said a sort of group “let’s do this” together, for each officer that spoke.

In the sound check, we only touched a few spots here and there to get used to the hall. And what a hall it was. In the West Point Band, we rarely have the privilege to perform in beautiful concert halls, and we loved every minute of it. We all grabbed a quick lunch then got changed into performance uniforms for the sold out performance. The Central Band’s performances are so popular that they have to hold a ticket lottery to see who will be allowed into the concert.

The combined bands on stage at Sumida Triphony Concert Hall in Tokyo. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

The combined bands on stage at Sumida Triphony Concert Hall in Tokyo. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Throughout the trip, I have been impressed with the attention to detail of the Japanese people. It seems that everything is done deliberately, be it cleaning a train station, or assigning the parts to be played in the concert. It seems that everything is a conscious choice. One detail that we did not overlook was the switching of flags prior to the concert. In military ceremonies, you always place the flag with the highest honor in the left most position. Between the sound check and the performance, as a show of honor for the United States, the Central Band chose to place the American flag on the left of their own flag. This is a small detail, that many in the audience might have overlooked, but as someone who makes his livelihood getting all of the details right at military ceremonies, the significance was not lost on me. It was a deep gesture of respect for our nation.

Staff Sgt. Alexis Cole sings at Sumida Triphony Hall. The U.S. Flag has been moved into the place of honor for the performance. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Staff Sgt. Alexis Cole sings at Sumida Triphony Hall. The U.S. Flag has been moved into the place of honor for the performance. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

I’ll write about the performance in the next post. Be sure to check back soon.

 

Words and images by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner

Perfect Harmony

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The following day, we had another rehearsal with the Central Band. The trip was very brief, so we only really had two rehearsals to make everything happen. Fortunately, the Central Band had been rehearsing without us for a while before we arrived. There was an unexpected challenge in Friday’s rehearsal however. In an all too common occurrence for the West Point Band, several ceremonies were added to the performance calendar for the Central Band on short notice. This took about fifteen musicians out of rehearsal for the day. While it was not ideal to play the last rehearsal before the concert without all of the musicians, it was heartening to know that military bands all over the world face the same challenges we do. And just like our band, the Central Band found a way to cover down and complete all of the missions for the day.

Japanese Soldiers march to a ceremony. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Japanese Soldiers march to a ceremony. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Towards the end of rehearsal, we exchanged some small gifts with the Central Band. We had a brand new set of band coins minted for this trip, and Lt. Col. Keene and Command Sgt. Maj. Mullins presented coins to each member of the Central Band. We also handed out a photo of the West Point Band on the march on the plain, which everyone seemed to enjoy.

Lt. Col. Keene presents a newly minted band coin to Sgt. Maj. Noguchi. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Lt. Col. Keene presents a newly minted band coin to Sgt. Maj. Noguchi. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

After we had presented our gifts, the Central Band had a special presentation for us; they told us that Sgt. Maj. Noguchi, the Central Band’s principal clarinetist and a junior member of the section would perform a clarinet duet version of the Star Spangled Banner. We arranged ourselves in a line and the entire room stood at attention while they performed.

Their performance held profound meaning for both bands, as it was not just the U.S. national anthem that was performed, but rather both the U.S. and Japanese national anthems, performed together in harmony. The performance was a perfect distillation of the sincere partnership that our two nations have shared for decades now. All in the room were profoundly moved.

Once all of the presentations were made, we retired to our hotel to find dinner and get some sleep before the big performance the following afternoon.

Words and images by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner

The first annual Highland Military Tattoo

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Day 4: The first annual Highland Military Tattoo

The day started with a drive into Inverness, where we were scheduled to perform and march through the town. The Hellcats drew large crowds as they performed throughout Inverness. Master Sgt. Denver Dill explained the importance of the United States Military Academy and the role that The Hellcats play in achieving the West Point Band’s mission to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets. After each performance, The Hellcats spoke to members of the audience and posed for photos.

The Hellcats performed throughout Inverness, Scotland. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The Hellcats performed throughout Inverness, Scotland. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

After marching through the town we came to the Town House. This is where General Seymour Monro, Zoja Bazarnic, Principal Officer at the US Consulate General in Edinburgh, and Alex Graham, Provost of Inverness, met us. After posing for a few photos outside Provost Graham led us inside the beautiful building for a luncheon. It was such an honor to be invited to the Town House and have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Bazarnic and Provost Graham.

Provost of Inverness, Alex Graham,  Principal Officer at the US Consulate General in Edinburgh, Zoja Bazarnic, and The Hellcats. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Provost of Inverness, Alex Graham, Principal Officer at the US Consulate General in Edinburgh, Zoja Bazarnic, and The Hellcats. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

While we were eating many people were asking what some of the more traditional foods were. To my delight I heard that there was haggis on the table. I made sure to put it on my plate, on my first bite it quickly became my favorite food we had eaten! (Next to the Yorkshire Pud, that is.)

After lunch it was time to get back on the bus for a few hours of rest and dinner before the first night of the show. There were so many performers that most of the base was considered back stage. Hundreds of bagpipers and drummers were warming up as we began getting together for the opening act. The lighting was perfect, the sound was big, the audience was excited. What an amazing event. Two more to go!

The first night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland.  (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The first night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland.
(Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Day 5: Culloden

Members of the audience tried The Hellcats tar buckets on and tried out their drums after their performance at Culloden Battlefield. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Members of the audience tried The Hellcats tar buckets on and tried out their drums after their performance at Culloden Battlefield. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

It’s Saturday, and we are heading to Culloden. We performed during an event that they were having, playing the same music as the day before in Inverness. After our performance we were treated to a tour of the battlefield, where the battle was being reenacted at the tattoo. During the tour The Hellcats had the privilege of honoring all of the Scottish men who fought in the battle of Culloden in 1746 with the sounding of Last Post at a monument placed in their memory.

The Hellcats had the privilege of honoring all of the Scottish men who fought in the battle of Culloden in 1746 with the sounding of Last Post at a monument placed in their memory. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The Hellcats had the privilege of honoring all of the Scottish men who fought in the battle of Culloden in 1746 with the sounding of Last Post at a monument placed in their memory. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

It was another successful evening at the tattoo. Each night The Hellcats stepped out and spoke with the audience, giving away Army keepsakes and letting children (and adults) wear their tar buckets and play their drums. There was even a gentleman who played the Harmonica for us!

The second night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The second night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland.
(Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Day 6: Last Night of the Tattoo

Our only event scheduled today was the tattoo, which gave me the opportunity to explore Ft. George. Earlier in the week we stepped out to the “beach” on the Morry Firth. It was all rocks and shells, but I could see over the edge of the fort that the other side was all sand. After asking a few people how to get there Staff Sgt.’s Medeke, Martin, and I were directed to the guard’s room. We were given a set of keys to the massive doors on the other side of the Fort. They were heavy, but as we opened then the warm sun welcomed us to … the General’s pet cemetery. If you were fortunate enough to have a dog, and unfortunate enough to have that dog die while you were the commander of Ft. George, your precious pup had the honor of being buried in the Ft. George Dog Cemetery. Beyond that was the beach, full of the softest sand I had ever felt. It was covered in unbroken seashells and perfectly smooth sea glass. What a relaxing way to spend some time before the tattoo.

The last night of the tattoo was another sold out crowd and a huge success. We again had the wonderful opportunity to meet the audience, hear their stories, and be welcomed back by many.

Photos from the final night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland.  (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Photos from the final night of the Highland Military Tattoo in Fort George, Scotland. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Out in Front

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The combined bands in rehearsal at Camp Asaka. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

The combined bands in rehearsal at Camp Asaka. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

The next task was to get the two soloists we brought with us comfortable. Sgt. 1st Class John Castleman and Staff Sgt. Alexis Cole on trumpet and jazz vocal respectively. John’s feature was a new arrangement of Caravan, arranged by West Point’s own Sgt. 1st Class Mike Reifenberg. If you’ve never heard him, John is without question one of the finest jazz lead trumpet players anywhere. He is totally devoted to his craft as a musician. In fact, when he has multiple days off of the trumpet in a row, we often kid that he is going into trumpet withdrawal and beginning to twitch.

The arrangement of Caravan began with a free trumpet, vocal, and English horn obligato, played by one of the Central Band’s musicians in training. John thought it odd that he and Alexis should be the only ones to stand at the beginning, even though all three parts have equal importance. The Central Band’s English horn player was invited to stand with the musicians from West Point and it clearly had a profound impact on him. Lt. Col. Keene encouraged the young English horn player to come out of his shell and really open up musically. It made for a touching moment of international cooperation on stage, and injected a bit of American bravado into the Japanese English horn player.

When it was time for John to take his solo in Caravan, I knew the Japanese musicians would be impressed, and they were. John soared into the stratosphere of the trumpet range and eyebrows went up all over the room. At West Point, we sometimes forget what an amazing talent John is because we work with him every day. We know him as a person, a family man, and a colleague. The Japanese musicians had just met him, and all they knew was his playing. They were very impressed, clapping for him after he finished in rehearsal.

SFC Castleman in rehearsal. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

SFC Castleman in rehearsal. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

Next we rehearsed Fly Me to the Moon, featuring Staff Sgt. Alexis Cole. Alexis is a singular vocal talent, and also spent about 18 months living in Tokyo before joining the Army. At West Point, we often play jazz tunes in a concert band setting, and it usually works really well, so we forget that it is a real challenge to pull off. The combined band had a few hiccups as things got going, struggling to align the rhythm section and balance the bass and piano with the larger ensemble. Once we got everything sorted out, Alexis was able to shine. She really dazzled the musicians, most of whom had never been exposed to such great jazz singing up close and personal.

SSG Alexis Cole in Rehearsal. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

SSG Alexis Cole in Rehearsal. Photo by SFC Sam Kaestner

The rehearsal was incredibly productive. No matter the language barrier, it’s always easy to make music with other great musicians, because music is absolutely a universal language. Following the rehearsal, we shared a truly amazing sushi dinner with Central Band members, sitting on tatami mats, eating off of traditional low tables. It was truly a memorable day.

The days before the Highland Military Tattoo

Day 1: We are really here!

Getting off the plane in Scotland with The Hellcats was almost surreal- we were really there! All that we needed to prove this wasn’t just a wonderful dream was someone playing the bagpipes. Then we walked to baggage claim and there was Pipe Major Richard Grisdale welcoming us on bagpipes. From there we got into a mini-bus and drove three hours north to Fort George.

Staff Sgt. Venditti with Pipe Major Grisdale  (Photo by: Master Sgt. John Manning/United States Military Academy Band)

Staff Sgt. Venditti with Pipe Major Grisdale (Photo by: Master Sgt. John Manning/United States Military Academy Band)

At Fort George we were set up in our barracks and given time to eat lunch before meeting with General Monro, who was happy to welcome us to the site of the First Annual Highland Military Tattoo. Fort George is a beautiful post surrounded by the Moray Firth, and if you look at the right time you can see dolphins jumping out of the water. During the day the public can walk around the post, soaking in the history, and lucky us, we had a whole week to explore!

After our briefings a few Hellcats and I decided to walk about a mile and a half off post to a local restaurant for dinner, which gave us the chance to soak in the beauty of where we were, and pass one of many pastures of sheep. We made it to “The Gun Lodge,” a restaurant with about 10 tables in it, and a friendly staff. All of the food looked, sounded, and smelled amazing. Best yet- everything reminded me of my favorite time of year- Christmas! My family is from England, and the menu was full of food I’m only treated to on Christmas Day, and the waitress was kind enough to sneak me a Yorkshire Pud with my dinner. (This was a very big deal; at Christmas Yorkshire Pud’s are the most sought after food. Everyone asks for thirds, fourths, and fifths!)

Day 2: Rehearsal Time

The second morning started bright and early with The Hellcats first rehearsal with The Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and a performance for the BBC and a few local news outlets. Since I was working on social media while we were there I was ecstatic that the band was sounding Reveille in Scotland for the BBC at the same time that it was being sounded back home! It was fun being able to post The Hellcats wake up call for everyone back home that would be following our trip via Facebook and Twitter over the next week.

The Hellcats performed for STV News and BBC Naidheachdan. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The Hellcats performed for STV News and BBC Naidheachdan. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The afternoon and early evening was filled with our first rehearsals in the arena with some of the performing groups, and Cruachan III, the Royal Regiment of Scotland Shetland pony mascot who joined The Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland as they marched through all of the participants during the finale.

Day 3: Good Morning Bagpipes and Canon!

It’s dress rehearsal day and there was no need for an alarm! There was no need for an alarm because as the groups performing in the tattoo began arriving the bagpipers warmed up outside our window, and the re-enactors rehearsed with their canons. What a perfectly Scottish way to wake up! The post was buzzing with excitement for the evening dress rehearsal: the whole town was invited.

That evening’s rehearsal began with a military fly over and ended with fireworks. It was the first time that I saw the entire tattoo. It focused on Highland music and culture, as well as the heritage of the military tattoo. The stories of Fort George from 1746-1778 and the 100th anniversary of the start of the World War I were told by re-enactors. Military bands from all services, local youth bands and dancers, Gaelic Singer Fiona J Mackenzie, and The Hellcats all took the stage to tell the history of West Point, which would later turn into the United States Military Academy. I couldn’t wait to see it again; I knew that every night I would see something that I missed the night before and capture unique photos each evening.

Dress Rehearsal for the Highland Military Tattoo. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Dress Rehearsal for the Highland Military Tattoo. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

After the tattoo, we were humbled to have the opportunity to meet Vietnam veteran David McKelvie. He served as a medic with the US Navy and took part in several operations, including the evacuation of Saigon and the setting up of a refugee centre at Eglin Air Base in Florida for Southeast Asian refugees who escaped the war.

The Hellcats with Vietnam War veteran David McKelvie. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

The Hellcats with Vietnam War veteran David McKelvie. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers/United States Military Academy Band)

Down to Business

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We arrived at the Central Band’s headquarters and were greeted by perhaps 100 of their musicians and officers. It was a warm welcome indeed. We were then whisked off to warm up rooms set aside for each section. In the Central Band, each section has their own room for warming up, practicing, sectionals, or whatever else they need to do musically. Some large sections, like the clarinets actually have three rooms. Of course, they have 21 clarinets instead of our six.

One of the clarinet section rooms at the Central Band.

One of the clarinet section rooms at the Central Band.

We began rehearsal with a welcoming surprise for Lt. Col. Keene. Knowing he is from New Mexico, the Central Band passed out Sousa’s New Mexico March Lt. Col. Keene was told he would rehearse the Star Spangled Banner first, so he gave a sweeping, regal upbeat only to have the band start with a bright, upbeat march. The look on his face went from disbelief to surprise to a deep smile as he realized he had been had.

Lt. Col. Keene conducts in rehearsal with Col. Takeda looking on.

Lt. Col. Keene conducts in rehearsal with Col. Takeda looking on.

Finally, we got down to the more serious business of rehearsing for Saturday’s concert. When we finally began playing a bit, I quickly realized that the Central band was good. Like, really good. Their musicians come from a much wider range of backgrounds than do ours. Some of their musicians come into the JGSDF right after high school, while others have gone to music school. Each member of the West Point Band has attended music school and most have master of music degrees; a few even have doctoral degrees. No matter how they arrived at the Central Band, the musicians were excellent, and excellent in unexpected ways. The clarinets for example, had unbelievably fast articulation. So fast, that at times, I could not keep up!

The clarinet section in action in rehearsal.

The clarinet section in action in rehearsal.

After actually rehearsing our national anthem, Lt. Col Keene conducted Frank Tichelli’s arrangement of Shenandoah, a solemn and moving version of one of the most iconic of all American traditional songs. The Central Band musicians hung on every twitch of the baton, and responded beautify. We went through the piece from start to finish without stopping to fix anything. There was electricity in that rehearsal room, unquestionably. The concert was going to be good.

Lt. Col. Keene gives an expansive gesture while rehearsing Shenandoah with the Central Band.

Lt. Col. Keene gives an expansive gesture while rehearsing Shenandoah with the Central Band.

A particularly exciting moment for me, was hearing the Central Band play The Official West Point March, conducted by their conductor, Col. Takeda. We know “The Official” as we call it, inside and out, and it is always interesting to hear another take on the march. The Central Band played the march well, albeit a bit faster than we usually play it.

Sgt. 1st Class Eby performs with a Central Band percussionist on "The Official West Point March" during rehearsal.

Sgt. 1st Class Eby performs with a Central Band percussionist on “The Official West Point March” during rehearsal.

Check back in a few days for more on the rehearsals with the Central Band at Camp Asaka in Tokyo.

How the Other Half Lives

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Our first morning in Japan began with a trip to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, essentially the Japanese pentagon. We were all deeply honored to merely be allowed on the grounds of the Ministry of Defense. During the morning, we had the chance to see the retirement ceremony for Itsunori Onodera, the Japanese Minister of Defense. The ceremony had perhaps 300 honor guard Soldiers and a detachment from the Central Band of 50 or so. The alignment and attention to detail of the honor guard was astounding. All of the Soldiers are nearly all the same height and weight, making for a level of similarity that is nearly impossible in our Army. 15257420305_196a061539_kThe band performed several ceremonial tunes, some familiar to me, some new. We spent some time discussing the finer points of military ceremonies, both American and Japanese, with the commander of the Central Band, Col. Takeda, after the ceremony. Overall, the ceremony was highly polished and professional. As a Soldier who performs ceremonies for a living, I found it fascinating to see how another nation carries out military pomp and circumstance.

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After the ceremony, we had the chance to meet briefly with Major General Kiyota, who had been instrumental in bringing musicians from West Point to Tokyo. Lt. Col. Keene presented Maj. Gen. Kiyota with one of the newly minted West Point Band coins in recognition of his support in making the mission a success.

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We finished our morning with an early lunch on the top floor of the Ministry of Defense. The lunch was simply the finest food I have ever been served at any government establishment, and the view was pretty nice too. After lunch it was off to rehearsal with the Central Band for the first time.

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A Hard Day’s Night

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At 6:30 in the morning, the day after a packed Labor Day Celebration concert at Trophy Point, members of the band boarded a bus bound for Newark airport. We were all tired from a very late night the night before, but playing the 1812 Overture with live cannon fire in front of 10,000 of our loyal fans is what we live for, so there are no complaints from the travelers.

The band on stage at Trophy Point. Photo by Staff Sgt. Mikki Skinner

The band on stage at Trophy Point. Photo by Staff Sgt. Mikki Skinner

The flight is long, 14 hours, and uneventful. We are met at the airport by a few members of the Central Band who graciously schlep us and our stuff to our hotel, and even stop for much needed coffee on the way. As anyone who has travelled so far around the world knows, jet lag is a tough thing to deal with, particularly in the first few days after arriving. Our biggest challenge was to stay awake until at least 9 p.m. so that we could begin to adjust to Japan time, (that’s 13 hours ahead of New York if you’re keeping score).

We headed into Ueno in Tokyo in search of food for dinner. Command Sgt. Major Mullins and I looked for the busiest yakitori place we could fine and sat down to a fantastic and memorable meal underneath the train tracks in Tokyo. After dinner, Lt. Col. Keene, Command Sgt. Major Mullins and I walked around for a while just trying to stay awake. We got a little bit of culture shock when we headed into a pachinko parlor at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. The cacophony was absolutely deafening.

CSM Mullins enjoying some Yakitori.

CSM Mullins enjoying some Yakitori.

Yakitori in Ueno

Yakitori in Ueno

Pachinko

Pachinko

Our mission to stay up until 9 p.m. complete, we headed back to the hotel and fell asleep instantly, hoping not to wake in the middle of the night (the curse of serious jet lag). We hoped to be well rested for a big day that began the next morning.

A Long Time Coming

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The trip to Japan begins not when we board the plane, but rather 17 years ago, when Master Sgt. Shawn Herndon was a sergeant stationed at Camp Zama, Japan. While in Japan, Shawn heard about the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force Central Band (JGSDF), and thought he should check them out. Shawn went to a performance and was impressed from the beginning. He struck up a friendship with their principal clarinetist, Sgt. Major Noguchi, and began to collaborate with Japanese musicians from the Central Band.

MSG Herndon and SGM Noguchi in rehearsal.

MSG Herndon and SGM Noguchi in rehearsal.

Eventually, Shawn landed in the West Point Band, and wanted very much to play a joint concert with both great bands. He worked off and on over the course of his entire time at West Point to make the performance happen. In 2012, musicians from the Central Band came to West Point to play two joint concerts with us. The performances were full of energy and life. We were finally able to return the favor and join the Central Band on stage at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo. The completion of the collaboration is the highlight of Master Sgt. Herndon’s career.

MSG Herndon and SGM Noguchi in performance.

MSG Herndon and SGM Noguchi in performance.

Words and images by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner

From Sea to Shining Sea

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LTC Keene conducts at Sumida Triphony Hall on September 6, 2014.

LTC Keene conducts at Sumida Triphony Hall on September 6, 2014. Image by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner

Just last week, something unprecedented in the 200-year history of the West Point Band happened; we had multiple performances in multiple countries happening basically at the same time. We were so wide spread, we even crossed the international dateline. We sent the Hellcats to perform at the Highlands Tattoo in Inverness, Scotland. We also sent a small group from the band to collaborate with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force Central Band in Tokyo. At the same time, the folks back home played not only a football game and a review, but also a September 11 memorial concert that was internationally broadcast. The first two weeks of September were a wild time for the band, and we will bring you stories from across the globe over the coming weeks.

The Hellcats in Scotland. Photo by Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers

The Hellcats in Scotland. Photo by Staff Sgt. Chrissy Rivers

Words by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner

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