In May 2009, I graduated with my Master of Music in clarinet performance from the University of North Texas. I didn’t have a master 10-year plan for my life in place at that point. During my graduate degree and afterwards, I wanted to practice and hopefully land a professional job playing my instrument. That was a fairly vague idea in my mind, other than the practicing part. I knew how to do that, but auditions were somewhat of a mystery to me, although I had done a few at that point (mostly for experience, and not really expecting to win anything given my inexperience in the audition circuit). It never really crossed my mind to move back home or elsewhere in the country after graduating. Without a great deal of thought, I remained in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Finding a host of students to teach privately was almost too easy to do in that area, given all the competitive band programs in the region. I got myself set up at a few schools with nearly 50 students a week to instruct, and began taking lessons with the principal clarinetist of the Dallas Symphony. That, in effect, was my plan until I could win a job audition. It wasn’t much, but teaching as many students as I had allowed me to live comfortably and travel when I needed to for auditions, wherever they might be. I had no reason to be picky; I auditioned for orchestras and military bands about the same amount. I ultimately thought that an orchestra was where I would end up, but I practiced eagerly for any opportunity.
Three years later, with lessons and other musical study opportunities, I decided it was time for a change. The teaching schedule I had was wearing me out despite my best efforts to lighten the load to keep my playing sharp. I lined up a couple of auditions in the spring, in addition to a couple of auditions for graduate music programs. Somehow, all four auditions fell within a two-month window. Anyone who’s prepared for a professional audition could tell you what a taxing process it can be. I rescheduled lessons left and right and flew all over the country in an effort to keep my musical goals in reach. The school auditions went as well as I could have possibly hoped. The first professional audition was for an orchestra out west and I felt moderately prepared. I auditioned well, but didn’t get asked back for the second round. My last audition in a strenuous season was for the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. I had been invited to this audition based on a pre-screened round where we sent in recordings of our playing to be evaluated. Based on those submissions, they invited half a dozen of us to a live audition in New York. I was so exhausted from all the previous auditions and associated travels that I wasn’t nervous enough in the audition. I just played like I had prepared. It wasn’t perfection, but all things considered, I felt pretty good about how things went. In the end, they offered me the job as their newest clarinetist! It was such a surreal experience, being in a new state and winning an audition I didn’t expect to win. That plus the realization that I had to go through basic training for the Army before I moved up there left me with a mixture of feelings.
The band graciously allowed me to finish up my semester’s worth of teaching so I didn’t abandon my students mid-year. Basic training would begin in mid-June, just a handful of days before my birthday. I spent the next three months getting in shape with a regimented workout schedule, hoping to eliminate any surprises to my body when I would arrive at boot camp. For the most part, that was a success. I talked to numerous people to try and understand the military mindset before I left. I wanted to eliminate as many unknowns as I could. That wasn’t possible to do, but those people certainly helped.
Basic training was also a surreal experience. Having been out of school and on my own for three years beforehand, surrounding all the freedoms I had grown accustomed to was difficult. On the other hand, life was so structured in BCT that it required very little thought. All of my decisions were made for me. The first couple of weeks were definitely the hardest – having to basically remove my own expectations of how things should be, and assume that of what I was being told or taught by the drill sergeants. For a while that involved a lot of yelling and doing push-ups on the asphalt heated efficiently by the scorching hot sun. Things improved, although corrective punishment never went away really. I learned a lot at basic training. My patience was stretched by living with 50 other guys, although as I often reminded myself, “It could be a lot worse.” On the brighter side, I learned I can get by with little: our meals often felt short and rushed; we didn’t have our cell phones except for a few special instances; no T.V., no internet — heck, you couldn’t even read a book unless it was your one allotted religious material. Yet there were even times when I didn’t really miss any of those things.
I was lucky enough to come to West Point in early September– just the right time to see the entire transformation of the Hudson Valley into the season of fall. I enjoyed just driving around the first few days I was here and taking in the incredible scenery. What an amazing place for a military installation. I have now only been here a short three months, but I love going to work with such amazing musicians and people. Getting to support the Military Academy and the country this way is truly special and rewarding. Even now I find myself in disbelief of where I am, what I’m doing, and how I got here. I’m so grateful to be able to make music and support my country at the same time. Born and raised in the south, wish me luck– it looks like a cold winter is on the way!
Words by Staff Sgt. Sam Ross – Image by Staff Sgt. Torin Olsen