One of the biggest challenges for me during graduation week is keeping my chops feeling good. We play a number of long performances during the week, and also have rehearsals for each performance scattered throughout the week. During graduation week, we play everything from formal military parades to chamber music, and each different job effects your chops in a different way.
During graduation week, there are two full-brigade reviews, meaning, the entire Corps of Cadets will be marching onto and off of the plain. Usually parades only use half of the cadets at any given time, so the parades during graduation week are nearly twice as long as usual. A full-brigade review is an impressive sight, seeing over 4,000 cadets march onto a previously empty field, only to march off an hour and a half later is something that everyone should witness at some point in life. It is a ceremony that is largely unchanged since the Revolutionary War.
Playing such a long parade is tiring for a musician. Anytime a group of cadets is moving, we are playing, and there is a lot of movement going on for the duration of the parade. Marches are also some of the most strenuous pieces to play, since there are rarely any rests for anyone. Playing on the field, you are also playing much louder for much longer than you usually would. By the time the end of the parade rolls around, my face is usually completely shot.
On the Friday before graduation day, that becomes a real challenge for me. In addition to playing clarinet in the concert and marching bands, I also perform in the West Point Woodwind Quintet. The evening before graduation the cadets and their families all come to Washington Hall for the graduation banquet. A small band will play entrance music while everyone files into the vast space that it Washington Hall. The band makes quite a bit of noise in the cavernous space, so during dinner, a woodwind quintet will typically perform dinner music. For me, this means after playing the morning parade, I will play some marches and entrance music, and then quickly leave for a central location in Washington Hall to play dinner music with the rest of the West Point Woodwind Quintet. During dinner, we will play 45 minutes or so of background music. Trying to be a sensitive chamber musician after marching a very long parade, and then playing a bunch of concert marches is a serious challenge. Doing it well is what separates Army special bandspeople from regular musicians.
During the week, I do several things to keep my chops feeling good. The most effective thing is often counter-intuitive. When my face is totally exhausted, and I feel like I couldn’t play another note, I go into the practice room and play some long tones. It is painful to do this, and takes some serious willpower to even get started, but after 20 minutes or so of concentrating on all aspects of my embouchure, I am in a much better place to tackle the next task, whatever it may be. I also take some time and do some breathing exercises. Nothing works properly on the clarinet without a good air column, so taking the time to do that correctly makes a world of difference. Breathing exercises are great because you can do them anywhere. I personally like these exercises by Arnold Jacobs.
In the end, graduation week is a taxing time for any band member. We are very busy during the week with many different kinds of commitments. I’m sure every band member has their own way of coping with the demands of performing at the highest level throughout the week. This is just a small look at what I do to keep in top form.
Words by Sgt. 1st Class Sam Kaestner