Work and Play: Achieving balance as a member of the West Point Band
If there is one burning question on the lips of people who attend a West Point Band event, it has to be, “What is it really like to work in the West Point Band?” They may not ask this question directly, but I can tell this is exactly what they are wondering. People are curious about us. They watch us on stage performing in military band regalia with rank on our sleeves, and it’s natural for them to wonder about the person behind the uniform, both on and off the job. So in that spirit I thought I would recount some activities of a recent week. It isn’t everything, but it’s a slice of life that hopefully paints a portrait of a job in the West Point Band.
Tue, Dec 11 My day began as it usually does at 8:30am with warming-up at home. I have a series of technical exercises I run through, and then I improvise for a while. Afterward, in my Army Combat Uniform, I headed to the band building to rehearse for an annual show called “A West Point Holiday.” It’s a large-scale production with many moving parts. Think Radio City Music Hall— musicians, singers, actors, lighting technicians, audio engineers, stage crew, the whole ball of wax. This was our first opportunity to play through every number in the show in order, the beginning of a journey.
Wed, Dec 12 After a morning warm-up at 7am, I arrived at the band building for a promotion ceremony at 8:15. Three of my colleagues were getting promoted that morning. After the promotions, the Jazz Knights had a rehearsal at 9:30 for the cadets’ annual Corps Holiday Dinner, and then I headed home for lunch. At 1:30 I made my way to West Point’s performance venue, Eisenhower Hall Theater, for the second run-through of the WPH show. I arrived to an elaborate theatrical set that featured the band on multi-tiered scaffolds in front of a giant video screen. Wow. I hadn’t seen a set of this scale before in previous holiday shows.
We ran through the show twice, back-to-back, with initial lighting cues, audio, props, costumes, and acting. This was a “tech” rehearsal with stops and starts, but we were able to get a taste of what the show would look like. After the rehearsal, I went home to spend some time with the family. Then it was off to play a private party in a jazz trio I perform with. Provided outside gigs do not conflict with official duties, we can take them. This gig was a holiday gathering for a local bar association (lawyers, not saloons). We played jazz standards and jazzy versions of holiday songs. A local judge sat in with the band and played trumpet. He was pretty good, actually, and the room went wild for him (I think they were required to). When I got home, my wife and I talked about a book club she hosted that evening. They had a lively discussion with the book’s author who Skyped in from Chicago. How cool is that? Apparently it was a great success even though my wife had to make several trips up the stairs to deal with kids getting out of bed. I felt bad for her. It’s no fun to miss your own book club. Next time hopefully I can be home to help with the kids so my wife can have her evening.
Thu, Dec 13 I met with our commander to review an ad I created to be broadcast regionally on selected cable channels for an upcoming concert. Creating the ad is part of two “extra duty” positions, additional responsibilities I take on within the band. Most band members hold extra duties because the band is completely self-sustaining. These positions also give us an opportunity to cultivate new skills. For me, that means working in Publicity, developing media for promotional campaigns and events, really an extension of what I had already been doing as a civilian. It’s also a good example of how my schoolwork has a direct impact on my professional work, because it was in a music technology course where I learned to use video editing software. In that sense, the Army is getting a lot of bang for its buck through the GI Bill.
Next, I met with the Academic Initiative team. The AI is comprised of West Point Band musicians who work with West Point’s academic instructors in developing music lectures to help teach cadets the principles of their courses like English, Philosophy, or History. It’s my other extra duty position. I have a background teaching college, and the Academic Initiative, like Publicity, has been a good fit. Again, courses I’ve taken in my doctoral work have influenced my work in the band with the lectures I’ve developed. This particular AI meeting was a sort of year-end wrap up to catch everyone up on what happened over the past semester and discuss new ideas for the coming semester.
At 4:30 I drove to Cullum Hall for a sound check with the Benny Havens Band, a pop music sub-group of the Jazz Knights. After setting up my “pop music gear,” I walked across the street to the mess hall to perform a set of big band holiday favorites on my “jazz music gear” with the Jazz Knights for the Corps Holiday Dinner. It’s quite the event. All three of West Point’s generals and all 4000 cadets are there in the sprawling mess hall, visually akin to The Great Hall from the Harry Potter series, with its gothic architecture, battlements, and massive tapestries.
The dinner allows cadets to blow off some steam in a sort of last hurrah before finals. There was an abundance of food and excitement as the cadets were swing dancing away in their grey dress uniforms. A couple of the generals even got up and cut a rug. The dinner closed with the traditional singing of The Twelve Days of Christmas— 4000 giddy cadets bellowing “five golden rings.” Oh. My. Gosh. After the dinner it was back to Cullum Hall for a “hop,” West Point parlance for a dance. The Benny Havens Band rocked a couple sets of holiday songs interspersed with Journey, Katy Perry, et al. The cadets held a contest for ugliest holiday sweater. I don’t know in the end if a winner was declared, but there were several contenders. It was almost midnight by the time we finished.
Fri, Dec 14 We were supposed to be running the WPH show two final times starting at 9:30am, but we added a third run-through to work out any last kinks and put on the finishing touches. Our marathon rehearsals spanned the entire workday followed by the commander’s holiday leave safety brief. It was 5pm when it was all said done. I headed back home, taught a guitar lesson, ate dinner and hung out with the family, and then it was off to another jazz trio gig with the same group from Wednesday, this time at a local restaurant playing standards. It was about 11:30pm when I got home from the gig. I was beat.
Sat, Dec 15 After some religious events in the morning with my family, I grabbed lunch and at 2pm went to Ike Hall for the first of the two holiday shows that would start at 3pm. The theater was packed, and there was the buzz of holiday magic in the air.
Cameramen from Cablevision were sprinkled among us to film the show for broadcast. The show came off well, and we got a standing ovation. Even Santa (our supply sergeant incognito) made an appearance. After the show, I spent some time at home with my wife and children and my parents, who were visiting for the day. Then just after we put the kids to bed, the phone rang. It was my section leader. He informed me that a funeral request had come in for a local veteran who passed away. Two other band members and I would represent the Army at the funeral on Monday. Tucking that in the back of my head, my final task of the evening was to take my online statistics course final exam. I can’t say I was excited to take a math exam on a Saturday night, but I got an A! Woohoo!
Sun, Dec 15 After on-post church in the morning, it was off to the second and final West Point Holiday show starting at 3pm. The audience was definitely larger than on Saturday, easily 3000 people.
Overall, I have to say that this year’s show was unparalleled for musical variety. I really had to draw on my knowledge of many different musical styles to pull it off. I used three different guitars and amplifiers to achieve all the sounds necessary for the show. I was up on the scaffolding within the band, but I also jumped down and took center stage several times as a “featured” performer. I really had to keep my head in the game. And that’s just my little piece of the pie. Sometimes during the show I would look around at the awesome coordination of the show’s creative and technical people. The arrangements (written by band members) were extremely polished, and the performances were outstanding. It can be easy to take for granted how truly capable the people are who I work with on a daily basis. The real beneficiaries of this overflowing talent, however, was the community, who were treated to a world-class show, free of charge. Now that’s tax dollars at work.
Mon, Dec 16 Today was the day of the military funeral. It was a grey day, chilly and drizzling. I arrived at the band building in the morning to rehearse with MSG Teddy Arnold, bass trombonist in the Jazz Knights. This wasn’t a musical rehearsal. It was a rehearsal for the ceremonial duties we would perform, which included raising the United States flag from the casket, folding it, and presenting it to the next of kin. This would be part of the final resting place of a deceased soldier and a final farewell for his loved ones, and it was important that we give him a dignified ceremony. So we practiced folding the flag many times into the characteristic triangle, making sure it looked sharp. We also repeatedly ran through our military movements to ensure we knew where to stand and when to move.
We got in a motor pool van at 11:45am with MSG Butch Barnard, the funeral’s bugler. Thirty minutes later, we were at the cemetery. We found our positions at the burial site, wearing our blue Army Service Uniforms. About 30 family members were gathering next to the casket, a mass of black against the rain-soaked green of the grass. Some were visibly upset. The deceased’s wife was the next of kin. She stood looking at the casket plaintively while a young woman who I assume was her daughter clutched her arm. They seemed tired. I’m sure they had been through a lot. A man from the family came up and photographed us. “It’s an honor,” he said. A minute later the funeral director gave the signal, and MSG Barnard performed a flawless version of Taps. As the final note faded into the distance, there was a hushed stillness. A light wind rustled the air. MSG Arnold and I moved to the casket and raised the flag. I had the responsibility to do most of the folding. I could feel the collective gaze of the family on me as I methodically proceeded through each fold. I was acutely aware of my role and, truthfully, a little nervous. I wanted to do a good job. My heart was pounding. When I completed the folding, I gave the flag one final smoothing and handed it to MSG Arnold. Then I saluted and did an about face away from the burial site. MSG Arnold presented the flag to the deceased’s wife and expressed gratitude for her husband’s honorable service. A few minutes later we were in the van back to West Point.
I had just shared a profound experience with this family. I wanted to comfort them, mourn with them, learn about the man for whom I had just rendered final honors. But I could connect with them only as a stranger there to perform a solemn duty and depart silently. I remembered what the man who photographed us said, and all I could think was that the honor was all mine.
Back at West Point, I changed out of my uniform and into my “civvies.” Whew. I could exhale. As I reflected on the week’s events, it felt like that first rehearsal on Tuesday was ages ago. So much had happened. I should point out that not every week is like this one. With the holidays, our performance schedule can be particularly active. And with school, private gigs, and family commitments all coming to a head at once, life can get hectic. I remember waking up on Monday, December 10 and taking a metaphorical deep breath as I steeled myself for the coming week. At least I knew what the schedule would be, and I could plan accordingly. But even then, a few unscheduled things popped up, and I had to adjust, physically and psychologically. That happens sometimes, and as they say in the Army, you “adapt and overcome.”
One of the challenges for me is to balance a demanding job with my family. It is just by the skin of our teeth sometimes that my wife and I make it to scout meetings or ballet classes. We “divide and conquer”— I slip in on my lunch break to attend one child’s school event while my wife pulls another child out of school for a doctor’s appointment. This could be difficult if we didn’t live on post where everything is so close. So really, it’s a trade-off. It seems like life is a series of these trade-offs. I wish I could be there for everything, but I can’t. When I can, I imagine it as a thread in what I hope will be a beautiful tapestry of memories someday for my children. I try to savor each moment, because life has a habit of passing us by. I’m sure one day I’ll look back and wonder where the time went. I feel like I do that already.
Sometimes the scales are grossly imbalanced. Work pops up unexpectedly, and it can be my family that has to adapt and overcome. My wife is the one who often does it all, working longer and harder than I ever do to keep things running at home. She sacrificed a very successful career as an attorney and followed me into the Army to be a “homemaker.” With a crazy week like this one, when I’m gone way more than I’m home, I ask her, “Do you ever feel like a single mom?” She could complain but she doesn’t. She allows me to do my job well. I truly couldn’t do it without her. It’s the families behind the service members who are the real heroes. That might sound like a cliché, but when you live it, you realize how true it is. It is no wonder that at a military retirement ceremony they publicly acknowledge the spouse’s sacrifice with a service-to-the-nation award right alongside the retiree’s own service award. Both awards are equally earned. At the same time, it’s good to put things in perspective. While our personal crises are not to be devalued, they can seem insignificant when compared with the magnitude of suffering we hear about every night on the news. So, things could always be worse, and we recognize that. We truly count our blessings.
Thus is the arc of life. In one way, life in the West Point Band is like anyone else’s life. We grapple with the same joys, frustrations, hopes, and dreams that people anywhere have. In another way, a job in the West Point Band is like no other. The breadth of what we do feels enormous, and it can change rapidly and suddenly. The irony is that our work is to play. But play is really a misnomer, because if the past week proves anything, it’s that it takes a lot of work to do what we do flawlessly, a testament to how much goes on behind the scenes to make our job look as seamless and smooth as it does. You prepare thoroughly because you want to get it right and make it meaningful for your audience, whether that’s 4000 people at a holiday musical extravaganza or 30 family members at a private funeral. And you do your best to juggle work with everything else, having varying degrees of success. In the end, you just take it one day at time and have faith that you will achieve the balance you seek.
Words by Staff Sgt. Mark Tonelli – Mark has been the guitarist in the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights since 2005.