Friday, February 22, 2019
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Is it Reveille or Taps for a Music Career in the Military?

by Dr. Craig R. Miller

During the past twenty-five years as a high school instrumental music teacher, many students have approached me about music career opportunities. Due to the high cost of higher education coupled with our current local and federal economy, military options have recently gained popularity for high school students. Since the end of the Vietnam War, there seems to be a growing stigma that students should only choose the military if they have no other career training option–such as college or trade school. Throughout the country, military personnel are less visible in Americans’ day-to-day lives, unless one happens to live in a city near a military base such as San Diego, California or Fort Hood, Texas. At one time recruiting centers seemed to be everywhere; whereas today there are a limited number across our nation. Federal budget cuts have placed a new challenge on our military recruiting personnel; recruiters are now responsible for larger areas of the country.

Today the lowest numbers of Americans are serving in the armed forces since the brief time period between World War I and II. According to recent surveys, this demonstrates a widening gap of understanding and familiarity between people in uniform and the civilian population. At any given time in the past decade, less than 1% of the American population has ever been on active military duty, compared with nearly 10% of Americans who were in uniform during World War II. Younger Americans are far less likely than older ones to have a family member who has served in the military. I remember as a child during the Vietnam War draft, it was common to see military personnel in full uniform in church and at various locations throughout our small communities in the Midwest. I remember playing basketball at the Armory in downtown Columbia, Missouri where many military personnel were present. Military units and military bands were always in community parades, and military personnel were highly visible during times of leave and special occasions. Today, there is less visibility of our men and women in uniform except in the media. Foreign Wars are raging and movies continue to be made about military life, honor and heroism. However, the military is not seen in our local venues as often. This is fueling a growing disconnect between civilian and military life in the minds of our younger generation.

The United State Marine Corp hosts a monthly program called the Educators Workshop. This program is designed to face head-on the growing gap between military and civilian life. The purpose of the program is to give high school educators, administrators, community leaders and other civilians a better understanding of what it takes to become a United States Marine. In this manner, educators and community leaders can help bridge the knowledge gap for young adults thinking of a career in the military. Similar programs are available in the Navy, Army and Air Force. The Marine Corp program gives participants the knowledge of the process of becoming a Marine, and a taste of the actual Marine experience.

On January 28, 2013, I participated in the Educators Workshop. Along with other participants, I arrived at the Marine Recruiting Depot in San Diego, California and was processed like a new recruit at the Marine Depot. The experience gave me a first-hand encounter with what it is like to be a musician in the Marine Corp. Throughout the workshop, we educators were treated just like new recruits so we could capture the experience of an 18-year-old beginning his or her military journey. During our time there, the Staff Sergeant quickly defined his role as the upper hand, and continued the experience by reading the recruits’ military rights as we were shuffled to another room where we emptied our pockets and were ordered to relinquish any contraband in our possession. At that time, the tone changed and the officers quickly reversed the atmosphere to a more typical climate for an educator’s convention – thankfully! Throughout the week, the educators were encouraged to participate in a variety of recruit training exercises such as running the bayonet obstacle course, learning survival water skills, learning about the day-to-day life of a Marine at Miramar, and engaging in aspects of the Crucible at Camp Pendleton including how to fire an M16 AK 47 rifle. This hands-on approach allowed educators to gain a new understanding of the life of not only a Marine but also a Marine musician. I recommend the Educators Workshop for any educator. It gives you a new perspective of military service, and provides you with the information you need to mentor students who may qualify for military service.

A musician in the Marine Corp is first a Marine. Attending boot camp, maintaining a high standard of physical fitness, and demonstrating high marksmanship with a military weapon are key elements to their daily life. Marine musicians enjoy the same benefits, options of rank, salary, and expectations as any other Marine. They are able to take advantage of the Post 9/11 and G.I. Bill. This allows military service personnel fully paid tuition at any public institution of higher education, or up to $18,077 annually at a private institution. Benefits also include complete medical and dental benefits and opportunities for retirement after twenty-five years of active-duty service. If a Marine does not need higher education assistance, the Post 9/11 Bill allows a military serviceperson to pass any unused benefit to his or her child for their education after ten years of service. Many civilian college students finish college with over $60,000 in education loan debt; however, the military gives service personnel the opportunity to leave the four-year military experience with a $60,000 surplus, plus a free ticket to attend a four year public school of higher education with a monthly living expense allowance around $2,500. Even as a military musician, these benefits are guaranteed.

The United States Marine Corp has three types of bands: the elite “The President’s Own” Marine Band, the “The Commandant’s Own” Drum & Bugle Corp, and the bands on each of the 10 Marine Corp bases. The top two bands are auditioned in a similar manner as a major symphony orchestra. In “The President’s Own” Marine Band, a musician is not required to be a Marine prior to auditioning for these highly sought after positions. Being selected for this prestigious ensemble allows you to enter the Marines at a different rank than the non-musician counterpart. The premiere band positions have the same military benefits as regular marines. There is some variation of deployment and standards of physical fitness and marksmanship for a premiere band member. “The Commandant’s Own” Drum & Bugle Corp Marines go to boot camp, start as an E-2 and are promoted quickly compared to other Occupations in the Marine Corps. These members must maintain the same standards of physical training as all Marines.


Each branch of the United States military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—employs several full-time music ensembles. There are two types of groups:

1) Premier bands. Ensemble members have a guaranteed post, without the worry about being transferred elsewhere. Hired musicians are immediately awarded the rank of E6 (rankings range from E1 to E9—the higher rank is better). The ten premier military bands are housed in Washington DC or attached to the Service’s Academy: Roanoke, Annapolis, West Point, Colorado Springs, etc.

2) Regional bands. While some members stay with the same group for years, reassignment to other ensembles occurs due to manning shortages or openings in overseas bands. Entering status is determined by educational background, as is the case with most everyone else in the enlisted force. Musicians with college credit often begin at the rank of E3. Regional groups are housed on bases across the country and abroad.

The term "band" here does not mean wind band or marching band. In fact, most of these groups are umbrella organizations consisting of several performing ensembles. For example, The US Army Field Band consists of a concert band, chorus, big band, and pop combo. The US Air Force Band oversees six entities, including a string orchestra, chorus (cleverly entitled Singing Sergeants), brass band, and a big band. Large ensemble members are often assigned to chamber groups as well, spanning the gamut of styles and instrumentations: Dixieland, baroque, Celtic, rock, pop, country/western, brass/woodwind quintets, etc.1

In the Marine Corp, the ten regional bands at the various military facilities around the country, offer a more-attainable audition expectation for most highly trained musicians who play a brass, woodwind, or percussion instrument. The standard audition requires scales; major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, and chromatic; a performance of a grade five solo/concerto on the applicant’s principal instrument, and a high expectation of the ability to sight-read music. Several band positions become available each year due to personnel changes within the ten marine bands. Candidates for these bands must demonstrate a high level of technique, musicianship, and expertise in a variety of musical styles to acquire one of these highly competitive positions. Unlike the top two bands, membership in one of the ten base bands requires the same standard of physical fitness, marksmanship, participation in boot camp training, and possible deployment as any other Marine. However, it is more likely for a musician in one of these ten bands to be deployed for a lesser amount of time. These assignments are typically a non-combat position such as a deployment to become a security officer. The Marine Corp musicians are sent to Marine Corp Music School in Roanoke, Virginia at the conclusion of their recruit boot camp. After six months to a year, the new Marine is then assigned to one of the ten, approximately sixty member military ensembles.

Once a Marine musician has been placed in one of the Marine bands, he/she is able to house their family and secure them with benefits on the base where they are assigned. The Marine musician may take advantage of the Post 9/11 or G.I. Bill to cover tuition costs for them or if the individual already has a degree, may pass this benefit on to their children. The Marine Corp bands enlist personnel for a four-year term. After four years, personnel can then decide to continue active duty or return to civilian life. The level of performance the base bands consistently demonstrate rivals any professional orchestra in regard to musicianship, technique, and stylistic mastery.

What about options for high school and college-aged musicians? In response to this type of question, consider there are very few professional musician jobs that provide full medical benefits, housing, child-care, and opportunities in higher education with free tuition. Although, it may be an excellent choice for some students who are not college bound, the choice for military service should be a serious consideration for all young talented musicians between the ages of 18 and 28.

The Marine Corp compensation for musicians is based on rank and time served. The current entry-level salary for a regional band member is $21,488.80. A premier band member’s beginning wage is $28,285.20. Members get a step raise every one to two years, in addition to the annual cost-of-living raises given each January.

Is it time to play Reveille or Taps for music careers in our Armed Forces? In other words, is military service the beginning of a career or the last choice to consider when a young man or woman weighs the options for a music career? Although, I was once skeptical about encouraging my students to join the military, after my experience in San Diego at the Educators Workshop, I can now confidently tell my students that the Marine Corp is an amazing opportunity for young musicians. Reveille is sounding loud and clear for young musicians to start their musical journey in the military and perhaps Taps should be played for those who miss out.

How Do I Support Our Military and How Can I Get Involved?

If you are interested in military service or would like to attend the Educators Workshop, find a recruiting center near you by going to This website can give you more information about the military. If military is not an option for you, but you would like to support our military and demonstrate public service by playing bugle calls at various public events as well as the funerals of veterans, go to In January 2000, Congress passed legislation guaranteeing Veterans the right to at least two uniformed servicemen, a flag ceremony, and the playing of Taps at their funeral. Unfortunately, there are not enough bugle players to support this legislation.2 Performing for these special events is a great opportunity for a musician to demonstrate support for our military.

1 David Cutler, The Working Musician: Military Jobs, (February 2010).
2 David Kuzara, Bugles Across America, (2006).
Special thanks to the Kansas City Recruiting Station for their assistance with this article especially Captain Kunze, Gunnery Sergeant Knuckles & Sergeant Lutz for their support and information provided.

Craig R. Miller completed the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Instrumental Conducting from the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music in 2000 as a student of Professor Gary Hill. Dr. Miller is currently the Director of Bands at Park Hill South High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Dr. Miller was the first Director of Bands at Blue Valley West High School for seven years starting with the opening of the school in 2001. He also taught at Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, Kansas, Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, High School for the Performing & Visual Arts in Houston, Texas & McCallum High School in Austin, Texas. Prior to his appointment at McCallum High School, he received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Texas at Austin in 1985. He received his Master of Music in Applied Trumpet from Indiana University at Bloomington in 1990.


About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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