A musician for Uncle Sam?
December 1, 2009 3:52 PM   Subscribe

My nephew, who definitely needs structure and self-discipline, is considering joining the military. He would like to become part of a military band, as he is a trained and talented musician and performer. What should he ask for and look for and how can he get an assignment he wants?

He has two years at a college-level music school and is a tall, goodlooking, polite young man who would be an asset to any military band, etc. His parents think the military may be a solution for him, as he has burned his bridges at the music school by non-attendance and otherwise lame but not illegal or unethical behavior; he apparently is also interested in the military, at least theoretically. In short, he is a 22-year-old who is in danger of a "failure to launch" situation. I have zero knowledge of military recruiters, but I am afraid that he, a naive and trusting young man, will be the target for a "bait and switch" by unethical recruiters and that he'll end up with an assignment that is not useful or suitable. I am aware that I sound like a handwringing aunt, but he and his parents really could use some advice.
posted by Jenna Brown to Work & Money (18 answers total)
I don't think any part of the military will allow him to just walk in and choose some part of it to participate in without having him go throught the process of breaking him down and training him in the military ethos.

If he really wants to be in a military band, in other words, he would have to prove that he deserves that opportunity.
posted by dfriedman at 4:01 PM on December 1, 2009

click on some of the links in this google search.

any promise that he won't go to iraq/afghanistan is meaningless.
any promise of job/assignment/placement is meaningless.
posted by nadawi at 4:04 PM on December 1, 2009 [8 favorites]

Gawker had a little writeup about this last year.
posted by jingzuo at 4:07 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

don't sign til you get what you want, *in writing*. get it in writing, with the signature of somebody that matters. my cousin was promised firefighting but got stuck with MP when firefighting school filled up.

furthermore, your nephew is in a very vulnerable situation, what with the bridge-burning and so on. recruiters can smell desperation. why can't he just get a part-time job and transfer to a different college with a music program? or, get a get a part-time job and some volunteer work and take the year off from the original school, then apply for readmit next year. believe me, such diversions work and administrators are impressed when you get your act together.

having just been to my cousin's basic training grad and seen all those shell-shocked (sorry hyperbole) kids walking around looking at 6-8 years and afghanistan makes me want to ask them why, exactly, did they think it would be easier to get rousted at 4:45 every day and have the DIs drive them like cattle, rather than sleeping til 10, going to class, working at starbucks a few hours a week and hitting the beach every weekend? seriously, the people who get the most out of the military are the ones who have something to bring to the military. everybody else is just filler.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:15 PM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

The military contract guarantees nothing. The Department of Defense’s own enlistment/re-enlistment document states, “Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me. Such changes may affect my status, pay allowances, benefits and responsibilities as a member of the Armed Forces REGARDLESS of the provisions of this enlistment/re-enlistment document” (DD Form4/1, 1998, Sec.9.5b).
posted by nadawi at 4:17 PM on December 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

thanks nadawi, I withdraw my first recommendation. I stand by the rest.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:22 PM on December 1, 2009

I did not enlist. However, I did attend a top music school, and spoke at length with some folks from the military (both recruiters and players) about band placements. The short version is that the slots are limited and highly coveted. Based on your brief description of your nephew's circumstance, unless things have changed dramatically in the years since I looked into it (which was well before 9/11), he is unlikely to get that assignment.
posted by cribcage at 4:30 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know someone who was in an Army band. She had a bachelor's and a master's degree from top music schools. I'm not sure how much of a sure shot it was for her, but judging from cribcage's comment, she probably was lucky, and that was two awesome degrees under her belt.
posted by zsazsa at 4:48 PM on December 1, 2009

The Army may or may not work this way, but when I was in the Air Force I happened to have some special qualifications in my science field and wanted that line of work. The month before I went in I collected about 5 or 6 letters of reference from professionals I knew. I took them to basic training. About 3 weeks in, we we went to personnel for the occupation selection process, and the specialists there asked all trainees for any special documents, certificates, etc. That's when I handed mine over. I got them back 2 weeks later along with my plum assignment in that field. It was a great springboard for my career.

I'm not saying that this necessarily works or the Army does it this way, but it's not the Army of the 1950s and they do have somewhat of a vested interest in matching up skills if the circumstances allow, since whatever actions they take on unusual personnel matters invariably have a reaction at the technical schools, for better or worse. I would suggest going to a military oriented forum somewhere and posting this question as there's probably off-duty Army people there who can answer for sure how it works.
posted by crapmatic at 5:08 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think any part of the military will allow him to just walk in and choose some part of it to participate in without having him go throught the process of breaking him down and training him in the military ethos.

Well, everyone goes to boot camp. At least in the Navy, though, you can get a guarantee of a certain follow-on community, such as the Navy Band. (The band requires auditions, though, if I remember correctly)

Like toodleydoodley says, though, if it isn't in writing *in your enlistment contract* it isn't a promise.

Here's a dirty trick (using the band as an example): the recruiter shows you a paper explaining what the Navy Band is and what the requirements are to be in it. At the bottom is a signature line. You sign it. That's not signing up for the Navy Band. Congratulations, you signed that you were told what the Navy Band is. Or maybe even applied to be in the Navy Band, with no guarantee made to you. If it isn't IN THE CONTRACT, it doesn't exist.

Furthermore, the wording is important. For example, I signed up to be in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. Got it put into my contract and everything. Still, though, that just meant they had to put me into that program. If I had failed out of school or gotten into trouble, I'd have been out of the program anyway. With the full service obligation remaining, plus the extra I agreed to to get put into the program.

So even if he gets to apply and audition, do not agree to report until he knows that he has been accepted and it gets into his enlistment contract. Send someone to the recruiting station with him to prevent him from signing anything without taking it home to read over carefully. It's very easy to get intimidated into signing something just on the say-so of some friendly Chief in an intimidating looking uniform who says everything will be ok.

Also, being in a special program does not mean he will never go to Afghanistan, for example. We have people from every community on temporary loan as Individual Augmentees in both war areas. Submariner in Kandahar? Damn right.

I haven't run across any recruiters who will outright lie and trick people. Some will, however, let you continue to believe some wishful thinking if it's convenient for them. Read the black and white of the contract.
posted by ctmf at 5:20 PM on December 1, 2009

I've known people who have played instruments for the military -- and, yeah, they actually spent their time playing in the bands.

But these spots require some high-caliber talent. Acceptance to a college-level music school doesn't automatically imply that; there's quite a difference between Eastman and Oberlin and such, versus some run-of-the-mill program. The ex-military musicians I knew were talented teachers and performers, with bachelor's and master's degrees, some of them working on their doctorates.

And when it comes to "bait and switch," I hate to just say, "all military recuiters lie!" Yeah, we've all heard stories and read the reports of predatory behavior. But don't forget that it's the military; every musician goes through the basic training regimen and so on. They're musicians, but they're also signing up to be soldiers. They'll be placed where the military needs people to be placed.
posted by SpringAquifer at 5:27 PM on December 1, 2009

I cannot speak to the Army, but I have a friend who has been in the Marine Band a dozen years. Her story is much like zsazsa's friend: She went to Interlochen Arts Academy and was a high achiever in her undergraduate and graduate music studies, playing a slightly-less-common-than-average instrument. I believe she auditioned at the end of her graduate program (see their FAQ on how one becomes a member - they do not go to boot camp), but at that point she'd already played with a few large city symphonies. The competition for spots is cutthroat and there are few of them. Not to malign your nephew, but the military bands have their choice of supremely talented, well-rounded musicians who want those spots, if my friend and her colleagues I've met are any indication. Anyone approaching a "failure to launch"-type situation is getting nowhere near them.
posted by jocelmeow at 5:30 PM on December 1, 2009

do not believe a military recruiter. They will lie to you if it serves their purpose. They are NOT looking out for YOUR best interests.
posted by HuronBob at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My high school band director was a former Marine Jazz Band member. The military bands recruited about 4-5 kids from my High School music program a year (about 15 years ago). From my understanding since he retired, that has dropped to 2-3 kids a year.

Know two instruments. Know two key signatures. know how to transpose. Know chromatic scales forwards and backwards for each half-step. Know music theory pretty well inside and out. Know progressions.

Also, if things don't work out. Know how to dodge bullets.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:47 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to how easy or difficult it is to get into the military band; however, I do remember fellow recruits in basic training (air force) who were in some special drill team that went around to other bases and did sort of... marching performances, etc. It was fun and exciting for them, except that they had those performances to prepare for and do, as well as all their normal military obligations. No thanks.

The way to stay safe in the military is to do something that makes the military spend a lot of money on you. A job with an expensive security clearance and a long school, specifically. Don't let him go in without a guaranteed job, because except for just a couple of fields, that can be changed during the selection process in basic training.
posted by lemniskate at 6:15 PM on December 1, 2009

I just don't think you can sign up for the military and never have to deal with the possibility of going into combat. That's what they pay you.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:45 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I say this as someone who's recently spent a lot of time at top-caliber US conservatories, and watched many colleagues take these auditions, occasionally successfully. "Two years at a college-level music school" will mean nothing to a military band. The only thing the care about is: How does he play? If he generally rocks auditions and wants to try to beat out the multiple Juilliard-MM-caliber candidates who will also be auditioning, more power to him! Hopefully they'll take his resume and hear him - there's no obligation or requirement of basic training just for auditioning, thank goodness. Take the "he could still get transferred and shot at!" comments above with a big grain of salt - military band musicians sometimes have to go through training, but I've never ever heard of them being placed in harm's way - it just doesn't happen. It's a great, great gig, and therein lies the problem.

You know about the cliche of 400 flutists showing up to audition for an empty chair in the big-city symphony? It's pretty much true, and those at the top of that 400-person heap - those that are genuinely "contenders" - are the same ones who typically end up with military bands.

I don't say this to be discouraging - perhaps a lofty goal will kick this guy into gear. And sometimes the act of preparing for a big audition causes a long-term positive impact far greater than the audition itself, even if successful. Good luck.
posted by violinflu at 9:07 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a masters student at a top US music school - I'm not a performer, but I have many friends who are, at all levels of collegiate experience. For many of them, a spot in one of the service bands is their career goal - something they've been practicing towards for many, many years. As someone has mentioned above, a single opening can attract hundreds of applicants, many of which who have had much more experience beyond a few years at undergraduate. Then again, there's the tale of the sophomore who won a spot in the Chicago Symphony because of her excellent audition. So, clearly, the most important aspect is how well he plays.

He has to be willing to look realistically at this. There's a clarinet opening right now with the Marine Band, and I know of at least 10 people at my school going out for it, each with about 10-12 years of experience on their instrument. If they get it, this one gig could be their career.

Also, to everyone that's basically saying "Don't trust the military, they'll just go get you shot at." While that may be true for many lines that military recruiters will feed you, this isn't true for the service bands. These are truly separate gigs. While some do require you to attend basic training, I've never heard of a service band musician getting sent to the front line.

Cavaet: This is in regards to the major groups: Pershing's Own, President's Own, Navy Band, Coast Guard Band, Army Field Band, etc. I know that there are sometimes bands attached to various divisions in the US Army, and while I haven't known any of the people in those groups, I do know that they tend to stick by their divisions, wherever they are. So that's a little more in harms way, but I haven't heard of a military musician being injured or killed while on duty. It is a really good gig that most professional musicians would kill to have.
posted by SNWidget at 5:24 AM on December 2, 2009

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