Washington D. C. Service Bands: Can You Afford Not to Audition?
Like many aspiring trombone students, I was part of a relatively small trombone studio that focused almost exclusively on covering the orchestral repertoire and winning an orchestral job. I never imagined I would be teaching trombone at a university, and at no point in my college career did I have any desire to play in the Marine Band. You may have the same thoughts about your career, and may view a position in a military band as something of a "last resort."
It was not until the U.S. Air Force Band, on their 1996 national concert tour, played in Jones Hall in Houston that I realized the quality and significance of wind band music. After having listened to a few of the Marine Band recordings and realizing that some of this nation's greatest trombone soloist came from the Marine Band, I decided to aggressively pursue this audition.
Much has already been written concerning the high level of performance that D. C. bands offer, and about differing approaches to taking and winning auditions. This article explores some of my experiences and thoughts as I auditioned and won a position with one of the most prestigious wind bands in the world, "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. Specifically, extra-musical aspects of the audition process, the pay and benefits of the military bands, responses to an informal survey of D. C. trombonists, and information about some specific requirements of a musician in one of the elite service bands.
The Audition: More than the Music
The audition experience for "The President's Own" was not unlike many orchestral auditions I had taken. In fact, I noticed many of the same faces in attendance, and the excerpts requested in the first round where identical to those in previous orchestral auditions I had taken. The final round was 90% sight reading, consisting primarily of band transcriptions of well know orchestral works in varied and sometimes remote keys. At my first audition I was runner-up to two fine trombonists, and quickly learned the importance of being prepared to sight read fluently in an audition setting.
Upon learning that there would be another audition a year later, I augmented my regular diet of etudes and drills with transpositions of the standard orchestral excerpts. Additionally, with the help of my teacher, I acquired a large binder of euphonium solo band parts to challenge my technique and to familiarize myself with the wind band literature.
Perhaps the only significant difference between the audition process for the Marine Band and a professional orchestra is the accompanying interview for all finalists. At the first audition I was unaware of this procedure and perhaps a little taken back as to the line of questioning. I was asked about financial, legal, foreign affairs, drug use, traffic violations or anything else that would jeopardize the White House top secret security clearance required to hold this position.
Why does a trombone player need a top secret security clearance? Musicians in the "President's Own" can spend anywhere from 25 to 50 days a year in the White House. The average cost of a comprehensive background check and the ensuing clearance (which undergoes an update and reinvestigation every 5 to 7 years) can be up to $50,000.00. This justififes the reasoning behind the initial interview at the audition and also explains the initial four-year enlistment.
The Commitment: Four Years
Many trombonists would have a difficult time committing four years to one position. Statistics show that young professionals are more likely to move from one position to another and tend to be less loyal to any one organization. The music business is more reminiscent of previous decades in that those who win a position in a major symphony orchestra are very likely to remain in that position until retirement. The "audition window" is in fact smaller, but it is the potential for experience and a quality of life I want to focus on in D. C. service bands. I would like to break down various aspects of my experience in the Marine Band into different categories and take a look at an informal survey of Marine Band and other Washington D.C. service band trombone sections.
Pay and Benefits: An Attractive Package
The compensation for members of the D. C. service bands is very attractive. After eight years of service my net monthly salary was just over $4,000.00 a month. This amount includes a housing allowance and other monies that equaled half of my pay and are not taxable. In other words, your taxable income is much less than what you are actually being paid. If you own a home, the interest from your mortgage along with your relatively low tax bracket make living in this relatively expensive part of the country more feasible. The equivalent compensation for someone with this net salary in the private sector would need to equal approxiamately $90,000.00 per year.
In addition to the competitive pay, one must consider the rapidly increasing costs of health care in the private sector. Companies and individuals consistently face increased premiums and co-pays as well as the rising cost of prescription drugs. These are not issues in any military band. My wife and I received expert care at our nation's finest military hospitals during the birth of our two sons and paid an out of pocket cost of $42.00 for each. I was allowed "paternity leave" and spent 10 days with my wife and new baby during each pregnancy.
Perhaps the biggest draw back to military health care is the fact that the system is reaching capacity or in many areas has far surpassed operating capacity. When you are delivering a baby they will make room, but if your son has an earache in the middle of the night you will rarely find a doctor that can see you that day or sometimes even that week. Your only option is to visit the emergency room and wait to be seen. Military families have the option of enrolling in a form of Tri-Care that gives you access to civilian doctors who accept this plan, but you have to pay for visits and prescriptions.
Gone are the days that an individual will work an entire career for one company and reap the rewards of a relatively early retirement and pension. When I left the Marine Band this past year I was 35 years old and 12 years away from retirement at the age of 47 (if I elected to retire after the standard 20 years of service). At that point I would receive half of my base pay with cost of living allowances each year and full medical benefits for life. Studies have shown that the cost of this benefit to a 401K or IRA by a civilian company would equal $800.00 a month. The cost of dental coverage is nominal for my entire family, and $250,000.00 of life insurance for me is free and very inexpensive for my wife.
When considering any kind of purchase whether that be groceries, tires for your car, electronics or furniture, everything is available at a discounted price and not taxed at the commissary and exchange stores all over Washington D. C. Over 95% of those surveyed in the Marine Band and Army Band trombone sections said they regularly use the commissary and Post Exchange for everyday purchases.
The Army offers up to $65,000.00 in college tuition payment which is reason enough for many to consider the four year contract. [Editor: This varies depending on current political administration and/or policy. Check current details before making any commitment.]
Perhaps the most significant area of pay and benefits one must consider when auditioning for a D. C. service band position is the potential for free lance work and musical experience. My biggest concern in accepting this position was that I would be somehow locked into one kind of playing and miss out on the orchestral experience I previously enjoyed. My experience was quite to the contrary. I asked the participants in the informal survey to list the ensembles or groups they played in regularly, Below is a list of the respondent's answers:
- National Symphony Orchestra
- Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra
- Richmond Symphony
- Harrisburg Symphony
- Baltimore Opera Orchestra
- Alexandria Symphony
- Washington Symphonic Brass
- Annapolis Symphony
- Chesapeake Symphony
- Fairfax Symphony
- Arlington Symphony
- National Theatre
- Concert Artists of Baltimore
- Kansas City Symphony
- St. Louis Symphony
When asked to list one or two professional orchestras that pay the equivalent to what you are making now, trombonist in the Marine and Army bands answered:
- Baltimore Symphony
- Buffalo Symphony
- Jacksonville Symphony
- Utah Symphony
- Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra
- Richmond Symphony
- Ft. Worth Symphony
- Colorado Symphony
- Cincinnati Symphony
- Nashville Symphony
- Houston Symphony
- Seattle Symphony
In summary, a trombonist who has been in a service band for 15 years and has been promoted to E-8 can expect his or her salary to be roughly equivalent to that of trombonists in a well established and reputable symphony orchestra.
The number of weekly work hours fluctuates depending on the service band. It was my experience in the Marine Band that during certain annual events such as the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, national concert tours, Christmas at the White House, Inaugurations, Fourth of July and recording sessions, the schedule can become, to even the most seasoned professional, difficult at best. These occasions are considered by most to be "just part of the job" and, when averaged into the overall work load, become more tolerable.
Those individuals who seek to view the deeper reason for service and strive to realize the greater significance of these events typically have a greater chance of surviving a long and fruitful career in the military. There are certainly trombonists in major orchestras that grow weary of regularly programmed works and the nature of certain annual holiday pops concerts. Jay Friedman, in his article "A Few of My Favorite Things" mentions his frustration with the frequency in which composers utilize the trombone section in much the same way as percussion instruments in contemporary music. Every job has those moments where you are less than enthusiastic about being there, but the important thing is to learn to see beyond what you are doing and look for a deeper sense of significance.
The following questions on the survey are in relation to work week and schedule. Following each question I listed the most common answers.
- How long have you been in the band? Answers ranged from 4 months to 20 years.
- How long is your average work week? Answers ranged from 10 to 21 hours. The most common answer was 12 hours.
- How much time do you spend in private practice on average? Answers ranged from 10 to 30 hours a week. The most common answer was 20 hours a week.
- How much time do you spend commuting to work? Answers ranged from 20 minutes to 2 and a half hours. The most common answer was an hour and a half.
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding concerning Washington D. C. service bands is the idea that because you have enlisted in the service you are treated unprofessionally. It is important to realize that although there may be rare exceptions from a confused General or Commandant, the work environment is very professional. Contrary to public perception, at no time has there been any yelling or heated discussion in a rehearsal by a director. If you miss the rehearsal there may be some heated discussion in a drum major's or director's office, but that is likely to occur in orchestral jobs as well.
Below are a list of survey questions about this area of work environment and I will list the most frequent answers given by respondents.
- What aspects of your job are most rewarding?
- Playing for veterans
- National concert tours
- Chamber music
- Playing with talented colleagues
- Days off
- At what point (if ever) did you start to really appreciate serving in the military?
- National concert tours
- Reagan's funeral
- I haven't yet but I respect those that do
- After my second enlistment
- It pays the bills
- Should a young trombonist have any reason for being discouraged from auditioning for a Washington D.C. service band if they are hesitant about military life?
- Out of a total of 20 respondents only one said yes.
- Absolutely not, any job is what you make of it.
- No, take the audition but be informed.
- Don't bother with the audition if you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, asthma or a problem with authority.
- List one or two things that describe the "successful" individual in the trombone section.
- Works well with others
- Good people skills
- Loves to play the instrument
- Team player
- Listens down the section well
- Matches style, note length, balances the principal
- How different is the rehearsal atmosphere from that of professional orchestras you have played with?
- You have to be prepared for both, very similar.
- Rehearsals in the band more relaxed
- There is more tension in a band rehearsal than with orchestras I have played.
- Depends on the conductor
- Professional orchestras tend to make fun of their conductors a lot more than we do. We have to be more subtle.
- There is much less talking in a band rehearsal.
- Our rehearsals usually go over time.
- Rehearsal technique in the band is sometimes less than professional. We seem to play through a lot of music without actually working on anything.
- Band rehearsals can become to detail oriented, only focusing on small insignificant wind parts and rarely covering large tutti brass sections.
- In your opinion, how would you describe the overall attitude of young trombonists towards D.C. service bands?
- Becoming more positive
- Most are unfamiliar
- Not enthusiastic
- Not taken seriously
It is clear that those in the service bands feel that those trombonists in the civilian world clearly do not understand or accept these jobs as legitimate. In response to this last question, many respondents commented that they themselves really did not understand the nature of the job until they got there. Some respondents where simply auditioning because they where preparing for other auditions or needed the experience and decided to accept the position not really understanding what the job entails. Many of these same respondents went on to comment how well the job has turned out and for all practical purposes it has been a rewarding experience for them.
After having played with the "President's Own" Marine Band for 8 years I have learned to appreciate the job more since leaving to accept a teaching position at Baylor University. I consider my time in the "President's Own" to be the most rewarding and challenging experience thus far. My advice for those who are considering auditioning for an elite service band: do it. Use every playing and performing experience in the band to learn something and to challenge some aspect of your playing. There are rewards to be had on many levels: musical, professional, financial and patriotic. Whatever your motivation for auditioning and joining a D. C. service band, you will be surrounded by extremely competent and musical colleagues and come out of the experience a better person, and a better musician.