09 December 2017

Reflections After the Army-Navy Game

Army, 14, Navy 13. Damn.

I'm not a football fan, but I enjoy the annual Army-Navy Game. It reminds me of my years as an instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music.

For three years, I served as a member of a tri-service team of friendly rivals. My peers on the instructional staff were sailors, like me, but also soldiers and Marines with different customs, different military chains of command, even different languages. We wore different uniforms. We came to Virginia Beach from different bands and would return to different bands. But we worked together with the best sense of teamsmanship.

Each of us all taught students of all three services with equal dedication to the needs of each. We shared the same goal of sending trained musicians to the field or fleet, regardless of service.

We did undoable things. Imagine the fright of a young Marine tuba player who learns he will have to take lessons on the electric bass, an instrument he has never touched, and, within six months, develop the skills needed to play in a combo, rock ensemble and stage band. And imagine the fright of the instructor who is expected to make this happen. Anyone with any common sense knows such a task is impossible. But the staff made such impossibilities happen, daily.

U.S. Armed Forces School of Music Faculty Lab Band, c. 1979.

I went to work every day surrounded by topnotch professional military musicians. I still benefit from the examples of these musicians and patriots, many of whom became leaders of their services' musical organizations and prominent artists in the civilian world.

How I got a staff gig is still a mystery to me. It was a difficult job, but I was surrounded by professionals of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. I may not have been the best, but I swam in the wake of the best.

Okay, enough. Army: congratulations on your second-in-a-row football victory. It was fun, but we're now headed toward the 2018 season:

Go Navy, Beat Army!

09 November 2017

7th Fleet Band, 1959

The 7th Fleet Band was my last assignment. Here's a recording of the band doing "Old Rockin' Chair" on a Japanese radio show. No credit to me; I wasn't in the 7th Fleet Band in 1959. In fact, I wasn't even in 7th grade. 

05 October 2017

What's so holy about 120?

I never understood the School of Music's obsession with the number 120.  Instructors, particularly Marines, rabidly required that bands march at 120 steps per minute. Even in the rehearsal hall, a student conductor risked his career by letting a band play a march at any tempo than 120 beats per minute.

Granted, this tempo offers a few conveniences. 120 divided by 2 is 60, so each two-beat measure is one second in duration. This leads to a number of benefits. That number is 2:
  1. You can watch the seconds tick by on your watch and get an exact tempo.
  2. When planning a concert or ceremony, you can simply count the measures in a piece and instantly know its length. 
But the reality is this: 120 steps per second is unnatural. The tradition of marching at Holy 120 dates from a time when humans were comparatively short. Just 100 years ago, when John Phillip Sousa had his Great Lakes Navy band hop-skip-jumping across America, adult Americans were typically 3 inches shorter than they are today. Their shorter legs and commensurately lighter body weights could easily handle sustained marching at 120.


Fortunately, when I left the Basic Course and arrived at my first band, I found the School of Music obsession with Holy 120 did not extend to the fleet bands. In the real, grownup world of Navy music, you marched at an adult pace. A band could complete a long parade route without exhausted MUs collapsing in the gutters.

But after a few years, you'd go back to the School, where Marines with metronomes and stopwatches were waiting with glee to torture you with daily routines of huffing and puffing around the base at Holy 120.

Enjoy this short, recent clip of the Pacific Fleet Band marching at a reasonable, grownup tempo. Notice the precision. Notice the musicality. Notice how damn good they look.

Down with 120.

24 June 2017

Sat. Afternoon: Going Dark

The live-blogging of the 2017 NMA reunion now goes dark for a spell.

We're suiting up for the closing banquet and dance. We'll celebrate our friendships, remember old shipmates and think about those good, difficult, rewarding and challenging days of service. Then we'll say goodbye for another year.

And in the morning, we'll get in cars and on airplanes and head home.

Amidst all the farewell frenzy, I will not have time to share more with you from Virginia Beach. I, too, will close down the lounge tonight and rev up the car tomorrow morning.

In a few days I'll be home and ready to share much more with you about this wonderful week. Until then:

Fair winds, following seas.


To Absent Friends

Amidst the joy and excitement of meeting up with all the old friends at every reunion I start thinking about those who aren't here, those who could't come for reasons of time, distance, work, family and community obligations. You guys are in our thoughts this week. I know this is true because we've been talking about you.

Don't worry, it's not all bad-rapping. For instance, when the topic of the 7th Fleet Band comes up, I am obligated to talk about Mike Burch-Pesses. LCDR Pesses was my bandmaster when I was a boot chief. The poor guy didn't just have to oversee operations of the COM7FLT band. He had to oversee the operations of Chief Mullen,
Sorry, sir, but I couldn't
control myself. 

I recently heard from the commander. To his regrets over not being able to attend the reunion this year, he added, "I can still see you playing "Eve of Destruction" as a bossa nova during a reception aboard Blue Ridge."

I don't recall this particular event, but I'm sure it's true. The story has Frank Mullen written all over it. It's the sort of thing I'd been doing since I wore seaman's stripes and didn't have the sense to curtail when I put on anchor devices,

But Mike's ability to discuss this calmly sums up this fine officer's ability to know where to draw the line. I remember those receptions on the Blue Ridge, formal affairs in the officer's wardroom and the double-holy admiral's wardroom as well as ultra-formal, topside affairs with flag officers and civilian dignitaries. And there's poor Mr. Pesses, cringing in fear and hoping that no one will notice that his piano player, a chief petty officer, for God's sake, is jazzing up anti-war protest songs from the Sixties.

But he was also willing to laugh when it was all over and nobody wound up in the brig. Of course, 30 years gives a guy plenty of time to get over things.