Monday, January 19, 2009

The voice heard 'round the world

The voice that will announce the arrival of dignitaries at the inaugural ceremony tomorrow--members of Congress, present and former high-ranking government officials and, of course, the President-elect, will be that of a U.S. Navy Musician.

MU1 Courtney Williams is the concert narrator for the United States Navy Band.

According to this story in the Washington Post, Williams is experienced at announcing arrivals at military ceremonies. I think he'll find a presidential inauguration is slightly different from the typical change of command:

People, for once, will be paying attention.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's still true . . .

"Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.'"

-- President John F. Kennedy, remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy, 1 August 1963.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Navy Tradition # 49: Marching Band Practice

The most mind-numbing naval tradition flowers in the springtime. The parade season is near, and the bandmaster fears that, over the winter, the band may have forgotten how to march. He walks to the grease-board, spots an afternoon currently scheduled for liberty and writes "1300: Marching Band Practice."

The afternoon arrives, and the band forms up on the grinder, which is Navy nomenclature for "Parking lot that has been soaking up heat since sunrise." The drum major orders the band to stand at Attention. Every one of us has done this five hundred times before. We automatically snap to Attention in perfect symmetry.

But this symmetry does not meet the drum major's standards. He has a job to do, and his job is to bore his shipmates to the very boundaries of tedium.

The drum major begins by standing at the head of the first column and grasping his mace as though it were some sort of divining rod. He uses it as a sighting-device and looks down the line of sailors.

"Half a pace to your left, Smith," he calls out. "No, too much. Okay, back a little more. Good, right there. Okay, Jones--slide a skosh to the right. No, a bigger skosh. Too much, go back just a--there! Don't move."

When every bandsman in the first column is perfectly aligned with Jupiter, Mars, the Pentagon and the Naval Observatory, the drum major takes an officious pace sideways and repeats the process with members of the second column, ordering bandsmen to move a hair's-breath this way, a micrometer that way.

Let me interrupt here to point out that this is pointless, nonproductive, time-consuming and murderous to morale. No matter how perfect the formation, as soon as the band steps off, it will--

Whoops, I'm getting waaay ahead of myself.

Eventually, all columns are lined up to the satisfaction of the drum major, who is clearly AWOL from his berth in the obsessive-compulsive ward of the nearby Naval Hospital. The band has been standing in the sun for ten minutes now and has covered a collective distance of less than six inches. Isn't it time to get this show on the road? If this is marching practice, shouldn't we practice a little marching? That's what we came out here to do, isn't it?

No, no and no. We came outside to act as puppets for a damn First Class with a big head and a long stick. We're still a long way from actual marching.

It is now time for Petty Officer Perfect to micro-manage the formation from a different angle. Now, His Majesty stands at the end of the first row--the trombones--and repeats his previous exercise. He does the hocus-pocus with his mace and orders Johnson to move forward 3/16 of an inch, Farrell to edge backwards just a tiny bit--in fact, don't even move your feet, Farrell, just lean aft into the breeze. Perfect! Now on to Davis, who is standing six bothersome molecules out of line.

The expression "reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic," so often used to describe minutely-detailed activities that will, in the face of coming events, be proven irrelevant, may be appropriately applied to this situation. When Dickie Drum Major finally gives the signal to march, this ridiculously perfect spacing will be--

There I go again. Where were we? Oh, yes. The drum major has moved to the second row and is telling grown men and women to move their feet half a pebble's-length forward. The sun is hot out here on the grinder. The beer is cold in the E.M. club. In the minds of a score of bandsmen, the drum major has been stripped naked and tied to a spit which rotates slowly over searing flames.

After twenty minutes, Der F├╝hrer is finished. He marches to the front of the formation and turns to face the band.

"We'll march to the middle of the grinder and try a countermarch," he says. He executes a sharp About Face, signals with the mace, and the band steps off.

Because the first row consists of trombone players, the countermarch does not go well. Before the drum major gives the signal for the maneuver, one of the trombones falls out of step, causing a traffic jam among those in the column behind him.

The drum major halts the band and has a few words with the trombones, demonstrating steps and procedures until they all claim to understand.

"Good," he says. "Let's try it again." He moves to position in front of the band and calls the unit to Attention.

This is the part of marching band practice that, as I think about it decades later, still makes me want to scream, curse and snap precious family heirlooms over my knee. Now that the problem has been corrected, do we get on with business? Does the drum major now give the signal to march? Do we pick up where we left off?

No, no and no.

The drum major once again stands at the head of the first column and does that artsy-fartsy alignment thing with the mace, like it's a magic GPS device. We're not going anywhere anytime soon; we're going to spend another half-hour standing at attention while the Big Kahuna tells grownups to move sideways a distance equivalent to the width of a chipmunk's left nostril.

What always made this so galling to me was that, all along, I had the solution. But would anyone listen to my idea, consider it and give it a fair try?

No, no, and no.

To any trained musician, marching is the simplest, most brainless activity imaginable. All you have to do is walk behind the guy in front of you, putting your feet in the exact place his feet were two beats ago. That is the limit of intellectual and physical involvement required to perform the activity known as "marching."

The only bandsmen who must accomplish anything more challenging than playing Go Fish with a five-year-old are the trombone players in the front row. They must maintain a consistent distance behind the drum major and from each other. Only the trombone players need to march perfectly; the rest of the band merely duplicates their moves.

Trombonists should be the only bandsmen involved in marching practice. They should line up and follow the drum major around the grinder all afternoon long. They'd get a lot more practice without the rest of us taking up the drum major's precious time.

I've recently thought of offering this suggestion to the Navy Music Program; I got to wondering if, since my discharge, common sense may have become a core value of the United States Navy.

But I can just see my suggestion working its way up the chain of command, doing a countermarch and returning in triplicate:

No, no and no.