She landed one of music’s biggest gigs, but came to boot camp first

The 4,300-seat performance venue, about an hour’s drive north of Carnegie Hall, was deserted except for nine uniformed judges seated behind a thick black curtain.

With her mouth dry from nerves, Ada Brooks raised the trumpet of her euphonium, a smaller relative of the tuba, and prepared to play the notes that might determine her future.

“Breathe,” she thought. “The beginning is the most dangerous part.”

Ms. Brooks has told herself this before. Her passionate pursuit of playing the euphonium professionally, which is not used in traditional symphony orchestras, put her through many stressful auditions. This is her tenth stint with an institution that bills itself as America’s largest employer of musicians: the U.S. Army.

She practiced, prepared, and tried to remember to breathe again and again. She was repeatedly turned down or offered jobs in area bands. Now, an opportunity has arisen for a senior position, one of the few open seats in the prestigious West Point Marching Band.

Certain aspects of auditioning—such as playing for a jury that remains hidden behind the scenes to prevent potential bias—are familiar to most orchestra musicians. Others are unique to the military. Two of the other four candidates said they had to lose weight to qualify, and the finalists were tested on their coordination during marching drills.

Many area military bands represent the armed forces in ceremonies, parades, and holiday celebrations. About a dozen top bands, including the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point, New York, perform at the inauguration and when foreign dignitaries visit.

Seats at the top bands are especially attractive, offering job security and stable pay (starting salaries are about $70,000) as well as health care and other benefits. Those who win these awards often stay on for many years, even their entire careers.

Ms. Brooks practices three hours a day in her living room in Denton, Texas, using high-end recording equipment to identify flaws in pitch or rhythm.

At her audition, she performed with confidence and precision excerpts from works by Schoenberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, as well as John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack.

At one point, a judge asked her if she could be “more impassioned.” She repeated some measures. After she performed Bois Mortier’s Sonata No. 12 with the orchestra’s principal tenor player Staff Sgt. One of the judges, Christopher Leslie, growled, “I think you could do better, match his style and tone. Again.”

Finally, Ms. Brooks was one of two finalists asked to play additional footage and be interviewed face-to-face by the judges. The final question comes from band director Lt. Col. Daniel Tovin: Why do you dream of being in a top military band?

Ms. Brooks paused.

“As you probably know,” she said, “the euphonium doesn’t have a lot of options.”

There was a burst of laughter.

After careful consideration, Officer Leslie made his decision. She came in.

Well, that’s almost it. Ms. Brooks had to complete more than two months of boot camp to become an Army musician.

Ms. Brooks, 27, was introduced to euphonium by her eighth-grade band teacher in Columbia Falls, Montana. As she puts it, at the time she thought it was “just a not-cool plus size,” and no one was worried about limited career opportunities.

By tenth grade, she was in all-state band and no longer planned to study math, science or physics in college. She is now determined to become a professional euphonium player.

She bought a euphonium for $7,000 and studied for two years at Interlochen High School for the Performing Arts in Michigan. Ms. Brooks subsequently earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance from the University of North Texas, where she made an eight-year commitment to the Southwest Air National Guard Band, eager to gain part-time experience performing music in a military environment. .

When Ms. Brooks’ unit unexpectedly deployed to the Texas-Mexico border as part of Operation Lone Star, many musicians quit. “Our band shrank to half its original size,” she said.

During her 10-month tour of duty, Ms. Brooks worked from midnight to 8 a.m. issuing weapons at the armory. Many of her band members provided water to migrants crossing the border and sat with them until Border Patrol agents arrived. She was staying in a hotel, which made preparing for the audition difficult.

“I was practicing my instrument in the car,” she said. “It’s really tragic.”

Military life can be a shock to musicians, most of whom have no previous experience of being in the military.

“It’s a little weird that we have to wear combat uniforms to play the tuba,” said Staff Sgt. Alec Mawrence, tuba player in the West Point Marching Band. “Eventually, your head is shaved and you’re screaming, ‘Yes, instructor.'”

The sun has not yet risen in the Ozark Mountains of south-central Missouri, and the cadets of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment have already begun marching. It was early January, the weather was cold, the temperature was 1 degree, and there was a layer of mist hanging over the unit.

“I left home to join the army,” the cadets sang in unison.

Ms. Brooks (now Specialist Brooks) had deemed the daunting experience worth it, saying earlier, “Basic training is no big deal compared to 20 years of performance work.”

But now, after six weeks at Fort Leonard Wood and five more to go, Specialist Brooks looks exhausted. She enjoyed morning bugle and rifle drills, especially the accuracy, which reminded her of practicing an instrument. Less enjoyable was standing in the cold for hours and eating unusually fast.

“While I’m here, I practice my joy, my marksmanship,” she said, referring to the call-and-response rhythm sung while marching or running. She hadn’t been able to bring her euphonium, so she tried not to think about it. “It feels like a completely different life,” she said. Most of the students had no idea she was a musician.

Brooks was a quiet perfectionist who struggled to endure the series of reprimands that were the hallmarks of basic training. Her coping mechanism was to smile, prompting instructors to snap, “Brooks, hide your teeth!”

“I’m not sure how I would handle being yelled at,” she said. “But then you realize they’re not actually angry. They just keep doing it.

When the company arrived at the armory to receive rifles for range training, the cadets stood shivering at attention. “A soldier’s creed!” shouted an instructor.

“I’m an American soldier,” Specialist Brooks and her unit responded. “I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”

Music and the military have long been intertwined. For centuries, drums have been used to determine the rhythm of marches. Before the advent of radio, fifes and drums were used for communication on the battlefield. The first military band in the United States—the United States Marine Corps Band, known as the “President’s Personal Band”—was established by an Act of Congress in 1798.

During the Civil War, band members would put down their instruments, take up arms and fight, then resume playing, said Loras John Schiesel, senior musicologist at the Library of Congress. By the early 20th century, music was considered important to military morale.

“Music,” he said, came “after food, water and ammunition.”

Direct exposure to combat has become increasingly rare for military musicians, but it is not unheard of. In 1941, during the attack on Pearl Harbor, all 21 musicians aboard the USS Arizona died while delivering ammunition to the ship’s guns. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. Army Band assisted with search and rescue operations at the Pentagon.

The possibility of combat is one of the reasons why musicians receive the same training as infantrymen. So on another cold morning during basic training, Specialist Brooks and 136 other Soldiers prepared to rappel down the Confidence Tower, a 40-foot-tall wooden structure.

The 1.5-mile march toward the tower (no talking allowed) was mostly silent, the loudest sounds being the crunch of frost under boots and the rustle of camouflage uniforms on heavy backpacks.

In boot camp, Specialist Brooks was so isolated from music that he would hum Gustav Holst’s Suite No. 1 in E flat while running laps. Before arriving, she copied lyrics (including Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”) into a notebook so she had a radio in her head. While packing her bags for field exercises, she and her roommates sang the show’s song “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”

As she marched toward the Confidence Tower, the voice of the rhythm guru that Brooks was asked to shout out multiple times stuck in her head.

Sitting in my foxhole
sharpen my knife
pop up enemies
had to end his life
Dead, kill them, dead, kill them
Why not die?

“I loved the singing part, but the violence kind of shocked me,” she later said.

When the cadets reached the tower, two were disqualified for marching too slowly. Several others were unable to complete the small nearby training wall. Brooks, a rock climbing and caving expert, isn’t worried.

The wind shook the tower and the wood creaked. When Specialist Brooks reached the top of the mountain, an instructor sitting near the steep slope shouted to another instructor: “You take the esophagus.” This was an affectionate nickname given to her by the teacher, a play on “Tennus” .

Expert Brooks knelt on the edge of the tower’s top. She grinned without caring to hide her teeth.

Throughout basic training, she tried not to think about the thing she missed most from her home near Dallas: baking her favorite blueberry muffins with chia seeds. Lingering over a cup of coffee. Watching movies on the couch with her dog and three cats, Kiwi, Biscuit and Momo.

When Specialist Brooks left Fort Leonard Wood, her boyfriend arrived with her euphonium. She even played a solo before leaving the base for her first meal.

In April, two months after she completed boot camp, Sergeant Brooks, who graduated and was promoted to staff sergeant, attended her first musical performance as a member of the West Point Marching Band at a school in North Salem, New York. meeting. She has rehearsed twice with the orchestra and is now nervously adjusting the ornate pin on the lapel of her black blazer.

“Does this look straight?” she asked. She glanced at her full concert uniform in the mirror and said: “It’s so exciting and weird to see myself dressed like this.”

The concert’s repertoire was chosen to trace the legacy of West Point. When the band arrived at “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the crowd cheered and sang along.

Conductor Col. Tovin wrote in his master’s thesis that music helps the Army fulfill its public affairs mission of building trust and confidence among citizens. “These are taxes you pay at work,” he said proudly in a speech at the concert.

Sergeant Brooks’ first concert with the band concluded with an encore of “The Official West Point March” and John Philip Sousa’s rousing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She looked happy and relieved.

As the musicians mingled with the enthusiastic audience, Sergeant Leslie approached Sergeant Brooks. “Congratulations,” he said, nodding, a far cry from the neutral stance he had taken as a judge at her audition eight months earlier. Sergeant Brooks held flowers and smiled broadly.

She grabbed the collar and asked the band members, “Is anyone else warm in these uniforms?” As her adrenaline began to wear off, she said playing with these military musicians felt surreal: “It took a while to get over it. Imposter Syndrome.”

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