So you want to get paid to play? We all know it’s NOT easy to make a living as a musician. High-paying orchestral jobs are incredibly hard to come by and piecing together a living through freelancing and teaching can be challenging, time-consuming and not always the right fit for performers.
One option more and more young musicians are considering is joining a military band.
It sounds a lot scarier than it really is. At least it did to me 20 years ago. I knew next to nothing about the military and never imagined myself in uniform. But the appeal of being paid to play trumpet was stronger than my fear of basic training and so, off I went into the United States Air Force.
Every branch of the armed forces has bands, some more than others, and the systems are all a little different. The Air Force, Marines, Navy and Army all have their top bands in Washington D.C. and other bands outside the D.C. area which are typically called field, fleet or regional bands. The Coast Guard just has one band located in New London, CT.
All the D.C.-based bands are outstanding and feature specialized ensembles including rock bands, jazz ensembles, concert bands and chamber groups. If you’re hired as jazz trombone in the Air Force’s Airmen of Note for example, you’ll play almost exclusively with that group.
Musicians in non-D.C. bands, however, usually play in a number of different ensembles. During my time in the Air Force, I performed in concert band, brass quintet, jazz ensemble and a rock band with horns. You can and will be asked to perform just about any style of music you can imagine, so versatility is key.
Whenever a military band has an opening, it advertises the position and holds auditions. You can find out about openings on each band’s website, instrument websites, like the International Trumpet Guild or Percussion Arts Society, and ads in publications such as International Musician. Many bands will also communicate openings directly to university and college faculty to pass along to their students.
Here are some websites with information on band openings – some even include audition requirements:
While every band will have a slightly different audition process, most will consist of at least two rounds. In the opening round you can expect to perform:
- A prepared solo – might be your choice, might be assigned – and perhaps an etude as well
- Scales – major and all forms of minor – two octaves
- Excerpts – both prepared and sight-reading
- Maybe some jazz improvisation or at the very least a jazz style excerpt
Those who make it past the first round will likely perform with an ensemble(s) and/or combo. Some bands do a blind audition but others do not. Panels can vary in size but will probably have at least four people and possibly quite a few more. The panel will often include the band commander, band manager and the senior ranking player of the instrument being auditioned.
The quality and quantity of people auditioning for military bands gets stronger all the time. Several military bands have been cut or reduced in size in recent years so the competition for spots is only getting stiffer.
As in most auditions, the panel will be listening for quality of sound, good intonation and time, as well as the ability to play in various styles. A march will often be included in the excerpts to test a player’s rhythmic accuracy.
It’s also important to be able to blend with others which is why you may be play with an ensemble or section at some point during the process.
Of course, besides musical ability there are certain other standards you must meet to be eligible for service. There are physical and age requirements which can vary slightly from branch to branch. Typically you need to be 34 or under and not have any disqualifying medical conditions, such as asthma, or criminal record. The biggest obstacle for many people is the weight limits. You don’t have to be rail-thin, by any means, but if you are 25 pounds overweight it could be a problem. It is best to check on the corresponding branch’s website to learn more. A recruiter can also help determine if there are any issues and some bands require pre-screening to make sure you are eligible for enlistment before you can audition.
If you win an audition, you will then be sent to a recruiter to start the process of joining the military and for getting a date for basic training. Except for the Coast Guard Band and President’s Own Marine Band, all military band members must attend basic training which varies in length and location by service.
While many people aspire for a spot in the D.C. bands, there are many more military bands outside the nation’s capital – including overseas. The quality of these groups can vary. The Air Force has the fewest bands overall and, in my humble opinion, the highest quality. I’m obviously slightly biased but I think most military musicians would agree with that statement. That’s not to say there aren’t great players everywhere, just that the quality of bands, top to bottom, is strongest in the Air Force.
If you interested in auditioning for a particular band, do some research online, try to find some recordings either on a band’s website or YouTube and see if you can talk to one of the band members. Find out what kinds of groups the band has, how much they perform, how often/where they travel and decide if it’s a good fit for you. Good luck out there!
About the Author
Jon comes to Encore Tours after 20 years as a professional trumpet player in United States Air Force bands including assignments in Ohio, Germany, Massachusetts and California. During his military career he performed in concert band, jazz ensemble, brass quintet and marching band in more than 20 US states and 19 foreign countries. Jon holds a Bachelor's degree in trumpet performance from Northern Illinois University.More Content by Jon Linker