A Day in the life of the West Point Band
August 21, 2009
Army home football games, reviews on the Plain, meal formations and hops have a couple of things in common. Cadets is the obvious first answer but also, the efforts of the West Point Band.
All cadet events needing music involve support from West Point's professional Army band-in-residence, which has been an integral part of academy life since 1817.
The band's duties in the early days involved drilling cadets, which is an unbroken tradition that continues today as the 13-member Hellcats march cadets to their meals in the mess hall every weekday.
Along with the Hellcats, the West Point Band is completed by two more musical components, the 49-member Concert Band and the 18-member Jazz Knights.
Each component performs a distinct repertoire and rehearses regularly to prepare for performances at West Point, the surrounding Hudson Valley region and at prestigious music venues across the nation.
What goes into making all the moving parts work in mounting hundreds of performances at West Point and throughout the country each year' What is it like to work in one of the Army's premier bands'
To provide an insider's look at life in the band are Master Sgt. Susan Davidson, support staff operations chief; Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Herndon, Concert Band clarinetist; Staff Sgt. Andrew Porter, Hellcats drummer; and Staff Sgt. John Castleman, Jazz Knights trumpeter.
Before a single note can be played, the band needs a place to perform, and that is Davidson's job.
As the operations chief, she forms a critical link between requests and band performances.
Davidson comes to operations from the Concert Band, where she spent 10 years as a French horn player.
"It's as much being proactive as it is responding to the large number of requests we get for the band to perform," Davidson, who negotiates requests from both on- and off-post as well as initiatives driven from within the band, said.
All requests must be considered against existing commitments the band has to achieve a delicate balance between performances and rehearsals, Davidson said.
"It can be difficult to quantify the duties of my job," Davidson said. "Each day is unpredictable, and I may get some curve balls thrown at me."
Every day of the year, a West Point Band performance is happening somewhere or the band's musical components rehearse to prepare for their next performance.
Music is often chosen in support of a concert theme. It may be selected by a guest artist who is featured with the band.
The music may be received months in advance, or it may arrive very close to the performance date. It takes a seasoned professional to learn complex music on a moment's notice and make it sound polished. Porter enjoys this aspect of his job in the band.
"Performing with the level of musicians we have in the West Point Band teaches me something every day," Porter said. "We have some of the best performers in the world in our ensembles."
The high caliber of musicians is often what attracts people to audition for the band, but a steady paycheck in an uncertain economy is equally attractive.
Porter observed that "there is a lot of competition at auditions. Job security for orchestras is nowhere close to what it used to be."
Before his job in the West Point Band, Porter was a civilian freelance musician, often logging a 70-hour work week as a performer and music teacher.
"As a performing musician, you very often have to balance freelance jobs, private lessons and other sources of income to make ends meet," Porter said. "The West Point Band presented the perfect opportunity-a full-time job as a performer. Very few musicians have the stability and peace of mind provided to us."
Castleman, the lead trumpet player in the Jazz Knights, agrees with Porter about the job security.
"Full-time jobs for musicians are dwindling," Castleman, who came to the West Point Band in 2008 after seven years in the Air Force, said. "The best part of my job is sitting back and listening to the great players we have in the band. I really enjoy listening to the improvised solos in the Jazz Knights."
Herndon has been a clarinetist in the Concert Band since 1998. After receiving a master's degree in clarinet performance in 1995, he joined the Army as a bandsperson and was stationed with the 296th Army Band at Camp Zama in Japan.
A year-and-a-half later he auditioned for the West Point Band, based on a recommendation from his undergraduate clarinet professor, a West Point Band alumnus.
Herndon, like many members of the band, was attracted to the West Point Band's "stabilized" assignment.
"It's a great gig for aA,A musician and unique in the Army with our permanent duty status here at West Point," Herndon said. "I get extreme enjoymentA,A in playing clarinet for a living. There is an incredible amount of talent throughout the band, and itA,A motivates me to continue to try to improve my skills."
Those skills can often be non-musical, as the band is a self-sustaining organization.
"I was hired to play clarinet," Herndon explained, "and, at the time, I had not given much thought to the newA,A skills the band would help me develop during my career.
"I have beenA,A able to grow as a leader while being a part of the football production staffA,A for eight years," he added. "Now, I work in the operations section and as the guest artist coordinator for the ConcertA,A Band. These areA,A things I would have never thought of doing when I first got hired."
Porter concurs with Herndon's sentiment.
"I work in resource management," Porter said. "I've learned a lot about budgeting and procurement. That's a skill that I probably would have never invested the time and money in to learn outside of the Army."
Notwithstanding the importance of secondary duties, musical excellence remains paramount and the band members are serious about continuously improving their musical skills with individual professional development.
"It's a difficult task to keep each area workingA,A smoothly, but time management helps," Herndon said. "I continue to further develop my musical skills, and try to move onto the next plateau throughA,A practice and professional studies."
Porter added, "There must be a good balance between what you are hired to do as a musician and extra duties. It can take over and make you feel burned out. However, it's good to have a variety of challenges, but you also have to know when to step away and leave it for another day."
Castleman notes that the goal is to merge the musician mindset with a military lifestyle.
"As musicians, we're right-brained people thrust into a left-brained environment," Castleman said. "The challenge is to collectively find a balance between the different types of personalities in the band."
Ultimately, it is the opportunity to be part of a world-class musical organization that makes a job in the West Point Band special.
"I haveA,A gotten enjoyment from the varied type of performances we do, whether it's as a soloist with the Concert Band, in a review forA,A the alumni or in a shared performance with the New York Philharmonic," Herndon said.
Davidson added, "I enjoy being able to observe the growth of the band. The enlisted personnel assume a great responsibility for the band's direction, and it's rewarding to be a part of that as it moves forward."
For more information about the band, go to www.westpoint.edu/band. Also, look for the new frequently asked questions page.