By Lisa R. RhodesFebruary 6, 2014
When Sgt. Maj. Victor Cenales stepped out on the stage at Meade High School last December to sing "Mary, Did You Know?" during the U.S. Army Field Band's annual holiday concert, the audience cheered and nearly all rose to their feet.
"My parents attended the Fort Meade concert and my mother commented afterward that she could listen to Victor Cenales sing all day," said Maj. Dwayne S. Milburn, deputy commander of the Field Band and officer-in-charge of the Soldiers' Chorus.
"I'm pretty lucky in that I do get to hear him sing pretty much all day, every day, and it's always exciting."
Cenales, the senior bass vocalist, is the first African-American sergeant major in the history of the Soldiers' Chorus.
Cenales has been a fixture at Fort Meade since he joined the Soldiers' Chorus 22 years ago. His smooth and rich voice have made him a favorite at the Field Band's on-post concert series.
"Sergeant Major Cenales is an incredibly smart, diligent and flexible performer," Milburn said. "He is a strong contributor to the bass section of the Soldiers' Chorus, but it is the warmth and emotional vitality he brings to his solo work that connects with audiences night after night."
A native of Louisiana, Cenales had no intentions of embarking on a music career, although his love for music began at an early age.
"My first solo was indeed in church and I was 10 years old," he said.
In high school, Cenales played football and ran track.
"My mind was nowhere [about] singing in an organized group," he said.
That is until his high school choir teacher, Mrs. Weatherly, heard Cenales singing outside of her classroom door. She urged him to join the chorus.
When Weatherly asked Cenales to sight read the music, "it was not something that came naturally" he recalled, but he caught on quickly.
In his senior year, Cenales was selected as a member of the All-State Chorus, which was made up of the top-10 high school voices in the state.
Cenales was awarded a partial music scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana University, which he attended for two years.
In 1986, Cenales decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother Ralph, a master sergeant in the Army Reserve, and enlisted in the Reserve.
The following year, he transferred to Loyola University in New Orleans, where music instructor Phil Frohnmayer took an interest in him.
After Cenales' first daughter was born, he went on active duty in 1989. "I needed to take care of my daughter," he said.
Although he had dabbled in music, Cenales focused his career on dentistry and planned to become a dental hygienist. In 1990, he was stationed at Dental Activity in Seoul, Korea.
Cenales said Frohnmayer didn't want him to go into the military. When his former instructor learned about a vacancy for a bass vocalist with the Soldiers' Chorus, he recommended Cenales.
A chief warrant officer with the Field Band found Cenales in Korea and asked him to audition.
"I knew nothing of the Field Band," Cenales said. "I had to send a tape, but I had no music."
In an Army gym, Cenales recorded on a boom box a tape of him singing Mozart's "O Isis und Osiris," and "The Way We Were" by Marvin Hamlisch.
Not long after, he performed in a singing competition at Camp Pelham in South Korea, where a recruiter from the Army Soldier Show in Korea was scouting talent.
Cenales was selected for the Soldier Show in Korea. He also was called for an in-person audition for the Field Band.
"I blew them away with my voice," Cenales said of the audition, "but I had a little trouble with sight reading."
A week and a half later, the Field Band called to offer him the spot.
At the same time, Cenales was accepted to the DENTAC school and the Soldier Show in the United States.
Cenales has been a soloist with the Soldiers' Chorus since his first tour in October 1991.
Since then, he has performed as the chorus' soloist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and has sung at Constitution Hall and the Kennedy Center.
In 2012, he performed for President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Master Sgt. Laura Lesche, the soprano section leader of the Soldiers' Chorus, has known Cenales for 15 years and has often joined in duets.
"He has a beautiful, rich voice and magnetic stage presence, which grab the audience's attention right away," Lesche said.
Her favorite Cenales solo is "In My Dream," an African-American anthem by V. Michael McKay, a gospel composer.
"[It's] a compelling song written about reconciling all peoples, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status," Lesche said. "He gives a powerful performance."
Cenales was promoted to sergeant major last August. Milburn said that as the Soldiers' Chorus' first African-American to hold the position, Cenales serves as an inspiration to young people.
"As an extremely public face of the Army, it is important we reflect the very best the Army has to offer, if only so young people will see something of themselves when they look on our stage, and hopefully will make the decision that they too, can be a part of this tradition of service," Milburn said.
Cenales resides in Seven Oaks with his wife, Laurie, and six children, ages 28 to 15.
"It's an honor to perform at Fort Meade," he said. "It gives me the opportunity to share my talent with the people who support the Field Band. My kids grew up in this community. ... It is always good to give back to such a supportive community."