Soldiers living dream as Army musicians

By James BrabenecOctober 26, 2017

Front and Centerfire
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Spc. Robbie McMillan leads the 77th Army Band's rock 'n' roll ensemble, Centerfire, Oct. 20, 2017 at the Patriot Club on Fort Sill, Okla. McMillan and pianist Sgt. Melvin Newton play some off-post gigs and said their friendship is so easy the two wou... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Rockin' pianist
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Playing an electric piano, Sgt. Melvin Newton said he feels the instrument's emotion and plays either what it or he feels. Newton, a member of the 77th Army Band at Fort Sill, Okla., plays with the band's rock 'n' roll ensemble, Centerfire, Oct. 20, ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SILL, Okla., Oct. 26, 2017 -- 77th Army Band members Spc. Robbie McMillan, a vocalist, and Sgt. Melvin Newton, a pianist, embrace the Army culture and the opportunities that arise to serve as ambassadors to audiences locally and globally. Serving provides them a way to daily define and refine the range and complexity of their instruments and give back to the Army.

"Any day on the piano is a good day for me," said Newton, "and I'm very happy the Army helps me to do that."

He first donned his Army greens at age 30, a bit later than the average Soldier. However, he's well familiar with Army life, having grown up with two active-duty parents. His mother was in legal, and his father, a bandsman too, played trombone.

Newton began playing music at age 6 and years later completed bachelor of performance degrees in piano and French horn at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. With a working wife and a newborn son to support, he saw the Army as a good career that would also provide security for his family. He was right on target for a future in military music, except his recruiter wasn't too adept at getting prospects connected with band auditions. Instead, he enlisted as a human resource specialist, but his focus became known immediately.

"I was asking about the band since basic training," said Newton with a hearty laugh.

He exudes that joy in the words he used to express what the piano means to him.

"As soon as my hands get close to my piano or someone else's keyboard, I feel its emotion and communicate through touch, playing either what I feel or the piano feels," he said. "There's a personality in every instrument that I play."

He also enjoys arranging and composing music, which has fulfilled hopes that developed in childhood. "My dream was to either play or have others play my music around the world, and through the Army, I can do that."

As for far-reaching aspirations, Newton said he's already experienced the reaction of people of other nationalities when they first hear Army music.

"When I went to Kuwait, we got to play for Kuwait University, seeing a different culture enjoying what we were doing -- it's great to experience that. That's probably my all-time favorite gig," he said.

Digging deeper into that crowd's response revealed social restrictions Newton had never experienced before.

"In Kuwait it's illegal for them to dance together. But, you could see people moving around in their seats like they wanted to get up and dance. Everyone from the students to the prince sitting in the front row was moving," said he.

McMillan said singing for the Army gives him the chance to do something he loves. That inner desire, accompanied by the professionalism of those he plays with, calms him when its time to perform.

"I'm not a rock star, and I'm not going to get discovered -- this is everything I wanted to do in music," he said.

Unlike many Soldiers who began their adult years in the Army, McMillan lived civilian life for about a decade before he enlisted. He graduated from St. Paul College in Lawrenceville, Va., with a degree in business administration, and while he sang in bands from time to time, he was more focused on work and raising a family.

A grandfather was the nearest relative who served in the military, so making that jump wasn't immediately obvious to him. The impetus to join up came during a concert he and his wife attended. Listening to a vocalist belt out tunes, his wife asked him, "Isn't this what you want to do for the rest of your life?"

McMillan said he's very determined person who will give his all to get what he wants. Despite this, his initial thoughts on Army service paled. "I thought this can't be real, there's no way I could be a singer for the Army."

With a growing family and full-time working wife, he talked with his family about enlisting in the Army. This led to a sister-in-law telling him she saw on a website the Army had openings for vocalists. Again he muted any sense of optimism, "I'll never make it, but I'll submit an audition."

The audition included him singing the national anthem and two other songs. Surprisingly, he received a call rather quickly requesting more information about his singing. This led to a live audition at the Army School of Music at Virginia Beach, Va., in January 2016. The vocal instructor liked what he heard and McMillan had a ticket to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.

"I swear, if I can do it at 34, anyone can do it," said McMillan, relating how his friends were in disbelief seeing him in an Army uniform. "Most people who come into the Army are operatically trained or voice majors in college and classically trained to do things I'm learning to do now."

McMillan said his career is revealing new opportunities constantly, such as performing with a big band or jazz combo, and the concert and rock 'n' roll bands. With those opportunities, he's discovered growth in his vocal talents ... along with growth in the audiences he's performed for. He said he's sung the national anthem in front of 100 or at most 200 people, but took the stage before a much larger audience during the Lawton-Fort Sill Freedom Festival, July 4. He said crowd estimates reached 30,000 people as he stood to deliver "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"These are crazy numbers for me that there were that many people there. Two years ago I would have said I could never do that, or at least be worried," he said. "I didn't have any apprehension about doing that, because the musicianship here is phenomenal -- I've never played with musicians this good."

Through their work conversations the two men realized they had a lot in common. That developing friendship led to off-duty gigs playing what McMillan said was anything from the 1950s forward.

"If we had met outside the Army, we'd still be this close," said Newton.

But, these two dedicated musicians are first focused on their roles in supporting the Army's warfighters, and it's a duty they feel honored to accomplish.

"What we play sometimes gives them more of an umph to go out there and do what they do," said Newton, who related his job to a bard in a role playing game he likes.

"Soldier support is a big thing. We're lifting spirits, and providing a release or outlet from Army life sometimes," said McMillan.