By Jacqueline M. HamesFebruary 24, 2010
The United States Army Band "Pershing's Own" is the Army's foremost musical organization. Army Chief of Staff Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing established the band in 1922, emulating European military bands he had heard during World War I. Today, "Pershing's Own" continues to play an important role in national and international events, and leads every inaugural parade.
Leading such an illustrious organization can be daunting. Col. Thomas Rotondi Jr., balances his duties as commanding officer and concert band conductor.
The first female enlisted leader in the history of the band's existence, Command Sgt. Maj. Debra McGarity (pictured here), follows his example in her own career.
McGarity became the command sergeant major Oct. 2, 2009. She began her Army career in 1977 as a member of the U.S. Army Ceremonial Band. She has held numerous leadership positions, including noncommissioned officer-in-charge and clarinetist with the U.S. Army Band Woodwind Quintet. McGarity continues to perform as a clarinetist, while juggling her duties as the senior enlisted leader.
"Its obviously a balancing act," McGarity said, "because I do need to practice to stay up on my skills as a clarinetist, as well as devote the time and dedication to this job. But you know, I feel like I can do it."
Before, McGarity's focus was performing in the concert band, she explained, but taking a leadership position has opened more opportunities.
"I went from being concert band group leader to having oversight of everyone. I'm still learning, obviously," she said, but added that she is looking forward to being able to interact with all the different groups in the band.
McGarity began her musical career early in life, first joining a church choir at the age of five. Once she started school, she joined the band. In high school, McGarity took up the clarinet.
"I had a couple of really excellent band directors along the way and my high school band director kind of inspired me to want to be a band director," she said. "But while I was at school I decided to also pursue clarinet performance because I really enjoyed playing my clarinet."
McGarity played the saxophone a little during high school and college, but decided to stick with the clarinet. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education from Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, and a Master of Music in Clarinet Performance from the University of Maryland. During her college career, she heard about the service bands in Washington, D.C., and decided to audition for one.
Now, as the command sergeant major for "Pershing's Own," McGarity feels she has achieved the best of both the leadership world and the performance world. One of the best things about continuing to perform as clarinetist during her tenure, is being able to get out of the office and interact with the Soldiers, she said.
"I think that's important for me as the CSM," she added. "I can get the best of both worlds because I am still making music, which I love to do, but I'm also able to try and contribute to the band from this position."
Rehearsal is an excellent break from sitting behind her desk, McGarity said, and she looks forward to it. McGarity arrives at the office early to take care of administrative tasks before beginning rehearsal, which is normally in the morning. After, she returns to her desk and devotes the afternoon to her duties as the organization's enlisted leader, she said.
Watching "Pershing's Own" rehearse is a rare treat. As different sections of the band filed in and began tuning up, McGarity assembled her clarinet and went over the rehearsal pieces with her stand-partner. Fellow clarinetists deferred to McGarity because of her experience and rank. Once the rehearsal began, with Rotondi conducting, everyone was equal-everyone was a musician.
"I have noticed that since I've become the CSM I don't hear as much of the chattering that goes on as I would have," McGarity said about the pre-rehearsal banter. "Some folks are still not quite sure how to talk to me."
"I'm one of 'them,'" she added, smiling. "But it still gives me the opportunity to sit and talk to (the Soldiers) and see how things are."
Though her first concern is taking care of the Soldiers and their families, McGarity hopes to be able to maintain and further the standards and traditions surrounding "Pershing's Own."
In addition to her military duties, McGarity works as a freelance musician and serves on the music faculty of Northern Virginia Community College.
As the first female enlisted leader for "Pershing's Own," McGarity hopes women in the band, and all across the Army, consider her a role model.
"No avenue was closed to me as a female," McGarity said of her career. "I would pursue those things that I was interested in; I tried to do a good job at whatever responsibility was afforded me.
"I have three children, my husband was also in the band, so obviously that was challenging at times to raise three children with dual service parents," she explained. "I think it is sort of an example to the younger women here that, yes, it is possible to do... whatever you'd like to accomplish, if you just desire it. Both my family and the band were important to me, so I figured it out. I had a very supportive husband all the way, which helps."
McGarity hopes women in the Army won't hesitate to follow their hearts. "You need to know that all the doors are open to you if you want to pursue them," she said.
McGarity is extremely proud and humbled by her position as the command sergeant major for the band. "It's something I would have never... thought I'd be doing," she said of the position. McGarity has been with the band her entire career, more than 32 years.
"This band has some of the finest musicians anywhere in the world. In fact, this band is probably one of the finest bands that you'll find anywhere," she added.
"The band entrusted me with responsibilities and I was able to...contribute to the mission, do my best work, look for opportunities to contribute, and with each new assignment, it's led me to this one," McGarity said. "The people in the organization are just wonderful people, so it's really more of a joy to come to work every day, to work with them."