Hanging out with the U.S. Army Field Band

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live

Trumpeter talk


Though it doesn’t look like much, there’s an old brick building on Fort George G. Meade, Md., alive with music. Inside, men and women armed with black instrument cases dart from rehearsal space to rehearsal space. Violins can be heard tuning up in the distance, punctuated with the occasional drumbeat. The building is home to the service’s premier touring musical ensemble, the U.S. Army Field Band.

Most of the hustle in the corridor was people preparing for a “Google Hangout,” hosted by one of the Field Band’s three performance brass quintets, the Federal Brass Instrumentalists. Band members worked quickly to leave a large rehearsal room so the FBI and its technical support team could set up shop. The hangout, a live video chat between two or more parties, required high-quality video and sound feeds and an improvised stage in the rehearsal space, blocked off by equipment cases and heavy speakers.

“Google Hangouts give us a great opportunity to increase … (our overall mission, which) is to take it to the grass roots — the story of the Army — and to reach as many people as we can,” Staff Sgt. J. G. Miller, a horn player with the FBI, said.

The FBI, part of the small-ensemble performing component at the Field Band, travels thousands of miles each year to bring quality concerts, educational clinics and master classes to students and the American public nationwide. But because of budget cuts throughout the Department of Defense over the last year, travel funds were reduced, necessitating a new way to perform the educational outreach mission.

Google Hangouts provided an innovative solution.

Staff Sgt. John Blair, a member of the Field Band, participated in a hangout a few months ago.

“When we did it, it was an awesome experience,” he said. The band is able to enter a classroom that is hundreds of miles away and give a master class, Blair said, talking about things like sound production, what instruments work well and different kinds of musical equipment.

“This gives us a way to get into schools that maybe we’re not in that area for the tour, that maybe some places just don’t have the resources that can bring our full band and chorus and jazz band or whatever, out there. So (this is) very useful just to get into the different schools,” he continued.

When the hangouts started a few months ago, the Field Band had more people in its Google+ circles than any other organization it works with — a total of about 1.3 million followers, Sgt. 1st Class James Wood, the FBI’s non-commissioned officer in charge, explained. The event, the FBI’s first, took place Feb. 28 with music majors from Tyler Junior College in Texas.

Members of the FBI milled around the rehearsal space as the video feed was set up. There was a back and forth between a band representative and Professor Sarah Roberts, who requested the hangout, for a sound check. Microphones buzzed, adding to the air of anticipation.

Miller, who is from Los Angeles, played music for major studio productions, so he is used to being micro-phoned and filmed, but other members of the FBI were nervous. No one looked at the camera while they played.

“There’s s rule in Los Angeles. It’s ‘don’t look up,’ because while you are playing music you have to get everything right, everything is being recorded, the film is running on a massive screen behind you, so the second you look up it can be really unnerving,” Miller said, referring to the hangout video feed, which displayed the band and the students on the same monitor. Even professionals get nervous seeing themselves live on screen.

The FBI played a selection of classic brass pieces during the first part of the hangout, but before they could move on to more modern pieces, Roberts informed them the sound quality was bad. In true Army style, the technical support for the band adapted quickly, running sound and video simultaneously through a computer monitor to circumvent the feedback. After that, the FBI’s modern repertoire was met with enthusiastic applause.

“With any new enterprise there is always going to be, you know, things that we need to figure out,” Miller said of the technical glitch, “and these opportunities are learning experiences for us in figuring out how we can make this product better every single time.”

“The experience was extremely worthwhile once the sound was fixed,” Roberts said. “The students could hear wonderful brass sounds and en extremely high level of proficiency on those instruments.”

Roberts, who had seen the members of the Army Field Band perform in other schools before and previously collaborated with some of those musicians, was sent information on the hangouts by one of her friends in the band. Because she had seen the band interact with students before, Roberts said she knew the event would be beneficial.

“While Tyler, Texas does have some local performing groups and guest artists coming to visit, it is important for our students to continue to have exposure to professional musicians,” Roberts said. “Not only do those opportunities put into perspective the level of proficiency required on their given instrument, but they also help students apply various techniques to their own study.”

The hangout also provided the students with a chance to see the variety of music careers that are available, and gave them the opportunity to ask questions about a specific career path, Roberts explained.

Roberts said the students were engaged with the hangout, taking notes and watching attentively.

“(The students) seemed to receive it well, definitely,” Wood agreed. Once the performance was over, students approached a microphone positioned in their classroom and were able to ask questions regarding application of certain techniques, what it was like to be in the Army and be a musician, and about the Soldiers’ musical histories before the Army. Members of the FBI would take turns answering questions, ensuring the questions were matched with the Soldier best able to answer.

“In the case of our TJC students who are music majors, their development as professionals begins with the musicians they come into contact with. Therefore, it is imperative that their scope be set far beyond the walls of the school they attend,” Roberts said.

The Field Band was formed to be on the road 250 days a year, Wood said, traveling across the country in what amounted to school buses. They were referred to as the “Kings of the Highway.” Now, the band is on the road 100 to 120 days a year and spends the rest of its time rehearsing. Wood added that it’s great that the band can still guarantee a virtual appearance at the drop of a hat through the hangouts, continuing their outreach mission despite financial constraints.

Roberts believes the hangout sessions are the wave of the future for educational purposes, and maybe concert attendance as well. “It’s not only important for students to see how this technology functions within a setting that is quite different than what they might use it for personally … the hangouts make the sheer distance of the parties nonexistent, which can allow for interaction unlike anything imagined. I would definitely participate in another hangout.”

Teachers and individuals interested in scheduling a hangout can fill out a request form on the Field Band’s website, www.armyfieldband.com. The band has the technical expertise to set up the video feed and ensure requesters have the proper equipment and capabilities to participate.

“We’re always taking requests,” Wood said.

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