Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Musical Service

Musical Service

By Mary K. Zajac
All photos courtesy of the military bands

Military bands, which date back almost to the country’s founding, continue to flourish today, offering musicians a rewarding career in service to our nation.

Just ask these alumni.

Brian Sacawa on saxophone performs with a full band next to a double bassist soloist
Army Master Sergeant Brian Sacawa (right) has logged 19 years with the U.S. Army Field Band.

Navy Musician First Class Elena Yakovleva (MM ’08, GPD ’10, Flute; GPD ’11, Piccolo) was looking for a stable job after years of gigging. Associate Concertmaster Marine Gunnery Sergeant Sheng-Tsung Wang (BM ’97, MM ’99, Violin) was recruited while playing at a wedding. United States Air Force Captain Christina Muncey (DMA ’16, Wind Conducting) had been a music educator for several years before her Peabody mentor presented a different opportunity to put her conductor training to use. But Army Master Sergeant Brian Sacawa (GPD ’02, Saxophone) made performing in a D.C. military band a conscious goal.

During his freshman year of college, a magazine article titled “What About a Military Band?” piqued Sacawa’s interest. Later, he realized that he wanted to perform rather than teach—which limited his options as a saxophonist, where full-time performing opportunities are few (there is not a full-time saxophone position in an orchestra, for example). 

“I knew that the D.C. military bands were really one of the best options to have a full-time, steady performing career as a saxophonist,” Sacawa says. “So as an undergrad, I just put my mind to it.”

While still a senior at University of Massachusetts Amherst, he took an audition with the Army Field Band,

won the job, and has logged 19 years in the band. “For me, the Army Field Band is the New York Philharmonic of the saxophone,” Sacawa says. “It’s like the best you can get as far as being a performer.”

“… you are creative, you are making music, but you still are a member of the armed forces, and there’s structure and rules that go along with that. Some people thrive under that, and some really don’t.”

— Staff Sergeant Madeline Brumback (MA ’16, Recording Arts and Sciences)

Military bands might not seem like the obvious choice for Peabody graduates, but for alumni who have chosen this path (currently an estimated 22 alumni), the rewards are many: a stable, full-time career as a working musician, the opportunity to play a wide and varied repertoire for diverse audiences with other artistically gifted colleagues, and above all, the ability to serve the nation through music.

“It takes a certain type of person to have this job,” explains Staff Sergeant Madeline Brumback (MA ’16, Recording Arts and Sciences), an audio engineer for the U.S. Army Field Band, “because you are creative, you are making music, but you still are a member of the armed forces, and there’s structure and rules that go along with that. Some people thrive under that, and some really don’t.” 

“I think there is a preconceived notion of what a military band is,” adds Muncey, commander of both the U.S. Air Force’s Heritage of America Band and Heartland of America Band. “People think parades and the Fourth of July. But there is so much more to it than that.”

Military bands might not seem like the obvious choice for Peabody graduates, but for alumni who have chosen this path (currently an estimated 22 alumni), the rewards are many: a stable, full-time career as a working musician, the opportunity to play a wide and varied repertoire for diverse audiences with other artistically gifted colleagues, and above all, the ability to serve the nation through music.

“It takes a certain type of person to have this job,” explains Staff Sergeant Madeline Brumback (MA ’16, Recording Arts and Sciences), an audio engineer for the U.S. Army Field Band, “because you are creative, you are making music, but you still are a member of the armed forces, and there’s structure and rules that go along with that. Some people thrive under that, and some really don’t.” 

“I think there is a preconceived notion of what a military band is,” adds Muncey, commander of both the U.S. Air Force’s Heritage of America Band and Heartland of America Band. “People think parades and the Fourth of July. But there is so much more to it than that.”

A Rich and Proud History

Military bands are nearly as old as the nation itself. In 1798, the year Congress established the U.S. Navy, Captain Robert Dale required that two musicians—a drummer and fifer—be included among the crew for the USS Ganges, the first ship to be put to sea. The first enlisted musician joined the Navy in 1830. 

The U.S. Army dates the support of musicians even earlier—to 1756—though the First Combat Infantry Band, the precursor of what is now known as the Army Field Band, began touring around the end of World War II. Affectionately known as the “Million Dollar Band,” the ensemble was composed of combat veterans who performed in support of their fellow soldiers and to encourage the sale of war bonds.

While the style and number of ensembles in each branch of the armed services differ, the missions of the bands of the Navy, Army, and Air Force (which in 1941 began to recruit top musicians from the nation’s popular dance bands and major symphony orchestras to form its premier U.S. Air Force Band), are remarkably similar. At their very core, through their performances around the country, bands represent their service branch to the American people, honor veterans, support ceremonies, educate future musicians, and inspire patriotism. In short, explains Sacawa, citing his branch of service: “Our mission is to connect the American people with the U.S. Army, tell stories of service, and show the professionalism and the excellence of the Army through music.” 

Among the service bands, only “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, by its count the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization, varies somewhat in its mission (not to mention its name). “The primary mission for the band is to provide music for the Commandant and for the President of the United States, so that is why we’re here in D.C. and stationed at 8th and I Streets—the oldest barracks of the Marine Corps,” explains horn player Master Sergeant Hilary Harding (MM ’02, Horn), a 19-year veteran of the band. 

“The band was formed in 1798 by an act of Congress,” notes Harding. “We were given our nickname by Thomas Jefferson. We’ve played at every single inauguration since John Adams. So, there’s a lot of history with that.” 

Harding has attended six inaugurations. “President Obama’s first [inauguration] really stands out to me because it was incredibly cold, and it was an unbelievably large crowd,” Harding remembers. “President Biden’s inauguration was memorable just because it was one of the first big things after COVID. I was also wondering how it would feel to be at the Capitol so soon after the [January 6] security threat, but it felt just like most inaugurations do. There’s always a sense of hope. There’s always a sense of joy on those days.” 

Hilary Harding performs in uniform with the horn section of a band
Master Sergeant Hilary Harding (center) has performed at six Presidential inaugurations.
Hilary Harding performs in uniform with the horn section of a band
Master Sergeant Hilary Harding (center) has performed at six Presidential inaugurations.

Among the service bands, only “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, by its count the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization, varies somewhat in its mission (not to mention its name). “The primary mission for the band is to provide music for the Commandant and for the President of the United States, so that is why we’re here in D.C. and stationed at 8th and I Streets—the oldest barracks of the Marine Corps,” explains horn player Master Sergeant Hilary Harding (MM ’02, Horn), a 19-year veteran of the band.

“The band was formed in 1798 by an act of Congress,” notes Harding. “We were given our nickname by Thomas Jefferson. We’ve played at every single inauguration since John Adams. So, there’s a lot of history with that.”

Harding has attended six inaugurations. “President Obama’s first [inauguration] really stands out to me because it was incredibly cold, and it was an unbelievably large crowd,” Harding remembers. “President Biden’s inauguration was memorable just because it was one of the first big things after COVID. I was also wondering how it would feel to be at the Capitol so soon after the [January 6] security threat, but it felt just like most inaugurations do. There’s always a sense of hope. There’s always a sense of joy on those days.”

“We do a lot of commissions and work with a lot of living composers, as well as doing the classics. As the world changes—particularly in classical music—we’re trying to bridge that.”

— Master Sergeant Hilary Harding (MM ’02, Horn)

“The President’s Own” also carries on the legacy of arguably its most famous director, legendary composer John Philip Sousa, who wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis,” the official march of the Marine Corps, among many other marches. The band became wildly popular under Sousa, and toured extensively, introducing the general public to transcribed versions of everything from Italian operas to symphonic works, as well as his beloved marches. Sousa’s band was among the first bands to be recorded by the fledgling Columbia Phonograph Company in 1890, eventually recording more than 400 different titles by 1897. 

“It’s such an advanced band,” Harding says. “You know, some people argue that it’s the greatest band in the world, and I won’t dispute that—without disparaging my other colleagues in other bands. We have the duty to respect that history but also to move the literature forward for the band and keep the prestige. We do a lot of commissions and work with a lot of living composers, as well as doing the classics. As the world changes—particularly in classical music—we’re trying to bridge that.”

“The President’s Own” also carries on the legacy of arguably its most famous director, legendary composer John Philip Sousa, who wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis,” the official march of the Marine Corps, among many other marches. The band became wildly popular under Sousa, and toured extensively, introducing the general public to transcribed versions of everything from Italian operas to symphonic works, as well as his beloved marches. Sousa’s band was among the first bands to be recorded by the fledgling Columbia Phonograph Company in 1890, eventually recording more than 400 different titles by 1897.

“It’s such an advanced band,” Harding says. “You know, some people argue that it’s the greatest band in the world, and I won’t dispute that—without disparaging my other colleagues in other bands. We have the duty to respect that history but also to move the literature forward for the band and keep the prestige. We do a lot of commissions and work with a lot of living composers, as well as doing the classics. As the world changes—particularly in classical music—we’re trying to bridge that.”

Today, the band and the Marine chamber orchestra still include Sousa tunes among their diverse repertoire. The ensembles perform at an equally diverse array of events, including State Arrivals and holiday functions such as the National Christmas Tree Lighting at the White House and more solemn occasions, such as state funerals and memorial services.

Associate Concertmaster Sheng-Tsung Wang, who joined “The President’s Own” United States Marine Chamber Orchestra in June 2007, recalls performing during the state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush at the National Cathedral. “The music we played wasn’t particularly difficult,” Wang says. “However, what made it personally challenging was hearing the emotional and moving eulogies, especially the one given by his son, President George W. Bush. To have to play after that, with tears in my eyes and needing to maintain composure at such a high-profile event—that was both memorable and challenging.”

Still, he reflects, he is grateful “to be able to serve my country and support meaningful events through music—something that I already love and have trained for, for many years.”

Boot Camp and Basic Training

While through the middle of the 20th century, servicemen often did double duty as on-the-ground soldiers as well as musicians, today’s service band members audition specifically for their positions, just like they would for any nonmilitary musical ensemble. 

Musician First Class Kyle Augustine (MM ’08, Bass) won his string bass position in the U.S. Navy Concert Band immediately after graduating from Peabody. It was the first audition he took. “I was very, very lucky,” Augustine says. 

Playing in the Navy Band requires a wide range of skill sets, Augustine explains, and the audition process reflects this. “We place a lot of importance in our auditions on sight-reading because we play a lot of new stuff,” he says. “Ceremonially, we pull things out on a dime to play. You have to have some improvisational skills because sometimes we play jazz. You have to be very, very flexible and be able to do a lot of different things. There’s a lot of variety in this job that you won’t see in an orchestra.”

The same high level of expertise is required for the nonmusicians who are also part of military music ensembles. “I auditioned just like a performing instrumentalist or vocalist might,” explains Madeline Brumback, one of the Army Field Band’s audio engineers. Brumback’s audition consisted of a pre-screening round based on examples of recordings she submitted as part of her application, followed by a written test, a timed mix of a pre-recorded track, and a mix of a live sound reinforcement set with the Jazz Ambassadors, the Army’s jazz big band. The exercises mimic the actual work she does supporting the Army Field Band on its touring mission—from evaluating performance venues around the country to setting up the ideal arrangement of microphones and speakers so the Soldiers’ Chorus can be heard while performing with the Concert Band.

Headshot of Kyle Augustine
Musician First Class Kyle Augustine joined the U.S. Navy Concert Band immediately after graduating from Peabody.
Headshot of Kyle Augustine
Musician First Class Kyle Augustine joined the U.S. Navy Concert Band immediately after graduating from Peabody.

Musician First Class Kyle Augustine (MM ’08, Bass) won his string bass position in the U.S. Navy Concert Band immediately after graduating from Peabody. It was the first audition he took. “I was very, very lucky,” Augustine says.

Playing in the Navy Band requires a wide range of skill sets, Augustine explains, and the audition process reflects this. “We place a lot of importance in our auditions on sight-reading because we play a lot of new stuff,” he says. “Ceremonially, we pull things out on a dime to play. You have to have some improvisational skills because sometimes we play jazz. You have to be very, very flexible and be able to do a lot of different things. There’s a lot of variety in this job that you won’t see in an orchestra.”

The same high level of expertise is required for the nonmusicians who are also part of military music ensembles. “I auditioned just like a performing instrumentalist or vocalist might,” explains Madeline Brumback, one of the Army Field Band’s audio engineers. Brumback’s audition consisted of a pre-screening round based on examples of recordings she submitted as part of her application, followed by a written test, a timed mix of a pre-recorded track, and a mix of a live sound reinforcement set with the Jazz Ambassadors, the Army’s jazz big band. The exercises mimic the actual work she does supporting the Army Field Band on its touring mission—from evaluating performance venues around the country to setting up the ideal arrangement of microphones and speakers so the Soldiers’ Chorus can be heard while performing with the Concert Band.

Once musicians win their auditions, it’s off to boot camp—which can be something of a surprise for professionals who might think of warm-ups as a precursor to performing a symphonic piece rather than, say, leg stretches in preparation for a several-mile run. 

“It was quite a shock,” says Elena Yakovleva, the Navy Concert Band’s piccolo player, who entered the Navy after years of freelancing and teaching. She was not expecting that basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois would be part of her enlistment. “Because at this point, I was a 34-year-old established woman with a career and jobs,” she explains. “Then all of the sudden, I have to drop everything, pause my life for two months, and train with people just out of high school.” 

“There was no separate category, like ‘These are musicians. We’re going to be light on them.’ No such thing,” she continues. “But I got incredible support from my colleagues, and I’m grateful for that and for the experience.”

As well as attending boot camp, musicians in the Navy, Army, and the Air Force are also required to complete twice-yearly physical fitness tests (the Marines do not require either of their band members), and all service band members, including those in the Marines, have regular weight checks to ensure members maintain a sharp military appearance.

Musicians (again, the Marines excepted) also have what’s known as collateral duties. This might include booking travel or scheduling rehearsals. Brian Sacawa trains other Army musicians for media appearances and leads the Field Band’s social media team. Kyle Augustine researches copyright. “All of our operations are run by people in the [Navy] band,” Augustine explains. “I like it because it gives us ownership over the work we do, and I’m pretty proud of that.”

Point of Pride

But more than the physical fitness and the impressive uniforms, of course, is the performing. Ask service members about what they like best about being part of a military band, and the answers are remarkably similar: the unparalleled degree of talent and professionalism in the band and the opportunity to be a part of that ensemble, the diversity of music, venues, and audiences, and the opportunity to serve the country and to move audiences with their music.

“Once I got into the band, I was impressed by the level of musicianship—and I still am,” Yakovleva says. “Every single concert we play, I’m blown away by my colleagues.”

Christina Muncey conducts a band
Captain Christina Muncey leads the U.S. Air Force's Heritage of America and Heartland of America bands.

“My job is really all about making great music with great musicians,” Christina Muncey says. “I like my job because every day is a little different. Our repertoire depends on what requirements are. One day I’m conducting Mozart, the next day, I’m doing Taylor Swift.” 

From high school gyms where audiences are so close they can see band members’ faces to outdoor amphitheaters where an ensemble might perform symphonic works for thousands of people, the emotional high point of any service band concert is the Armed Forces Salute, a medley of all five service songs. During the medley, veterans or their family members are asked to stand and be recognized when their service song is played. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the service medley, how many different people I’ve seen, but it always gets me, you know?” Sacawa says. “We start one of the service songs. People are clapping along. People start to stand up. You see tears in peoples’ eyes, the pride that they have in their service. That just never fails to move me and remind me what this is all about.”

“What has been the most rewarding facet of my career is the way the Army Field Band is always able to show up, be present, and do something meaningful when the country needs us the most.” 

"Our repertoire depends on what requirements are. One day I’m conducting Mozart, the next day, I’m doing Taylor Swift."

— Captain Christina Muncey (DMA ’16, Wind Conducting)
Christina Muncey conducts a band
Captain Christina Muncey leads the U.S. Air Force's Heritage of America and Heartland of America bands.

“My job is really all about making great music with great musicians,” Christina Muncey says. “I like my job because every day is a little different. Our repertoire depends on what requirements are. One day I’m conducting Mozart, the next day, I’m doing Taylor Swift.” 

From high school gyms where audiences are so close they can see band members’ faces to outdoor amphitheaters where an ensemble might perform symphonic works for thousands of people, the emotional high point of any service band concert is the Armed Forces Salute, a medley of all five service songs. During the medley, veterans or their family members are asked to stand and be recognized when their service song is played. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the service medley, how many different people I’ve seen, but it always gets me, you know?” Sacawa says. “We start one of the service songs. People are clapping along. People start to stand up. You see tears in peoples’ eyes, the pride that they have in their service. That just never fails to move me and remind me what this is all about.”

“What has been the most rewarding facet of my career is the way the Army Field Band is always able to show up, be present, and do something meaningful when the country needs us the most.”