Europe's musical ambassadors

Europe's musical ambassadorsWHEN Soldiers of the 1st Armored Division Band and 76th U.S. Army Band returned to their home stations in Germany after nearly a year in Iraq, the U.S. Army, Europe, Band and Chorus from Schwetzingen, Germany, welcomed them home.

The roughly 120 Soldiers of the combined band and chorus represent the Army's largest musical organization outside the United States, said SGM Joel Joyner, the band's enlisted leader.

In fiscal year 2003 its members gave 198 performances in some 15 countries, said bandleader LTC Thomas Palmatier, a 26-year Army band veteran.

"As the Army's premier band in Europe, we perform for kings and presidents," he said. The band played for President George W. Bush's visit to Normandy on Memorial Day and has played for the prime minister of Poland, among many other dignitaries.

"Several groups within the band are often out performing at the same time," Palmatier said. Those include the 65-piece concert and marching bands, a 35-member ceremonial group, a 19-piece jazz ensemble, a pop-rock group, a Dixieland band, a jazz combo, and brass and woodwind quintets.

Collectively, they appeal to a wide range of audiences and age groups, said Joyner, who leads the jazz ensemble "Soldiers of Swing."

The ensemble's repertoire includes music from the golden days of jazz, when it was played by big-band greats like Glenn Miller, said Joyner, who has performed at world-renowned jazz festivals in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The band's rock group focuses on music targeted toward younger Soldiers. The smaller jazz combo is ideal for official social occasions. And the ceremonial band, which performs at military functions, is the band's "bread and butter," Joyner said, as ceremonial events are always taking place somewhere in Europe.

Something magical happens when the band performs in former Eastern-bloc nations, Palmatier said. "We may be the first Americans some of the people have ever met. When we go there, our presence puts a human face on whatever stereotypes people have about Americans."

One of Palmatier's most memorable performances was in May 2003 in the Czech Republic, when the band played in the hall where the Czech National Orchestra performs. The occasion marked the day American forces liberated the western territories of Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet army liberated Prague at the end of World War II.

"The Czechs are most passionate about classical music," Palmatier said. "And they're most discriminate: Europeans expect that Americans can play only jazz and some Elvis Presley tunes. We held our breaths. When shouts of 'Bravo' rang out from the crowd, it was a magnificent experience."

The USAREUR band supports all functions of the USAREUR commander, and in the absence of two direct-support U.S. Army bands in Europe, which are currently deployed to Iraq, it has taken on their missions in USAREUR as well, Joyner said.

Those bands' overriding purpose is to boost the morale of Soldiers in war and even "soften the blow of war," Joyner said. The USAREUR band gives deploying Soldiers a rousing send off and welcomes them back when they return.

Most of the band members hold music degrees from highly regarded universities and conservatories, Joyner said. They have all earned their positions in the band through special auditions, and most previously performed professionally or taught music before enlisting in the Army.

"Chorus members are also selected through a rigorous audition process; in Europe, it's a 30-day audition," Palmatier said. "Those who don't read music have to prove they have a good ear and can learn the tunes quickly, because they may have to learn 100 songs in a year, along with the choreography.

"I get a chuckle watching 'American Idol,'" said Palmatier, "because only about one or two percent of contestants on that show would make it into the chorus." Selection is based not only on musical talent, but demeanor and appearance.

Most Soldiers who join the Army to be in the band make it a career, said Palmatier. For members of the chorus, it's a bit different.

Band tours are typically three-year assignments and, while overseas, bandsmen can apply for foreign-service extensions. It's not unusual for them to be able to complete 20 to 30 years' service in various Army bands, said Joyner, a 26-year veteran trumpeter.

By comparison, members of the chorus sign on for only two years and typically must then return to their primary MOSs, Palmatier said. Some of them do go on to join the U.S. Army Soldiers' Show Chorus or choruses of the U.S. Army Band or U.S. Army Field Band.

SGT Megan Hawes is a network-switching operator by military occupation. But for now, she's a soprano in the chorus, singing pop tunes of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as current tunes. She spends roughly three hours a day rehearsing her music and another three hours practicing dance routines.

Saxophone player SPC T.J. Jackson has been in the USAREUR band for about two years. He got in after completing three auditions at the Army Element School of Music in Norfolk, Va., where band members undergo their advanced individual training.

Jackson started playing sax when he was nine and earned a performing degree from Elon College in North Carolina. During his senior year he traveled to Germany to play with the University Jazz Band in Munich, and in Salzburg and Vienna, Austria.

"I fell in love with the cities and knew I wanted to come back to play for a paycheck," he said.

Jackson said he's participated in more than 150 performances over a one-year period since joining the USAREUR band. And some of the most "exciting performances" have been the military tattoos that draw some 1,500 people to Birmingham, England.

"What we really notice about the people in Europe is the optimum support--the large crowds that come to hear us play," Joyner said. "In the States, it's not quite the same, because there are so many bands."

Traveling is an added perk, Hawes said. "Most of us never left the States before coming here," she said. "Now, we've been to Poland, Albania and Iraq," the latter, for only days at a time, due to the band's "nondeployable" status.

"People look up at us on stage and think, 'That's what Americans are like,'" she said. "We make them happy. And that's the best part of the job for me."