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America's other professional orchestras

1 Robert Levine

When asked about the difference between American and European orchestras, most observers would first point to the fact that American orchestras receive comparatively little government funding. A segment on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday reminds us that there is actually quite a lot of government funding of large-ensemble performance in the US - and how little we know about it:

The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on dozens of military marching bands, rock groups, jazz ensembles, choruses and country music performance teams. In light of the current economic climate, some are wondering if this is excessive and unnecessary spending. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has written a series of columns on the cost of military music, and says he was prompted to looking into the matter after hearing Defense Secretary Gates discuss budget priorities.

“Gates has made a point in talking about the way the government looks at priorities,” Pincus tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “He has more military band musicians in the Defense Department than the State Department has Foreign Service officers.”

This metaphor intrigued Pincus, and he decided to see how many musicians the U.S. government was really employing. He says no one was able to provide concrete figures on how much is spent on military bands in total.

“The only service that came up with a number was the Marines,” he says. “And the Marines came back and told me factually that they spend $50 million on their bands. The Army couldn’t give me a good figure and they finally estimated $198 million, but they pride themselves on being the biggest employer of musicians in the country — between four and five thousand of them.”

According to Pincus’ findings, the purpose of Army bands, and those of other branches, is to “provide music throughout the entire spectrum of operations, to instill in our forces the will, to fight and win, foster the support of our citizens, and promote America’s interests at home and abroad.” But he says this mission has on taken a life of its own.

“They do perform at ceremonies, which of course is understandable, but it’s gone way beyond that,” he says. “They provide entertainment most often for civilian audiences supposedly to help recruitment.”

So the Army and the Marine Corps alone spend $250 million on musicians, while the Army employs around as many full-time musicians as play in ICSOM orchestras. If one assumes that most of those musicians play in bands (not all of them do), it’s likely that the military employs more wind, brass and percussion players than do all American orchestras combined.

What impresses me most about these numbers is that they came as such a revelation. That’s a whole lot of musicians flying under the radar of symphonic musicians. But perhaps that’s a generational thing; musicians who came of age after WW II and especially during the Vietnam war were acutely aware that service in a military ensemble was an alternative to getting shot at.

I’ve known musicians who played in, and conducted, the famous 7th Army Symphony, who played in Air Force string ensembles, and whose military service was playing chamber music at West Point. The President Emeritus of the AFM, Tom Lee, became involved in the union as a direct result of his service as a military pianist at the White House; his involvement was sparked by the long-standing refusal of the AFM to accept military musicians as members and its position that military musicians ought to be barred from working in civilian music workplaces.

That position, and the AFM’s hostility to military musicians in general, has long since been abandoned. Perhaps the fact that so many musicians still work full-time for the US military without drawing much public attention to themselves is justification for the idea that military and civilian ensembles really don’t compete.

Most musicians don’t think of the military as a desirable career path. But, if one wants to work under “European” conditions, military ensembles provide steady employment, government-run health insurance, and generous early retirement benefits. It doesn’t look at all bad by comparison to what’s going on in some American orchestras these days.


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  1. Comment by Ann Drinan
    September 30, 2019 at 7:10 PM

    Several members of the Coast Guard band are contracted members of the Hartford Symphony, and many others are regular subs. They are all truly outstanding musicians, though juggling their schedules can be a bit tricky sometimes. It’s always interesting to see them change from one uniform (Coast Guard) into another (tails) when they have a band concert just before a symphony concert.

    Coast Guard band musicians are very active in the Connecticut and Rhode Island classical music world — a most welcome addition to our musical community.