The Working Musician: Military Jobs

With the possible exception of saxophonists and euphoniumists, few musicians dream of a military career. Yet this path can provide a dependable income, solid benefits, and varied opportunities. “This is a good four year job for just about anyone. It can be a GREAT 20+ year job for many,” explains Michael Mench, Commander of the US Air Force Band of Flight. A special thanks to Commander Mench, who provided some of the information presented in this article.

OPPORTUNITIES

Each branch of the United States military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—employs several full-time music ensembles.  There are two types of groups:

1)      Premier bands. Ensemble members have a guaranteed post, without the worry about being transferred elsewhere. Hired musicians are immediately awarded the rank of E6 (rankings range from E1 to E9—higher is better). The 10 premier military bands are housed in Washington DC or attached to the service’s Academy: Annapolis, West Point, Colorado Springs, etc.

2)      Regional bands. While some members stay with the same group for years, reassignment to other ensembles occurs due to manning shortages or openings in overseas bands. Entering status is determined by educational background, as is the case with most everyone else in the enlisted force. Musicians with college credit often begin at the rank of E3. Regional groups are housed on bases across the country and abroad.

The term band here does not mean wind band or marching band. In fact, most of these groups are umbrella organizations consisting of several performing ensembles. For example, the US Army Field Band consists of a concert band, chorus, big band, and pop combo. The US Air Force Band oversees six entities, including a string orchestra, chorus (cleverly entitled Singing Sergeants), brass band, and big band. Large ensemble members are often assigned to chamber groups as well, spanning the gamut of styles and instrumentations: Dixieland, baroque, Celtic, rock, pop, country/western, brass/woodwind quintets, etc.

Positions are available for:

  • Instrumentalists (winds, strings, percussion, rhythm section)
  • Vocalists
  • Conductors
  • Composers/arrangers
  • Recording/sound engineers
  • Non-performing staff

PROS

  1. Serving your country. Even if you’re not in combat (and few musicians are), military musicians provide a valuable and patriotic service.
  2. Job security. There are few music jobs that provide the level of security of the military. After obtaining a premier ensemble position, you can keep it until retirement (all ranks force retirement by age 55). Musicians can’t be fired or laid off…unless they monumentally screw up and are dishonorably discharged or reassigned.
  3. Opportunities. Many groups tour, record, and perform at high profile diplomatic ceremonies. Ensembles typically program a variety of musical genres. Members have the option of performing in chamber settings or being featured as a soloist.
  4. Health care. Comprehensive health care plans are available to members. The current level of coverage is generally better than years past.
  5. Education/college repayment. The military may pay down college debt, subsidize private lessons, and/or contribute to additional schooling. Military personnel are eligible to take advantage of the GI Bill
  6. Other benefits. Members may live on base for free, or receive an allowance for housing. They also collect a food stipend. Allowances are non-taxable. Instrumentalists are supplied with professional quality instruments.  These can only be used for official military engagements (not outside gigs).
  7. Elite entering status. When hired into a premier band, members are immediately granted the rank of E6. This is highly atypical for non-music personnel, who often work 5-10+ years to reach that status.
  8. Discipline. Joining the military is a great way to develop a more disciplined lifestyle (…by the way, you have no choice).
  9. Gigs on side. Obviously, military obligations take precedence, but most musicians line up extra work and income sources.
  10. Early retirement. You are eligible for retirement with 20 years of military service. If enlisting at 22, retirement is possible at the ripe age of 42. Retirees receive a pension equivalent to around 50% of their highest base pay.

CONS

Professional recruiters are quick to describe all the great reasons for joining the military, but are probably less forthcoming about the downsides.

  1. Basic training. Musicians are required to complete basic training (except for premier Marine and Coast Guard Bands), which takes 6-13 weeks, depending on the branch. This is probably not the most fun way to start a job.
  2. Restricted freedom. Joining the military means forfeiting certain freedoms that are available to civilians. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is a different set of laws that must be adhered to after signing the contract, no exceptions. You must look the part—keep your hair short, face shaved, and boots shined. Your house must be kept in order, and don’t even think about doing drugs. Stiff punishments are inflicted on members who outwardly disagree with superiors.
  3. Rigidity. Many aspects of life are dictated by external sources, which can be frustrating for creative artists.
  4. No way out. After signing on, military personnel have a legally binding contract for a certain period of time (typically 4-5 years of active duty) that must be served in full. This is not like other jobs, where you can quit at any point if you decide to switch directions.
  5. Physical requirements. Keeping yourself in top-notch physical shape is a job requirement. However, isn’t staying fit a positive and healthy practice?
  6. Bureaucracy. The military is a big, complicated institution with lots of thorny protocol and red tape. Things are not always run in the most efficient manner.
  7. Deployments. Some musicians are deployed to war torn regions, though for shorter periods than non-musician troops. For example, each Air Force band is required to send a small ensemble in support of Iraq and Afghanistan efforts every 15 months for sixty days.
  8. Discrimination. At this point, homosexuals are not allowed to openly serve in the military under “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Woman report high rates of harassment, though the military is working pro-actively to improve the situation. This issue is probably less prominent in music circles.
  9. Collateral responsibilities. Just about everyone has responsibilities beyond their primary musical duties, though they’re usually band-related. Examples include booking gigs, web design, making posters, and accounting. Of course, these experiences offer valuable lessons to savvy musicians in terms of learning music business realities.
  10. Lack of creative outlets. The military is about conformity and following orders, not innovation or challenging status quo. Contracts mention nothing about personal fulfillment, just completing assigned responsibilities. Ensembles often recycle the same literature year after year, and there is little tolerance for creative individuals who want to “shake things up” or steal the spotlight. Possible remedies include chamber ensemble assignments and personal pursuits during off duty hours.

COMPENSATION

Compensation is based on rank and time served. Members get a step raise every 1-2 years, in additional to the annual inflation raises given each January. Below are sample 2010 entry level salaries for players in regional and premier groups.

  Regional Band, rank E-3 Premier Band, rank E-6
Basic Pay $20,469 $26,996
Housing Allowance* ~$8,748 ($11,664 if married) ~$20,367 ($27,180 if married)
Meal Allowance** $3,886 $3,886
Uniforms ~$350 ~$350
TOTAL $33,000 – $36,000 $51,000-$58,000

* Varies depending on location

** This is to offset the cost of meals, but does not cover food expenses when on tour or away from duty station on orders. However, per diems are typically allocated during these situations. 

GETTING THE WORK

Though auditions are not as competitive as major symphony orchestras, desirable positions may have as many as 40-50 applicants for a single opening. The best candidates are solid and versatile players who read well and are comfortable with number of styles. Doubling on multiple instruments (i.e. a saxophonist who plays flute and clarinet) is also highly desirable.

If you only want to work as a musician, it is always best to audition for a specific position before enlisting.  Don’t go to a recruiter first.  They have quotas to meet, and might tell you what you want to hear rather than the entire story.  On rare occassions, musicians who did this have found themselves fighting on the front lines rather than filling out the trumpet section. After winning the audition and obtaining the proper paper work, it is safe to meet with a recruiter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about musical opportunities in the military, click on the following links:

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