High school students in various areas across Iowa and Nebraska recently got a glimpse of what life is like in the Marine Corps Band – in person.
From Sept. 27-29, seven Marines from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band, Jazz Ensemble based out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., toured high schools in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Omaha, Neb.
Their trip was a four-fold mission: explain how to become a band Marine, dispel any myths about their quality, help the recruiters for their Musician Enlistment Option Program (MEOP) and just have a great time.
Mission accomplished, according to Gunnery Sgt. Jason E. Knuckles, the musician technical assistant for the 9th Marine Corps District.
During the course of the week, the Marine bandsmen answered students’ questions about their instruments through practical application. They also performed with the band and explained to the students how to become Marine bandsmen.
“One thing we tell the students up front is we are Marines first,” Knuckles said. “We attend recruit training, Marine combat training and our (military occupational specialty) school [like] the next Marine. If we are tapped to deploy to combat, then we deploy. But, our mission as Marine bandsmen is to perform on base, surrounding communities and wherever we are requested, providing our schedule allows it.”
He added the band was able to dispel many myths about the quality of the band.
“The perception out there is Marine Corps bands are subpar or it’s better to go to college to learn how to play professionally,” Knuckles said. “One example is people think we only play Marine Corps music. That’s simply not true. Based off the performances of these Marines during these three days, I can honestly say [the students] have a different perception.”
Knuckles was referring to the Marines’ Hymn or John Philip Sousa’s ‘Semper Fidelis’, which is what he said the average person thinks Marine Corps bands only play.
“We had a variety of songs we performed this past week that had nothing to do with the Marine Corps,” Knuckles said. “They played songs such as ‘Song for My Father’ by Horace Silver Quintet and ‘Strasbourg / St. Denis’ by The Roy Hargrove Quintet and many others. These guys can play anything handed to them.”
Becoming a part of the Marine Corps band is no easy task, as Knuckles put it. If someone is interested, he or she has to know how to play an instrument, be basically qualified to join the Marine Corps and pass an audition. “This job field is the only one in the Marine Corps where you have to play your instrument proficiently,” the Atlanta native said.
“The Marine Corps can teach you how to fly jets, helicopters and drive tanks, but, teaching someone how to play an instrument prior to attending the six-month school is impossible. There is so much to know about an instrument before passing a Marine Corps band audition.”
The three-day visit gave the recruiters support for the MEOP mission. The MEOP mission is part of the High School Community College Program, which is designed for recruiters to actively engage the high schools and community colleges by conducting career, band and Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps talks, presenting high school awards, proctoring the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test and collecting high school and community college student lists.
Sgt. Joshua C. Benne, a canvassing recruiter out of Recruiting Substation West Omaha, Recruiting Station Des Moines, said the visit was definitely a boost to the MEOP mission as he put it - will bring a whole new perspective to giving students valuable information about playing an instrument in the Marine Corps.
“The band students were able to see them in person and get a great picture of how these Marines operate,” the Omaha native said. “We were able to see this too, but from a recruiters’ standpoint. Watching the Marines perform will allow us to tell the Marine Corps band story in a more effective manner.”
During the Marines’ first gig at Union High School in La Porte City, Iowa, only three Marines were present, as the rest were in Denver due to their plane’s mechanical problems. A full jazz ensemble includes percussion, bass, guitar, saxophone, trombone, trumpet and a piano. Only the sounds from the bass, guitar and trombone were heard echoing through the school’s hallways.
Michael Bilstine, the instrumental music director at Union High School, said if his eyes were closed, he wouldn’t have noticed the difference.
“The Marines performed so well that I didn’t notice the [missing] instruments that are normally part of a jazz ensemble,” Bilstine said. “It was definitely a treat to have them here, because we were able to learn how the Marine Corps band operates and take away some things to apply towards my students.”
The band’s next gigs include Recruiting Stations Chicago in Illinois and Twin Cities in Minnesota.