Marine maestro makes MEOP marketable

15 May 2005 |

Rising through the thick air of the sound-proof audition room, trumpet blasts cry for acceptance.

The young trumpeter, with an untucked T-shirt, a goatee and long curls resembling Kenny G, stands in stark contrast to the man in dress blues with glistening brass buttons, sporting a close-cropped high-and-tight and snapping his fingers to the beat.

After several minutes and few hundred notes, Gunnery Sgt. William R. Howe's ears have their fill.

This student doesn't cut it.

"Being a trumpet player in the Marine Corps is a tough job," Howe says.

The high school senior is disheartened. He still may join the Corps, only he'll carry a rifle instead of a horn. Actually, the kid shouldn't feel too bad. Only about one or two out of ten pass Howe's audition to become a Marine music maker.

Howe, with 15 years in Marine Corps bands and 24 years on the narrow end of a saxophone, travels around the 9th Marine Corps District on a quest. Each year, he searches for about two dozen high school musicians who not only make the cut musically, but also physically, mentally and morally in order to earn the title and carry an instrument.

Under the Musical Enlistment Option Program (MEOP), high school musicians can join the Corps and play in any one of 13 Marine bands, including the prestigious Drum and Bugle Corps.

"Getting a job as a performing musician is really, really difficult. As a high school student, those openings just aren't there," said Howe, 35, who oversees the program.

In the Marines, though, musicians would be able to continue honing the skills of something they love while playing at a demanding level, he said. The result is at least several years training and experience comparable to performing in most professional bands.

Advancement opportunities aren't bad either. Students who earn their spot get an instant promotion to the rank of private first class upon completion of boot camp. They're also eligible for lance corporal after six months and corporal after 24 months. If they have bachelor's degrees, they could see sergeant after just three years. Those who ace the audition also get their choice of duty station.

One might think that attracting students from the band would be an easy sell. However, Howe doesn't think enough recruiters are making the pitch.

"Unfortunately, it's not something that many recruiters like to do," said the Davie, Fla., native.

Howe finds that many of the recruiters who shy away from visiting high school bands believe they don't know anything about music.

"One of the things I like to tell every new recruiter I meet is 'Don't go into the band room looking for a MEOP contract. Go into the band room and look for a contract,'" he said.

Students who have played and marched in a high school band make better recruits based on their ability to following instruction and function within a unit, Howe said.

Recruiters can arm themselves for a "band talk" by using the Marine Corps Opportunities Book (MCOB) and the recently released MEOP DVD. If all else fails, "call the gunny," said Howe.

Recruiting station executive officers can also request that Howe speak to bands if he's in the area conducting auditions.

In order to pass the audition, the student must perform a prepared piece of their choosing, play all the scales and sight-read a random piece chosen by Howe. More specific details for each instrument are available in the MCOB.

"If someone has the skills I'm looking for, we can find him the program," said Howe.
9th Marine Corps District