Interesting. Very, very interesting. I went to P.S. 22 and I loved that school. I got to be in the chorus, which is now a bit of a viral sensation.That is the elementary school chorus that’s really made a name for itself through performing with a lot of recording artists. Where have I seen them?
They’ve done a bunch of morning shows, and even the Grammy’s. I was in the chorus the second year after it was created, and I feel like it was the beginning of my performing experience. For high school, I left Staten Island and went to LaGuardia in Manhattan.Is that a school for the arts?
Yes, it’s a performing arts school that draws kids from all over New York City, so I got the experience of commuting to school every day with all kinds of people who going to work.So when you say commuting, you mean public transportation?
I took the bus, the Staten Island Ferry, AND the train to school!Wow, how old were you when you started doing that?
I was 13 years old when I started at LaGuardia. It was a really cool experience. When you have a 2 hour ride to school, it’s really important that you have everything you need for the day because no one is coming to bail you out! If you leave anything at home you are on your own, and that was a really informative experience for me. Learning all different kinds of music from many different people was amazing.Did you go to college after that?
I went to the Ithaca College School of Music in Ithaca, New York, where I studied vocal performance. My Dad was worried. He would say “Are you SURE you don’t want to add an education degree?” and I was like “Pretty sure, Dad!” Thank goodness that worked out, but I knew I was meant to be a performer.Did you go on in school, or did you join the Army right out of your undergraduate work?
I got this job right out of college, the week before graduation actually.What luck! So you auditioned during your spring semester of senior year?
It was the end of the spring and I was ready to take auditions. I graduated that May and was in Basic Training by August 12th in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
You graduated Basic Training and now you live in the DC area. What was your first impression of being part of this organization?
Surprised, pleasantly, at how much I was asked to sing when I first arrived. Particularly, how many different styles. That wasn’t very encouraged for me as an undergrad on the classical music performance track because it’s such a specialized skill. I sang in the A cappella groups, because I wanted to further my experience, but it wasn’t encouraged. Then I got here, and I was singing in a group, as a soloist, singing pop music outside in the summer time and being asked to do a lot of different things. If I hadn’t actively sought out opportunities in college outside my degree program, I wouldn’t have been as prepared for this job.Do you feel like that put a certain level of responsibility on you immediately?
It just raises the expectations of you as a performer when you’re asked to do a lot of things. It’s a great challenge, and I like to say yes to things to grow as a musician.What has been your most memorable mission as a vocalist with The U.S. Army Band?
The Superbowl is up there!You sang in the Superbowl! What was going through your mind when you’re out there and see hundreds of thousands of people?
I just remember being so amazed that the players are as enormous in real life as they are on TV!! Everything about it was so theatrical. It felt strangely familiar even though it was a totally new setting. We were all together and the energy was electric.
Staff Sgt. Chris Rettig joined Downrange in 2012. Originally from Ayersville, Ohio, Chris remembers playing his sister’s high school drumline cadence at five years old. From that moment he was hooked on music and while he is primarily a vocalist with Downrange, he also learned to play guitar, bass, drums and tuba.
As a member of Downrange, Staff Sgt. Rettig is asked to perform modern pop and rock tunes for high profile events. His most memorable performance was, “The National Christmas Tree Lighting. To perform with so many big names in the music industry was definitely an honor.” At these types of events, Chris is asked to perform songs by some of the greatest pop singers alive including Stevie Wonder. “It’s definitely difficult to pay as much respect to him as I can vocally.”
However, the events that have the greatest impact on Staff Sergeant Rettig are the outreach events for the soldiers and their families. “Having went through some of the same things they do every day for us, I feel a better understanding and know what they have to go through to keep this country safe.” From his time in the Army before joining “Pershing’s Own,” Chris was well suited for the life of an Army musician. “I was already accustomed to long days and playing for high visibility performances.”
Staff Sgt. Rettig is a hard worker and a dedicated musician and soldier. He is currently working on his Bachelors in Business Management from the University of Maryland, University College. In addition, his versatility and positivity help him to stand out. His favorite composer is Gustav Mahler and yet he listens to everything from the Foo Fighters to Bethel Music. His advice for aspiring musicians is a mantra that seems to have lead his life to the great height’s he’s achieved: “It can be challenging, but if you persevere it’s always worth it on the other side.”
Staff Sgt. EJ Ramos is a trumpet player with The United States Army Ceremonial Band. Originally from Saint John, Indiana, Staff Sgt. Ramos attended Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, then completed three degrees in music.
Staff Sgt. Ramos transitioned to higher education with no intention of earning a degree in music. He recounts, “I ended up at Valparaiso University as an electrical engineering student. I also chose Valpo because I wanted to play in the band for fun, which I did from day one. After nearly two years in electrical engineering, I had a moment in a lesson with my trumpet teacher, Chuck Steck. He recalls that I said, ‘THIS SUCKS!’ He was confused by my outburst, but I later explained that I needed to do what I loved the most, music. That next day, I changed my major to music and never looked back.”
Staff Sgt. Ramos’ years in higher education prepared him well for his career here at Pershing’s Own. He explains, “Every year, the university brought in the Sousa scholar Keith Brion to conduct a concert. Learning how to play a march in the Sousa style gave me confidence for my job here at Perishing’s Own. The summer after my junior year I joined The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps. This was another incredible experience that helped me with all the marching that we do in Ceremonial Band. Not only were we held to a very high standard for marching, but our playing was also very important. My next stop was graduate school at Indiana University where I studied with Edmund Cord. I was able to fine-tune my skills and really zero in my audition game.”
Audition procedures for Pershing’s Own have varied throughout the years, but they are always designed to put auditionees through their paces. Staff Sgt. Ramos relates, “My audition day was a long one and I had many opportunities to sit and wait. It started at 0700 where we all met to draw numbers. I knew that I was prepared for that day and I was fired up to get on stage and perform. During the first round, my focus and preparation took over and it was all a blur. Hours later, I remember they announced that three candidates advanced to the final round. I was one of them! This is where my head about exploded. This is the closest to winning a job that I had ever gotten.”
Staff Sgt. Ramos did win his position in the Ceremonial Band at that audition and has been a member of “Pershing’s Own” since 2008. Since joining, Staff Sgt. Ramos has had the opportunity to participate in some once-in-a-lifetime ceremonies. “In September of 2015, I played with The United States Army Herald Trumpets for the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House. At one point during the ceremony, I was standing within arm’s reach of President Obama and Pope Francis! To make this moment even more memorable, I was able to track down some fantastic photos that were taken by the Vatican photographer that captured this monumental moment in time.”
True to his optimistic world view, Staff Sgt. Ramos has only the most encouraging words for budding musicians: “The best advice I can give to young musicians is to have fun and be positive. Your state of mind will determine your success. If you are positive about your playing at all times, you will improve. No doubt. Do not dwell on what went wrong. Focus on what you are going to do to make it better, and LAUGH OFTEN! When I miss a note, I do not get mad. I laugh. I speak the truth, because there is always tomorrow and I know that I will figure out a way to make it better the next time.”
Tenor Saxophonist Staff Sgt. Xavier Perez is a first-generation Cuban American who grew up in Hialeah, FL, a 98% Hispanic city inside of Miami-Dade County. His parents always had Cuban music playing and bought his first student model saxophone and some Charlie Parker cassette tapes when he was in the fourth grade. He credits his father and grandfather for being mentors as well as his 8th grade band director Alfredo De La Rosa of whom he says, “I’m a musician and saxophonist today because of him.”
In addition to a Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Music and Jazz from the University of Miami and Master’s Degree from SUNY Purchase in New York, Staff Sgt. Perez learned invaluable skills during his eleven years as a freelance musician. He toured Europe, South America and the United States as a sideman with Maynard Ferguson, Jon Faddis and Paquito D Rivera, among others. He has performed in many prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, Birdland, Lincoln Center and Blue Note in New York City; Blues Alley, and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and was named the 2001 Top Collegiate Jazz Soloist in the United States and Canada by Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards Division. Prior to winning his job with The U.S. Army Blues, he served with the West Point Jazz Knights from 2009-2013. Staff Sgt. Perez serves as musical director for The U.S. Army Blues, Equal Opportunity Leader and Unit Victim Advocate for the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own”.
When asked what inspires him, he replied, “I really enjoy compositions by Monk, Tom Harrell, Wayne Shorter, Ellington, Steve Reich, Piazzola and Guillermo Klein. I do love the art of musical improvisation…I believe improvisation goes beyond musical genres and really connects audiences and performers together.”
The connection between audience and performers motivates Staff Sgt. Perez who, along with other colleagues, will perform in a Latin Combo at The Arlington Mill Community Center on Friday September 23rd at 6pm. An exciting new partnership between The U.S. Army Band and Arlington Economic Development will help provide free concerts to the Arlington Community. As Staff Sgt. Perez says, “It is important to get out and perform for all communities.”
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Seipp joined The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” in 2010 as part of the support staff specializing in Audio Engineering. As an Audio Engineer, Staff Sgt. Seipp is charged with fine tuning every moment and every instrument, extracting all the nuance that a piece requires. He has this to say about his job:
Staff Sgt. Seipp has a unique perspective on what it means to be a part of “Pershing’s Own” because his father, Sgt. Maj. (retired) Charles Seipp played trumpet with the band for 32 years. As a child, Jon remembers falling asleep to the sounds of his father practicing trumpet. “The military has made an extremely positive impact on my life and I feel very closely connected due my father’s career. The military and TUSAB have become a second family to me,” Staff Sgt. Seipp was able to work with his father for a few years. “You might think that working for the same organization as a parent would be difficult, but I grew much closer to him and have a new appreciation for everything he did for my family, the Army, and me. I learned so much from him as a musician, person, and soldier.”
Before joining the band, Staff Sgt. Seipp attended James Madison University, graduating in 2009 with a BBA in Business Management and a minor in Music Industry. He found his interest for audio engineering in high school when his rock band decided they wanted to make a CD that they could give to their friends and family. His father put him in touch with now Sgt. Maj. Craig Lauinger who not only helped to produce the CD, but also taught him about the basics of sound recording, editing, and mastering, which ultimately led him to his career with the band.
Since he is from a musical family, Staff Sgt. Seipp still plays several instruments including the trumpet, drums and guitar. He regularly listens to various rock bands including the Foo Fighters and Rush as well as the movie music of his favorite composer, John Williams. He and his wife, Kelsey, were in the JMU Marching Band together and they now have a six month old daughter, Beatrice.
As a member of the U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Seipp understands very well the adage: “the strength of the army is its soldiers and the strength of the soldiers are their families.” He attributes a great deal of his success to the relationships he has fostered throughout his life and career. “My band director at JMU, Scott Rikkers, always told me that it’s important to not just focus on the product - focus on the people and the ‘process’ because they are where the true value can be found.” He finds his most memorable moments in the interactions he has with his fellow musicians and soldiers. He fondly recalls attending Capitol Steps and Sylvan Theater concerts, “making friends with the children of TUSAB, and learning from the best musicians in the world.”
“For a euphonium player, a job in a premier military band is the dream,” says Staff Sgt. Toby Furr.
Staff Sgt. Toby Furr knew he wanted to earn his place in a premier military band since he was a high school student in Dallas, Texas. He earned his bachelor of music degree in music performance from the University of North Texas and joined The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” in 2013 where he started his career as a euphonium performer in The United States Army Ceremonial Band. He is now a member of The United States Army Concert Band.
Despite not coming from a musical family, Staff Sgt. Furr has become a magnificent musician and active solo performer at “Pershing’s Own.” “Being in the military, and in “Pershing’s Own” in particular, has given me a huge boost in confidence as a musician. Going from the constant critiquing of a music school to being a professional performer is a night and day change. Being entrusted to play for world leaders is an incredible feeling, and a sense of pride and confidence in your skills is essential to getting the job done. It is a very unique and fulfilling experience that very few people are lucky enough to enjoy. My absolute favorite part of the job is playing the Armed Forces Salute at the end of concerts and seeing all of the people that rise for their respective services. There is so much pride and patriotism that it is sometimes hard to keep playing; I don’t think it will ever get old.”
In addition to concerts and ceremonies, Staff Sgt. Furr has had the opportunity to participate in special high-impact performances. He talks about performing with The United States Army Herald Trumpets specifically. He relates, “My most memorable performance so far at TUSAB has been performing the National Anthem at the NCAA Basketball Championship in 2015 with the Herald Trumpets. That is such a unique ensemble and people get very excited by it. The memory is a blur, but I remember seeing a packed stadium, a bald eagle flying around, and almost being overwhelmed by the sound when people started to cheer.” The Herald Trumpets are a select group of brass players who routinely play high-profile ceremonies such as White House arrival ceremonies, presidential library openings, and major sporting events around the country.
Staff Sgt. Furr has become notorious for appearing as euphonium soloist for “Pershing’s Own.” Asked about some of the more challenging solo repertoire for his instrument, he says, “The euphonium is a young enough instrument that the repertoire is not extremely wide or challenging, but there has been a recent explosion of new and difficult music that is pretty a challenge to keep up with. The most challenging piece that I’ve encountered is a Concerto for Euphonium/Saxhorn written by French composer Gabriel Philippot in 2014.” He lists his teacher’s recording, “The First Carnegie Hall Euphonium Recital,” among his favorite recordings. He explains, “His sound is so incredible. Any time I’m on my way to a solo performance I am listening to a Dr. Bowman recording, trying to get that sound into my head so that I can emulate it.” Any well-rounded musician will, of course, have a wide range of musical interests outside of his main instrument. He has recently become enamored by the musical “Hamilton,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He explains, “It is compelling music as well as an interesting story about one of our less-well-known founding fathers.” He also enjoys listening to Beethoven. He says, “Beethoven symphonies are so accessible and easy to listen to. They are great music for daydreaming and relaxing.”
The application and audition process for any major musical organization can seem daunting. The most important thing at any audition is controlling nervousness and representing yourself and your playing as best as you can. Staff Sgt. Furr recalls his own audition. “I remember my mind being totally clear for the audition and then being hit with a wall of crushing nervousness after I finished playing.” Being able to perform under pressure is, without a doubt, an acquired skill. His advice to aspiring musicians is to “have clear goals and go for them. Being successful at almost anything requires hours and hours of thoughtful practice.”
As summer approaches, many civilian families look forward to travelling, spending long weekends at the beach or simply enjoying the relaxed pace of summer. That is hardly the case for dual military couples who serve in The U.S. Army “Pershing’s Own.” SSG Adrienne Hodges performs primarily as a clarinetist in the Ceremonial Band which keeps her busy during the day, often with early report times. Her husband, SSG Nicholas Hodges is a violist in the Army Strings, an ensemble which performs primarily in the evenings. Yet it is evident that both Nick and Adrienne support one another in the ongoing battle to balance family, friends, hobbies and work.
Adrienne, a native of Warrenville, IL, received a BM and MM from the Eastman School of Music. She and Nick, a native of Mechanicsburg, PA, met as undergraduates. As dual performance and music education majors, their schedules were nearly identical. They studied together, performed in the same chamber ensembles, ran a student group, and even served together on the resident advisor staff. While many of their accomplishments have been joint efforts, they spent a substantial time apart. Adrienne joined the Army and went on tour with The U.S. Army Field Band based in Fort Meade, MD. Nick earned an MM in performance and conducting from Penn State University and recently completed his DMA in performance at The University of Maryland.
When asked what inspires them, Adrienne had this to share, “So many things inspire me-hearing my Army Band colleagues perform everything from ceremonies to chamber music, hearing the great orchestras perform, listening to Beethoven string quartets, performances of recent compositions, Martin Frost’s solo clarinet recordings, and my clarinet teachers, Jon Manasse, Susan Warner, and Robert DiLutis. I am inspired by their incredible playing and also by how each of them strives to learn more and to get better. My incredible husband Nick inspires me-watching his work ethic and dedication to becoming the best musician he can be over the 13 years we have been together.” Nick adds, “Adrienne and our kids, my family and friends, my teachers, listening to music, attending concerts, seeing great art, and spending time outdoors! It is very inspiring to see Adrienne’s dedication to being the best mom she can be while having a career in music.”
When asked about most memorable performances, Adrienne shared that she and Nick were honored to perform Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet for Clarinet and strings on a chamber recital series which celebrated African-American History Month. Nick cites performing for Medal of Honor Recipients. He states, “Their selfless actions and ultimate bravery are humbling and inspiring to me. Because music is such a powerful communicative force, it is always emotional performing for them and it can be difficult to keep my composure.” He was also honored to perform a quartet recital of music by American Composers at Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, a hall with a rich history of American music. Adrienne and Nick display the sincere dedication it takes to succeed as one of our TUSAB couples.
Staff Sgt. Lisa Park, from Lexington, MA, won her position on violin in the fall of 2015. Prior to joining the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own, Staff Sgt. Park held faculty positions at Richland College and Southern Methodist University where she earned a Performance Diploma. Her studies began at Harvard where she completed a bachelors in psychology and continued at Rice University with a masters in violin performance. Since becoming a military musician, Staff Sgt. Park has grown to appreciate her friendships, the service aspect of the military, the meaningfulness of leadership, and the individual strength attained from a career in the Army.
A love for music began at a young age for Staff Sgt. Lisa Park. She recounts, “as a toddler, my mom gave me a portable wind-up music player that would cycle through a particular song over and over until it ran out of speed and needed to be wound up to be played again. I remember taking this music box with me to go to bed. I would be snoozing but as soon as the music slowed down, I would wake up for a few moments just to crank the toy numerous times so that I could continue hearing the beautiful music once again while falling back asleep… I was addicted to music even while I was sleeping!”
Staff Sgt. Park grew into a well-rounded and thoughtful musician. Her musical studies gave her a deep respect for the violin concerti of Brahms, Sibelius, and Beethoven and a scholarly approach when learning and understanding the repertoire for her instrument. When asked about her favorite recording, she replied, “it fluctuates depending on what I am studying at the time. Currently, Yehudi Menuhin (violin) playing Bach concerti with George Enescu (directing or on violin), in Paris, circa 1932-6. Menuhin studied with Enescu, so they had a very special relationship, which I think you can hear translated in the recordings. I also grew up listening to Kyung-Wha Chung (violin) playing Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece which captures a feeling of yearning for transformation, sarcasm, soberness and imagination, all in one.”
Her performances have taken on a special, more personal meaning since joining the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” She recalls, with great honor and pride, a concert at the house of the Army Chief of Staff, General Martin A. Milley, for Indian ambassadors and their wives:
We prepared and arranged specific Indian songs that they would love and make them feel welcome, as well as popular American pieces that represented the CSA and America. It was a hit and we knew we had done well when one of the wives stood up in applause and explained to us about the more nuanced meaning of the title of one of the songs we had researched and prepared, that it meant ‘being in love’ rather than ‘love’ itself. She obviously knew the song well and appreciated our performance of it. Having a thoughtful, intellectual interaction with these special people, even for a short duration, was meaningful. Seeing their faces and hearing her speak also let us know that the program we had prepared specifically for them had registered in a positive way.”
Staff Sgt. Park’s positive outlook has served her well. She enjoys the camaraderie of colleagues and the humor they bring to her daily. She has an adaptable and inquisitive nature which uniquely qualify her for her position and requires that she constantly learns new musical styles and skills. Staff Sgt. Park attributes her success in the Army Band to leadership. “Being in the military has allowed me to experience how the quality of thoughtful planning and dedicated execution conceived at the leadership level trickles down and shapes the experiences of every Soldier below. In other words, being in the military has led me to believe that good leadership is about excellent training of Soldiers. TUSAB is blessed with many excellent ‘servant-leaders,’ sung or unsung, who have served as role models to me as a person and as a musician.”
Staff Sergeant Evan Geiger joined The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” in July of 2011. Originally from Simi Valley, California, Staff Sgt. Geiger earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, then moved to New York City to earn his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.
Staff Sgt. Geiger was immersed in music from a young age. Growing up, he would wake up early Sunday mornings to help his mother clean house before her madrigal ensemble, The Merry Minstrels, arrived to rehearse. He spent several hours listening to vocal music from the Renaissance, and studied piano for many years. In his lessons he watched his teacher’s hands and learned pieces by ear without knowing how to read music! His secret was eventually exposed, and he found himself obligated to learn to read music “properly.”
Despite being surrounded by such a variety of musical styles and instruments, Staff Sgt. Geiger knew exactly where his path would take him. He relates:
“I’m told that I chose the French horn when I was 3 years old. My mom took me to a music event at a local university at which all of the music majors demonstrated all the different types of orchestral instruments. My mom, attempted to pique my interest in the strings, but I wanted to play ‘the snail.’ I assume that she would have ignored this request entirely, but apparently for several years following that encounter, I persisted in my attempts to begin my training on ‘the snail.’ She finally acquiesced and the rest is history.”
As a member of the Ceremonial Band, Staff Sgt. Geiger has had many opportunities to perform for foreign dignitaries, heads-of-state, and our own President Barrack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. His daily mission in Arlington National Cemetery holds the deepest meaning for him. He explains, “the first active duty Full Honor Funeral I did was for a young Soldier who left behind a very young wife and small child. I remember thinking that perhaps neither of them had fully come to terms with what had happened in their lives. And then I realized that the music I played that day would mean more to the two of them than it ever would to a packed house at Carnegie Hall.”
The career of every musician at “Pershing’s Own” starts with a successful audition. Staff Sgt. Geiger was at his best the day of his audition, but playing an outstanding audition isn’t always as easy as it sounds. When asked about his audition experience, he tells us:
“The day before my audition I had a gig in New York that I couldn’t turn down. So my wife and I drove from NY to DC and didn’t arrive until around midnight the night before the audition… which was scheduled for 8 am. We arrived in DC only to find that our hotel room had been sold and the hotel had no other rooms available. After sitting on the phone for over three hours attempting to figure out how to reconcile a clearly botched trip, I decided that we were going to drive back to New York. My wife said, ‘we drove all the way down here for you to take this audition, and that’s what you’re going to do.’ But she said it in a scary way, so I had to do what she said. We paid more than double for a room at a hotel down the road (with money we didn’t really have) in order to get 3 and a half hours of sleep before I had to be up to play my audition. So, I suppose I was thinking ‘good God, I’m tired’ or perhaps ‘I just want to go home.’ But I was clearly doing something right that day because here I am, telling this story!”
To aspiring musicians, Staff Sgt. Geiger recommends learning “how to listen to yourself and all the minutiae that playing an instrument entails. The quicker you become proficient at this, the quicker you will become a success.”
For Women’s History Month, we asked SSG Elizabeth (Elli) McGinness to share what it’s like to balance life as a wife, mother and Active Duty military musician whose schedule can often change with less than 24 hours’ notice. Elli has been in The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” since 2009. She won the Principal Flute position in The U.S. Army Concert Band in 2013. With an eighteen-month-old son who is accustomed to hearing her practice “the poot”, and a second son due in April, she states that, “it is no less important that I do my job well.” Elli is a wonderful example of a soldier who excels at balancing the challenges of work without compromising her musical integrity or quality time with her family.
Growing up in Hartville, a small town in Northeast Ohio, Elli was fortunate enough to have had a mother who loved to sing and a father who taught band and choir. “There was always music in the house. Dad taught piano lessons many evenings, and we often sang together in the car, before a meal, or even while doing dishes. Faith and music were closely linked in our house.” She started piano lessons with her father, but after hearing a woman at church play the flute, her father set up group flute lessons in which she could take part until they found a “real” flute teacher. She continued her private study throughout high school. After graduating, Elli traveled to Rochester, NY, to study with Bonita Boyd at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. There she found a supportive church community that became a “home away from home.” She met her husband John, a bass trombonist, while performing at Camp of the Woods, a Christian family resort in Upstate New York. Shortly after announcing their engagement, they moved to Dallas, TX, where they both began graduate studies at Southern Methodist University.
In 2011 and 2012, Elli took part in the historic collaboration between The U.S. Army Band and the Military Band of the Peoples’ Liberation Army of China, in a series of historic joint-performances here in the U.S. and in China, and the experience reinforced her belief in the power of music to connect people of different cultures. As she points out, “when the two bands played together, it didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language. Everyone ‘spoke’ the language of music, and it was easy to play together in spite of the cultural differences between us.”
The ability to make meaningful human connections through music is why Elli volunteered to perform with a woodwind quintet at Ft. Belvoir as part of a new Therapeutic Outreach Program. As one of the newest ways to connect the musicians of “Pershing’s Own” with the community, the program aims to help Soldiers who are struggling to overcome addiction or various other hardships by introducing live music as an alternative component in the healing process.
Her quintet also performed on National Public Radio’s From the Top in June of 2012. The special episode highlighted talented high school aged musicians with connections to the military, and included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey as a special guest. Elli’s connection to this program dates back to 1999, when she was featured in an early episode of the show’s first season. It was an extreme honor for her to go back and share her success as a military band musician on a show which recognized Elli as an outstanding flutist while she was just a teenager.
Whether it was a memorable performance of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony with the Cleveland Youth Symphony, or playing the piccolo “solo” in Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever,” it is evident that Elli truly enjoys the musical camaraderie when she performs. She will undoubtedly share that dedication throughout her career to anyone who will listen.
Master Sergeant Julian R. Ayers, Sr. has been with “Pershing’s Own” since 1999. He joined the Army Band as a trombonist after attending Duquesne University, where he earned both bachelors and masters in music. In 2003, he was tasked as an auxiliary drum major, leading the Ceremonial Band in military honors, parades and ceremonies. In January of 2016, Master Sgt. Ayers made history when he was appointed head Drum Major of Army’s premier musical organization, becoming the first African American to hold the position.
He began his musical journey on the trumpet after seeing a music demonstration in the fourth grade. Little did he know that one day he would have the chance to play with The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets for President Obama’s first inauguration, one of his most memorable moments while with “Pershing’s Own.” In line with his new position, Ayers also served as Drum Major for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s retirement with President Obama on the reviewing stand.
As a military musician, Master Sgt. Ayers has seen, first hand, the impact his musical skill set has upon the public. “I have the unique opportunity to serve this country through music,” he said about his position with the Army Band. As Drum Major, Ayers leads the Ceremonial Band in Arlington National Cemetery in military funerals with full honors, a distinction not lost upon him. “I am humbled to recognize that I am part of an ensemble that creates a lasting memory for a family as they say goodbye to a loved one who has served this country.” The challenging aspects of his career (outdoor playing, weather conditions, playing multiple instruments in addition to military demands) continue to check his humility and always make him grateful for the freedoms he enjoys. While a member of “Pershing’s Own,” Master Sgt. Ayers has been tasked with several different jobs including supply liaison for the unit’s ceremonial element, and logistics/budgetary software expert, to name a few. However, despite the quantity of collateral duties he’s acquired, he always finds time for music. He routinely listens to Mahler, Brahms, Copland, Tchaikovsky, John Williams, Patriotic music and even top 40. His favorite recordings are Copland’s 3rd Symphony performed by the New York Philharmonic and Mahler’s 5th Symphony performed by the Atlanta Symphony. He is constantly focused upon producing a good sound through his instrument and urges aspiring musicians to concentrate on that as well.
Now, as head Drum Major, Master Sgt. Ayers looks back on a long career of varied jobs and feels humbled to be entrusted with the responsibility. “I am proud of my heritage and have the utmost respect for the struggles that minorities have overcome which have allowed me this opportunity. It is a privilege to lead talented musicians as we impact the lives of the American public and enhance the ceremonial experience of domestic and foreign leaders. I am thrilled to be involved in the planning and execution of these missions which cannot be accomplished without the excellent soldiers I have been charged to lead.”
The cat in Sergei Prokovief’s “Peter and the Wolf” is delightfully portrayed by a theme in the slinky lower register of the clarinet. It’s this very theme that inspired Staff Sergeant Emily Ross to begin studying the clarinet. Much to her surprise (and dismay, she would add), the first few months of her band experience were spent playing in the “bland middle register” of the instrument. Fortunately for us, she continued her studies and is now a valued member of The U.S. Army Ceremonial Band clarinet section.
Staff Sgt. Ross was raised in a musical home in Eugene, Oregon, with members of her family playing a wide variety of instruments including the recorder, French horn, euphonium, sackbut, and hand bells. They always had classical music on the radio and frequently attended classical music performances. With music such an important part of her life, she elected to study at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where she earned a Bachelor of Music with Performer’s Certificate. She then earned her Master of Music degree in Performance from Baylor University. Staff Sgt. Ross has been a member of “Pershing’s Own” since September of 2001.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened in the last week of Staff Sgt. Ross’s basic training cycle. She recalls, “While everyone in my platoon was terrified or elated about their role in whatever came next, I kind of shrugged it off, as I knew I was ‘only in the band.’” A few weeks later, she participated in a full honor funeral for one of the victims of the attacks. “That funeral really cemented for me the importance of what we do.” She adds, “Although the Ceremonial Band plays for hundreds of funerals each year, each one we play is a once-in-a-lifetime event for the family.”
Staff Sgt. Ross has since participated in three Presidential Inaugurations, State Funerals for Presidents Reagan and Ford, performed for many heads-of-state, including Queen Elizabeth II, and has participated in countless military ceremonies in the Washington, DC region. Additionally, she has volunteered several consecutive years at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Tax Center, where she exercises her outstanding leadership and organizational skills by training a rotating roster of enlisted personnel to be tax preparers for the local military community. She concludes, “The longer I serve, the more I appreciate both what the military does for our country and what the military means to the people who serve. I will never get tired of playing for retirement ceremonies and seeing the retirees tear up while singing the Army Song.”