Opportunities for Musicians in the Military Bands

An Interview with SMSgt J. Blake Arrington

Date Posted: May 29, 2018

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Interview conducted by Sean Packard

The United States Military offers many different opportunities for all types of musicians. The different branches of the US military employ concert bands, jazz bands, orchestras, chamber groups, choirs, and rock bands. Some of these bands will remain stationed on a certain military base, while some frequently travel all over the world. As a member of the military, great educational and monetary benefits are available to all band members along with the unique musical opportunities.

The United States Air Force Concert Band is a world-class symphonic wind ensemble, and it is the largest ensemble in the US Air Force. The concert band performs a large variety of music ranging from popular favorites to standard concert band repertoire. This band performs over 100 concerts annually, performing regularly in the greater Washington D.C. area as well as touring nationally several times a year. The Air Force Concert Band is in constant demand by many of the world's most highly respected professional musical organizations.

Technical Sgt. J. Blake Arrington is a clarinetist with the Concert Band, The United States Air Force Band, Washington, D.C. In addition to his performing duties, Sergeant Arrington serves as tour manager for the Concert Band. Originally from Little Rock, Ark., his Air Force career began in 2006.

Sergeant Arrington attended The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) from 1997-2000. He graduated cum laude from The University of North Texas (UNT) earning a Bachelor of Music degree in clarinet performance in 2002 and a Master of Music degree in 2004. In May 2011, Sergeant Arrington was awarded the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in orchestral performance from The Catholic University of America. His teachers include Kristina Belisle, Kelly Johnson, John Scott, Gregory Raden and Eugene Mondie. As a student, Sergeant Arrington performed and recorded with the UNT Wind Symphony and Symphony Orchestra, and The Catholic University of America Symphony Orchestra.

Sergeant Arrington's professional experience includes performances with the Irving Symphony Orchestra, Plano Symphony Orchestra and Opera in the Ozarks. He is a recipient of the Brandon Hawk Memorial Award for Excellence in Clarinet Performance from UCA. Additionally, he was awarded both a Travel Abroad Grant and an Undergraduate Research Grant from the UCA Honors College.

Sergeant Arrington is a member of the International Clarinet Association, Pi Kappa Lamda, and Kappa Kappa Psi.

How did you first hear about the opportunities in music that the Air Force offered?

BA: I was aware of the opportunity to perform in military bands during my first year of college in Arkansas. I saw the USAF Band perform at the University of North Texas in 2001 and thought it was an ensemble I'd love to join. From there, I just kept checking the International Musician for any and every orchestra and band audition announcement.

Why were you so inclined to join the Air Force?

BA: After winning the audition in March 2006, I was honored to join. I had college friends who were in the band and knew how much they enjoyed it. It's a great way to serve our country, honor our veterans and play with some amazing musicians.

What was the audition process like? Did you audition specifically for the USAF Concert Band that you are currently playing in?

BA: I auditioned specifically for The USAF Concert Band in Washington DC. After submitting a resume, I got a phone call and took the band's initial screening interview. It made sure that I didn't have any legal or medical issues that would preclude me from joining the band.

After that, I started preparing for the audition. The list was comprised of band and orchestra excerpts. On the day of the audition, around 45 civilians and a few USAF Regional Bandsmen showed up. The first round included the Mozart Concerto and various excerpts. The committee then cut the field to 6 candidates. I then played a semifinal round that included sight reading. After that round, the committee asked me to play a few more excerpts with some specific musical things they wanted to hear. After that, I was offered the job.

How demanding is the basic training process that is required of all Airmen? As a musician in the Air Force is this process much different than other Airmen?

BA: Basic is challenging both mentally and physically. Trainees with a guaranteed band job are assigned to the drum and bugle corps flight. Around week two, you will have band rehearsal for a few hours two days a week. You also play for retreat and graduation.

USAF Band musicians are held to the same physical fitness standards that all Airmen must maintain. This includes yearly testing. The test is an abdominal circumference measurement, 1 minute of pushups, 1 minute of sit-ups and a 1.5 mile timed run. Other service bands have different basic training requirements. Two Premier Bands do not require basic training: The President's Own Marine Band and the US Coast Guard Band.

Has your practice routine changed at all as a result of your service with the Air Force?

BA: I still do a daily long tone warm up and work on improving other aspects of my playing. The bulk of my practice is focused on the music we are currently rehearsing. The summer is a busy time for us as we change music on a weekly basis and may be rehearsing two programs in the same week.

You have played with numerous other orchestras across the country before the USAF Concert Band. How does the Air Force band compare with your previous professional experiences?

BA: The musicians are extremely talented. The level of performance is the highest I have ever heard. Some of our first rehearsals are more polished than performances of most of the groups of which I've been a member.

What are some of the benefits and most enjoyable aspects of being a part of the USAF Concert Band?

BA: The benefits are amazing. In addition to your base pay, we receive a housing allowance and food allowance. For me and my family, the free medical coverage is a huge benefit. There are also educational benefits such as tuition assistance and the GI Bill and benefits for home buyers through the VA Home Loan Program. There are so many other benefits that I'm forgetting, but exploring the Careers tab at www.usafband.af.mil will show you more benefits of becoming a military musician.

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