US Army Strings

Edited: October 8, 2018, 10:17 PM · A child of one of our friends is considering leaving a section-violin job in a 15-week season orchestra (in a very expensive city) he recently won and join the US ARMY Strings as a violinist.

His parents are quite concern since joining the Army was probably not a career they had in mind for their son.

I actually went and took a look at the roster of the violin sections the US Army Strings and it is very impressive. These are fine musicians with degrees from Julliard, CIM, NEC, IU, Rice and others. The Concertmaster made his solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 13!

I wonder if anyone here can share some prior experience as a violinist in the US Army Strings.

Replies (27)

Edited: October 9, 2018, 9:48 AM · As far as I can tell, the military orchestras posted to Washington DC (like the US Army Strings, which are part of Pershing's Own) are comprised of very fine players who pretty much settle here permanently. They seem to have enough time to freelance, teach, and take other engagements, and eventually they put in their 20 years and "retire" into the other local symphonies, often as principals. Anyone auditioning should think of this as similar to winning a job with other full-time professional symphonies of national stature.

Ditto the choruses. Apparently it's a good life, from what I've heard from people in. The military element is mostly ceremonial, but note that they are required to do boot camp (with the exception of the Marine's "President's Own") and to meet their service branch's fitness requirements.

October 8, 2018, 11:28 PM · The audition was done in the summer. Going on information provided by the parents, the kid got the job, which pays about $65k a year and provides an annual paid leave of 30 days.

The main concern is how is the military component of the job perceived by the civilian music community. Is there stigma of any sort? ( I don’t think there is any, but the parents are concerned.)

October 8, 2018, 11:44 PM · I doubt there's a stigma. A gig is a gig. The military has a huge amount of money. If they didn't have any of their professional musical groups, the savings wouldn't buy them one F-35. Not even close.

An old friend of mine from college, a standout trumpeter who played gigs with my brother and me, is the "element leader" for the US Army Jazz Ambassadors. He wasn't the kind of guy I'd have expected to go into the army, but he's been doing that for a long time so my guess is he enjoys it. His band really swings too.

Edited: October 8, 2018, 11:52 PM · That's a great gig. Lydia is right; winning a job in the Army Strings is absolutely comparable to (and just as hard as) winning a job in a civilian orchestra with equivalent pay. Plus your friend will be eligible for military benefits.

The parents need to relax about this.

Editing to add that if my daughter were to get into a military band (eventually, after music school), I would be ecstatic.

October 9, 2018, 12:01 AM · Thank you all. I will tell the parents to let the kid “be all he can be” in the army.
Edited: October 9, 2018, 8:37 AM · BTW, my impression is that getting a job in the US army strings ( or other military ensembles) is likely easier than that in orchestras of comparable compensation and job security. The US citizenship requirement (and security clearances needed for playing in the White House) is not insignificant. It effectively makes the job “merely” nationally competitive rather than **internationally** competitive.
October 9, 2018, 9:11 AM · My cello teacher had spent WW-I (yes world-war-one) as a cellist in an Army "band." He went on to play with the Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta Symphonies (that I know of). He was an alcoholic, which accounts for his moving around and eventual failure as a professional symphony player. But even when I knew him, more than 30 years after WW-I, he was a fine cellist capable of enthralling an audience with a fine concerto performance (as long as he was kept away from drink all that day by a chaperone).

Our n'er-do-well (but fine) flute player in high school (finally graduated when he was 20) went on to join a Navy band. From there he got various university degrees and ended up as professor of woodwind music at William and Mary College. (Unfortunately he had died the week before I finally looked him up on line about 12 years ago.)

The father of our college orchestra's concertmaster (so we were told by his son Carl) had been CM of the Minneapolis Orchestra before he became a D.C. lawyer and amassed enough money to buy his Strad. So when Carl was finally tired of all the Russian string quartet music our college's Russian music professor was bringing in for concerts, he got his father to bring in 3 players from the Marine Band+ String Quartet to play some Mozart and Beethoven string quartets with him for us (they played too fast!).

+(This is the music organization that was doing the music at the White House in the 1950s. I suspect music there might be different now.
It could have been the Air Force - MG, it was 64 years ago, it's hard to remember for sure.)

October 9, 2018, 9:36 AM · Daniel Majeske the former Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra (before this current one who’s on his way out), was in the US Strings. My good buddy from Juilliard is the current Principal Cellist of the group.
Edited: October 9, 2018, 9:51 AM · David, you may be right to some degree, but it's probably worth thinking of it in Mary Ellen's phrasing of comparable pay. At that point in the pay scale, you're generally looking at less truly international competition (i.e. fewer people who aren't already permanent residents or citizens).

Note that the pay gets supplemented by various military allowances, and if they want, income from whatever additional freelancing and teaching they do. (I suspect they might feel it's necessary, given that $65k doesn't go very far given DC's cost of living.)

Edited: October 9, 2018, 9:57 AM · There are enough truly fine and highly trained string players in the U.S. who were born here so that subtracting international applicants from a $65K gig is not going to make winning the audition appreciably easier.

Surely you did not mean to imply that U.S. citizens as a group are less qualified than international applicants. Once you start comparing apples to apples, i.e. U.S.-born Juilliard grads with foreign-born Juilliard grads, the differences go away. And I assure you that the top conservatories are still graduating plenty of U.S. citizens who play extremely well.

Edited: October 9, 2018, 11:53 AM · "Surely you did not mean to imply that U.S. citizens as a group are less qualified than international applicants"

I did not. The total number of applicants will be higher if international applicants were considered. Mathematically, the probability of success will be lower with a larger applicant pool, all else being equal.

October 9, 2018, 4:29 PM · I still don't think the odds change all that much. 1/50 versus 1/60 is not a big difference. I think you overestimate the percentage of international applicants at a given audition.
October 9, 2018, 7:38 PM · In the military you get paid even if you aren't playing, which is more than just about any civilian orchestra, with excellent benefit AND pension not to mention absolute job security, which just about any other musician would envy. Having served myself for 27+ yrs in the Canadian military, I would certainly give it a high recommendation. Too bad the CAF band doesn't have a strings unit/section like the US Army.
Edited: October 9, 2018, 7:57 PM · I have not heard of any stigma. I have heard of generous benefits, including assistance in acquiring a better instrument.

One thing to keep in mind, it's a 20-year term if he's an enlistee (mentioned above). If he's in his 20s, that means he'll be in his 40s when he needs to move on.

October 9, 2018, 8:28 PM · They don't have to get out when they've put in their 20. There are folks in their 50s, I believe. Although it seems common for them to get out younger, since they've earned their pension and can go on to win another position.
October 9, 2018, 8:55 PM · "In the military you get paid even if you aren't playing, which is more than just about any civilian orchestra"

Not sure what you mean by that. Any fulltime professional orchestra is going to be salaried. That means that I get the same weekly pay whether we have three services (rare, but it happens) or eight services. And if we do a Mozart festival in January, as we did several years ago, certain non-Mozartian instruments basically get a paid month's vacation because all staff musicians are paid whether the repertoire requires them or not.

Edited: October 10, 2018, 10:51 AM · “One thing to keep in mind, it's a 20-year term if he's an enlistee (mentioned above). If he's in his 20s, that means he'll be in his 40s when he needs to move on”

Picking up a second position/career is not uncommon among ex-military, and not just in music. Two of my colleagues are retired USAF officers who earned their PhD while in the Air Force. They became academics upon retiring from the Air Force and have been double-dipping ever since.

Edited: October 9, 2018, 11:55 PM · There are chances for a second career and pensions, yes.

I am told there may be different tenure limits or retirement policies depending on the position, like officers vs. enlistees. I think your friend's son should ask questions to find out more, for planning purposes.

October 10, 2018, 8:23 AM · Just as a point of information, musicians in the military ensembles are non-commissioned officers. The conductors are officers. Make of that what you will.
Edited: October 10, 2018, 11:03 AM · Former Army here: Don't forget that first and foremost, you are a soldier and will be treated as such if needed.
My neighbor was a clarinetist in the Army until Army music programs were downsized. First he was an MP, now he has been retrained in Air Traffic Control.
Commissioned Officers can resign their commission and, with certain penalties, leave. As NCOs, you will need to complete your enlistment contract in a place and job that the Army needs you should there be problems with your tenure in the orchestra. My friend's dilema was that 13 years in,7 more gets you retirement benies. Do you walk away from 13 years of equity or slog out the last 7 for the retirement.

My point is that your friend needs to read the fine print. More than once. Ask questions, although recruiters can and do give less-than-truthful answers and can not be help liable for these things. Once you sign the contract, you are there for the duration.

Edited: October 10, 2018, 12:03 PM · In the UK the military schools of music also provide the highest level of professional teaching and training.

My cello teacher Arthur Alexander graduated from the RAF school at which he also learnt the clarinet and sax. When WW2 was over and he was demobbed, he was headhunted by the BBC for the deputy principal chair of the cello section of the BBC SO. He turned it down and the BBC then offered him the post of principal - a plum job in the orchestral world - and he turned that down too! He said many years later that after several years of regimentation of the RAF bands and orchestras he didn't want to experience that again in civilian life as a full-time symphony musician and much preferred the freelance route.

So, he was freelance for the rest of his long and productive life - soloist, teaching, involvement with the BBC Concert Orchestra while it was based in Bristol for several years after WW2, deputising as cellist or violist for visiting pro symphony orchestras, running the regional branch of the MU, running his own trad jazz band (clarinet), running a dance band (sax), and, certainly not the least important, conducting Bristol's Youth Orchestra for many years where his influence in the music life of the city resonated for the rest of his life and beyond.

Oh, and he didn't approve of music exams and never taught for grades saying that he wanted to produce musicians, not examination fodder. Which is why my parents got me to take grade 8 under another teacher. Five years of Arthur's teaching paid off because he'd already taken me to that level.

October 10, 2018, 1:47 PM · Lasley, very helpful information! I will let the parents know.
Edited: October 10, 2018, 3:05 PM · To Duane's point, there is a difference between the "regular" military ensembles (and the reserve ones), and the "premier" military ensembles. The premier ensembles have a totally different process and enlistment contracts. As far as I know, their contracts specify that they can only be assigned to that ensemble and that ensemble will be in a specific location, and they join at the E6 level rather than as privates. They generally don't have non-musical military duties at all. (The Marine's President's Own doesn't even do boot camp.)

The Army Strings are part of Pershing's Own, and they're a premier ensemble, which means your friend's child is protected against reassignment (i.e. Duane's example does not apply to him).

October 10, 2018, 3:20 PM · As a Navy veteran I can add that I knew a lot of the people in the various "ceremonial" details that were headquartered in DC. The various service bands and orchestras are all stationed there although in my day, they did travel to perform at various functions around the US.

As military service goes it is a very good position, stable pay, full medical, housing, uniforms, paid travel without the hassles of commercial air.

October 11, 2018, 5:00 PM · One of my very best friends (french horn) has won positions in two different military branch ensembles. There are definitely pros and cons. The pros are many -- they paid for her to get her doctorate, she is provided with housing and day care, the pay is good, and plenty of time for family, freelance, or teaching.

But boot camp was horrific for her, not so much the physical aspects, but the methods and what she identified as significant propaganda throughout. She also was not allowed to have access to her instrument for most of the time during boot camp.

There are some other less significant issues -- ie they still require a certain level of physical fitness and health -- that likely won't impact someone young. And there are occasional other military aspects she finds off-putting. Depending on the ensemble, the travel can be significant as well. But overall, it has been a great career for her.

October 11, 2018, 6:00 PM · We have a good friend who spent 27 years in the Army band as a bassoonist. It's one of the best gigs going for musicians, as far as I can see. Pays well, gives you lots of time for your own activities on the side such as teaching of other musical activities (our friend even went to law school at night), plus you get a good pension if you retire from there. There are downsides that people have identified, of course, but what musician job does not have them?
Edited: October 12, 2018, 12:44 PM · I don't know about the US military, but most likely it is very similar to the Canadian military where one signs up for an initial short term contract, 3yrs of service for NCMs, then given an option for 10yrs followed by 25, and finally to compulsory retirement age of 55, so it's not like you're signing your life away. Like any contract, early termination has consequences/penalties (such as pension reduction), but it is still possible to quit your contract early. My recommendation is to clearly understand the terms before signing up. As for recruit training (aka boot camp),just go with the flow, everything has it's reason, which may not always be apparent.

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