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The Army Band Officer Lifecycle

A small contingent of commissioned Army band officers lead elite units that use music to support the Army’s mission.

Amy band officers, specialty code (SC) 42C, are indeed rare in the Army’s officer corps. In fact, there are fewer Army band officers than Army astronauts. With only 22 authorized and 23 assigned Army wide, they represent a tiny but important portion of officers in the Adjutant General’s Corps and an even smaller percentage of all Army officers. Officers who hold SC 42C must have a high degree of subject-matter expertise in leading and conducting musicians. They are commissioned in a single-track specialty specifically to lead the Army’s finest musicians in support of echelons above the corps level.

Most Soldiers are more familiar with Army band commanders who are warrant officers in military occupational specialty (MOS) 420C. This is because warrant officers lead 27 of the Active Army’s 33 bands, all 17 Army Reserve bands, and 53 Army National Guard bands. Warrant officer band commanders typically serve in the bands assigned to the headquarters of corps, divisions, and the Army Training and Doctrine Command, and other installations.

Although typically assigned to the most senior headquarters of our Army and Nation as single-track band officers, they are Adjutant General’s Corps officers and compete for promotion in the Army’s competitive category. Although competing for promotion with the rest of the Army, all band positions must be filled by an officer holding the SC 42C, and each “special band” commander position is an appointed post.

Special bands include the U.S. Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”), the U.S. Army Field Band (the Field Band), and the U.S. Military Academy Band (the West Point Band). [The U.S. Fife and Drum Corps is also a Special Band but is commanded by a warrant officer.] Like other Army assignments, commanders typically hold these positions for 2 to 3 years. Ideally, each assignment provides the officer opportunities for increasing levels of responsibility, which result in general and specific preparation as they ascend through the ranks.

A Recent History of Band Officer Assignments

Since the early 1970s, the total number of Army band officers has not exceeded 26, but the types of assignments available to them have changed. Through the early 1990s, Army band officers also served as “staff bands officers” at the headquarters of U.S. Army Europe, the Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), TRADOC, and in each of the six continental U.S. Army headquarters’ staffs. As of 2009, only one staff bands officer position remains, at FORSCOM headquarters.

The newest SC 42C assignment, the entertainment programs officer to Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC–I) was established to—

  • Monitor the number of Army bands arriving in theater.
  • Coordinate band activities with broader theater-level Army initiatives, including morale, welfare, and recreation and United Service Organizations events.
  • Assist the bands in solving logistics, communication, and administrative problems in theater.

Many Army bands that have served since the beginnings of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have provided ceremonial, morale, and funerary support to units and headquarters of other Army formations, U.S. and international agencies, and their own division or corps activities. As a result, officers in this assignment are also providing a steady stream of lessons learned on how best to manage Army bands’ missions in a multinational environment.

The Band Officer Lifecycle

Typically, only one or two new officers are needed per year to maintain the band officer corps. Commissioned officers are expected to have substantive experience leading musicians before their audition and selection as Army band officers. A master’s degree in music is standard, but not necessarily required as long as the candidate displays a high level of competence and practical experience in leading professional musicians.

The audition. Army band officer auditions are rigorous and competitive and include an audition on the applicant’s main instrument, a music theory exam, a personal interview, and a live audition to evaluate the applicant’s ability to conduct an ensemble. During the live audition, the applicant directs both a concert band and a chorus from Pershing’s Own or the Field Band.

Officer Candidate School. After the Army band officer board (staffed by senior Army band officers) selects a candidate, the applicant also appears before an Officer Candidate School (OCS) selection board. Band officers’ accessions come primarily by OCS. This 14-week course at Fort Benning, Georgia, is designed to train individuals with college degrees to be Army officers. Those who are selected as civilians must successfully complete basic combat training before attending OCS.

Lieutenants. Most Army band officers are older (on average, 27 years old) than typical new Army officers (23 years old) because of the expected level of civilian education and experience needed to be accepted as Army band officers. Generally, the career path begins as a second lieutenant. At the U.S. Army School of Music (USASOM), officers are trained in Army common skills tasks, key branch skills, leadership, public speaking, ceremonies, and unique Army music skills. Lieutenants are provided maximum practical experience through assignments to Army bands. Although this period is developmental in nature, a young band officer routinely may be tasked to interact with senior leaders and lead ensembles consisting of world-class musicians for large audiences and high-level dignitaries at national and international events.

Captains. Ideally, prior to command, captains attend a captains career course at USASOM, where they study the Army’s core training, music programming, public speaking, briefing to influence, audience demographics, and advanced music and performance concepts. Captain is the first rank at which officers have the opportunity to command a band, teach at USASOM, or serve as an associate conductor or bandmaster in charge of a chorus, pop ensemble, or ceremonial unit from Pershing’s Own or the Field Band.

A captain may serve as commander of the TRADOC or FORSCOM band or School Company at USASOM. Key staff experiences are available at the FORSCOM Staff Band Office, at USASOM as an instructor, and through the recently developed deployed position in Baghdad as the Entertainment Programs Officer for MNC–I.

Officers gain advanced leadership experience during this phase of their careers. Their rating schemes can be as unique as their professional experiences. Often, a captain commanding a band will have a rater who is a colonel and a senior rater who is a lieutenant general. As a captain, a band officer will have multiple opportunities to lead world-class musicians for audiences in auditoriums from small-town America to the White House.

Majors. A major may serve as commander of the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus in Germany, as the deputy commander of the West Point Band, or as the deputy commandant and director of training at USASOM. He also may serve as the executive officer of Pershing’s Own.

As a major, band officers must complete Intermediate Level Education either in residence at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or through a 13-week satellite course and non-resident advanced distributed learning program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Fort Lee, Virginia; or Fort Gordon, Georgia. Majors may also complete the Advanced Operations Warfighting Course.

Lieutenant colonels. As a lieutenant colonel, a band officer may serve as the commandant of USASOM, commander of the West Point Band, or deputy commander of Pershing’s Own or the Field Band. Army band officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel compete for senior service college education and training on the same basis as all other competitive category officers.

Colonels. The positions available to band officers include two colonel slots: commander of Pershing’s Own and commander of The Field Band. In addition to serving as commanders of these elite organizations, colonels provide leadership and subject-matter expertise to the Chief, Army Bands (the Adjutant General School commandant), regarding officer assignments and policies and procedures relating to Army bands.

Future Considerations for Band Officer Careers

The inactivation of the six continental U.S. Army headquarters, the elimination of staff band officer positions at the Army Human Resources Command, U.S. Army Europe headquarters, and Army Training and Doctrine Command headquarters limited programmatic opportunities for company-grade and field-grade Army band officers to experience effective management of policy and logistics issues affecting Army bands. The only pure staff positions for band officers exist at FORSCOM headquarters, where the staff band’s officer monitors and assists in the operations of bands assigned to divisions and corps, including mobilization and Reserve component issues.

Assignment to USASOM also requires company- and field-grade officers who are familiar with Army training and resource management as well as training and doctrine development. Senior officers, specifically the commandant of USASOM, are expected to provide vision and leadership in constructing training and doctrine for all Army bands.

Given the nature of the expeditionary Army, Army band officers may need to pursue graduate education and training-with-industry opportunities in related fields like international relations, music marketing, entertainment production, and multimedia communications. The new SC 42C assignment to MNC–I is one important step toward filling an immediate Army requirement that offers commissioned band officers their only opportunity to serve in a forward-deployed environment.

Leaders and developers in Army bands are considering other developmental experiences and training designed to rebuild the skills and understanding needed to function effectively in strategic-level assignments.

As a part of the working force design update for Army bands, there may be a need to rebalance warrant officer and commissioned officer positions to provide an improved officer career progression model and to lend balance and standardization to the operational force.

As the Army continues in an era of persistent conflict, units like Army bands need skilled leaders who grow in and relate to the Army’s culture and system. These leaders will continue to provide world-class musical organizations that are uniquely able to communicate through music on both national and international stages to strengthen both the will and reputation of America’s Army. These specialized officers, from second lieutenant through colonel, will continue to seek the widest possible range of skills and experiences to lead Army bands as they continue to transform in the future.

Lieutenant Colonel Jim R. Keene was the commandant of the U.S. Army School of Music when he wrote this article. He is now the commander of the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point, New York. He holds degrees in piano performance and orchestral conducting.

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