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Good with M-16, good with clarinet

Lt. Col. Roger Kaplan is having another of what he calls those "band madness" days. The absolute worst, the killer, Kaplan says, is the Fourth of July. A close second is Veterans Day, on Nov. 11.

"There are more than 250-million Americans," he says, "and every one of them seems to want bands on those days."

And the demand keeps growing for music provided by the military's 76 active-duty bands and the 82 reserve-unit bands. Last year, said Kaplan, who is in charge of band policy for the Pentagon, military musicians gave 50,000 free performances, more than half for civilians, a schedule that would prompt walkouts by civilian orchestras. Still, for every performance, there are twice as many requests.

"Nobody, but nobody," Kaplan said, "likes being told that they can't get a band for a civic event."

Like nearly everything in the Defense Department, military bands have been shrinking. The Congressional Research Service said the number of musicians dropped from 4,856 in 90 bands in fiscal year 1993 to 4,356 in 76 bands this past year, and that it is scheduled to fall further to 4,327 in 75 bands by the end of 1998. Spending on military bands declined from $182-million in fiscal 1993 to $163-million in fiscal 1997, most of which was for musicians' salaries and benefits.

Champions of the National Endowment for the Arts contrast the relatively large outlays for military music with the $98-million that a House-Senate conference committee approved for endowment spending on all the nation's arts. But Jane Alexander, the agency's chairwoman, has avoided disparaging comparisons. Though noting that military musicians receive more money than the entire endowment, she praises the bands' professionalism, saying that no one should "begrudge them the excellence of the music they make because we receive less federal funding."

Maj. Frank Hudson, chief of the Air Force's Bands and Music Program, agrees. "We are not and should not be thought of as competition for the NEA," he said. "We are part of the broader arts community."

Though military music to some is the butt of jokes, civilian musicians praise their professionalism. Marvin Hamlisch, the popular composer and pianist, called the Air Force's "Strolling Strings" and the United States Marine Band, the celebrated "President's Own" ever since Thomas Jefferson adopted them, "top-notch musicians" who give "spectacular performances."

The Marine Band, the smallest of the service's premier bands, is, in fact, more musical than military. The 143 enlisted players, supported by music librarians, operations and public relations personnel, are full-time musicians selected through highly competitive auditions. More than 40 clarinetists, for example, auditioned in August for a position won by Vicki Gotcher, a 26-year-old civilian musician who had twice before auditioned for the post, which carries the rank of staff sergeant and pays $26,514.12 a year plus room and board. Gotcher has a master's degree in music, as do most of the band's members. Job security and the chance to perform regularly with experienced professionals made the job particularly attractive, she said.

"It was very hard and very tiring to find regular work as a freelance musician," Gotcher said. "I had to teach rather than perform to make ends meet."

The Marine Band's mission is to provide music for the president and the Marine Corps commandant. But the band, founded in 1798, gave 697 performances last year.

"We did everything from funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery to a solo harp at a White House dinner to a brass choir recital at the National Cathedral," said Capt. Frank Byrne, executive assistant to the director of the Marine Band. "We pride ourselves on versatility, and we don't close for Christmas."

Members of the band's 86-member Drum and Bugle Corps, established in 1934, go to boot camp for three months and are given what is called a "condensed version of war-fighting skills." Members of the Marines' 12 other bands and of the Navy, Air Force and Army bands _ not to mention the Coast Guard's, which are included in the Department of Transportation's budget _ are soldiers first, then musicians.

"The Army wants you to do something worthy with your clarinet but also to make sure you can kill someone with your M-16," Kaplan said.

"No one is exempted from Navy standard training," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Mitchell, the head of the Navy Music Program, which supervises the 689 members in its 14 bands. "Every M-U is a sailor," he said, referring to a Navy musician's designated ranking.

The Navy bands, Mitchell said, played 9,724 engagements last year but received more than 12,000 requests. Versatility is crucial, said Mitchell, who entered the Navy as a guitar player and then picked up drums, cymbals and other percussion instruments.

"Given our size, musicians must be configured in different performing idioms: country-western groups, calypso steel drum bands, jazz ensembles and parade units," he explained. The only specific request his service was unable to fulfill recently was for a bagpiper. The military's only bagpipers are from an Air Force Reserve band in Macon, Ga.

The Army has 1,928 members in its 35 regional bands. Its prestigious United States Army Field Band tours the country and performs everything from heart-thumping patriotic tunes to Broadway musicals in about 1,500 concerts reaching 8-million people each year. The Army's Death Mountain Division Band was deployed with other Army units to Haiti, and the 1st Armored Division band was the first to be deployed in Bosnia.

David Kennedy, an electric guitar player known as Ted who operates an Internet Web site, "Ted's Military Band Center," says that his four-year tour as an Army musician was not only great fun but valuable experience.

"Can you imagine being paid to play the electric guitar while you save money for college and figure out what to do with your life?" He is now finishing his bachelor's degree.

Another band mission is recruiting. Bands in full military dress are often found in high schools giving free rock concerts and talking to the students.

Most military musicians _ except those in the Air Force, which trains its own musicians _ spend at least six months after basic training at the triservice School of Music in Norfolk, Va. "They really drill you hard in practice and theory," said Kennedy, who added that the training has produced some "monster" musicians.

The military is not for prima donnas. "There are no Kathleen Battles in our bands," said Kaplan, who does not play an instrument. "It's fairly straightforward: "You, sergeant; me, colonel. You shut up and play.' It's very effective."

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