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Closing down of Air Force band ends a tradition

Taps to the 571st Air Force Band, which played its last public concert on the Fourth of July.

The 35-member ensemble, also known as the Air National Guard Band of the Central States, has a distinguished history, from its commissioning in October 1941 to a pair of deployments -- the first ever for a National Guard band -- in Afghanistan. Its rock band, Sidewinder, also appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

That history stops in September 2013, when the band stands down. In reality, the end is coming much sooner: After Wednesday, many of its 35 members will either commute to a guard band in Peoria, Ill., or take other duties in St. Louis.

"I will stay with the unit until it closes," says Maj. John Arata, 40, the band's commander. "I have a responsibility to see things through."

Arata, who teaches music at Eureka High School, served three years in the Army and was appointed commander of the band in 2002. For him, as for all members of the guard, it's a part-time career: one weekend each month and two weeks each summer.

Along with teachers, there are college students, federal employees, stay-at-home mothers, computer technicians, ranging in age from 20 to 57. Most are sergeants; most earn about $6,000 annually for their service, playing at a professional level.

Arata praises the flexibility of his musicians, and he's a good example: he plays violin, clarinet and piano. In addition to conducting the concert band, he plays piano and fiddle in Sidewinder, and piano in the jazz band. Members of the unit also make up woodwind and brass quintets.

This cutback isn't about money, Arata says. "It's about the size of the Air National Guard," which is regulated by Congress. The brass wants more slots for other specialties, most likely technicians. Musicians are taking the hit: There are currently 350 musicians in 11 Air National Guard bands around the country. Six of those bands will be decommissioned.

"This decision was not made by the Missouri National Guard," said Missouri Air National Guard spokeswoman Maj. Tamara Spicer of the decommissioning. The Air Force's public affairs office in Washington did not respond to requests for an interview.

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A LONG HISTORY

Music has set the beat for armies from ancient times, using drums and wind instruments -- fifes, bugles, bagpipes with carrying power -- to sound commands on the battlefield or in camp. Bands gradually expanded to include other instruments and other duties.

The 571st has been overseas four times, performing primarily for troop morale. "We played a lot of current music," Arata says, "to lift their spirits, to break up the monotony and the stress of life in the combat zone."

The band is headquartered at the back of the Air National Guard's base at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, in a little building that used to be an ammo dump. The band's old home was destroyed by the Good Friday 2011 tornado; the most important items, including the music library and instruments, were rescued. The new rehearsal space is inside an open bay with echoing concrete-block walls. Ear plugs are in prominent use.

The members rehearse in "air battle uniform," known as ABUs, and perform in Air Force dress blues. Even the rockers maintain a military bearing. Virtually all speak of the honor and privilege of serving their country through their music.

DIFFERENT DECISIONS

The decision of whether to transfer, stay or retire presents different challenges to different people. About 15 of the 35 will transfer to the band in Peoria.

For six-year member Tech. Sgt. Kristi Frioux, 40, going to Peoria makes sense. "It's how I can still serve and play," she says. Frioux spent 10 1/2  years playing flute at Scott Air Force Base, where her husband is a trombonist. She teaches elementary and middle school band in Smithton and has an 8-year-old daughter.

Two students, Airman 1st Class Adam Mendelson, 22, a percussionist with one more semester to go at Webster University, and Airman 1st Class Chris Higgins, 20, a French hornist and a music education major at the University of Missouri-Columbia, are heading to Peoria. For Higgins, the decision was easy: he's performing "higher-level music with experienced players," and that makes him a better player himself.

Not so for Mendelson. "It took me a long time to decide," he said. What finally swayed him was the amount of ensemble playing he gets to do, and what he's already learned in a short time: "musical skills, ensemble skills, people skills."

Master Sgt. Kathy Nix, the unit's oboist, won't be going with them. She spent four years on active duty at Scott, from 1980 to 1984, and then went straight to the guard. At 52, she had planned to stay until turning 60.

"This is the best way I know how to serve my country," she says, but now, "There's really no place for me to go."

The prospect of retirement is bittersweet, Nix says. "When we go out in public, we represent people's sons, daughters and other family members, people who are serving, who have served, who have been killed. We touch people's lives, and we do that through music."

Tech. Sgt. Paul Holzen, 46, agrees, and he plans to continue doing that by transferring. A teacher at Parkway Central Middle School who plays flute, saxophone and guitar, he said: "When we play for veterans, we see how they're affected by the patriotic music that has meant so much for them. There are tears running down their faces, they're standing up from their wheelchairs or walkers. Those are powerful statements as to the effect that music in the military has."

Tech. Sgt. and horn player Tom Sanders, 47, of Troy, Ill., was still on the fence a week ago but leaning toward leaving music. He works in information technology in civilian life, and he has been offered a slot doing that in St. Louis. The father of twin 11-year-old boys, he likes being close to home instead of three hours away.

"Music has done it all for me," he says, from a substitute stint in the Omaha Symphony Orchestra to the Air Force band, to the guard -- 22 years in all. "It's a tough call."

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