Army band stays busy putting smiles on Korean audiences' faces
It had been a long day and a long year. But now, at last, the musicians were in the dressing room, and the audience was taking their seats in the music hall.
Just a few minutes left for the members of the Eighth U.S. Army Band to get out of jeans and into their dress blue uniforms, to get those uniforms into just-so order, to make final adjustments to their instruments, to maybe tilt back the head and apply some eye drops.
They were scheduled to play a Friday night, 90-minute Christmas concert Dec. 18 at Kosin University in Busan, South Korea. It was their last full-band concert of a year in which they played about 300 jobs, big and small.
The musicians were tired after loading heavy gear onto the band truck and making the six-hour road trip from their home at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Tired too after the overall pace of a hectic performance year. But they had to put fatigue aside and give the audience a night to remember.
"Obviously, when we’re in a foreign country like this, we are unofficial ambassadors for the United States, and we have to put a good show on for the benefit of the United States, the image of the United States," said Master Sgt. Dale McGiboney, 43, the band’s first sergeant.
As Staff Sgt. Ronni Hinkle, 49, a clarinetist, put it, the trip was a chance to perform their mission, "which is, of course, to be the smiley face of the Army."
"People love music," Hinkle said. "American bands come in — and this is true of every band I’ve been in — and play fun stuff that represents America."
There was plenty of fun. Some of it was in the whimsical sound effects from one or another instrument — for example, the clippity-clop of horse’s hooves and sleigh bells the percussion section generated during "Sleigh Ride." And in that same number, the horse’s neighing brought off by Spc. Andrew Smicker on trumpet.
The audience laughed when the music was meant to be funny, sat in rapt silence during operatic pieces like "Nessun Dorma," and applauded and cheered after each number and when soloists came to the microphone.
They called for an encore. The small kids loved it when a white-bearded, red-clad Santa Claus, known to band insiders as Sgt. 1st Class Noel Miles, came out and gave them lollipops.
And many hastened to the stage afterward, asking to pose for a photograph with a musician.
"People were coming up and asking to take pictures with us and stuff and asking us: ‘Hold my little kid,’ " said Spc. Katie Hinton, 24, a pianist, who also sang a solo on "Christmas Time is Here." "I think that’s a good impression to make on Koreans, if they respect you enough to want to take your picture and want you to hold their baby.”
In some ways, Hinton is typical of the young musicians the Army has been working hard to recruit from civilian life.
Many have college degrees. Hinton’s “about a semester away” from a degree in musical theater performance, she said.
All have had to pass a stringent audition process geared to the instrument they play.
“Today, they’re well-educated,” said McGiboney. “We go chasing after them at the colleges and conservatories. So more than ever before, we have degreed musicians in our ranks from the get-go. And those without a degree are highly motivated to get one.”
McGiboney himself holds a bachelor’s in music education and a master’s in music theory and composition.
What’s brought in the current crop of Army musicians is “a combination of elements,” McGiboney said.
Some saw their feelings of patriotism roused in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and “gave up their job to serve their country in the way they could do it best,” he said. “More recently, the more common story is the crushing economy.”
“This is the best job for a musician, because we … have a steady paycheck all the time,” Hinton said.
“You’re not trying to go gig to gig to get money,” he said.
“Our work day, it’s really insane, but it’s not really that hard. … I get paid for that.”