By Lara Ehrlich
Originally posted in the spring 2017 issue of Esprit.
Music and the military run in Russell Houser’s family; his older brother was a soldier, and his father—who is blind—instilled in him an appreciation for melodies. “I grew up with a sonic orientation to the world,” says Houser (’18), the commander and conductor of the US Army’s I Corps Band. “As soon as I picked up the trumpet at age 10, I was hooked. It was the greatest thing in the world to be able to make sound.”
Houser, who is pursuing his doctor of musical arts in music education through CFA’s online program, tells Esprit how he puts his sonic skills to use leading 50 musicians in more than 600 missions a year. The events range from retirements and changes of command, to parades and receptions, to school presentations and community events like the Seattle Marathon.
Lara Ehrlich: Walk us through a day in your life.
Russell Houser: There is no typical day in this job. A textbook perfect day would be physical training in the morning, a bit of downtime, and then accountability formations to ensure that everyone knows what we’re doing for the day, and then rehearsals and missions.
How many musicians are in the US Army’s I Corps Band, and what type of music do you play?
The band that I’m currently assigned to has about 50 musicians. Within that group, there is a ceremonial band, two brass quintets, a rock band, and a jazz combo. The ceremonial band plays events like retirements, parades, and changes of command, and the brass quintets perform similar events for smaller venues. The jazz combo performs for ceremonies on occasion, but it’s more for military receptions, to create a positive, engaging mood. The rock band is great for public relations outreach to schools and for bigger public events, like the Seattle Marathon.
How do the soldiers get involved in the band?
Each soldier joins for their own reasons, but most come to the band with significant performing experience and training. To display the disparity, I had two soldiers in the band who have completed their doctorate for music performance, as well as soldiers who have not done much more than high school.
You joined the military after the army band performed at your high school. What was it about the band that inspired you to join the military?
You’re asking me to remember what I was thinking 30 years ago as an 18-year-old! My brother had gone into the army out of high school, so I had admiration for him and his decision. I also wanted to get out of the little town I grew up in and see more of the world.
Were you interested in music before you joined the military?
My dad is totally blind and has been all my life, so I grew up with a sonic orientation to the world. As soon as I picked up the trumpet at age 10, I was hooked. It was the greatest thing in the world to be able to make sound. I don’t think I chose it—I think it chose me.
My dad could tell wonderful stories. Where that comes to serve me in this job is that when I see or listen to a piece of music, narratives almost instantly pop into my mind. It’s helpful to find what the music is saying to me, and when teaching conductors, to ferret out what they think the music is telling them.
How might you share what the music is saying to you?
Right now, we’re doing a piece of instrumental music based on “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that starts out with a fanfare trumpet duet, and then goes into a French horn quartet, followed by the timpani. Immediately what jumped to mind is a set of escalators. You’re riding down the escalator playing the trumpet, and then you meet your friend who’s playing the French horn, and there’s a handoff. At the bottom of the escalator is the timpani. That’s how I try to get that sense of connection in the piece to the performer or a conductor.
How does music support army operations and morale?
We play at many ceremonies. I think some of the most meaningful ones have been for when soldiers come home from deployment. When they start walking off the plane—at any hour—the band is there breaking out the welcome home music. We are a sonic backdrop to those events.
We will play at organizational events, such as retirements, and we’ll play “Auld Lang Syne” and “Old Soldiers Never Die” as last tributes.
Finally, and probably most importantly, we’ll play at funerals to say good-bye to service members one final time. Those few notes are gut-wrenching. There’s a poignancy that cannot be done by anyone else. It gets harder as I get older just because I’ve become more aware of how precious life really is. I’m almost at a loss for words.
What led you to CFA’s online doctorate of musical arts in music education program?
With this job, I’ve moved every two and a half to three years. I began the program in Afghanistan, and then I moved to North Carolina; to El Paso, Texas; and then Virginia Beach, Virginia—and then Tacoma, Washington. My dissertation advisor and I meet every other week on Skype, and I’ll hopefully be finished in late 2017 or early 2018. It’s probably longer than the typical student in a brick and mortar institution, but I couldn’t have done it any other way.
Tell us about your dissertation on identity construction of LGBT music educators on the podium.
For me, a dissertation has to be personal, professional, and academic. It originally began with personal observations about the challenges in the history of wind bands and the historical writings that show non-favorable or non-equal treatment of people who were different—specifically LGBT people. But where things get interesting is when you put somebody who has been occasionally not looked upon favorably in a leadership position like a conductor. That’s where tensions, to me, are evident.
Our goal on the podium is to be as efficient as possible with the limitations and gifts that you bring inherently to the table. Your job is to liberate the best sounds possible from your organization, and do that in a loving and tender way.
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