As some readers know, I spent eight years as a member of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra. As the name implies, I spent most of my time in uniform at the White House or in other government buildings, performing for various official gatherings. I also got to play a lot of great chamber music, as well as two concertos with orchestra, and made some great friends.
The picture above is one of my favorite moments at the White House, at a Christmas party for members of the Secret Service (the kid’s father was an agent, I believe):
Shortly after I got the job, I spoke with one of my teachers, the Danish cellist Erling Blondal Bengtsson, who was as kind and gentle a person one could ever hope to meet.
The first thing he asked me was “Do you get a gun?” When I told him no, he seemed a little disappointed. This was the first of many conversations I would have (and still have) to explain the unique and sometimes very strange job I had.
“Every Marine a rifleman” is a common expression around the Corps. Well, that’s every Marine except band members – I didn’t go to boot camp. Many people, myself included, would never have considered auditioning if spending 3 months at Parris Island were required, and I think the Marine Corps wisely decided that it wasn’t worth it.
Not everyone we encountered knew that Marine Band members were not combat trained, and it made for some surreal moments. One night, the orchestra was playing at an awards dinner for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (insert joke here).
In between handing out medals to his agents for things like shooting drug dealers and capturing arms smugglers, the bureau’s director gave a special thank you to the orchestra, because, as he put it, “You guys are the ones they send in first.” Strangely, no one corrected him, though I did suggest to my colleagues that if this came up again, the viola section should lead the way.
Many times since leaving the Band, I’ve had people thank me for my service, which can feel a little strange – I certainly don’t consider myself to have been a real Marine, given that I wasn’t trained as one, and could never have been put in a combat situation (it’s in the contract).
Though my time in uniform was pretty different from most, I did get a closer look at life in the military than most civilians do. Maybe because of this unique position, I’ve often wanted to give something back to regular service members, and recently I got a chance to – I’ve been playing at the Cincinnati VA hospital.
The Cincinnati Arts Association, in a partnership with TriHealth and ArtsWave, has begun a pilot program to put live performers into medical settings, to show that music can enhance the healing process, as well as the general well-being of patients and staff.
I’m playing in the Treatment, Recovery and Activity Center, known as the TRAC (the VA, like the Pentagon, likes its acronyms). This part of the hospital offers group and individual therapy, as well as sessions designed to help vets re-adjust to civilian life and deal with post-traumatic stress.
It’s early, so there isn’t any data yet, but I’m sure the music’s having a positive effect – many of the vets I’ve met seem to really enjoy hearing Bach while they are at the clinic, and the staff does too. Here they are – from left, Brian Smith, Cincinnati Arts Association’s Director of Education and Community Relations Joyce Bonomini, Mark Hilt and Dr. Nalda Gordon.
The other day, I had a nice chat with a Navy vet in his sixties, who was in a wheelchair. He told me hearing the cello reminded him how much he missed his guitar playing, which he had to give up several years ago after an injury to his left hand. I reminded him about a great program called Guitars for Vets, which may be able to find him a left-handed guitar and some lessons, so he can get back to it. I hope he does – just talking about his playing made him come alive.
Anyone who has followed the news in recent years knows that the VA has had more than its share of troubles, and it feels good to bring great music into a setting which probably needs it more than most. In addition to furthering the program’s goals of promoting healing and well-being, I’m thanking the vets and the staff for their service, and, in a sense, continuing mine, which feels very good.
Till next time,