Communicate: the third pillar of the USAF Band of the West

By Senior Airman Daniel N. Thrower
United States Air Force Band of the West

As an Airman, I have communicated to active duty personnel, veterans and civilians in ways that military members at large will never do. A politician or statesman may be an extraordinary keynote speaker, but a two-striper enlisted musician experiences countless unique missions connecting with audiences using the “universal language” of music.

Without overanalyzing it, communicate is the third of four pillars that concisely conveys what we do as Airman musicians. We communicate the Air Force message. We exemplify the core values of integrity, service and excellence. We communicate pride in our great country, gratitude for all who fought or fight to maintain our freedoms and a secure sense of trust our superb Armed Forces. We communicate deep emotion and honor to those who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom. We connect with the youth, those in the prime of their lives and the elderly. We unite different cultures and races, the rich and poor, people male and female and Americans with other Americans.

bugler photo
Airman First Class Laura Hall, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Band of the West bugler, plays “Taps” during the wreath-laying ceremony Mar. 25, 2014, honoring repatriated Vietnam War prisoner of war pilots at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.(U.S. Air Force photo by Rich McFadden/Released)

Picture this: A fit and trim bugler in a sharp-looking uniform with polished black shoes and clean white gloves standing at attention during a cemetery. A mourning young family sits on the front row near the casket, watching through tear-blurred eyes as the honor guard folds the red, white and blue that had just been draped over the deceased patriot’s casket. Riflemen then respond in strict unison to commands, and fire 21 collective shots. What follows at every such scene epitomizes the power of music. As a bugler myself, I have learned that during the playing of Taps, I cannot look at the family when my duty calls. Those 24 simple notes always open the floodgates for me.

Picture this: It’s the Fourth of July—our nation’s birthday. A concert band takes the stage at San Antonio’s Woodlawn Lake Park in their crisp uniforms as smells of fried food waft through the air. Partiers pass by in patriotic regalia with kids waving small flags. The announcer booms a mighty introduction as the band sounds its opening strains. A child looks on throughout the evening, his American heart bursting through his chest in the thickly patriotic environment. Night approaches, and the glow sticks come out in the audience. All of a sudden, the band finishes the concert with an exclamation mark as the fireworks begin. Nothing could prepare the audience like a military band concert!

Tech. Sgt. Christin Foley, vocalist from the U.S. Air Force Band of the West, walks among the crowd as she performs a song with the U.S. Air Force band Max Impact June 27, 2014 in Cheyenne, Wyo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Brandon Valle/Released)
Tech. Sgt. Christin Foley, vocalist from the U.S. Air Force Band of the West, walks among the crowd as she performs a song with the U.S. Air Force band Max Impact June 27, 2014 in Cheyenne, Wyo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Brandon Valle/Released)

Picture this: Otherwise unresponsive residents in a veterans’ retirement home move and clap to patriotic melodies or dance tunes that bring them back to their younger years. In mingling with such audiences after a rousing brass band performance, the music elicits vigorous (and not-so-vigorous) handshakes, stories, tears… and always smiles. Perhaps the smile is our unofficial directive. Or maybe it is the pride in the pursed lips and raised chin during the National Anthem. Then again, could it be the visiting grandchild waving the flag in time to a dynamic Sousa march?

Lastly, picture this: It is the holiday season for service members deployed overseas. When deployed, the bands perform for more than our Airmen. Embassies, orphanages, hospitals and other venues host many performances. In one hospital where vocalist Tech. Sgt. Christin Foley performed, a boy’s hands were badly damaged – presumably by an improvised explosive device. Foley and the deployed band sang and played festive songs for the boy and his family. “Returning the next day, it was so great to see the smile on his face,” Foley said. “Of course, the English he learned from the nurses was very broken, but it meant so much.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song is worth a thousand pictures. There are CDs and other recordings, but if you have never experienced the awe and splendor of live musical communication with Air Force professionals, seek out the opportunity. All performances are free and open to the public!