So you want to be an Army Music Officer?

I’ve written here and there about my job and the satisfaction I get serving as an Army Music Officer, but so many people – both civilians and military – ask me how I became an Army Music Officer. Having been in the Army for over 17 years now (gulp) and having served as the Army Music Officer auditions coordinator for three years, I think I have as good a perspective as any on the process.

Let’s knock out some Frequently Asked Questions:

Are you guys real officers?

Yes. Army Music Officers, for the most part, earn their commission either through graduating Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning or through ROTC. Army Music Officers attend the same schooling as most every other officer: Basic Officer Leaders Course and Captain’s Career Course (ours are held at the Army School of Music); Intermediate Level Education; and if applicable, the Army War College. The only difference between us and other officers is the unique nature of the job itself and the small career field in which we work (there are currently 26 Army Music commissioned officers).

Do Army Music Officers have to go to Basic Training (BCT)?

Yes. Army Music Officers either come from the ranks of enlisted Army Musicians (who have been to BCT) or are recruited as a civilian, in which case attend BCT followed by Officer Candidate School.

Will I have to move around or can I stay in DC?

We move every 2-4 years, just like any other Army Musician (outside the Special Bands in DC and West Point who are stabilized). In my opinion, this is a good thing, especially early in one’s career. Having a variety of jobs early helped prepare me for the responsibilities I now have as a more senior officer in the program. It’s also afforded me the opportunity to live and work in a variety of places, enriching my life and making my work both interesting and challenging.

So let’s start from the beginning. We receive anywhere from 25-35 applications each year to fill 2-3 openings. Applicants range from high school and college band directors, to students finishing their graduate degree, to Army Musicians who want to transition from enlisted to officer. So, what does a successful candidate look like? If you were to line up the 26 officers in our program, you would see a wide variety of skills and strengths, as well as a diverse educational background and work experience prior to joining. But successful candidates do have some common traits. They are excellent communicators on the podium who can not only lead a group with competence, but can connect with the ensemble in a meaningful way. They are problem-solvers who either have leadership experience or have a natural ability to lead others. They are self-starters, who don’t have to be told what to do, but analyze a situation, gain buy-in from their team, and can successfully lead them. To win the audition, you have to display these characteristics throughout the audition process.

A good application packet will have three to four excerpts of the candidate conducting both rehearsals and performances. Does it matter what kind of ensemble? Not really; it just has to be the best representation of your skills as a conductor and rehearsal technician. It will have a full-length photo. Why? Because it gives us a quick indicator of your fitness level. It will also include a CV and a list of references.

As the auditions coordinator for three years, my first job was to take those 25-35 applicants and whittle it down to no more than five for the live audition. How did I do that? The first thing I did was look at photos. If the person was obviously overweight (and would never get within standard in a couple of months), I moved that packet to the side. I then watched about 30 seconds of each applicant’s video; I could usually eliminate a handful right off the bat due to lack of conducting skills. After that, I watched each video more closely and rank ordered them based on my opinion of their conducting skills and rehearsal technique. At this point, I drew a cut line — those that might have the requisite skills to warrant an in-person audition and those that might have some skill, but just aren’t good enough right now. Those below the cut line were eliminated. This usually left me with nine or ten applicants.

After getting the pool to a reasonable number, I would then compare their overall dossiers. Those with a lot of conducting experience would be favored; if two candidates were equal but one was already in the Army, I would favor that person because I already knew they could hack the military life and its requirements. I would then rank order them again, this time taking everything into account – not just their conducting video. I kept doing this until I felt comfortable with the top five candidates – the ones I would invite for the live audition. If there were one or two others that were capable but didn’t quite make the cut, I would inform them that they were alternates in case someone else dropped out.

Once I informed everyone (both those invited and those not invited), the next step was to have civilian candidates connect with a recruiter so they could go through the Army screening process that all recruits – regardless of why you want to join the Army – go through. What does that entail? A background check (do you have a criminal record?), a physical (do you have any conditions that would preclude you from joining the military), and a fitness test (would you be able to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test by the end of BCT?). Additionally, each candidate, both civilian and military, must prepare an Officer Candidate School (OCS) application. This packet eventually goes before a board of commissioned officers for review.

Throughout this whole process, the candidate is asked to do a lot of leg work before the audition; how well they perform during this period helped me form an opinion of the candidate, which I could then pass on to the audition panel.

So, now we come to the audition. The candidates audition at either The U.S. Army Band or The U.S. Army Field Band – two of the four Army Special Bands. The first day, the candidates perform an audition on their main instrument or voice. We do this to get a sense of their overall musicianship. Is it a deciding factor? No. Does it help the panel form an opinion of the level of musician we’re dealing with? Yes. Next we test aural skills, which for anyone with a music degree will be quite familiar – identifying chords, intervals, error detection, and sight singing – the fun stuff. Then we give them a music theory exam – analyzing music excerpts, defining music terms, and arranging a short piece of music for a chamber group. At this point, we give them a piece of music they’ve never seen before (normally an in-house arrangement so there’s little chance they’d know it) that they will have to conduct the following day.

During the second day, the candidates conduct the concert band for 30 minutes. The music includes a couple selections of the candidate’s choosing, a march, a piece for solo and band, the National Anthem, and that selection they received the day before. After that, they have 20 minutes to conduct three selections with the chorus. Finally, the last hurdle is a 15-20 minute interview with the audition panel (which consists of the senior most officers and enlisted in our field). At the end of the day, the panel makes their pick, sometimes picking no one at all.

Those selected either enlist in the Army and head off to Basic Training, or if they’re already in the Army, are given a class date for OCS. Either way, after OCS, all candidates go to the Army Music Officer Basic Course. Only after graduating that course are they then Army Music Officers. 

Overall, it’s a long, difficult process, one that can take over a year to complete. The reward at the end of the process, however, is well worth it. 


Want to learn more about the audition? Go here.



Filed under Army Bands

10 responses to “So you want to be an Army Music Officer?

  1. Rodney A. Hindrew

    What’s happening with the 420C Warrant Officer/Bandmaster Course? I was in the Band Field from 1972-1994. I finished my music degree in piano performance after I retired. Wish I could start over and do my career as a Army Band Officer.

    • Rodney – The warrant officer basic and advanced courses still exist. The number of warrants and commissioned officer are more evenly split than they were even a few years ago (on the active side anyway). Thanks for reading!

  2. Michael R. Dudley

    With the decrease in the number of Army musicians, and the outright dissolving of some Army bands, how will the jobs of the 26 band officers be affected?

  3. Wayne Steffen

    Thank you for this very interesting article. How do the personal requirements, selection process and duties differ between commissioned band officer and a warrant officer bandmaster?

    • Thanks for reading and the question. Overall, the job is similar. The commissioned officers (CO) command the larger bands to include three of the four Special Bands (The US Army Band, The Army Field Band, and West Point; the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps – primarily a marching unit – is led by a warrant officer (WO)). There are also more staff positions for CO. As far as conducting skills, while both CO and WO have good conductors in their ranks, the entry skill level requirement for CO is higher as we try to hire people who can hold their own musically with our best bands, knowing that they will need to grow as a leader and in their knowledge of Army processes as their career progresses. Additionally, WO are hired from the NCO Corps while CO can be hired as a civilian or any rank of Soldier (so long as they meet the OCS requirements). Hope that helps.

  4. Jessica Swank

    Thank you for providing an overview to your career path. I am interested in your insight on taking ROTC while being a music performance major in college.
    I have already completed BCT and currently serving in the National Guard and have just started my freshman year. My end goal is to be in one of the army bands at the completion of my degree (current MOS is 88M.) I have been advised to audition for the army band (after 1-2 years of performance experience and instruction) and do a MOS transfer upon a successful audition and play for the National Guard band and finish my degree. Others have mentioned that I should also do ROTC while in school. At this time, I want to perform in an army band upon completion of my degree rather than going into conducting. My question is should I take advantage of the ROTC here at school or should I stay the current course with music studies/National Guard?

    • Thanks for checking out my blog and for serving. While only you can truly answer that question, I think you sort of answered it when you said that you prefer performing to conducting. Completion of ROTC carries with it a service obligation and you would not be guaranteed serving as a band officer because you would need to pass the band officer audition. My advice would be to stay the course, and if you ever do want to pursue the officer route, there are avenues to do that later on (OCS). Good luck!

  5. Lt Col (Ret) Chris Afful

    Hi! I’m a retired USAF line officer who has been (and still is) a semi pro musician even though I did not get a music degree in college (so no band officer MOS for me). My son, however, has a grad degree in music (oboe) and dual undergrad in music and physics. I’m trying to give him the best advice possible, and think a Service band would be a good fit. But…(and I hope you can answer this), with the downsizing of military bands, how does this look in terms of future opportunities and longevity? In 2020, what does the top of the career pyramid look like for a band officer?

    • Thanks for checking out my blog and for your question! What is your son potentially interested in doing – perform or conduct? With all service bands, enlisted are the instrumentalists and singers while officers are the conductors. All of the officer career fields are small – Army being the largest, of course. We try to hire 1-2 candidates per year. It’s tough to say exactly what the future holds, but I still think it’s a viable option. Feel free to contact me if you want to further discuss – go to my Contact Me page.

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