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.
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.