Self-perpetuating professions

Military Bands
Former and current officers of the premier college band directors organization have, at least twice now, suggested a campaign to inform and activate Americans who have benefited from community concerts by our country’s military service bands.  Here is most of the text of the e-mail received late on 6/20/16.


By now you probably have seen or heard about the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the defunding of all non-base related performances by our fine military bands. . . .

Amendment 48 to H.R. 5293, the 2017 Defense Appropriations Act, was passed by voice vote on Thursday.  It now goes to the Senate.  This amendment would severely curtail the missions of every military musical unit, effectively eliminating concerts, parades, and any other event not directly in support of a military ceremony on a military base.  This would include performances at universities and conferences such as the Midwest Clinic, ABA and CBDNA.

If you think this is ill-advised, there are several things you can do to help.

The most effective course of action would be to personally contact your U.S. Senators . . .  I have included a link below to help you find contact information for the Senators from your state.

There are also several on-line petitions going that you might like to join. . . .

The last time this happened, Mary Leurhrson from the National Association of Music Merchants suggested immediate phone calls to senators urging full funding of military bands.  She further suggested Facebook and Twitter to broaden the dissemination of the message.  The NAMM clearly had financial interests that were being threatened.

Mixed Feelings:
My own feelings are mixed.  On one hand, I have loved and benefited from the performances of many service bands.  Three students performed last year with one of the service jazz bands.  I regularly use military band recordings and have also used other pedagogical resources they provide.  At least three former musical associates perform with service bands based in D.C., another one got an audition, and many have probably dreamed of it.  My first horn teacher was a member of the U.S. Marine Band (“The President’s Own”).  It is an honor to have conducted, learned from, and played with musicians who have attained to such professional heights.

On the other hand, something seems disingenuous about the very existence of the armed forces bands.  They seem to exist largely for the purpose of self-perpetuation.  The band concerts certainly please the public and result in goodwill and community energy.  They also provide resources free of charge.  Bands can’t honestly expect to recruit actual fighting men and women, though.  Surely no military intelligence personnel, candidates for the special forces and infantry and nuclear subs and Air Force bombardiers, etc., are secured because of band concerts.

Service bands could be seen as professional-quality, colorful sponges that soak up tax money, and it seems to me that they have decreasing justification for existence.  (I also disagree with some other excesses of our nation’s military spending and probably a lot of foreign policy, whether explicit or de facto, but I consider military spending and the military itself to be matters of civil government—outside my primary world, which is God’s kingdom.)

A high-level musician who wins a position as a career musician in one of the Air Force bands, for instance, has a fulfilling career herself, but she is not really doing anything for the country’s military machine other than taking some monetary and other resources from it.  Here, please understand that I am most decidedly not a supporter of the military machine.  I am not in this essay intending to bolster or otherwise support the military.  Rather, it is my goal to discuss this particular enterprise within the current U.S. military as an example of at-least-partially-ill-advised, self-perpetuating professions that have questionable justification for existence.  Secondarily, it is my intent to call out the self-interest of (most) band professionals for what it is.  It’s genuine, and it’s about trying to perpetuate something in our field of high quality, and it’s self-serving.

Why should the military bands not be perpetuated?  Certainly not because of any lack of quality in the performances.  The musicianship and performances are excellent.  (Caveat:  please see this post that mentions what I perceive as a lack of certain conducting skills in some military conductors.)  Certainly not because of a lack of intent to serve the public.  No, it’s only because they are doing something that’s taking a lot of funding and not really supporting the mission of their parent organization(s).  Imagine an arm of a financially troubled, family-owned concrete company that uses business funds to hold high school pep rallies.  Or a struggling coal magnate with a hobby sideline of hosting regional Special Olympics contests.  The pep rallies and Special Olympics events are nice, and they are at their root serving various publics, but they are not by any stretch what the parent organizations are to be about.  Like military bands, if those enterprises were to take money without materially contributing to the main organization’s goals, they probably ought to be stopped.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” rarely fails to inspire smiles and hand-claps and foot-taps, but performing a medley of movie themes is about as close as these bands get to “pop culture,” so a disconnect exists between service bands and the public.  The era of John Philip Sousa (who spent a dozen years or so as the conductor of “The President’s Own” Marine Band) and his ilk reached its zenith many decades ago, and military band music, while it remained relatively popular for a while, is no longer the music of the public.  I have myself heard two military concert band concerts in the last ten months, and it’s obviously a pleasing experience for a segment of the population.  I don’t downplay the appeal for a few of us, but I have trouble imagining that there is a very real governmental purpose fulfilled by performing symphonic band music—music to which I myself often happen to thrill.  It is time to become fully cognizant of the current scenario, and if cutbacks are indicated, or even if disbanding these bands that now exist largely for their own sake were to seem prudent to those who make such decisions, I can’t object.

Other Examples:
Music teachers are also engaged in a self-perpetuating enterprise, to an extent:  we are training students to do what we do, so that they will in turn be able to train other students to do what we all do.  Many college teachers in other disciplines are just as suspect in this respect:  how many research professors and teachers of upper-level courses are doing something that leads to more of the same?  They research and write articles in order to obtain grants and attain to full professorships, teaching prospective graduate students to be engaged in the same discipline–so that they, too, will be able to obtain grants to research similar matters, parlaying those researches into further teaching opportunities.  And all this is for the benefit of whom?  Music teachers benefit both directly and indirectly from the perpetuation of the music education field (and of the success of the music education lobby!).  Ecology and “sustainability” professors train future Ecology and “sustainability” professors, and the former are thus the beneficiaries of their own work, in that they get paid for training their successors.

In churches, it is also sometimes the case that certain roles exist for their own sake.  Preachers sometimes have sons who take over their churches.  (Of course, preachers [or pastors or rectors or whatever you want to call them] should not be running churches, anyway, but that’s another topic.)  Seminaries train seminarians to keep things going.  (Some of those things are good; some are not.)  In my tradition, church elders may self-select new elders much like themselves, guaranteeing the status quo —just as with the military concert bands and the music education field, and with many other vocational fields.

None of these institutions ought to operate this way unless there is intrinsic, mission-related value.  Whether it’s a military band, a church, or an academic discipline, I figure any organization that asks for money should have a mission that’s serving a real need of its constituency, not pulling new people into the existing systems merely in order to keep them running.

Please share your thoughts. I read every comment.

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