She Landed One of Music’s Great Gigs, but First Came Boot Camp

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The 4,300-seat performance space about an hour north of Carnegie Hall was eerily empty, except for nine judges in uniform sitting behind a thick black curtain.

Ada Brooks, her mouth dry from nerves, lifted the bell of her euphonium, a smaller relative of the tuba, and prepared to play the notes that could determine her future.

“Breathe,” she thought. “The beginnings are the most treacherous part.”

Ms. Brooks had told herself this before. Her fervent pursuit to professionally play the euphonium, which is not used in traditional symphony orchestras, had come with many stressful auditions. This one was her 10th for the institution that calls itself the nation’s largest employer of musicians: the United States military.

Time and time again she had practiced and prepared and tried to remember to breathe. She was turned down repeatedly or offered jobs in regional bands. Now came an opportunity for a premium position, a rarely open seat in the prestigious West Point Band.

Some aspects of the audition — like playing for a jury hidden behind a curtain, to guard against potential bias — would be familiar to most orchestra musicians. Others were unique to the military. Two of the other four candidates said they had to lose weight to qualify, and the finalists were tested for coordination in marching drills.

Scores of regional military bands represent the armed forces at ceremonies, parades and holiday celebrations. About a dozen premier bands, including the U.S. Military Academy’s ensemble in West Point, N.Y., perform at inaugurations and foreign dignitary visits.

Seats in the premier bands are particularly attractive, providing job security and steady pay — the starting salary is about $70,000 — along with health care and other benefits. Those who win them tend to stay for many years, if not their entire careers.

Ms. Brooks had been practicing three hours a day in Denton, Texas, using high-end recording equipment in her living room to identify imperfections in her pitch or tempo.

At the audition, she was confident and precise while playing excerpts from works by Schoenberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich, as well as from the soundtrack of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by John Williams.

At one point, a judge asked if she could “be more declamatory.” She repeated a few measures. After she played Boismortier’s Sonata No. 12 with the band’s principal euphonium player, Staff Sgt. Christopher Leslie, one of the judges barked: “I think you can do a better job matching his style and intonation. One more time.”

In the end, Ms. Brooks was one of two finalists asked to play additional excerpts and to sit for a face-to-face interview with the judges. The final question came from the band’s conductor, Lt. Col. Daniel Toven: Why is your dream to be in a premier military band?

Ms. Brooks paused.

“As you probably know,” she said, “euphoniums don’t have a lot of options.”

There was a burst of laughter.

After careful deliberation, Sergeant Leslie delivered the verdict. She was in.

Well, almost. Ms. Brooks had to complete more than two months of boot camp before she would become an Army musician.

Ms. Brooks, 27, was introduced to the euphonium by her eighth-grade band teacher in Columbia Falls, Mont. At the time she thought it “was just a less cool tuba,” as she put it, and nobody was concerned about the limited career opportunities.

By 10th grade, she had made the all-state band and was no longer planning to study math, science or physics in college. She was now determined to play the euphonium professionally.

She spent $7,000 on a euphonium and two years at Interlochen, a performing arts high school in Michigan. Ms. Brooks then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance at the University of North Texas, where she made an eight-year commitment to the Air National Guard Band of the Southwest, eager for part-time experience playing music in a military setting.

When Ms. Brooks’s unit was deployed unexpectedly to the border of Texas and Mexico as part of Operation Lone Star, many of the musicians quit. “Our band shrunk to half of its original size,” she said.

During her 10-month deployment, Ms. Brooks worked from midnight to 8 a.m. in the armory issuing weapons. Many of her bandmates provided water to crossing migrants and sat with them until Border Patrol agents arrived. She lived in a hotel, which made it hard to prepare for auditions.

“I was practicing my instrument out in my car,” she said. “It was really miserable.”

Military life can be a shock to musicians, most of whom have no prior experience with the armed forces.

“We have to wear a combat uniform to play the tuba, it’s a little weird,” said Staff Sgt. Alec Mawrence, a tuba player in the West Point Band. “Eventually, your head is shaved and you’re screaming, ‘Yes, drill sergeant.’”

The sun had not yet risen over the Ozark Mountains in south central Missouri, but the trainees in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment were already marching. It was early January and cold — 1 degree — and tendrils of mist hung over the unit.

“I left my home to join the Army,” the trainees sang in unison.

Ms. Brooks — now Specialist Brooks — had thought the daunting experience would be well worth it, saying earlier that “basic training is no big deal compared to 20 years of a performance job.”

But now, after six weeks at Fort Leonard Wood and with five more to go, Specialist Brooks looked exhausted. She liked morning bugle call and rifle training, especially the precision, which reminded her of practicing her instrument. Less enjoyable was standing for hours in the cold and eating abnormally fast.

“While I’m here, I practice my jodies, my marksmanship,” she said, referring to the call-and-response cadences sung while marching or running. She could not bring along her euphonium, and tried not to think about it. “It feels like a whole different life,” she said. Most of the trainees were unaware she was a musician.

A quiet perfectionist, Specialist Brooks had a hard time with the barrage of reprimands that are the hallmark of basic training. Her coping mechanism was to smile, prompting the drill sergeants to snap, “Brooks, hide your teeth!”

“I wasn’t sure how I would handle getting yelled at,” she said. “But then you realize that they’re not actually angry. They just do that all the time.”

When the company reached the armory to pick up rifles for range training, the shivering trainees stood at attention. “Soldier’s creed!” a drill sergeant shouted.

“I am an American soldier,” Specialist Brooks responded, with her unit. “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”

Music and the military have long been intertwined. For centuries, drums have been used to set the pace of marches. Fifes and drums were used to communicate on the battlefield before radios. The country’s first military band — the United States Marine Band, known as “the President’s Own” — was formed by an act of Congress in 1798.

Loras John Schissel, a senior musicologist at the Library of Congress, said that during the Civil War, band members would put down their instruments, take up their weapons and fight — and then resume playing. By the early 20th century, music was considered important for military morale.

“Music,” he said, came only “after food, water and ammunition.”

Direct exposure to combat has become increasingly rare for military musicians, but it is not unheard-of. In 1941, all 21 musicians aboard the battleship Arizona died in the attack on Pearl Harbor while passing ammunition to the ship’s guns. On Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Army Band helped with search and rescue at the Pentagon.

The possibility of battle is one reason musicians get the same training as infantry soldiers. So on another freezing morning during basic training, Specialist Brooks and 136 other soldiers prepared to rappel down a 40-foot-high wooden structure known as the Confidence Tower.

During a mostly silent 1.5-mile march to the tower — talking was prohibited — the loudest noises were the crunch of frost beneath boots and the swish of camo fatigues against heavy packs.

Cut off from music in boot camp, Specialist Brooks would hum Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat while running laps. Before she arrived, she transcribed song lyrics, including “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + The Machine, into her notebook so that she would have a radio in her head. While packing for a field exercise, she and her roommates sang the show tune “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”

On the march to the Confidence Tower, a cadence Specialist Brooks had been required to yell many times was stuck in her head.

Sitting in my foxhole
sharpening my knife
out pops the enemy
had to take his life
die kill ’em die kill ’em
Why won’t you die?

“I like the singing part, but the violence is a little shocking to me,” she said later.

By the time the trainees reached the tower, two had been disqualified for marching too slowly. Several others could not complete the small training wall nearby. Specialist Brooks, a rock climber and caver, was unfazed.

The wind shook the tower, and the wood creaked. As Specialist Brooks reached the top, one drill sergeant sitting near the drop-off called out to another: “You take Esophagus.” It was an affectionate nickname the instructors had given her, a play on “euphonium.”

Specialist Brooks knelt by the edge at the top of the tower. Unconcerned about hiding her teeth, she broke into a grin.

Throughout basic training, she tried not to dwell on what she was missing most from her home near Dallas: Baking her favorite blueberry muffins with chia seeds. Lingering over a cup of coffee. Watching a movie on the couch with her dog and her three cats, Kiwi, Biscuit and Momo.

When it was time for Specialist Brooks to leave Fort Leonard Wood, her boyfriend arrived with her euphonium. She played a solo even before eating her first meal off the base.

In April, two months after she finished boot camp, Sergeant Brooks, who was promoted to staff sergeant after graduation, was at a school in North Salem, N.Y., for her first concert as a member of the West Point Band. She had rehearsed with the group twice and was now nervously adjusting the ornate pin on the lapel of her black blazer.

“Does this look straight?” she asked. Glancing at her full concert uniform in a mirror, she said, “It’s exciting and weird to see yourself dressed like this.”

The repertoire for the concert was chosen to trace West Point’s legacy. By the time the band reached “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the crowd was cheering and singing along.

The conductor, Colonel Toven, wrote in his master’s thesis that music helped the Army accomplish its public affairs mission of engendering trust and confidence among citizens. “These are your tax dollars at work,” he said proudly during a mid-concert speech.

After “The Official West Point March” and a rousing encore of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Sergeant Brooks’s first concert with the band was over. She looked elated and relieved.

As the musicians mingled with enthusiastic audience members, Sergeant Leslie found Sergeant Brooks. “Congratulations,” he said, with a collegial nod that was far from his neutral facade as a judge at her audition eight months earlier. Sergeant Brooks, holding a bouquet of flowers, beamed.

She clutched at her collar and asked a bandmate, “Is anyone else warm in these uniforms?” As her adrenaline began to fade, she said that playing alongside these military musicians felt surreal: “It’ll take a while to get over the impostor syndrome.”