RICHMOND, Va. –
Between departure ceremonies, a gubernatorial inauguration and other public performances, the Virginia National Guard’s most publicly-visible Soldiers have been busier than usual this training year. The 29th Infantry Division Band, which averages between 35-40 missions per year, has already performed 25 missions since Oct. 1, 2021, and many more are on the way.
“We have performed the Governor’s Inauguration, all four Virginia National Guard unit departure ceremonies, as well as Veterans Day ceremonies in Bassett, Norfolk, Roanoke and Lynchburg,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Carr, 29th ID Band readiness noncommisioned officer. “We also performed for the 95th Infantry Division Association in Yorktown and the 29th Division Association in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.”
The band also supports the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors program. As a result, it has provided a live bugler at 121 funerals services since Oct. 1.
In total, the band has performed for more than 16,000 people in person so far this training year and another 28,000 online viewers.
“In the last few months, the band has been embracing the reawakening of live music performances,” said Staff Sgt. Erin Casey. “The pandemic hit the live music industry hard. This not only affected the general public, but also the musicians. Sharing our passion for music with our local communities, veterans and fellow Soldiers drives our mission.”
“I think the fact that we have had our busiest quarter whilst dealing with a pandemic is a testament to the members of the 29th ID Band,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Don Carlson, commander of the 29th ID Band. “They are the hardest-working Soldiers in the Virginia Army National Guard. They not only rehearse and perform missions during their 39 drill and annual training days but also many more days outside of those.”
The band most recently played for the Governor’s Inauguration in Richmond in January.
“That is one of our most important missions as we are the ‘Governor’s Own’ and the Governor of Virginia is our ‘Commander-in-Chief,’” Carlson said. “We were very lucky that it was a cold but sunny day with no precipitation and the ceremony went smoothly from our perspective.”
Although that performance featured the full band, not all of the performances do.
“If you do the math and notice that we average 35-40 missions a year, you have to notice that it looks like we would not have time to do anything else,” Carlson said. “This is where the small ensemble or Musical Performance Teams allows us to cover those missions all over the state without taking up all of the drill and annual training days of every band member.”
“This whole band is full of multi-talented musicians,” said Spc. Jessica Tang. “Everyone steps up in different roles on different missions, which is how we can cover everything.”
“We are having some of the busiest months we have ever seen in a long time,” Casey said. “For our newest Soldiers who joined us during the pandemic, it is a very welcome change. They finally get to experience the true life of being the Soldier-musician they enlisted to be.”
Tang cited Staff Sgt. Ahsia Spencer as a prime example. A clarinet section leader in the Ceremonial Band, Spencer also plays keyboard in Easy Green, the 29th ID Band rock band. He also serves as Drum Major during parades.
“That's an insane amount of talent from just one person, but it isn't unusual here, which really speaks volumes about this band's abilities,” Tang said. “And depending on who can drive out to each mission, we end up with different assortments of musicians each time. That means we have to adjust to different instrumentation and different conductors, but everybody is great at adapting themselves to the situation so that we can always produce a high-quality performance.
“It's every individual's ability to play different parts that makes us succeed as a band,” Tang explained.
While most units plan training 30-90 days out, the band must plan for events one to four years in advance, according to Carlson.
“We need to try to get necessary rehearsals started one year out and with our busy schedule, rehearsals will at least be a month apart or more,” Carlson said. “For some of our concert performances we may have five or six rehearsals. All of our Soldiers must prepare their individual parts on their own at home in between drills. This results in hours of preparation outside of the drill and AT time when we are together as a unit.”
The band is resilient and willing to do what is necessary to be mission ready and to get the job done, according to Sgt. 1st Class Jim Bradshaw.
“We understand the importance of always being ready and performing at a high level,” he said.
“The band is a unique unit since we are the only one in the state,” said Casey, who noted the band includes Soldiers from every corner of the commonwealth. “This not only ensures increased mission success but it showcases the diversity of Virginia's vast communities. Many times, performances will require Soldiers to drive three to four hours. However it’s the strong sense of duty and pride in our Soldiers that an obstacle such as that is just part of the job and they are happy to do it to be part of something greater than themselves.”
Between musical performances, band members have to find time to manage all of their basic Soldier tasks, such as Individual Weapons Qualification, Crew Served Weapons, driver qualifications for military vehicles and land navigation, as well as complete mandatory yearly briefings, such as Threat Awareness and Reporting Program, Operations Security, Anti-Terrorism Level 1, Global Assessment Tool and Cyber Awareness.
Although they always need to be ready to ready to perform in public, Bradshaw said they realize they must also always be ready as Soldiers.
“As Soldiers, it’s imperative that we perform all the necessary Soldier tasks and training,” he said.
“The foundation of being a Soldier is rooted in each of our members,” Casey said. “Balancing that with the operational tempo of music performance missions can definitely be difficult but it is never forgotten. Many times, this leads to very long drill days with our Soldiers having to change mental gears from music over to marksmanship, land navigation, combat lifesaver, and many other skills. But our NCO instructors hold their standards just as high for these skills as our musical skills. There is no lack of enthusiasm to get out on the rifle qualification range or out onto a practice land navigation course.”
Tang said band members treat their non-musical obligations the same way they approach their musical duties.
“We show up, we do well, and we support each other to get it done,” she said. “We all come from different backgrounds and bring different skills to the table, so everyone shares their knowledge with each other.”
“I can say that the only way we get all of this done is because I am blessed with the best enlisted Soldiers and NCOs in the Virginia Army National Guard,” Carlson said. “The amount of work that our Soldier-musicians do outside of drill and AT is equal to or greater than the work we do when we are together.”
Carlson credits much of the band’s success to the work of his full-time readiness NCO, whom Carlson calls the best in the Virginia Army National Guard.
“Sgt. 1st Class Carr is always ‘leaning forward in the foxhole’ and he knows band operations better than anyone,” Carlson explained. “He is a most outstanding NCO, logistician, counselor, and by the way did I mention he still has to do his primary MOS job of playing the trumpet? Which he does often without the same benefit of rehearsal and sectional time that the other members of the band enjoy.”
Over the years, Carr has earned Carlson’s respect through his tireless work for the 29th ID Band and, as a result, he and 1st Sgt. David Helms trust Carr to speak on their behalf.
“He is the heart and soul of the band,” Carlson said. “Our Soldiers know that too. They know that any issues they have, military or personal, he is there to provide great counsel and sometimes consolation in our toughest moments.”
But Carlson pointed out that Carr isn’t the only one he should recognize.
“I do not for one moment take for granted the team that I have in the band,” he said. “It is a privilege and an honor to serve with them and to be called their commander.”
Band members see themselves as the face of the Virginia National Guard and realize they have to always deliver good performances.
“We cannot afford to have a negative performance,” Bradshaw said. “Or it will be a negative reflection on the entire Virginia National Guard.”
“For some Virginian civilians, we are their one and only real-life impression of the Virginia National Guard,” Tang said. “That isn't lost on us, and so this band always gives its very best on every performance so that we bolster the reputation of the Guard.”
“Performing has a large audience interaction component to it both in military and civilian venues,” Casey said. “It is extremely humbling the amount of appreciation and positive support we receive from both our military comrades and communities alike. Not only are we performing but we are out talking to the audience members before and after a performance, thanking the veterans and getting to know the communities.”
Because their audiences are often filled with military members, band members take their visual elements extremely seriously, according to Tang.
“For example, our Fife and Drum team practices moving with absolute precision, marking time to the exact height, and executing turns in unison down to the degree,” she said. “This is all done while performing memorized music and staying alert for drum commands from the lead drummer. This way, we leave a good impression even on viewers who have decades of Drill and Ceremony experience over their military careers.”
Although the first quarter of the year was extremely busy, the pace does not look to slow down anytime soon. The band has started preparing for a number of summer missions, according to Carr, including the 78th Anniversary of the D-Day Landing and Yellow Ribbon events for the Virginia National Guard units who will be returning from overseas deployments.
“I look forward to the rest of this training year and know that no matter what the Army or life throws at us, we will handle it and be better Soldiers because we have each other,” Carlson said.