RICHMOND, Va. –
The first musical instrument Spc. Jessica Tang learned to play was the piano. At four-years-old, she was encouraged to play by her grandmother, who taught elementary school in China before immigrating to the United States to help take care of Tang.
“Music in China is a required curriculum for children that age,” Tang said, explaining that from that point on, music became an indelible part of her life. At nine, she came across a bamboo flute at a flea market. She convinced her father to get it for her and lightly terrorized the house while teaching herself to play it.
“I guess I have a track record of driving people nuts with weird flutes,” Tang said. Her father asked her if she could play a “more legit” flute and soon came home with a clarinet, mistakenly believing it to be similar to the bamboo flute Tang was using to accost his ears.
“I opened the box and was like ‘This doesn’t look like a flute, dad,’” she said. “He told me to take it to the teacher and she would explain everything.”
For two weeks, she struggled with the clarinet. Her teacher suggested she quit, that maybe the clarinet just wasn’t the right fit for Tang, but she dug her heels in. She was determined.
“Somehow, that filled me with spite, and I was a spite-driven little child,” she said. “There was no way I would accept what she said, so I pushed myself harder than all the others.”
By fourth grade, Tang conquered the clarinet, and by fifth grade she was accepted into an area band with other top musicians from elementary schools in the Northern Virginia area. As she grew up and continued on through middle and high school, Tang kept setting goals for herself when it came to music. She played in district bands, including the high school jazz band, symphonic band and marching band.
When it was time for college, Tang knew she’d continue her musical studies there as well, and decided to major in education and minor in music at James Madison University. She played in the Wind Symphony and the Chinese Cultural Instrumental Ensemble, and participated in musical performances with the Korean Association and Chinese Student Association. Then, in her senior year, she learned about the Virginia National Guard and the musical opportunities available there.
“The 29th Division Band had a concert at JMU and I attended their performance,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow! What? How did I not know about this?' The Virginia Army National Guard band conductor came to talk to us afterwards about upcoming auditions and suggested we try out.”
Tang knew immediately this was something she wanted to do, so she auditioned, was accepted and then, in 2018, she joined the Virginia Army National Guard. She continued her senior year at JMU and then, in January, started Basic Combat Training, or BCT. Things were going great until, in her ninth week of training, Tang fell off an obstacle wall and broke her leg. For nearly a year, Tang was a medical hold waiting to recover from the injury.
While waiting to heal, she thought about what was to come at Advanced Individual Training, or AIT. She knew as soon as she got there, she’d be required to complete an audition, but there she was, stuck without any instruments. Unfortunately for Tang, flutes and clarinets weren’t allowed at BCT, even on medical hold, so she improvised.
“That’s when I decided to make my crutches a flute. The crutches had holes on them and I thought they looked like a flute, so I gave it a try and it worked,” Tang said. She just needed a little bit of duct tape to make it work. “The holes were an inch apart, exactly what I needed to play a scale. I would play all kinds of songs including the Army Song.”
When she finally got to AIT, Tang did well on her audition. She was made a squad leader and clarinet section leader and finished AIT on the Commandant’s list. Then, she officially became a member of the 29th Division Band.
“I love being in the band. We wear many hats; we all have different jobs to juggle and everyone is multi-talented,” Tang said, explaining that she’s also part of the band’s Fife and Drum group. “We were at Gettysburg last year for Fife and Drum and I was very nervous because it’s probably weird for people to see an Asian fifer. I felt like it’s not my culture, it’s not the right place for me.”
Tang spent a chunk of her time on medical hold volunteering to run a library for her fellow Soldiers and put her research skills to use to see if there were any Asian Americans who served at Gettysburg. What she found was a Soldier named John Tommy.
“I was like ‘cool! There was one Asian who fought in Gettysburg, I’ll be the one Asian,” she said. “It meant so much to me. I feel like when you're Asian American, you’re constantly grasping for something to relate to. You’re always looking for role models with similar backgrounds, where their heritage isn’t 100 percent American but also not 100 percent Chinese.”
Today, Tang puts her medical hold library skills to use at a library in Roanoke where she works and performs with the 29th Division Band at events across the state.
“I would not be serving as an Army musician, if it was not for my parents and all they have done for me," she said. “If they had not pushed me on the piano and clarinet, I literally would not be wearing this uniform. I would not be happy if they did not encourage me for all those years.”