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Six Months in Gateway Brass

Posted 2/23/2012   Updated 2/23/2012 Email story   Print story


by A1C Daniel Thrower

2/23/2012 - Lackland AFB, TX -- Everyone in the Band of the West plays in the full Concert Band, but we also play in our secondary ensembles. About in my sixth week of Basic Training I was told I would be utilizing my trumpet skills in Gateway Brass--the brass quintet. Due to my civilian experience with brass quintets, I was very pleased and excited! Few things communicate to the American heart as potently as well-played patriotic brass music.

My first six months in the operational Air Force (July through December 2011) have been filled with Gateway Brass performances. In fact, nearly 80% of my musical work in the Air Force has been with Gateway Brass. My first performance (19 Jul 2011) was a change of command ceremony in an airplane hangar at Kelly USA. Though I wasn't "nervous," it inspired some stressful dreams the night before. All the ceremonial protocol and the newness of playing in uniform kept me keenly alert and aware of my every movement and sound. Before joining the Air Force I had played many chamber concerts, ceremonies, church services, weddings, and a host of other brass quintet gigs, but this one was different. For a wedding, the organizer hires the musicians; we play, get paid, and leave. In the Air Force, there's a special brotherhood that we share that says we don't really leave... and though I'm paid (with benefits!) for my USAF job, I don't feel like I'm doing those ceremonies for money. I had never met the new or old commanders from that first ceremony, and that was the first time I ever saw Brigadier General Carter (commander of 502ABW), but we were all in uniform for the same service, united in a macro-mission that dwarfs my customary sense of musical accomplishment.

Before enlisting, through talking to various band personnel, I knew more or less what to expect in this new career shift. However, like reading a parenting book before having a child, one is never really prepared. I knew to expect a lot of ceremonies, but I had no idea that there would be such a variety! Our performances have varied from Naval officer retirements in the Alamo to Lackland's Christmas tree lighting; from a 9-11 commemoration to our own Band of the West change of command. The following is a brief account of what Gateway Brass does in what I suppose is a typical six months.

On 12 Aug 2011 I had my second Gateway Brass engagement. We provided music for a building dedication: Smith Hall at Fort Sam Houston. It was an early morning outdoor ceremony. The introductions and speeches were inspiring, and our pre-ceremony music was appreciated. During the program we played little, as is quite normal, but when we did play, the live music provided an electric charge impossible to achieve otherwise.

About two weeks later on 31 Aug, we performed a very contrasting service: the inactivation ceremony for the Brooks Air Force Base. Though a somber occasion, I viewed the event as a look forward rather than slamming a door. It was a privilege to be a part of that historic occasion. The music was indeed indispensable to the desired mood and effect. Those involved with the actual ceremony were gratefully presented with a coin by the outgoing Commander. I don't know of anyone who doesn't appreciate the coining tradition.

One of the seemingly less common ceremonies I participated in was, as mentioned before, the retirement of a Navy Admiral at the Alamo on 1 Sep. We played quite a bit at key moments during that ceremony. My main recollection from that is, "I'm so glad Air Force personnel don't have white uniforms--they must be really hard to keep clean!" It was a fantastic opportunity to observe the goings on of another branch of the US military. Very interesting!

No American is unaffected by the tragedies of 9-11, whether alive in 2001 or not. I had participated in quite a few 9-11 ceremonies through the past decade, as a civilian. Now in uniform, the ceremonies of 2011 took on a new dimension. How proud I felt to be playing the trumpet in an official capacity as a representative of the US Air Force for that memorable day! Tears were often close to the surface as I attentively listened to the prayers and speeches. If music was ever appropriate, it seemed mandatory on that day. The Gateway Brass played at a moving ceremony at Randolph AFB--very sweet and poignant. Though not presented with a coin for our work, I later purchased a 9-11 commemorative coin to help relay my experiences to my kids and future grandkids. I am proud of what I can contribute to America!

Only days later (15 Sep) provided another stark contrast from the previous performance: a celebratory "Fully Operational Ceremony" for the new Medical Education and Training facility at Fort Sam Houston. What better way to celebrate military style than with a brass quintet? Though formal in nature, that outdoor ceremony was greatly enhanced by the live, boisterous brass music.

Finally, a ceremony at our home base: Lackland! I was beginning to think we didn't do those, but had to import from another base for music. (Not really.) On 16 Sep we played for my first POW/MIA ceremony--another very somber moment in my career. I appreciated that very much. The symbolism is rich and the honor guard at the POW/MIA table were superb! On our way to that ceremony we heard a little news blurb on the radio about the medical complex that we had played for the day before, and there we were, playing the Service Songs in the background. That was fun to hear!

My first "TDY" (Temporary Duty, or road trip) in the Air Force was with Gateway Brass to Dyess AFB in Abilene, TX. We were to provide dinner music for their Air Force Birthday Ball on 17 Sep. The elegant, formal dinner was in a hangar, and the outside decoration was a lit-up B-17. And the music...? Delightfully appropriate. We played a lot and definitely earned our dinner. There was a commemorative coin made for everyone in attendance--a nice little souvenir. The others in the quintet are grateful I don't drink, as there is always a designated driver. I was asked if I was too young to drink... "Why, yes!" I'm 35--totally made my day!

We played for the Randolph Honorary Commanders Reception on 28 Sep, and I have to say, that was some of the finest food I've ever eaten, though we were all burping garlic for a week. The background dinner music was again a fine addition to a classy evening.

The next five concerts and educational clinics we gave were on an outreach tour to the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and southern Utah in early October. That was truly a spectacular experience! We brought not only a positive Air Force presence to those warm people, but also professional high quality music to a population that rarely has the opportunity to experience such quality. The youth at the schools were in general very receptive and excited to absorb what we had to offer, and our hosts could not have been more accommodating! Among our concert pieces was an original composition that I wrote--a rather difficult piece called "Gateway to Freedom." It was well received.

A special day for the Band of the West occurred on 25 Oct when we officially welcomed our new Commander, Captain Hoerber. The Gateway Brass was requested for that ceremony, and it was a different experience than any other. How intimidating it was to play for my professional peers! But it went well, and the change of command took. Again we performed my piece, "Gateway to Freedom" for our musical colleagues.

One of my favorite Air Force performances was rather brief, for the MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) Annual Meeting. We played a short patriotic program for a large conference room full of mostly retired officers. They were the most appreciative audience I may have ever played for. Tears were shed, applause was animated and sincere, and there was a thick feeling of American pride that once again made my heart throb with my all-American blood. They gave us all a T-shirt and a couple of trinkets in gratitude of our work. I still have their ribbon magnet on my car.

How fun for an Air Force ensemble to be requested to play at a Marine Corps Birthday Ball! Their 236th birthday was celebrated on 10 Nov. It was a somewhat elaborate ceremony with lots of short playing and cues and such. It went well. The bars at the facility were opened after dinner, and those guys can drink! We were all given a 12-oz commemorative glass which I call my Marine Corps shot glass.

Once again, a very different ceremony from all previous ceremonies in my short military experience occurred on 17 Nov: a naturalization ceremony wherein 233 foreigners from dozens of countries became American citizens. What a special day that was for those people! I am so pleased to have been an important part of that unforgettable day of their lives. To have live music from a military ensemble surely made the experience as patriotic as it could have been for those brand new Americans.

Thanksgiving came and went, and another holiday season approached. We were requested to play Christmas music for the annual tree-lighting ceremony in front of the Gateway Club at Lackland AFB on 30 Nov. Though a little chilly, I'm very grateful I'm not stationed in Alaska for such a performance! Our festive music filled the onlookers with cheer. The most amusing thing about that gig was the tree topper: rather than an angel with wings, it was the wings of an enormous Air Force symbol. I had to get a picture of that!

For American history buffs, 7 Dec is an unforgettable day. What a special day for us to do our job! Gateway Brass went up to Fredericksburg to play a very special ceremony to honor the local survivors of Pearl Harbor. Seventy years ago that day the horrific bombing took place. What an honor it was to see that handful of old men and realize what they went through. There were probably 100 or so World War II veterans there, and more veterans from Vietnam and Korea. The location was the Museum of the Pacific War--perfect! I love my job!

On 14 Dec we played for the International American Air Force Academy graduation. The ceremony was conducted in both English and Spanish. Included in our musical portion was the Columbian national anthem--a very interesting experience for me. That evening one of my life-long dreams came true: I played "Taps" for my first time in uniform during the POW/MIA segment of the ceremony (which I later found out was not regulation--I was just following orders).

Finally, to round out the year, and conveniently my first six months in the Air Force Band of the West, 20 Dec was a fun work day. Several of our small ensembles went Christmas caroling to the various bases that comprise "Joint Base San Antonio." Gateway Brass went to Randolph AFB and performed at seven locations, interrupting busy offices (pre-scheduled, of course) with delightful holiday sounds. We even played at the BX, and I'm sure the Christmas shoppers happily spent more money because of our festive accompaniment.

I can't imagine a more fulfilling first half-year as an Airman! From celebrations to commemorations; retirements to memorial services, my time with Gateway Brass has been among the most gratifying experiences of my musical career. With over 15 years of professional civilian experience, serving my country as a trumpeter in the Band of the West--and especially in Gateway Brass--has been a profound highlight of my career. "I am an American Airman. I have answered my nation's call..." Now I am sounding my nation's call.

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