A Look at the U.S. Army Band Manual

A Roman cornu.

The U.S. Army remains one of the largest and oldest employers for musicians in America, and last summer I was happy to find a document that spells out some of the operational details behind-the-scenes.

The document bears the very simple title of  “U.S. Army Bands,” but contained inside is a wealth of information and ideas worth exploring. When compared to the operational procedures of most American symphony orchestras it is a fascinating study.

A key factor of this document is its modular compartmentalization of the varying elements that make up the whole program. This concept is relatively new with the approval of a Force Design Update from 2006.

This included a

… redesignation of bands as Army band (large) generally assigned to an Army command, Army band (medium) normally assigned to the Army Service component command or corps level, and Army band (small) usually allocated to division headquarters or individual installations.

This manual advocates an Army band staff cell (ABSC) as a theater-level asset designed to coordinate the employment of music performance teams (MPTs). The prototype of the ABSC was implemented successfully with the Multi-National Corps-Iraq during 2009 in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This concept appears to fall in line with a broader U.S. military philosophy which focuses on concentrated elite units over large numbers of forces. I imagination that this too is an implicit purpose of the manual – to better attune the U.S. Army bands to the current policies of the Army.

Purpose and function

The U.S. Army bands, according to this manual, serve a clear function:

  • to build morale
  • to provide ceremonial and functional music
  • to build national relations and foster support
  • and, to recruit.

Within a historical perspective, musical instruments have been a part of military strategy for centuries, going as far back as the Assyrians and Babylonians. Ancient Roman cornus and Scandanavian lurs for example, served multiple functions – from scaring the enemy to providing celebratory fanfares.

The modular system

Most interesting to myself is the second chapter of the manual, “Band Structure and Capability.”

Army bands built of modular units support Army, joint, and multinational formations. Army band types are small, medium, or large and special. Army bands further subdivide based on operational capabilities in support of ongoing operations.

This is somewhat similar to how symphony orchestras and musician unions are structured.

In America a number of orchestra musician associations belong to conferences like the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the Regional Orchestra Musicians Association (ROPA). In many symphony orchestras – if not most – offshoot groups provide chamber music  – brass and woodwind quintets, and string quartets being the primary examples.

The big difference however is that a modular system like the Army’s is rarely spelled out with such clarity. Looking at the small ensemble Army modular unit for example:

Looking at The United States Army Band (“Pershing’s Own“), a different modular system is diagrammed.

This particular ensemble has large resources and personnel, so it breaks down into much larger subsets than that of a small band.

TUSAB is authorized 1 field grade officer as commander, 1 field grade officer as deputy commander, 1 field grade officer as operations officer or associate bandmaster, 2 company grade officers as associate bandmaster, 1 warrant officer bandmaster, 1 command sergeant major as enlisted bandleader, and 245 Soldiers.

One group that I was completely unaware of until reading this document was The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) International Band at Casteau, Belgium. This band is the official musical representative for NATO and the allied headquarters in Europe.

Download the PDF

I highly recommend reading the U.S. Army Band manual; there is much more to look at than this brief overview.

I have often wondered about some of the ideas in this manual as something for American symphony orchestras to adopt. I have never served in the military but to myself at least, elements of the Army’s approach – especially towards organizational clarity and clear language – are perhaps something to be emulated.

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