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Travis brass quintet demonstrates music’s power

  • Published
  • By Heide Couch
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
“How do you guys feel about the tempo? Let’s start at bar 70. It’s sounding a little sour. You make the difference not with volume, but with accent,” Tech. Sgt. Thomas Salyers, Travis Brass noncommissioned officer in charge, said during a recent rehearsal.

One of the cornerstone ensembles for the United States Air Force Band of the Golden West, the Travis Brass has been delighting audiences in the western U.S. for several decades. The brass quintet is made up of two trumpets, a horn, a trombone and a tuba.

It takes hours of practice for the members of the quintet to reach the level of excellence audiences expect. Each musical composition performed may vary with individual interpretation depending on the artist and the instrument. When not out traveling for a performance, the quintet conducts practice sessions for two to three hours, at least twice a week, at Travis Air Force Base, California.

“In any group like this, there’s a lot of personal preparation and ownership that goes into the way we play,” Salyers said. “As NCOIC, I feel it’s important to empower these guys to bring their skill, their professionalism, their musicality into how we play a piece. There is a certain amount of consensus.”

Senior Airman James Wright has been a trombonist for the BOGW for nearly three years, but has been playing since he was a kid growing up in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh.

“I was in third grade when I had the chance to try out different instruments to see which one I liked the most,” Wright said.

“My best childhood friend, who was a few years older than me, played an instrument in elementary school and I wanted to be in band with him,” Wright said. “It wasn’t until high school that I became more serious about it, and realized that it was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Wright had the opportunity to attend a high school that emphasized the arts. As a teenager, he also studied privately with a trombonist in the Pittsburgh Symphony who he looked up to. Wright’s parents often took him to see live performances given by military musical groups, which had a great impact on him.

Wright continued on his path of education obtaining a bachelor’s degree in trombone performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio and a master’s degree in trombone performance from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

“I really wanted to go to a conservatory, where my focus would be entirely on music. Studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music afforded me the opportunity to work with members of the Cleveland Orchestra, which is one of the best orchestras in the world,” said Wright. “At Carnegie Mellon, I was able to study with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and also return to my hometown.”

Wright joined the U.S. Air Force when he learned more about the service’s musical organizations from someone who had experience.

“Before living in Fairfield (California), I lived in the Washington, D.C. area and became friends with a former member of the Airmen of Note,” he said. “This group is the premier jazz ensemble of the Air Force. I never thought about joining a military band until he told me about his career. The Air Force seemed like a good fit because their band programs are very strong compared to the other services. It also offered financial stability, which is hard to come by in the professional music field. I’m extremely proud to say that I am able to serve my country through making music.”

The Air Force hires band members in a manner similar other professional organizations. Competition is stiff, only the best are selected to perform rock, jazz and classical music with Air Force bands. To adapt to the demands of each unique performance situation, Air Force bands are exceptionally versatile. They are filled with highly experienced and talented musicians often selected from top universities, conservatories and colleges. Eighty percent of Air Force band officers possess a master’s degree and 10 percent possess a doctorate. More than 90 percent of enlisted musicians possess a bachelor’s degree; 45 percent possess advanced graduate degrees.

“I was required to send in prescreening material and then was invited to a live audition, where I had to compete against many other talented musicians for a single opening, “said Wright. “It is a highly competitive process. From there, I had to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, go to the Military Entrance Processing Station and ultimately, complete Basic Military Training, just like any other enlisted recruit.

“I currently work with a group of young, talented Airmen musicians who are constantly pushing the envelope for excellence when it comes to their craft. It forces me to always be working to improve myself,” he said. “It is truly one of the highlights of my professional career - not many people get to say that what they do for a living is also their passion in life.”

Bands serve as both a recruiting and public relations tool, inspiring patriotism and promoting the military mission both at home and abroad with every performance.

“Last summer, some of us had the chance to play in front of a sold out crowd of 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl during their 4th of July concert series,” said Wright. “It was inspiring to be able to get to wear the uniform in front of that many appreciative people. One of our main priorities at these types of events is to connect with the public by honoring our veterans and inspiring everyone through our music. The icing on the cake was that we got to play alongside the band Chicago.”

Belonging to an Air Force band means constant travel and time spent away from home. Band members can be sent on deployments that generally last around 90 days, performing at different venues throughout the year, with many concerts coinciding with holiday seasons.

“Our band performs around 250 annual performances,” said Wright. “Our 60-member unit is comprised of two rock bands, a woodwind and brass quintet, a jazz ensemble, a clarinet quartet, jazz combo and our largest group, which is the concert band. I go on around 15-20 trips a year which range from two days to two weeks at a time. We are responsible for all seven states west of the Rocky Mountains covering approximately 726,000 square miles, and roughly 62.6 million people.”

According to the USAF Bands’ website, Air Force musicians perform for heads of state, military functions and ceremonies, funeral honors and a variety of military support events. The musicians reach millions of listeners at over 5,000 live and televised events every year. Outreach events may include public concerts, school assemblies, master classes, recitals and special youth programs.

“The public doesn’t typically get the chance to put a face to someone serving their country in the military,” said Wright. “We afford the opportunity to put on a show to express our gratitude for all the support the public gives the U.S. Air Force. It is our job, as Air Force musicians, to tell the public about all the amazing things the Air Force and its Airmen are doing every day.”

Wright encourages anyone thinking about a music career in the Air Force to take private lessons.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to make a living performing music, and that includes (with) Air Force Band programs,” he said. “There is no substitute for hard work and a private teacher. Even though it can be hard to win an audition, it is worth it if making music is your passion.”
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