Uncle Sam Wants You! : A Civilian Singers’ Guide to Washington D.C. Military Choruses

Me? Sing in the military? Well, I don’t know…” That was tenor Russ Rathier’s initial reaction. In 1988 Rathier was pursuing a graduate degree in opera and vocal performance at Converse College in South Carolina, when he read in a flyer that the Navy was looking for a first tenor. He decided to send a tape and was invited to audition. At the government’s expense he flew to Washington, D.C., where he was accepted for a position with the Sea Chanters, the chorus of the United States Navy Band. “I was working at Brevard [Center for the Arts in North Carolina] that summer, and when I returned from my audition I was surprised to learn that many of the singers had been in a military chorus. Some of them said their only regret was that they hadn’t re-enlisted after their four years were up,” says MUC (Chief Musician) Rathier, now in his 11th year.

In 1985 tenor Robert Petillo was approaching his 30th birthday. “I began to wonder if I should get a ‘real job,’ and give up on being a full-time musician.” His doctoral fellowship had not been renewed, and he was working two part-time temp jobs. “Alvy Powell, a fabulous bass-baritone, called to tell me that there was an opening in the Army Chorus where he had been singing for three years. When it dawned on me that he was telling me to join the Army, I just laughed! But Alvy, to his credit, did not give up. Here I am, 13 years later!” Tenor section leader Petillo completed his DMA in 1994, and was recently promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant.

The “new” military is not just a man’s world. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lyons Henley never expected to add “ Master Sergeant” to her list of credits. Now in her seventh year with the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, Henley was “first in line for the job!” after a friend in the Navy chorus told her about an opening in the Air Force chorus. “It’s incredibly challenging as an ensemble singer and soloist to be working full-time with instrumentalists and singers of this calibre.” Performance venues range from the White House to the New York Philharmonic, Boston and Cincinnati Pops, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.

The premiere bands of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy in Washington, D.C. have one or more affiliated choruses. Sometimes called “White House” choruses, they are the the U.S. Army Chorus (27-voice all-male) and the U.S. Army Chorale (12-voice SATB pops chorus) based at Fort Myer; the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants (24-voice SATB) at Bolling AFB; and the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters (17-voice SATB) at the Navy Yard. There is also the U.S. Army Field Band’s touring chorus, the Soldiers’ Chorus (29-voice SATB), based at Fort Meade in Maryland. The Marine Band has only one vocalist/announcer, and the United States Coast Guard Jazz Band in Connecticut has one soprano vocalist, who performs everything from jazz to opera. According to Lieutenant Daniel L. Price, director of the Singing Sergeants, “Each group has idiosyncrasies, and performs their own blend of repertoire. The elite Army Men’s chorus performs by itself most of the time, and concentrates on literature originally written for male chorus. [The other choruses] are expected to perform on almost every show their parent concert band performs. These groups are also expected to perform classical music and club shows on the side—all of which requires the greatest flexibility of vocal technique and knowledge of musical styles. We need it all, in addition to sight-reading and a demonstrable knowledge of music theory.”

Major John Clanton, director of the U.S. Army Chorus and Chorale, emphasizes, “These are truly professional ensembles. We look for singers who know their craft, and can step right in and contribute. There is no time here to train singers. The voices for the [Mens’] Chorus are highly classical, operatic voices with language skills and musicianship. Most singers we hire were the best in their school / college / ensemble; they were the soloists, not just the chorus members.” There is no educational pre-requisite, though virtually all of the Chorus members have a Bachelor of Music degree, and over half have earned master’s or doctorates. Chorale members, who must master contemporary styles, often have credits in NYC musical theater or the Nashville music scene.

Major Clanton tells of a New York soprano auditioner, who asked, “Now, how long is the engagement?” She didn’t seem to comprehend when the Major replied, “It really is the ARMY. You enlist.” “The initial tour of duty is either three or four years, depending on the branch of military, and it is binding,” says baritone Sea Chanter MUC Steve Wellman. “You can’t just leave if you don’t like it!” On the other hand, the annual starting salary is around $30,000, enlistment bonuses of up to $3,000 may be available, and it’s only four years out of your life. “You are singing and working,” says Wellman. “You can pay off your college loans, or go back to school and the military will pay 75 percent of your tuition. You will be a better singer when you get out, and if you re-enlist (two years at a time) you can retire when you are in your forties and still have a non-military singing career.” Alumni of military choruses include Jerome Hines, Richard Stilwell, John Cheek, George Shirley, Rockwell Blake, Tom Paul, Allen Crowell, Alvy Powell, Ara Berberian, Leslie Guinn, Jerry Jennings, and Fred Waring, Jr.

Making the transition to a full-time performing career is difficult work, admits Master Chief Musician Chuck Yates, director of the Sea Chanters. “But it’s a wonderful opportunity for growth. Pride and professionalism are the keys. You are the Navy, and what you do reflects back to the Navy.” Unlike their counterparts at sea, Navy singers do not face long separations from their families, and usually only tour a few weeks a year. Like the other military choruses, the Sea Chanters always perform in uniform, and new recruits must go through “boot camp.” (One singer, who describes boot camp as “survivable,” cautions that you should avoid bragging at boot camp that you will be in one of the military musical groups, since after basic training you will immediately outrank your drill sergeant!)

There are height, weight and fitness requirements, says Major Clanton, “…but you don’t have to be a world-class athlete. Yes, boot camp is a challenge,” he adds, “but once that is complete, you come to the [chorus] and spend the rest of your military career here.” Singers in military choruses range in age from early 20’s to age 55, with the average age mid-30’s. The maximum age for enlistment in the U.S. Army is 34. All Army band and chorus members must undergo an extensive background investigation to assure suitability for White House support duties, and must meet other standards required to enlist in the Armed Forces. Master Sergeant Petillo particularly enjoys singing in the native languages of visiting dignitaries. “For me, it’s doing my part to erase the image of the ‘ugly American’ who is generally careless of other cultures and languages.”

As long as it doesn’t interfere with performance of military duties, vocalists are allowed to accept free-lance singing engagements. MCM Yates estimates that 90 percent of the Sea Chanters do outside church and solo work. “Most of us enjoy the professional development and income from singing in or directing other choirs, doing solo opera or oratorio work, or teaching lessons,” says Master Sergeant Petillo of the Army Chorus.

Despite the musical and financial pluses, a life in the military is admittedly not for everyone. “Nobody wants to get up at 7:00 a.m. for an inspection,” says Coast Guard MU1 Soprano Tracy Thomas, “but you get used to it.” Robert Petillo says, “I grew up in the Vietnam era with a somewhat cynical view of the military. I joined for the music, but my career in the Army Chorus has helped me to see the value of patriotism in a new light.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.