The Percussion Eruption of the Military

Today, it’s all about firsts. In music and the military; the firsts are just a tad more difficult to find. How have the female percussionists who create the cadence for every major military band in the United States today risen to such principal positions, unremarkably unnoticed? One beat at a time, bustin’ chops, rolling in to such a uniform success that will make your daughter wish she’d picked percussion over those piano lessons you paid for years ago.

“Free a man to fight,” was the 1940’s theme the military used to recruit women, and into the bands they came.  They came as clarinets, and flutes, and saxophone players by the dozens, but they came as percussionists only one at a time.

For Sergeant First Class Julie Angelis Boehler (Percussionist, “Pershing’s Own” US Army Band, 1997 to date) it started on the streets of Leicester, Massachusetts, in the 1979 Memorial Day parade where Julie marched as a snare drummer with the Leicester Satellites Drum Corps. SFC Boehler snared positions in increasingly popular drum corps throughout the 80’s, including her participation in the Boston Crusaders’ 50th anniversary season in 1990.  Almost 10 years later, she out-earned one of Juliard’s finest for the percussion vacancy in “Pershing’s Own” United States Army Band and in 2003 was appointed to the position of Principal Timpanist.

“It was my rudimental training that put me ahead of one of the other finalists in the 1997 audition,” Boehler states and continues: “There have been times after summer concerts at the U.S. Capitol in which parents have come up to me and expressed that their daughters couldn’t keep their eyes off of me, or tourists who videotape the whole concert and tell me how much they focused on my playing.  These are the experiences that make me proud of what I do.  If I can inspire just one young girl who will go on to play percussion professionally, then I will have accomplished my goal.”  A classically trained percussionist, she received degrees from The University of Massachusetts-Amherst (cum laude) and Rice University.   She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her greatest fan and husband, Joe.  Look for her in uniform behind the Army Band’s timps in downtown DC.

The Army Bands aren’t the only bands to have snared females in their beat.  What Pershing is to the premiere Army Band, Corcoran was to the Army National Guard’s “The Band of the Nation’s Capital,” The 257th Army Band, is currently commanded by decorated Chief Warrant Officer Sheila M. Klotz.  Klotz took a peak at percussion when she was 10-years-old while in tow with her mother and five sisters. The sisters were about to try out for the baton-twirling majorettes.  With less than 50 feet between her possible career with the baton, Sheila stopped in her tracks at the cafeteria door when she heard the paradiddle calling her name.

Air Force Band veteran John Bosworth handed Sheila that first set of sticks that she says she hasn’t put down since.  Bosworth trained Sheila in drum corps style and solo percussion. She repeatedly earned Maryland State Rudimental Snare Drum solo championships, as well as National Snare Drum Solo championships. At age 15, Klotz earned a position in America’s Youth in Concert, performing in Carnegie Hall and touring Europe in the same concert band style SFC Boehler knows.  Klotz recalls, “I remember being laughed at, being made fun of, and even getting kicked out of the girls’ bathroom because I wasn’t wearing a majorette uniform”. But she stuck with it and, with each championship title, Bosworth kept insisting, “next time you’ll have some competition.” Klotz finally appreciated that omen after she left West Virginia University’s music program to audition for the beginning of her military career with The United States Air Force Band, Washington DC.  Bosworth was right, there was severe competition. As Boehler did in “Pershing’s Own,” Klotz outperformed the competition, dressed out in the uniform performing at the White House, the Pentagon, distinguished services at Arlington National Cemetery, for heads of state and performances abroad. Yet after over 10 years with The United States Air Force Band, she switched her sticks for the conductor’s baton and now commands the 257th Army Band, “The Band of the Nation’s Capital”. At the urging of the musicians she leads, she gets behind the drum-set every now and then and, whether playing or conducting, Klotz inspires young women to “be all that you can be”. She is a graduate of West Virginia University and lives in Maryland with her husband and three children.

Senior Master Sergeant Erica A. Montgomery is one of the few military female percussionists who was able to couple music with education early in her life. Playing piano and clarinet in Louisville, Kentucky since the 5th grade, Montgomery had a “life changing experience” when she attended a Drum Corps International (DCI) show in the summer of ’79. “When I saw the snare drum lines and heard the whole percussion battery, I was hooked!” Big sister immediately bought Erica her first set of sticks and practice pad, but the epiphany didn’t go over as easily with her middle-school band director that fall, who desperately wanted Montgomery’s strength in the clarinet section.

“Either I play the drums or I quit,” she told him.  Reluctantly, he shook his head and let her choose, and play the drums she did. Erica subsequently auditioned and was accepted to Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts High School, was graduated, and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana.

Illinois has a long, distinguished history for percussion education as well as the avante garde.  Montgomery was mentored by renowned percussionist Tom Siwe, constantly challenged, yet constantly nurtured.  “I look back and realize how lucky I was to have such a mentor.”   In 1997, Montgomery competed for and won the percussion vacancy in the United States Air Force Band in Washington, D.C.  She served as the band’s Principal Percussionist from 2000 to 2004, and she has been serving as its Principal Timpanist since then.   An “immense highlight” in Montgomery’s musical career was her enlisted homecoming performance, “Concerto for Timpani” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” on stage one mile from her childhood home.

“Someone once told me, ‘we don’t pick music, music picks us.’ And with our instruments, I think it’s the same way,  percussion picked me.”  Montgomery still enjoys audience members, especially the little girls and young ladies who come up to meet her after a concert,  “It definitely makes me proud of the job I have, and it motivates me to keep drumming!”

“I think percussion picked me,” confirms fellow percussionist, Specialist Lindsay Haughton (42nd ID Band, New York Army National Guard).  After getting her first snare drum in the 4th grade, Lindsay was hooked.  By middle school, she had clearly out performed the boy drummers and was well respected by each of them.  Strongly influenced by college mentor Mark Clark, Lindsay learned first-hand the value of bandstand playing.  “He taught me that there is so much more to getting and keeping a gig than ‘chops.’  It’s important to be a good person.”  To give back to the audience and entertain them is what means the most to Haughton.

SGT Grace Chin (300th Army Band, Bell, California, 2009 to date) agrees with Clark’s lesson to Montgomery.  “Playing in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people can be an experience of a lifetime, while playing in front of a handful of high-ranking officers, and their foreign guests, can also be a great tool to promote peace and stability in nations of alliance.”  Chin began her military musicianship with the 8th US Army Band in Seoul, Korea.  She has played drums in the country, rock, Dixieland, concert, jazz combo and big band and pop with the Army, and intends to stay in uniform drumming with the 300th Army Reserve band.  “I cherish each lesson I have learned and the many ways each experience has helped me grow as a musician and a soldier.”

What may have once seemed unusual, odd, or even “tom boy” in nature appears now to be a growing trend toward female percussionists.  For some female musicians in the military, percussion truly did start out as a competitive drive.  SGT Jacquelyn Jones, recalls her high school days, when percussion was “more of a man’s sport.  Everyone in high school knew how competitive I was, and my competitive nature drove me to be the best percussionist I could be.”  She has played in the USAREUR Band, rock bands, jazz combos, funk and R&B bands, Dixie bands, concert, and Marching band.

To all young women:  Stop and listen.  If the paradiddle perks your ears, it could be percussion itself, calling out your name.  And if you realize the value of a strong influence and pride in the uniform, become one of those yourself.  Consider a military music career.  March with passion, in step and in time before thousands, before heads of state and to musically send off and bring home the men and women of our fighting forces.   As Klotz states,  “If the whole world knew that even the most basic reading skills started with an inherent ear for music . . . rhythm . . . cadence . . . maybe society and academia would stop separating music from Mensa and start realizing how far the human intelligence could really go if we optimize that musical bent instead of redirecting it away from the classrooms.”

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7 Comments

  1. We had a very fine group of professional female percussionists in the Women’s Army Corps Band. For many years this was the only military band a woman could join.

  2. I have had the opertunity to see the 257th Army Band two times and both times they had a wonderful show, if they are close you I really recomend that you take the time and take your children to see them in concert.

  3. I had the pleasure of hearing Erica Montgomery play when she was just a kid, playing drums for an ad-hoc band that her sister Holly played bass in. She rocked then — and she rocks on!

  4. The female bands of WWII, the Women of the Air Force Band from ’52-’62, and the Women’s Army Corps Band all paved the way for these ladies. We are their heritage, and they are our legacy. We are proud of all of them, but we were there first. The WAC Band had eight percussionists still playing for the 2010 Band Reunion concert.

  5. I completely agree with Karen! We are following in some tremendous foot steps & hoping to carry the torch with equal pride and honor! Thank you to all women who served in military bands setting so many standards for those to follow.

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