Marine Lance Cpl. Kelsey Mayor's alto saxophone dangled from her neck as she urged an imaginary crowd to "put your hands in the air."

Bathed in blue light at the Navy Music School, several young musicians — all Marines and sailors — pretended they were really at a homecoming at Norfolk International Airport. Their job was to play for families waiting to welcome their loved ones back. 

Lifting spirits is just one function of a military band, and Navy Senior Chief Gresh Laing wanted enthusiasm from his students.

"If you were the family member and your spouse has been gone for all this time, what kinds of things would you want to hear that would make you feel good about the sacrifice you just made?" Laing asked. 

"Thank you for your sacrifice?" Marine Lance Cpl. Cameron Wanser asked as he held a tenor saxophone to his hip.

"That's it!" Laing said.

Military musicians serve important roles in diplomatic, recruiting or other public relations functions across the armed services. For Marines and sailors headed out to fleet bands and for soldiers being dispersed to perform across the Army, the only place to train for those gigs is at schools located on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

Students typically audition before enlisting. Some already have years of training as well as bachelors and advanced degrees. The Army's basic music program graduates about 220 soldiers annually. About 190 sailors and Marines graduate each year from the Navy's programs. The schools also offer advanced leadership and other technical courses.

Army Staff Sgt. Lewis Johnson was at the school this month for the fourth time in his military career, this time for a six-week advanced leadership course. During a recent ensemble performance, he sang Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," meandering through the audience before reaching the stage and joining in on the drums.

"It's got that drum solo that just gets everybody going," said Johnson, who currently plays with the Army's Training and Doctrine Command Band at Fort Eustis. Johnson has multiple degrees, including in horn performance and music education, from Florida State University and played in Army bands all over the world. He has deployed to Afghanistan, where he worked as an instructor with the Afghan National Army Band. 

"I'm one of the few individuals that gets to do what I've trained to do for the majority of my life and serve my country in that capacity," Johnson said, "and that's priceless."

Stability, patriotism and the ability to share in the universal language of music were reasons several gave for joining the military. 

Marine Lance Cpl. Samuel Morondos, who plays tuba, recently finished boot camp and looked forward to his first assignment with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force Band in Okinawa, Japan.

Military music school

Lance Cpl. Samuel Morondos plays the sousaphone during a rehearsal of a Naval School of Music contemporary brass band on March 6, 2019, at Joint-Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

"I'll be able to share moments with people around the world without saying a word sometimes, which is pretty awesome," Morondos, who is from Hawaii, said.

There's a difference between playing music and performing it, and the military needs its musicians to be able to put on shows in a variety of environments and connect with different audiences. That goes from ceremonial bands to something a little more amped, like a pop music group. During a recent rehearsal, Navy sailors in working uniforms rocked out while performing covers of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and "Shallow" by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

"In just one hour, I go from a concert band to a marching band to a rock band," said Seaman Apprentice Thomas Auger, who plays the drums. 

The month before he joined the Navy, Auger toured the East Coast by van with a reggae-rock band. 

In early March, Auger was behind the drums in the contemporary brass band that Laing was leading through a bouncy song by Richmond-based No BS Brass Band. 

"I get to wake up every day and do what I really love to do and it's really fun," Auger said. "Work is fun."

Courtney Mabeus, 757-446-2277,

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