This interview was originally broadcast on September 9, 2011.
The Bay State Winds, the clarinet quartet of the Air Force Band of Liberty, plays music ranging from patriotic songs to Bach to Broadway. The three clarinetists and one bass clarinetist who make up the group routinely play for community members and troops both stateside and overseas.
On today's episode of Fresh Air, The Bay State Winds (Master Sgt. Jennifer Dashnaw, Master Sgt. Kevin Connors, Technical Sgt. Christy Bailes and Staff Sgt. Matthew Ayala) join host Terry Gross for a discussion of what it's like to be a musician in the military. All four members of the ensemble enlisted after their Air Force auditions because they wanted to be professional musicians while serving their country. And, like other members of the Air Force, the band members went through basic training — an eight-and-a-half-week boot camp in which they learned how to operate weapons, administer first aid and survive combat situations — before they joined the band unit.
"There's always the potential of being sent to war to fight. But when we audition for the band, we are civilians, and you aren't a member of the military until you've actually put up your hand and said the oath," Connors says. "We know we're joining the band, but there's always the potential that we could be called upon and called to fight."
Connors' group is just one of several Air Force ensembles, which include a rock band, a jazz band, a brass ensemble and a trombone quartet. The group says that each ensemble caters its musical choices to the troops serving around the world.
"The rock band right now is working on some new songs that the kids are listening to," Bailes says. "What they do is they go through and they talk to young soldiers and they ask them, 'What do you want to listen to?' And then they find those tunes, and we actually arrange our own tunes within the squadrons."
After Sept. 11, 2001, the group added more patriotic songs to its repertoire. Bailes says she noticed how audiences changed after the attacks 10 years ago.
"All of a sudden, when we played patriotic music, people would start clapping and go crazy out in the crowd," she says. "And it just wasn't like that before. And I know for me personally, playing the "Armed Forces Medley" and "Stars and Stripes" almost every single night, you tend to go on autopilot. But I found myself, time and time again, getting more emotional, especially when I would look out into the audience and see a tear in a woman's eye. And then it would make me really appreciate what I'm doing. And I think it's affected a lot of us like that."
On Fresh Air, the Bay State Winds' members play several numbers from their repertoire, including John Philip Sousa's "Hands Across the Sea," Samuel A. Ward's "America the Beautiful" and "The Armed Forces Medley," arranged by Mark Craig. During concert performances, the band traditionally asks members of each armed-services branch to stand when their song is played during the medley.
"We not only extend this to the service members, but we do it for the families," Ayala says. "Sometimes we focus only on the soldier, but the families — they [make] great sacrifices, too. So we extend this not only to the soldiers, but their families, too."
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Next we're going to hear from the Bay State Winds, the clarinet Quartet of the Air Force Band of Liberty. They've been playing for military and civilian functions since 2001. Terry heard the group in Boston in August and decided to invite them on to the show. The members are Master Sgt. Jennifer Dashnaw, Master Sgt. Kevin Connors, Technical Sgt. Christy Bailes and Staff Sgt. Matthew Ayala, who is featured on bass clarinet. They brought their instruments and joined for a session in September.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. It is truly a pleasure to have you. I'd love for you to start with a march. There's a march that you played when I saw you at King's Chapel in Boston. And would you play that march for us now? It's a Sousa march and whoever is willing can introduce it for us.
MASTER SERGEANT JENNIFER DASHNAW: OK. Great. My name is Master Sergeant Jen Dashnaw, and the march you heard at King's Chapel was one of John Philip Sousa's most famous marches called "Hands Across the Sea," so that's what we're going to play for you now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS ACROSS THE SEA")
BAY STATE WINDS: (Instrumental)
GROSS: Well, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for playing that, and that was the Bay State Winds. They're the clarinet quartet of the U.S. Air Force Band of Liberty.
You have a great repertoire. You perform things from, you know, Sousa marches to Charles Ives compositions, you know, Gershwin, Rossini. It's a very eclectic mix. But I'm wondering like when you perform for the troops, do they know the repertoire and does the Air Force have like a hip-hop band or a metal band, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SERGEANT CHRISTY BAILES: Yes. We cater towards the troops. The rock band right now is working on some new songs that the kids are listening to. What they do is they go through and they talk to young soldiers and they ask them, what do you want to listen to? And then they find those tunes and we actually arrange our own tunes in the squadron. It gets kind of complicated because of all the transitions, but they work really hard, and yes, we do cater towards what the young soldiers want to hear.
GROSS: Now, when I saw you at the noontime concert at King's Chapel in Boston last month, you closed with a medley of the four Armed Forces themes, and you suggested that each person in the audience who had served in the military stand when their theme was played. And for each theme at least one person stood and saluted.
And I have to say it was very moving, in part because it made me realize that, for instance, the guy in front of me had probably been through some pretty rough stuff. And I wouldn't have known that, I wouldn't have thought of that, and it made me think of all the people I run into in the course of a day or in the course of a week who have been in war zones, and of all the families with loved ones who are or have been in war zones.
And when you meet them, you don't necessarily know that and you don't know what they or their loved one has been through. Can you talk about the significance of playing this medley for you now?
SERGEANT MATTHEW AYALA: This is Staff Sergeant Matthew Ayala. I will say any time that we perform this piece, either with a clarinet quartet or the concert band, which we do pretty much the same arrangement, I'm always looking at the audience and just to see if I can find someone who is maybe crying. Some people have difficulty standing up or something, but when they hear their service song, they definitely do whatever they can just to stand up.
GROSS: How did you start asking people to stand?
BAILES: I think it's been a tradition. We've always asked people to stand.
SERGEANT KEVIN CONNORS: And that tradition is taught to them in basic training. Whenever a military member hears their service song, they're supposed to stand up and be proud.
GROSS: This is the Bay State Winds, which is the clarinet quartet of the U.S. Air Force Band of Liberty performing for us a medley of the Armed Forces themes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET MUSIC)
GROSS: I think you guys are great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That just sounded so good. You're so talented. I wish you all well and thank you so much for speaking with us and for playing for us. Thank you.
SERGEANT JENNIFER DASHNAW: Thank you.
BAILES: Thank you.
CONNORS: You're welcome.
DAVIES: The Bay State Winds is the clarinet quartet of the Air Force Band of Liberty. They've been playing for military and civilian functions since 2001. Thanks to Jane Pivik, who recorded their performance at WGBH in Boston. If you want to hear more, go to our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Melancholia." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.