As a kid, people always asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. Maybe they could already detect my ill-fated and inconvenient relationship with music and were testing the waters for a more rational direction. It was around the age of 12 that I could say with eye-rolling certainty that I was going to be a cellist. Before then, the answer was Navy carrier pilot or US Marine. Oh, the looks I’d get! And the questions! To this day, I can’t really imagine a cooler answer, though people seem to think what I do now is novel enough.

I admire those who serve, and part of me has always been disappointed that I didn’t summon up the temerity to at least give the Marines a shot when I had the opportunity to. Still, nothing like regret to propel productivity: my Hopkins research was dedicated to musical interventions in veterans with PTSD. It’s a small gesture, but it’s the best I got for now.

As part of my geeked-out fandom/compulsion to serve, I began a military scholarship a few years back. Lessons for active military or their children/spouses are either free or heavily discounted, so long as I can get to them. At first I hesitated to implement this idea: compared to what these folks do, my life as a wandering minstrel seems a little…trivial. But it’s all I have to give, so I’m going to give it.

Once a week, I drive down 95 to the USMC base at Quantico. It’s a breathtaking place. There is something beautiful about Humvees with cannons strapped to their roofs greeting you at the entrance, and the hut of slightly bristly guys checking IDs and asking cellists what sort of business they have on base.

“Teaching the Colonel’s wife, sir. Want to have a look in the case?”

“No thank you, ma’am. Have a good lesson.”

The road winds around, first to the right, then in a series of easy S-turns until you get to Quantico Town. You pass countless earnest looking joggers and signs like “USMC Center for Irregular Warfare”. As much as I would like to investigate what’s down that path, I turn and slowly snake my way up to Neville Heights. I pass the General’s house, which is large enough to convey the respect his station has earned, but not showy in the least. Most houses display two flags. As an unrepentant aesthete, I confess I roll down my windows and enjoy the reassuring sound of the fabric whipping around in the breeze.

We have our lesson. It’s normal with the exception of the banter. Instead of football, we talk about HMX-1 or setting up a tour of the Pentagon. I can’t help myself! I summon up some discipline and it’s back to scales and Schroeder, breathing and left hand supination. I get back in the car and drive through base a little slower than I need to, wondering if there are good plane watching spots down any of the roads to my right, stopping again to listen to the flags.

I love what I do. I recognize my improbably fantastic luck every day and twice on Sundays. I live a life of almost zero sacrifice and no compromise, much of it tacitly furnished by extraordinary people I’ll never meet doing difficult and dangerous things. That I could deliver even a small measure of gratitude to them in person makes me happy.



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4 Responses

  1. Warrior musicians are not unheard of. My favorite set of war stories is the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series (Master and Commander movie) with the sea-captain violinist and the doctor-spy cellist. Music weaves through the series with lines like: “I’ve got a great candidate for purser: He plays the viola.”

    My cello never went to sea: There was no room in a tiny patrol ship. But some of the most welcome music I ever heard was when replenishment ships off the coast of Vietnam would serenade us with amateur rock bands — a sort of 20th century sea chantey — while our crew hauled supplies aboard in the tropical rain.

  2. You are also very poetic in your description. And what a remarkable choice: music or military. Hmmm, maybe you could have taken the clarinet and played in the U.S. Marines Corps band??? Or started an orchestra for them??? Lovely writing.

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