Musicians in tune with the Army: Band keeps traditions alive, boosts troop morale

By David Burge
El Paso Times

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Photo credit: Vanessa Monsisvais / El Paso Times
Trombone player Herm Hopkins keeps his eyes on the bandmaster during band practice.
Spc. Felix Guiffra once worked in advertising in New York City but was laid off during the recent recession.

He decided, then, that he wanted to get back into playing music.

Guiffra, a drummer and percussionist, is one of about 35 members of the 1st Armored Division Band at Fort Bliss.

"Music has always been a passion of mine, and the Army gave me the best chance to do that," he said. "I also felt motivated to do something more meaningful and be a part of something bigger than myself. I also wanted to serve my country. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II. Now, it's my turn."

Band members are full-time musicians who play at military ceremonies. They also play gigs for the El Paso community and do outreach programs at local schools.

Besides being musicians, they are full-fledged soldiers.

"We are musician-soldiers," said Spc. Melissa Kruziki, who plays French horn. Kruziki has two bachelor's degrees and a master's in music.

"It's nice to have a job where I get paid to play music," she said.

Band members had to pass an audition and demonstrate proficiency with their instrument.

1st Sgt. Michael Key plays clarinet and is the enlisted band leader.

"We have to do what all soldiers do -- qualify for weapons, do physical training and we do pre-deployment training," he said.

The band provides entertainment and helps boost troop morale, Key said.

To do that, Key said, the band plays more than just traditional marching music. It also can play pop,
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jazz, country, rock and classical music selections.

"You name it," Key said.

As the Army changes, so do its bands, Guiffra said.

"There's more of an emphasis on pop and more modern music," he said. "This initiative by the Army is really exciting to me. We are the world's largest cover band."

The band even has two vocalists and one member who raps, Guiffra said.

The Fort Bliss band used to be called the 62nd Army Band, and it changed its name to the 1st Armored Division Band in June. The most significant part of that change is that the band now can be deployed, said bandmaster Chief Warrant Officer 3 Russell Houser.

No plans are under way, however, for the band to accompany the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which is deploying to Iraq.

Houser said bands play significant roles in the Army, such as help maintain tradition.

Bands were the first signal companies, giving commands to move into battle, he said.

Army bands also participate in ceremonies like "Salute to the Union" leading up to the Fourth of July weekend and the recent flag casing ceremony for the 4th Brigade.

A more modern role for Army bands is to connect the post with the larger community, Houser said.

The band typically plays seven to 10 performances a week on post. Last year, it also gave 30 to 35 performances for the El Paso community. It recently played at Melodies in the Park, a summertime city of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department concert series.

The band also reaches out to schools. For several years, the band has had special partnerships with both Chapin and Irvin high schools and gave private music lessons to students there. Houser said the band has plans to do similar types of things for this coming school year.

Houser is in his second stint at Fort Bliss and has been back about two months after being most recently stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

He said his fondest memory of playing in Army bands was when he was deployed to Iraq in 2003. Playing for fellow troops at Christmastime gave battle-weary colleagues a much-needed break from the stress of battle, he said.

The 1st Armored Division Band has four music performance teams, and at least one practices every day at the band building at Fort Bliss, 762 Merritt.

Two teams are devoted to ceremonial music, and two are geared to popular music.

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