An Interview with Colonel Thomas Palmatier
Colonel Thomas H. Palmatier was appointed Leader and Commander of The U.S. Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” in August, 2011. He previously served as Commander and Conductor of The U.S. Army Field Band; he is the first officer to command both of the Army’s top premier bands. Previously, Palmatier served as Commandant of the U.S. Army School of Music, Commander of the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus, Executive Officer to The Adjutant General of the Army, and the Department of the Army Staff Bands Officer.
Originally from Ballston Spa, New York, Col. Palmatier holds a Bachelor of Music degree, magna cum laude, in Applied Music from the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York, a Master of Fine Arts degree in Music from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College. He is currently enrolled in doctoral studies at Boston University.
Colonel Thomas Palmatier
Col. Palmatier is former Director of the Rochester International Tattoo and former Principal Director of Music for the Virginia International Tattoo. He served as Music Director of the Dominion Brass Band, which won the Honors Section of the North American Championships in 1996.
Throughout his more than three decades of distinguished service in the U.S. Army, Col. Palmatier has received numerous military honors to include two awards of the Legion of Merit and seven awards of the Meritorious Service Medal. He was the first Army Band Officer to earn both the Parachutist and Air Assault Badges, and earned the right to wear a combat patch for service in El Salvador. His wife, Shirley, is a retired Army Medical Service Corps officer. His daughter, Gabrielle, is a ballet dancer and instructor in Los Angeles and the mother of the cutest granddaughter in the world.
Steven Maxwell: You have an amazing career as a conductor and performer. What drew you to pick up the baton?
Col. Thomas H. Palmatier: Well, it was actually a tuba audition where I didn’t get the job! Between my first and second years of graduate school, I auditioned for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Band and it was one of those days when things really clicked. I finished a close second and then took a good look in the mirror and decided maybe my strengths were more in facilitating the musical efforts of others than in being the next Harvey Phillips! I returned to grad school and pestered them to let me lead any and every kind of group that I could. I was allowed to form a jazz band, did some brass choir conducting and lots of section coaching, and found it so satisfying to have a (hopefully) helpful role in other musicians’ performance successes that my focus gradually shifted to being a musical leader rather than performer.
SM:What drew you to the military?
CTP: It was a combination of them being the one place that was hiring musicians and my wanting to live up to my father’s legacy. Like millions of other Americans, he served in WWII and I always aspired to serve my Nation as he did.
SM:Who has most inspired you during your career as a conductor and performer?
CTP: Tony Maiello was my fifth grade band director. He had such a passion for music and drive for excellence. I didn’t really understand it all at that young age but I knew I wanted to have that same passion. Dr. Harry Begian, one of the giants of the band world, was so encouraging of my efforts to try to improve. He always treated me as a colleague even though he was way up there and I was way down here.
SM:One of the great privileges of performing in a military ensemble is to participate in significant national events. Was there an event or performance that was most memorable to you?
CTP: Wow, there have been so many. The very first concert I conducted with “Pershing’s Own” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1988 was an amazing moment. Leading the U.S. Army Europe Band through the streets of Moscow on the 60th anniversary of V-E Day was incredible as were ceremonies at Normandy. Touring the grassroots of America with the Army Field Band was a privilege. It’s all been terrific.
SM:What musical qualities do you look for in a tuba or euphonium player?
CTP: I look for someone who knows what’s going on in the rest of the music and the other parts. Music is collaborative and those instruments must know their roles to really contribute to the greater whole.
SM:Do you have a favorite piece you have conducted that was written for solo tuba? Solo euphonium?
CTP: I really love Philip Sparke’s writing, especially for brass instruments. All of his solos for both instruments feature wonderful melodies, great rhythmic drive, and just fit the instruments well.
SM:What advice do you have for people interested in auditioning for a premier military band?
CTP: Be yourself. Let us see what you do best, not what you think we want to hear. We’re looking for someone who will bring something special to the band, technically, musically, and personally.
Conducting The U.S. Army Field Band in concert
SM:What is the most common mistake that you have witnessed people making when audition for a premier military band?
CTP: They think we want loud players. Show the whole dynamic spectrum. When someone can play an intense and focused line at a whisper and also “drop the hammer” when power is needed, that’s the kind of player that excites me as a conductor.
SM:Do you have any general advice for tuba and euphonium players performing in bands?
CTP: Make sure you can hear others! If you can’t, there’s an awfully good chance you are playing too loud. Know the entire piece, not just your part.
SM:What are some of the most enjoyable pieces you have conducted (I know there are far to many to pick just one!)?
CTP: It’s always the one you’re working on now. We’ll be playing “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “El Salon Mexico” at Midwest and they are both terrific fun without a moment that isn’t challenging and interesting.
SM:What is your favorite march?
CTP: This changes a lot – I’ve always liked “Gallant Seventh” but there are so many great marches. To every band director in the world: if you program a concert without a march or two you are cheating your audience and your players.
SM:Outside of the military band repertoire, what music inspires you?
CTP: I listen mostly to orchestras. I’m on a Brahms kick right now; I love the textures. I’m also really into vocal jazz. If you want to learn about phrasing, go no further than Frank Sinatra.
SM:I know that you have been on tour numerous times with all of the different ensembles that you have been associated with. Can you estimate how many different venues you have conducted/performed at during your time in the military?
CTP: No clue how many venues but it has taken me to 30 different countries.
SM:During your time in the military, have you seen the level of playing rise? Has the competition been consistent?
CTP: Absolutely. The Soldiers joining our “regular” bands now are on a par with those who used to be in the premier bands in Washington, D.C. There are fewer openings, the competition is fierce, and the standards are way up.
Palmatier with Field Band musicians- The tubist pictured is SFC Matthew Nelson.
SM:Has the number of people auditioning for premier ensembles increased or decreased over the years? Why do you think this has happened?
CTP: Increased, definitely. Sadly, many, many other avenues where musicians can make a living have disappeared.
SM:What do you see in the future as the role of military bands in the United States?
CTP: There are certainly challenging times ahead and there will be continued reductions. I think our Armed Forces will always have bands. Army bands have proven their worth as musical performers in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and cemented their place in the Force. But we can’t rest on our laurels. Every day, every musician must get up and ask, “how can I inspire, entertain, and educate others with my music today?” Nobody “owes” any of us a job as a musician. Army Bands have adopted a set of values to guide us: believe in the importance of our music, strive for the highest standards of artistic integrity, serve the Nation through music, and be dedicated to those we serve – the audience. I think every musician should aspire to do those things.
A tattoo is a ceremonial performance of military music by massed bands.