Military Corner: An Interview with Karl Hovey
Steven Maxwell, Associate Editor
Steve Maxwell (SM): Everyone has his or her own path to joining a military band. You enlisted right out of high school and later finished your degrees. Can you tell us how you decided on this path?
Karl Hovey (KH): After high school, I didn’t have much money to continue my education. I knew I wanted to study music, so I enrolled at North Texas State (what it was called back then) because it was close to home and had a great reputation as a music school. I had to work at the local McDonalds to try to make ends meet (and the free meals while I worked helped), but by the end of my first semester I was flat broke and had no way to pay for the spring semester. And this was at a time when full-time tuition for an in-state resident was less than $200 dollars! I must have known there were military bands, so I rushed off to the recruiter’s office. The Navy seemed most amenable of the services, but I had to act fast as the Vietnam-era G. I. Bill was set to expire at the end of 1976. I scored well on the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, I think) and they wanted me to enlist in the advanced electronics/nuclear field, even though I had barely changed a light bulb at that age. But the recruiter wouldn’t let me enlist as a musician until after I had passed an audition, so I took a leap of faith and enlisted—in the delayed-entry program—as an Operations Specialist. I learned there was a Navy band in Corpus Christi, so I arranged for an audition and was accepted as a musician: an MU in Navy-speak.
MU3 Karl Hovery, U. S. Navy Band.
Since my goal had been to make enough money to afford a university education, I returned to North Texas in the fall of 1982 at the conclusion of my first enlistment. G. I. Bill firmly in hand, I was able to concentrate on school without having to worry about money, and I finished up with two degrees, two tubas, and zero debt!
SM: Do you have any advice for musicians that are interested in joining the military and focusing on music right out of high school?
KH: I think being a military musician is a terrific choice for someone just graduating high school! Besides my reason (money), the military can offer a kid with some talent the opportunity to live the life of a full-time professional musician. The training and experience gained are absolutely invaluable: there’s nothing like a little military discipline to teach you the importance of being on time, wearing the right clothes, and preparing for a performance—all things essential to civilian musicians as well.
One of the little quirks of being a Navy musician in those days was the doubling requirement. Woodwind doubling for clarinet or sax players was no big deal and is expected in most professional areas. Tuba players had to double on electric bass. That was actually pretty easy to pick up at the Armed Forces SOM: the true bass players had it much harder trying to double on tuba! Playing bass was a neat way to pretend to be a rock star, develop a better feel for jazz, and learn solid time-keeping. And a bass player can always find work: after going back to school I earned plenty of spending money playing in country, big band, and husband-and-wife lounge act bands.
MU3 Karl Hovey on the Fender Jazz bass in 1979. Also from the Charleston days, playing Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall on the polo field in Bermuda. Bass players (and some tuba players) make really funny faces when playing
For some the military can be a most rewarding career in itself, while others can take the lessons learned and apply them to future careers in music outside the military. The services are also a great place to learn “life” skills, and military job security provides a comforting safety net for the difficult times everyone experiences as they make their way in the adult world.
Besides the pay and benefits during active duty, all the services have some form of educational benefits including grants, tuition assistance, student loan repayment, and enlistment bonuses. (Each service has different benefit packages and they change frequently as the needs of the particular service change. A local recruiter will have complete information on all current benefits).
SM: After completing your degrees and achieving success as principle tuba with the Shreveport Symphony as well as teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University, what brought you back to a military career?
KH: Well, as nice as the jobs in Shreveport and at SFA were, they were a little over 100 miles apart. 200 miles is a fairly long commute (!) and once I became full-time at SFA I had to commute back and forth every day each week I had a Shreveport concert. Fortunately for me Shreveport didn’t have a 52-week season, but even with a regional orchestra schedule I was pretty beat. And many of us in the SSO played on our off weeks with the Marshall and Longview Symphonies! All this was great experience, but the driving and time commitments were brutal.
One of the many iterations of the Navy Band brass quintet. This group recorded on the first (and only so far) recording of Navy Band Chamber Music, and a link to part of that recording still exists on the quintet’s part of the Navy Band website http://www.navyband.navy.mil.
I heard from my old college buddy Joe Dollard, who had recently won a job with the U. S. Navy Band in D. C., that there was going to be an audition soon. I checked it out, and the pay and benefits were greater than all my teaching and playing gigs combined! So I went to the audition and was fortunate to win the job with the Navy’s premier musical organization.
SM: What is the most rewording part of being a member of the United States Navy Band?
KH: There are many rewarding parts of being a member of “The World’s Finest.” I always get excited when I see a line of people snaking for blocks around venues when we play all over the country on national tours. After concerts I always volunteer to be in the lobby to meet the audience up close and personal, and the pride Americans have in their country and their servicemen never fails to inspire me. Very often I hear stories of loved ones far from home, some of whom never returned. I must admit to regular lumps in the throat and even tears when learning of these folk’s losses. But even people who have no personal connection to the military are quick to say how proud they are of their members in uniform, and how our performances in the Navy Band are a wonderful reflection of the excellence and dedication of the United States Navy.
“One of the cooler gigs for the brass quintet are “Music in the Schools” concerts. I always loved interacting with the kids and seeing them get excited about making music. Here I’m demonstrating how to make a silly noise into something profitable. And you can see what’s coming next….”~Kary Hovey.
I’ve also been fortunate to travel to other countries as a member of the Navy Band, and I always experience a tremendous feeling of pride when I represent, not only the Band and the Navy, but also my country. At Military Tattoos, where there may be bands from several nations appearing, I always feel a little like an Olympic athlete: I want to perform especially well for myself and my shipmates, but in the friendly spirit of international cooperation (competition?), I want other countries to think the United States is the best!
…yes, the ever-popular hose horn solo. Check out the kid on the business end.
SM: What is the most difficult part of being a member of the United States Navy Band?
KH: Some people might think a military musical organization is an oxymoron: I certainly don’t. Obviously there are some challenges, but I don’t find anything particularly difficult, and I think most of my colleagues would agree. Being in the Navy Band is a great career! There are, of course, many unique aspects to performing in the Navy Band compared to a symphony orchestra. Personal appearance is very important, whether you’re on national television or appearing at the White House, Capitol, Pentagon, and Arlington National Cemetery… really EVERY performance. Our uniforms have to be immaculate, our hair neatly trimmed and cut fairly short, and we have to conform to Navy-mandated weight standards: we may have to exceed these standards to achieve the desired level of excellence in unit appearance. We insist on these standards from day one. All prospective candidates auditioning for the Navy Band have their height and weight measured before they are allowed to audition. As I’m getting older you might think the standards would loosen up a bit… they don’t. In fact, when I came to the Navy Band the weight standard for my height (6’ 2”) was 220 pounds. A decade ago the weight was LOWERED to 216. Now the standard for all Navy men at my height is 211 whether you’re under 20 or over 50! On our semi-annual fitness test I must also be able to do a certain amount of push-ups, sit-ups, and run 1½ miles under a certain time limit, but at least these requirements ease slightly as I age.
SM: Can you tell us about your early musical influences, even before you began playing the tuba? Did you hear much live music at a young age?
KH: Before I began playing the tuba…wow that was a long time ago! I used to stay at my Nana’s house in the summer during school vacation. She was always singing and humming little tunes as she made me something delicious to eat. She had a baby grand piano that she would encourage me to pound on, even if all I knew were the few black-key knuckle tunes other kids would play. She also had every Boston Pops Reader’s Digest vinyl record collection ever recorded, and a phonograph to play them on—I wore those suckers out! I found out later she had always hoped her children, including my father, would pursue careers in music. None ever did, but she was delighted when I was able to.
MU2 Karl Hovey with one of my prouder purchases, a Peavey T-40 electric bass. This was the instrument I survived with before I became a decent enough tuba player to land some gigs. Probably taken around 1980–81 during Hovey’s time with Navy Band San Francisco.
I was always outgoing (read: hyperactive) in elementary school, and I always sang my little lungs out in the general music class. I vaguely remember taking some kind of musical aptitude test in 4th or 5th grade, and the teacher being very complementary about the high mark I achieved. Perhaps because of that score I was given solos to sing on the usual school Christmas concerts. It’s embarrassing, but I can still remember the solos: “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” one year and “I’m Gettin’ Nothing for Christmas” the next.
I also remember the thrill I experienced going to hear the Dallas Symphony on one of their educational outreach programs (I grew up in Irving, a suburb of Dallas). Little did I know that the big horn in the back would be such a large part of my life. Those concerts were also the first time I heard Ev Gilmore, a very special and inspirational man.
SM: How did you begin your musical training? What age did you begin playing tuba?
KH: In Texas way back then, band didn’t begin until junior high, seventh grade, so I guess I was 12 when I started. I wanted to play bassoon, because the older kid on the block (the one with the girlfriends) played one. The band director said, “Well, to play bassoon you have to start on clarinet, and we already have 70 beginning clarinets (!). How about tuba?” My parents asked how much it cost to rent a tuba, and were told the school provided them free of charge: “That’s the one for him!” they said. Texas suburbs were explosive areas of growth in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I remember the only way our 7th grade beginning band could rehearse all together was spread out across the basketball court just before our first concert.
Navy Band in concert with Dr. Mallory Thompson of Northwestern University. The pictured euphonium players are (L-R) MU1 Dan Geldert, MU1 Phil Eberly, and MU1 Bryce Edwards.
SM: What were some of your most inspirational teachers throughout your studies? What specifically did you learn from these teachers that helped you in the military bands?
KH: I was fortunate to have Jerry Roe as my first band director. He encouraged me to get private instruction, and I was fortunate that a fine tubist and teacher named Sandy Keathley (who later earned his DMA from Eastman) was teaching in the area. Mr. Roe even got me a scholarship when he found out I didn’t have any money for lessons. I had more good fortune when all the kids from my neighborhood were sent to the cross-town high school in a redistricting measure. There I met Lee South, and it was from him that my love of music and the joy of performing in concert band really took hold.
The teacher who had the greatest influence on my musical training, and my life, has been Don Little. Most of what I am as a tuba player I owe to his patience, encouragement, and tenacity in insisting on the best sound possible. Some days my “best possible” was better than others, but he never lowered his standards, and he refused to allow other matters to distract me from my musical goals. Of at least equal importance, Don was the ultimate mentor: a teacher who also cared deeply about me as a person, and who knew that being successful in life was more than just being a good tuba player. I completed my bachelors and masters degrees at North Texas while studying with Don, and I could write at length about all he’s done for me. My gratitude to him is profound and my respect for him immense.
I began studying with David Fedderly in conjunction with my doctoral study at Catholic University. He very gently pointed out all the ways I could improve my playing (yes, it’s never too late to get better!), and darned if it didn’t. He was able to work around my full-time job with the Navy Band, and his extraordinary teaching skills resulted in some of my very best playing. I’ve shamelessly borrowed some of his musical insights and motivational techniques in working with my own students and in master classes.
MUCS (“Senior Chief Musician”) Karl Hovey plays his Nirschl CC York Model tuba. “This is my daily-use instrument of choice, as it can handle everything from the biggest blows to the most delicate passages. It’s really easy to play, with stunningly good intonation.”~KH
Lee South, Don Little, and David Fedderly shared an uncommon dedication to musical excellence that has been invaluable to me in achieving a professional standard of playing, winning a major position, and holding on to it. I am most proud that the relationships that began between student and teacher have grown into friendships between colleague and peer. These three men were, and still are, a very important part of my life.
SM: What has changed over the years while you have been a part of the military bands? How are auditions different today (if they are)?
KH: Mostly the uniforms (laughing)! We’ve gone from the days of Cracker Jack-type uniforms complete with 13 button-flies and Dixie cup hats, through salt-and-pepper black and white outfits to today’s working uniform, which closely resembles blueberry camouflage. There are now fewer Navy fleet bands than when I first enlisted. Both of my prior service bands, in Charleston, S. C. and San Francisco’s Treasure Island, have long been closed down. Our auditions are slightly different in that we don’t have as much sight-reading as we used to (although we always have some, and sight-reading is often the deciding element), and we go to much greater lengths to ensure anonymity. A screen is used for all rounds, including the finals. Even when I’ve used duets or sectional playing, the Navy Band personnel joining the candidate are not voting members and only know the candidates by pre-assigned numbers. At the last tuba audition, I only knew that the winner was #34: I found out the winner’s name later that night via a tuba internet bulletin board!
SM: What advice do you have for students interested in auditioning for a military band?
1. Know what you’re getting into. Speak personally with someone who is already in a military band.
2. Don’t sign anything with a recruiter until you are guaranteed assignment as a musician.
3. Know the benefit packages (especially educational benefits) available. Each service is different, and the inducements change frequently.
4. Get in decent shape. Whether you have to go to boot camp or not, you will have to maintain a healthy lifestyle once you’re in the military.
5. Go to each service’s website to find audition requirements and locations.
The Navy Band has a regular ceremonial commitment. One of the most enjoyable is providing patriotic music and the National Anthem for local sporting events, like the Washington Nationals baseball games. Personnel (L-R): MUC (ret) Ben Grant, MU1 Dan Geldert, MU1 Tony Halloin, MU1 James Hicks, MU1 Bobby Behrend, MUCS Karl Hovey. Our Drum Major is a former euphonium player, MUCM Joe Brown.
SM: What is a typical day like for you?
KH: What I’ll describe is a fairly typical day, but the truth is that in more than 24 years of military service I have had very few days that are identical. Flexibility is a skill you take for granted when you work in the military, as schedules often need to change. Right now we’re getting ready to go on our annual national tour. I live 15 miles from work, so I’m up and out of the house between 6:30 and 7:00, depending on whether I bicycle commute, drive, or take Metro. Between rush hour traffic, subway transfers, and parking nightmares, it takes less time on the bike! I’m showered and in uniform by 8:00. I’ll check my email and inbox for anything crucial, and then grab my horn for a little warm-up/practice before rehearsal. Rehearsal usually ends between 12 and 1:00. I have a quick lunch and attend to any administrative/managerial business before leaving between 3:30 and 4:00.
This is what a day is like without any military ceremonies to perform. But our band also has a substantial ceremonial workload, and while some of our tuba players are rehearsing with the concert band, still others are playing for funerals, patriotic shows, and many other types of military ceremonies. The entire Navy Band performs over 1500 jobs each year! Simple math tells you we are a very busy group. Often I have funeral engagements after a morning concert rehearsal. And in the week leading up to tour, we will be performing an important international arrival ceremony at the Pentagon, and marching in a local St. Patrick’s Day parade.
SM: What is you typical touring schedule like from year to year?
KH: Military District Washington splits the country into five regions, and the premier bands from Washington take turns touring each area. So in a five-year period we will have covered the whole country. On the other hand, if you miss us you will have another band in your area to hear, and we’ll be back in five years! Our concert band usually tours for 25–30 days in February and March and in 2011 we will be in Region 4, the northeastern part of the United States.
“Sometimes I bring in my old Alexander CC just for fun, a mid-60s vintage, I think. It was the first horn I ever owned, and I just love the sound!” ~KH
SM: What kinds of things have you found yourself doing differently, stylistically, playing with the ensemble?
KH: Intonation tendencies of the various instruments are different in a band than an orchestra, but playing in tune is still essential. I can breath wherever I want: when there are 2 or 3 tubas playing with you, it’s nice to work out breaths so that the line appears seamless, and it’s also nice to have a buddy cover your breaths in sustained solo passages. On the other hand, with multiple tubas in a section intonation and rhythmic precision are crucial, and dynamic balance in divisi sections can be a challenge. Fortunately our tuba section is full of outstanding musicians, so they either follow my stylistic leadership or contribute a better idea!
SM: What has been your most enjoyable piece of music you have played as a member of the group?
KH: Very tough question. Hard to finalize just one. I’ve always liked the standards of the wind ensemble repertoire—pieces by Holst, Grainger, Robert Russell Bennett, and many others. Being able to enjoy listening to a piece while playing is important to me, and I am not a big fan of atonal, dissonant disjunct pieces. Although I can understand the construction and even some of the emotion involved, I prefer tonality and beautiful melody. My ego is involved, but I’ve always loved performing a solo in front of the band, and the recordings I’ve done with the brass quintet and the brass choir are things I’m rather proud of. In fact, at last check the Navy Band’s recording of the Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare is No. 1 in popularity on iTunes! And the Navy Band can really play the valves off a Sousa march. I never get tired of playing Stars and Striped Forever, even though it has been one of our standard encores at every concert I’ve ever performed.
SM: What has been the least enjoyable piece of music you have played with the ensemble?
KH: You just want to get me in trouble, don’t you? But I always remember that even when performing my least favorite piece I’m being paid very well to sound great and represent the Navy in the best light possible.
Navy Band brass at full throttle! Note the “bells up” horns. MUCS Karl Hovey and MU1 Tony Halloin, tubas.
SM: What other type of playing do you enjoy outside of the military band?
KH: I’ve always loved brass quintet, and I play in one now. I’m also able to squeeze in a few local orchestral gigs when my schedule allows.
SM: What instrument and mouthpiece do you use to perform?
KH: The Navy has provided me with wonderful instruments. My daily go-to instrument is the Nirschl York model. It can do it all: delicate pianissimos, easily altered articulations, easily variable tone colors, laying-waste fortissimos, and all done with a full rich sound produced by the most in-tune instrument I’ve ever held. I’ve used it in everything from our smallest to largest ensembles. I also have a Meinl-Weston 2182 that I’ve used to perform and record things like the upper octave of divisi orchestral transcripts (where the tuba part is covering both the bass and cello part) and where there are extended parts with very high tessitura. The Nirschl could have handled these parts, but sometimes it’s easier for me on an F tuba. I use a Laskey 30H on the Nirschl and a Laskey 28C on the MW.
This was a one-off brass ensemble put together to add a festive atmosphere to the Meet the Press show just before Christmas. The show was subtitled “America’s Recovery” and included the late host Tim Russert and guests First Lady Laura Bush, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
SM: Do you have any “most memorable moments” while you have been with the United States Navy Band?
KH: Literally too many to mention: the great players, conductors, music, moments of national import, inspirational venues…but I will share something I’ll never forget. One of my collateral duties in 2001 was in the Administration Office. I was responsible for handling the Navy’s Flash message system, a way for the Navy to communicate with all commands anywhere in the world instantly. On the morning of September 11 someone came running into our rehearsal with the news about the planes and the towers in New York City. I immediately went to my office and began downloading message traffic. The Navy Yard was shut down, the Capital was in chaos with all kinds of crazy rumors, phones were out, and I could look out the window of our building and see smoke rising from the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac. And then I received a message stating that another plane was inbound, heading for Washington, with an ETA of 20 minutes. I did as I was trained, handing the message directly to our Commanding Officer. I couldn’t tell any of my shipmates, I couldn’t call my wife or friends, I couldn’t do anything to prevent the oncoming catastrophe…it was the most helpless feeling I’ve ever experienced. Fortunately for us the heroes memorialized in Shanksville, Pennsylvania did do something about it.
Exactly one month later we played a memorial service at the Pentagon. Six inches from my left elbow were the families and friends whose loved ones didn’t come home from work that awful day. That was, and probably always will be, the most difficult musical performance of my life.
SM: I hear that you love chamber music. What is your favorite type of chamber ensemble to perform with and are there any pieces in particular that you have really enjoyed in that setting?
KH: Brass quintet was my favorite even before St. Petersburg! But playing in a large brass ensemble with great musicians is a close second. As for quintet, I love all the Ewalds, the Arnold, the Koetsier (maybe my favorite), stuff by Eric Ewazen…part of why I love quintet is the almost infinite variety of music suitable to that ensemble, and groups like the Canadian Brass, Empire, and others have contributed mightily to the plethora of quality music originally composed or arranged for quintet.
This is an interesting group: one of the fleet bands from Hovey’s prior service days, Navy Band Charleston about 1979–80.
It is really cool to play Gabrieli in multiple-part brass ensemble (is there a tuba player on the planet who doesn’t own the Chicago-Philly-Cleveland Grammy winning album?), and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble showed us how great orchestral pieces like Pictures at an Exhibition can be effectively presented on brass instruments. One of our trombone players in the Navy Band, David Miller, is an incredible arranger. We recently played his arrangement of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 and it was fantastic!
SM: I saw that you performed for a number of interesting events, including the 300th Anniversary of the Russian Navy St. Petersburg, Russia, and a Meet the Press television program with Mayor Rudy Guiliani and First Lady Laura Bush. Can you tell us about those experiences?
KH: The Meet the Press show was the Christmas show of 2001 and was taped roughly 3 months after 9/11, and was probably one of the few times the Mayor had been away from New York since the cataclysm. Bit of trivia: the show was taped in “real time” with segments timed between commercial breaks. That meant the only time to warm up, tune, whatever, was during the 60 or 90 second “commercials.” They keep TV studios frigid because the folks in front of the camera are lit with lights that produce lots of heat, but we sat silently freezing in the dark all during the show, only getting any light/heat when it was our turn to perform. It almost goes without saying that the music was done live in only one take, and that we played really well. It was quite a privilege to meet the mayor and the First Lady.
We were some of the first American military members to travel to what was the Soviet Union after the Wall fell and the Union dissolved. Our brass quintet was assigned several performances around St. Petersburg, including one on the shore of the Neva River. We were on a simple platform raised about a foot off the ground, enclosed by portable metal rails erected 20 feet away and 360º around us. A couple dozen curious Russians watched us arrive and set up, but by the end we were surrounded by several thousand enthusiastic new friends who knocked over the barricades and swarmed our little stage! We were lucky to have an interpreter with us and, since I was the group’s emcee, I came up with some mildly clever narration like, “I’m so proud to be here as a member of the U. S. Navy! (pause for translation and applause).” “And I hope to make many new Russian friends! (translation and enthusiastic applause). ” “And we’re so happy to be here in St. Petersburg, where all the men are strong and the ladies are beautiful! (deafening roar, thunderous applause, and complete abandonment of self-control).” It took us nearly a half hour to get off the stage and leave the area as we were mobbed like rock stars: hand shakes and bear hugs from the men, gentler hugs and kisses from all the ladies. A unique and never to be repeated experience for a tuba player!