Military Corner: Jason D. Ham of the West Point Band
by Steven Maxwell
Sergeant First Class Jason D. Ham is among a new generation of musicians appearing on the American military band scene. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Jason began his studies as a student of Ronald Davis. After multiple appearances in the South Carolina All-State Bands, he attended the University of Georgia, where he studied with the late David Randolph, Ken Kroesche, and David Zerkel. In 2001, Jason graduated from UGA, obtaining degrees in both Music Education and Music Performance.
While at UGA, Jason was an active competitor on the euphonium, winning the Atlanta Brass Society Solo Competition, the Atlanta Community Symphony Orchestra Young Artists Competition, and the Solo Euphonium Artist Competition at the 2001 International Tuba and Euphonium Conference (ITEC) in Lahti, Finland. He has placed in the MTNA Collegiate Brass Competition, the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Competition, the International Philip Jones Competition, and the Tuba Quartet Competition at the 2000 ITEC held in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Since entering the West Point Band in 2002, Jason has maintained an active performance schedule, both in and out of the band.
Steven Maxwell : Can you tell us about your early musical influences, even before you began playing the euphonium?
Jason Ham: Growing up in church as a kid, I was heavily influenced by the piano, organ, and choral music, and by age 6, I was taking weekly piano lessons. By the time I actually decided that I wanted to play the euphonium at age 12, I already had been performing on the piano for several years and was really involved in a lot of choral things around my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. The euphonium was a natural fit for me, I feel, given the overlap of vocal pedagogy that can readily transfer to the instrument, as well as the instrument’s unprecedented ability to match the human voice.
Family hike with my wife Bonnie, and son, Jacob, this past March near our home in Orange County, NY
SM: Did you hear much live music at a young age?
JH: Lots! I regularly went to concerts as a kid, and my parents were really great about taking me to concerts and other live music events, and I really began to prefer the symphony orchestra before I knew what had happened. (Why I chose the euphonium, then, I have no idea…) Of course, being in the church, and in particular, a very large church that had a massive choir and orchestra, I still say that I am very fortunate for the weekly performance pressure it put on me as a performer (especially on live television!). Getting to be around live music as a kid was huge, but having to perform each week was an even better pressure to work from.
SM: Did you have a musical family?
JH: Some of my earliest memories were of my mom and dad singing in church, and before long, my older brothers were participating in our school bands. But, whereas their interests turned more towards basketball, I kept at music. I should mention that I tried to get out of music at about 10 years old, and while it was a valiant effort, I have to thank my mom for pushing/forcing/begging me to stay with it. She saw something that I didn’t, I guess.
Jason as the “Accountant Elf” in the 2012 West Point Holiday show
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?
JH: All of my primary teachers were really inspirational in one way or another, and I am grateful for their investment in me. Three of my teachers really stand out, however: Ken Kroesche, David Randolph, and David Zerkel.
I started studying with Ken Kroesche in the mid-1990’s when Dr. Kroesche was teaching at Western Carolina University. My friend and I would hit the road together frequently during my junior and senior years of high school to make the 5-hour round trip from Columbia to Cullowhee. Dr. Kroesche was the first teacher I ever saw who actually WAS a euphonium player, and he influenced me heavily. It was because of him that I have a solid and firm belief that serious euphonium players have to, at some point, study with someone who actually regularly plays the euphonium, and, preferably, makes their living from it, if possible. In other words, the entire idea of actually specializing on the euphonium came to fruition in my mind here, even though Dr. Kroesche gave me a realistic view that this was going to be a hard road to travel.
David Randolph was my first teacher at the University of Georgia, and I supplemented his teaching with Dr. Kroesche until about my sophomore year at UGA. Dr. Randolph was a fabulous person and a wonderful friend, and did much to help me, particularly with understanding a broader-view pedagogy that has served me well. Dr. Randolph actually served in the US Army Band for several years, but was open and honest about telling me that he didn’t enjoy it (in spite of sitting in an amazing section at that time). He was the first to really break my rose-colored view of the military bands, but he did it with gentleness and respect for what they were capable of, and with the understanding that he needed to allow that avenue to stay open for me.
My most influential teacher to date was Dave Zerkel. I cannot say enough about this man, as a performer and person, certainly, but particularly as a teacher. He’s a guy who will get his hands dirty with a student’s issues and commit fully to resolving them. In particular, it was amazing to see how much he believed in my ability to actually make a full-time, professional “go” of my calling to be a euphonium player. It also didn’t hurt that DZ had been a member of the US Army Band and the US Army Field Band prior to his work as a studio teacher, and his intricate knowledge of the military bands, and particularly the Army Band system, helped me immensely then and still does today.
SM: What drew you to the military?
JH: Let’s start with the unglamorous answer: a PAYCHECK! If we’re honest as euphonium players, I think we have to own up to the reality that if we want to play this instrument for a living, we owe it to ourselves to vet the military bands and know what they offer us. What I hope a lot of euphonium players find is that, though it very well may be for them, it might not be, either.
The West Point Band has given me a great life, far beyond income. For one, I had a huge respect for the military prior to winning my job, and although I don’t know if I would have chosen a military career beyond the way I entered this one, my love of the United States and its people made this an easy choice for me. Simply put, I like the military and I like serving people, so this fits well. I also like the people I work with.
SM: When did you begin to take auditions?
JH: My audition at the U.S. Military Academy in June, 2001, was my first. However, I am thankful to have been part of a very competitive studio at Georgia while studying there, and I think the pressure-cooker that such an environment of good players can become was a boon to my winning this job.
SM: Could you describe what a typical day is like for you?
JH: This is actually a tough question to answer, because few days are ever alike. These days, I have a lot of responsibility in the West Point Band. In addition to performing as the band’s principal euphonium, I have collateral duties in overseeing our concert band library (which, as you can imagine is vast), and serving as the Announcer for the Concert Band. By the time all of these roles play out in a day, it’s been a very long day!
I usually get up about 5:30 am and find myself at West Point around 8 am, hopefully having gotten in the Word and the gym before reaching the Academy. Rehearsal begins at 9:30 am, so I try to play from about 8-9 before making sure that the rehearsal order is published on the board and any last-minute library issues are solved. After rehearsal (around 11:30), I’ll take care of any library issues that came up in rehearsal, then grab lunch. I like to try to begin the afternoon with practice around 1pm and go to 2:30, but sometimes additional duties will pull me in a different direction. Serving as the Announcer for the West Point Band, as well as for many West Point events that the band isn’t involved in, I have found myself in some interesting places (from the PA booth at MetLife Stadium supporting the Giants or the Jets, to the stage presenting the band at Alice Tully Hall to emceeing the graduation for the West Point classes of 2012 and 2013), which all require preparation time.
I will usually spend the remainder of the afternoon dealing with various library obligations (building folders for the concert or marching bands, handling outside music questions and requests, helping plan upcoming repertoire…), and if I’m lucky, I head for home between 5 and 6:30 pm. Again, this is a fairly loose schedule, because the demands of the job shift significantly throughout the year. However, this is more often than not a “typical” day.
SM: Some of the readers may not be familiar with differences between the U.S. Military Academy Band and the other U.S. military bands. Could you explain the difference and what duties may differ from one ensemble to the other?
Jason Ham emceeing the Graduation at West Point, May 25 2013. On the left side is Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel; On the right is Lieutenant General David H. Huntoon, Jr., Superintendent of the United States Military Academy.
JH: Each military band is saddled with a primary mission; they are obligated to support the units in their charge, speaking both musically and operationally.
At West Point, our primary mission is to support the Corps of Cadets – the 4000+ students at the United States Military Academy who will one day become officers in the United States Army. We do this in a host of ways, from parades and reviews to Army football, to ceremonies, funerals, and a hundred other things. Several of the band members actually teach and lecture at the Academy to supplement some of the teaching already happening there, giving a window into things like military history, for example, that the cadets cannot get from any other perspective. In short, our continually evolving role as a band is to do whatever we can to assist West Point in continuing to lead the charge as the nation’s best leadership development institution (that’s not the company line, either… it’s just what we do summed up as best I know how).
Past the Corps of Cadets, we also serve as ambassadors of the Army and the (speaking more widely) military to the American public. In this realm, we give concerts and productions throughout the year that provide both a morale boost as well as perhaps soften the view of the Army and the military in the eyes of the American public. Here at West Point, we’ve started focusing on some major events in the year like Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, the Holidays, and educational outreach, for example, as our primary performances, but it doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the community concerts that allow us to play music beyond “God Bless America” and “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” To that end, we offer an outstanding annual Conducting Symposium (when funded!), and have formed strong ties to some of our local organizations like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the New Jersey Ballet, to name a few.
SM: What is your typical touring schedule like from year to year?
JH: The West Point Band, essentially, doesn’t tour. Our role is primarily at West Point, and for that reason, that’s where you’ll find us throughout most of the year. I should mention that now, in a time of sequestration, however, virtually no Army Bands are on the move, as the funding simply isn’t there to travel. However, our educational outreach program allows us to get on the road as chamber groups or as soloists, usually in January or February, and I almost always find myself representing the band somewhere around this time.
SM: What kinds of things have you found yourself doing differently, stylistically, playing with the ensemble?
JH: This job is dramatically different than what I came into in 2002…not a better or worse kind of thing, just different. Then again, the Army is a very different Army than the one I walked into in 2002.
Stylistically, the band plays significantly less (what most people would call) “serious” literature and much more pop/rock styles than we did before. Typically, a concert when I got in the band was an opener, a transcription or original work for wind band, a soloist, an original work for band, perhaps a commission, then a second half with maybe some Broadway and lighter fare. While all programs from a military band reflect the preferences of the command they are in, the West Point Band now focuses on more of a major production style of event, and so the band repertoire has shifted with this trend.
So, if I had to quantify what has happened in our repertoire, I would say that we now are playing the widest variety of styles that I’ve seen since I got here more than a decade ago, and as a result, I’m more familiar with styles that I saw little of in a typical performance in the early 2000’s.
SM: What has been your most enjoyable piece of music to play with the group?
JH: Truth be told, my preference in literature is not concert band literature but brass band literature. Some of those transcriptions to the wind band have been done well, and so I think of works like Sparke’s Year of the Dragon, for example, as some of the most fun I’ve had in the wind band. If I had to chose a wind band work that I love to see in the folder, it’s either Claude Smith’s “Festival Variations” or Morton Gould’s “West Point Symphony.” There’s something truly wonderful about playing that work with the West Point Band, especially when you can actually walk out the front door of the band building and see what Gould had in mind. (I just wish he’d given a bit more to the euphoniums in that piece.)
SM: What has been the least enjoyable piece of music you have played with the ensemble?
JH: Oh dear. Is this on the record? We’ve had quite a few works end up in our folder that had no business ending up in there, but, as military bands are political entities like every other job in the world, because we’ve been trying to make someone happy, we’ve played a few works that were…let’s just say not the best quality. I’ll leave that there.
The people I most love to work with are people who can deal with this well, even when there’s stuff no one wants to do. Doing quality work when you don’t want to is a mark of a great employee.
SM: What advice do you have for students interested in auditioning for a military band?
JH: Take the rose-colored glasses off long enough to actually see what you’re auditioning for. The military bands, now, at least, are in a time of unbelievable pressure. A financial crisis always leads to a philosophical crisis, and if you haven’t noticed, the federal government of the United States is in a tremendous financial crisis. As a result, the West Point Band (and other bands, already or very soon) are or will have to experiment in different directions. Thus, money constraints are forcing military bands to show their value beyond performance, and this isn’t just an issue for military bands. It’s a cultural problem. For example, off the top of my head I can name ten top-level or near top-level orchestras here in the USA that are either on strike, have recently concluded a strike, or are perhaps just days away from one.
My long-time section mate, who recently retired, didn’t march for the last few years he was in the band. It wasn’t an issue he had control over, as he was dealing with a physical ailment that prevented him from marching. So for three years, we marched only one euphonium player, when it had been two for decades. We still had two euphoniums in the concert band, but a sizable part of our mission at West Point is marching.
When it came time to rehire a euphonium player, we were also dealing with a situation with a tuba player who was not rehired. With tremendous pressure on the command staff from “big Army” to reduce our numbers, the West Point Band was forced to audition a new euphonium player who could also march sousaphone. We could deal with two tubas in the concert band, but not just one euphonium. As a result, we lost a tuba slot that went back to the euphonium slot, but that euphonium slot was now required to march tuba on the marching field, which kept our tuba quartet intact, but still cost us a tuba job.
The West Point Band is in a time when we are forced to do the same or a larger mission with fewer resources, and trust me, this is coming to most of the other “Special Bands” as well. Ultimately, this means that the euphonium players who want to be employed would be best served by knowing an additional instrument. Like the band as a whole, euphonium players are being asked to do more with less, and knowing the standard excerpt list is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s not uncommon now to hear “what other skills do you bring besides being a great player?” asked at the audition. I recently sat in on our trombone audition and was astounded to hear how clueless some of the candidates were as to not only the threat to military bands, but also how little they know of what some of the musicians do inside the band. It’s not just about the player you are anymore. Again, being a great player is the base-line expectation to get in the door. The person that was eventually hired in the trombone audition, for example, was hired not only because she was the best player (musicianship and great performance still win the day, fortunately), but because of the fact that she was a bit of a pioneer in getting her pop group gigs, in recording the group, and because she had an awareness of how audiences were changing. In fact, the audition itself was for “Commercial Trombone.” A few years ago it would have read “Trombone in the Concert Band.”
SM: What other type of playing do you enjoy outside of the military bands?
JH: As I mentioned, I am addicted to the brass band. If I could do that full time, I’d do it. It’s an amazing ensemble, built for unbelievable music-making by its very design. In fact, the best ensemble of any kind that I have ever sat in was a group of all professional players from around the New York City area, called the New Amsterdam Brass Band. It’s been out for about two years, but I am working to get it going again.
SM: What is the make and model of your instrument? Is there a standard make/model for the ensemble?
JH: I play the Yamaha 842S euphonium, and have been a Yamaha Artist since 2003. The West Point Band doesn’t require a specific model of instrument, although our other euphonium player, Phil Broome, plays the same kind I do.