Dan Valadie is part of an elite group – but it's not Special Forces. He's a percussionist and key leader in the Air Force Band's Ceremonial Brass Unit. Their top mission? To honor veterans at Arlington National Cemetery during funerals. They also play at presidential inaugurations, Pentagon arrivals and departures, as well as visits to the National Capital Region by world leaders. Not only does he get to play music for a living, he gets to do it while being part of something much bigger.
I was on my second year of teaching, and things weren't working out so well. I missed playing because I hadn't been doing as much of that, so I called my high school band director. He was also an Air Force Band member back in the 1970s, and he knew about a job opening and thought that it would fit my background. Also, when I was in college, the jazz ensemble for the Air Force Band actually came to play every year. It also was the band at two consecutive professional conferences I went to, too. So, I just kept running into the Air Force Band.
When a lot of people think of a drum major, they think of a college or high school marching band where the drum major is conducting the band or leading them on the field. But the important part of my job is all behind the scenes. It's getting information to the band about what they're doing, when and where they're doing it and who's involved – and trying to foresee problems that might come up. Then I make sure to either go out and coordinate the performance with people or lay the groundwork so the unit can go out there and execute with minimal interference.
Sobering is a pretty good term. If nothing else, you realize that what you do is important, and it matters to someone. What you're doing is critical to the experience of the family members. It helps them feel connected to their country and feel the sacrifice their loved one has made. It gives you a real strong sense of purpose. No matter how bad the conditions are outside – whether it's really hot or cold – it's not just entertainment. It means more than that.
The many unique experiences. I've done five inaugurals, and I was drum major for President Obama's last state visit with the prime minister of Italy. I was able to play the color team onto the field for Super Bowl XLIV. I'm from New Orleans and a Saints fan, and that was the year that the Saints won the Super Bowl, so it was pretty remarkable. We also played on ''The Today Show'' for the Fourth of July this year, and it was probably the 19th time that I've played there. If it wasn't for the Air Force, I would never have the opportunity to be in as many places and be around world and military leaders. It's just something you don’t get to do in other aspects of life.
Intense. I found out at 5 a.m., and we were trying to work it out in the course of a couple of hours. Obviously, it's a pretty big stage to be on. The difficult part was trying to combine members of the different ensembles into one cohesive band – that was really nerve-wracking. We prepare for state funerals and rehearse that mission a couple times a year, but it’s different to actually be on the flight line [at Andrews Air Force Base] in the actual mission with the press pit right next to you, the cameras rolling, and actually seeing the family and the remains. It was definitely impactful.
I would still say that any job is going to have norms, codes of conduct and rules you have to follow. The norms here might be a little more strongly enforced and stringent, but they aren't harsh – it isn't something that takes a huge amount of adaptation.
The Air Force Band in D.C. is a permanent duty station, so I've been able to stay in one place for 21 years. But there are other regional bands, and they have to rotate like other members of the military to different bases every couple of years. Occasionally they'll deploy, although probably not with the same regularity as other airmen.
As far as having a regular, stable job goes, it's so rare to find that as a full-time musician and performer. It's really great to have that stability and those benefits. And it's just such a great experience to play with other musicians of a high caliber.
The U.S. Air Force Band is one of several carrying out the Department of Defense mission. Learn more about other bands from the various military branches.
Video by Jon Poindexter, DOD