In shadow of COVID-19, Army Field Band plays on for America

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Ethan McIver

Ethan McIver, 4, son of U.S. Army Field Band member Sgt. Major Robert McIver, Jr., holds part of his toy train set as he looks out the window of his home in Catonsville, Md., Thursday, March 26, 2020. The family is staying home because of the coronavirus outbreak. Inside on the television the U.S. Army Field Band’s daily “We Stand Ready” virtual concert series from Fort George G. Meade is playing. The Army Field Band’s mission is to bring the military’s story to the American people. And they’re not letting the coronavirus get in the way. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For members of the U.S. Army Field Band, it has never been merely about the music. Yes, they wanted to please the ear, but they played for the Army. For America.

So earlier this month, when concert dates evaporated with the spread of COVID-19 and the band was ordered back to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, there was never any question: The band would not stand down. The music would not stop.

With an already faithful following on Facebook and YouTube, they quickly set up a studio space from which to live stream.

The result: a daily “We Stand Ready” virtual concert series that has attracted more than 4.3 million viewers in just 10 days, said Master Sgt. Brian T. Sacawa, a Concert Band saxophonist for 17 years.

Music “has the power to make incredibly deep and meaningful connections,” said Sacawa, a native of Schenectady, New York. “It inspires people. It heals people. It unites people. And what better time than now to send that message to the American people?”

The unit includes the concert band, a chorus, jazz band and other smaller ensembles. It broadcasts from the concert band rehearsal hall, which now looks more like a television studio.

Like other Americans, band members have been ordered to socially distance — something that poses unique challenges for musicians.

Singing lead with the unit’s barbershop quartet, Sgt. Maj. Rob McIver is used to standing cheek-to-jowl with his comrades.

“It is a little strange to sing barbershop quartets and sing them at a distance of 6 feet or greater from your colleagues,” said McIver, an Owensboro, Kentucky, native. “It makes it a little more difficult to, you know, kind of like physically play off with each other if there’s, like, a gag bit or something that’s supposed to be sort of funny.”

Normally, the unit’s 150 musicians and support personnel spend about 100 days a year crisscrossing the country and globe, performing in concert halls, veterans’ homes, school gymnasiums and, sometimes, the theater of war.

There are benefits to staying at home. Sgt. Maj. Erica Russo, an alto in the Soldiers’ Chorus who was recently named the unit’s director of operations, can view the concerts with her 7-year-old son, Thomas.

She has been with the band for 19 years; the rehearsal for her boot camp ceremony was held on Sept. 11, 2001. This, she says, is another moment when the band’s music can help give Americans strength and reassurance.

Sitting on the couch with Thomas, watching on a laptop as Sgt. 1st Class Randy Wight belted out “America the Beautiful” in a soulful baritone, Russo found herself with tears streaming down her face.

“Mom!” her son exclaimed. “You have been singing the song for a million years.”

And she had — hundreds of times, stoically and professionally. But it was as if she were hearing that old song with new ears.

“For just that beautiful little moment,” she said, “this microcosm of emotion just made me really understand what it is we do.”

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While nonstop global news about the effects of the coronavirus have become commonplace, so, too, are the stories about the kindness of strangers and individuals who have sacrificed for others. “One Good Thing” is an AP continuing series reflecting these acts of kindness.

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