USAFA Celebrates its 70th Birthday with New Music


It’s the 70th anniversary of Colorado’s Air Force Academy and they are celebrating with a bang! Senior Master Sgt. and musician Claudia Weir is just one of many cadets that participated in a milestone tour last week that featured two new commissioned works. Weir and her bandmates have traveled through Utah and Colorado; their final stop was in Alamosa last Friday.

Now don’t think that just because it’s an academy band that this is just a hobby. These musicians are full-time, active-duty members of service, and their uniforms highlight that. “We have the same training requirements, physical requirements that the rest of Air Force has,” Weir said. “We actually deploy as well. So we are active-duty Air Force.” Many of the participants were not planning on attending the Air Force Academy as they were looking to major in musical careers; the Air Force Academy actually seemed like the last place to look. But in reality, the Air Force Academy has an extensive music program that requires an audition and advanced skill in an instrument.

The band commissioned two new works to mark the 70-year Air Force milestone. One of those is “Rust Belt” by Orlando-based composer Christopher Marshall. Capt. Shanti Simon is the band’s associate conductor and flight commander. She says “Rust Belt” has a “blue-collar” energy. “Instead of playing… really light like you might play in a Mozart piece. We’re having [the band] play heavier to represent that machine-like, cogging along feel,” says Simon. “You hear this in the way [Marshall] writes the rhythms — there’s some very interesting interplay in between the trumpets and the steel drums, and percussion is really important.”

For this tour, the band also premiered “First Light” by Montana composer David Maslanka. Simon says it’s a timely piece for the anniversary because it embodies the spirit and history of the Air Force in two parts. One part is “very dark and uncomfortable and difficult emotionally to deal with,” Simon said. “Then the second part is light. It’s perseverance and it’s coming out of that darkness through the struggle. You can see the Air Force story in that struggle. And I think anyone personally can relate to that idea of going through a struggle and coming into the light.”

Some people say military band music can help one understand the country’s history, and these two new songs are no exception. There were Air Force bands even before the service broke off from the Army. Inspired by European military bands, orders from the U.S. War Department established nearly 60 Armed Air Force bands in 1941. These bands toured the country, and some went overseas after the nation got involved in World War II. There were also radio broadcasts. Famous musicians like legendary bandleader Glenn Miller helped build up these bands. Many say that these bands helped to win the war.

Today, military bands are also a part of the recruiting method for the armed forces. The Academy Band, which started out back in 1955, has since beefed up their touring and now makes use of outlets like social media, yet today there are less Air Force Academy musicians than there were in the 1950’s. Band members serve stateside and overseas, performing for deployed troops and at embassies. Capt. Shanti Simon was deployed for six months last year, stationed at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar. During her deployment, she oversaw two rock bands, in Qatar! Simon said these bands help boost morale for U.S. troops.

For now, the musicians of the United States Air Force Academy Band are excited that they were able to tour the west and share their new music. They take great pride in being able to serve their country as well as work in a program that they love. A link to the actual band playing can be found here.

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Air Force Academy Cadets prepare for a performance, photo via google images under labeled for reuse.