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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview with West Point Band Clarinetist, Diana Cassar-Uhl

Sergeant First Class Diana Cassar-Uhl, from Monroe, New York, came to the West Point Band in September of 1995. She holds a Bachelor of Music in performance from the Ithaca College School of Music. Diana is leaving the West Point Band after 17 years of service to finish her master's degree in public health at New York Medical College and pursue a second career - this one in maternal and child health. You can read a lovely article about Diana's career on the West Point Band's Facebook page. With her departure, I thought it would be great to hear her responses about her time in the military as a clarinetist. 

KLM - When did you join the military and where have you been stationed?
DCU - I enlisted in the Army in July of 1995 (before current high schoolers were EVEN BORN, I was recently reminded!).  After 9 weeks at Fort Jackson for basic training, I came directly to West Point, where I've served my entire career.  While I didn't have any other duty stations, my Army career has enabled me to see parts of the U.S. I wouldn't have ever seen otherwise.  And parts of Texas I sometimes wonder if ANYONE has seen. ;)


KLM - Where were you before you came to the military?
DCU - I was at the Ithaca College School of Music, wrapping up the 8th of what was supposed to be a 9-semester double degree in clarinet performance and music education.  I only had student teaching left, which terrified me.  I won my audition for the West Point Band on April 27th and got some waivers so I could graduate with just the performance degree 2 weeks later. 

KLM - What is your favorite basic training memory?
DCU - Oh my gosh.  It's so funny how, 17 years later, all of the memories seem like favorites even though during the experience, I cried every single day (true!).  I'd have to say my favorite memory was when the Drill Sergeants brought us all -- the whole 240-member, mixed-gender company -- out onto the drill pad outside our barracks about an hour after lights out, to punish us for some errant infraction.  We had been in the "front-leaning rest" position for awhile, and the guy in front of me had his butt up in the air to shift some weight onto his legs.  Whether intentional or not, he "tooted" right into my face!  I started yelling at him, "dammit, that's disgusting!" The Drill Sergeant wanted to know what all the commotion was in 3rd squad.  I yelled, still in the front-leaning rest position, "Drill Sergeant, he farted in my face and didn't even yell 'back blast area clear!'" The entire company dissolved in laughter, including, to my great fortune, the Drill Sergeants.  We were all dismissed and sent back to bed.  
The "front-leaning rest." Not actually a rest position...
KLM - What did your family and friends think when you joined the military?
DCU - I was the last person anyone would have imagined would (or could) join the Army.  My father had served in Vietnam and my grandfather was a career Reservist/National Guardsman in the Army and the Navy, but Diana in the Army was such a foreign concept.  Some of my classmates turned up their noses at my choice to join a military band instead of pursuing an orchestral career, but I knew since I was 11 that I wanted to be in the West Point Band, so those who were closest to me were proud of me and very supportive.  My best friend moved to London after we graduated from Ithaca, but she wrote to me every single day I was in basic training, and was even at my final concert last week. Her pride in me was most obvious, though, when we had a car accident in a blizzard in 1996.  We were stuck on the side of the road and needed to change a flat tire.  A nice man stopped to offer help, and my best friend yelled "she doesn't need your help!  She's in the Army!"

KLM - What has been your most memorable clarinet moment in the military?
DCU - I only get to pick one?  I've gone over the moon with joy for music more times than I could ever count in my career.  Getting to play Molly on the Shore at my high school, for classmates and teachers I hadn't seen in years, under the baton of my most inspirational teacher (my high school band director, John Lynch), at my final concert in uniform was pretty spectacular ... especially once I got to the end and hadn't squeaked, missed any notes, or run out of air on the solos. :) My husband (a trumpet player in the band) arranging for our kids to bring me flowers on stage turned that "clarinet moment" into a "life moment," which was a really appropriate segue since one of the major reasons I'm leaving music is to be more available to my three young children than our job permits.

KLM - On an average week, what do you do at work?
DCU - Haha Kristen, you know there's no such thing as an average week at our job! :)  
Over the years, I've gotten to do so many things.  Earlier in my career, I would have described the work as seasonal -- outdoor summer community concerts, fall football and parade season, winter chamber music, spring parades and concerts, all sprinkled with various extra duties and ceremonial events like funerals and retirement ceremonies. A typical week would have included large and small ensemble rehearsals and some extra duty tasks, plus a lot of practicing and physical training -- I did a lot of distance running earlier in my career. In my last few years, I spent a lot of time managing projects for Education Outreach and writing/editing for the band's Publicity section, as well as (hopefully) preparing people to take my place in those jobs.  

KLM - Would you encourage interested clarinetists to join the military?
DCU - In 1995, I would have joined ANYTHING that would let me play my clarinet full-time and keep myself fed, clothed, and housed!  There was truly nothing else I would ever have done than play the clarinet.  For clarinetists who feel that way, and who love wind ensemble music (which I did), the military is an extremely viable and welcoming place to work and grow.  I would absolutely encourage interested musicians to speak candidly to members of military band sections they might be interested in auditioning for someday, and ask lots of questions. The life of a military musician is so rich and rewarding, but really find out what you're getting into before you make your decision, and make sure the military lifestyle fits your personal goals, too.  Many of the benefits I received as an Army musician were not ones I expected -- they weren't financial or other entitlements, they were gifts I didn't even know I wanted. 

KLM - What is the weirdest thing you do at your job?
DCU - If someone had told me 17 years ago that several times a year, I'd get a call at around 8:30 at night from a colleague directing me to report, in uniform, absurdly early the next morning to my workplace so I could ... watch (I mean, observe) other (female) colleagues produce a urine sample (pee in a cup) ... I would have laughed heartily and told him he was insane.  And yet ... *sigh*  That's one thing I'm not gonna miss.  

KLM - What are your after military plans? 
DCU - I would never have imagined I'd feel as passionate about anything as I did about the clarinet, but I'm incredibly blessed with a calling to a second career.  I'm about halfway through a Master of Public Health degree at New York Medical College, which I got into through my desire to influence policy and protocols in maternal and child health.  Being a mother in this great country shouldn't be as difficult as it is for so many women, and I'd like to play a part in changing the status quo.  As I get through the degree, I'm discovering a crazy interest in research -- I'd like to have the chance to study specific populations of mothers and their babies and find answers for problems like colic or rashes, and use those answers to drive policies and protocols.  I guess the only thing that's changed is now, I want to DO the research that can be used to advise policy where before, I thought I wanted to present other people's research to the policymakers.  Time will tell whether I prove myself worthy of the opportunity to sit at those tables I'm aspiring to.

KLM - Do you have any regrets about joining the military?
DCU - Not a single one.  Being in the military changed my life significantly, especially in the area of physical fitness.  Had I not gone through basic training, I'd never have challenged myself to achieve some of the things I've pushed myself to do since, like running half-marathons and a marathon.  Long after I'm off the Army payroll, being physically fit in my 20's and 30's will continue to pay me dividends, and I'll always know how to take good care of myself.

KLM - It seems like everyone was in a military band at some point, and there's always that gossip about which great symphony players were in the military. Who is someone you know that was a military musician at some point?
DCU - When I started running, I was a huge fan of "The Penguin Chronicles" written by John Bingham.  He wrote the last-page article in Runners' World magazine about those of us running at the back of the pack, which is where I always am in a road race (right in front of the police car, there I am!) ... I wrote to him once to thank him for inspiring me, and was surprised to learn that he had been a trombone player in the U.S. Army Band! 

KLM - What is the number one question you get asked by the general public after a concert? (For example: so you are IN the army?)
DCU - Even at the old age of 39, I still get asked when I'm going to graduate from West Point.  It usually takes me a few seconds to get over my excitement at having been mistaken for a college student before I can explain that the band is comprised of active duty Soldier-musicians who are stationed at West Point, not Cadets.   
 
KLM - Do you feel any more or less patriotic than you were before being in a military band?
DCU - Oh, heavens, way more.  Like I said before, I was the last person anyone would have imagined joining the Army, and now, the jobs I want to do in public health are in the government sector -- I truly want to serve America.  I think I feel this way because of the Veterans I've seen over the years, at concerts.  They are so moved by their service song or by God Bless America.  It's really inspiring.  And where else could a woman like me leave one passion-driven career and stand a chance at another?  

KLM - What is a question you would ask other military clarinetists?
DCU - From 2000-2007, I did ask lots of Special Band clarinetists questions -- I founded and wrote the column "Clarinetists in Uniform" for The Clarinet.  I was always most interested in the exciting on-stage activities of my colleagues.  Now, maybe I'm more reflective or something, but I'd love to hear more about what my colleagues do when they're NOT playing clarinet ... what makes them happy, other than music? 

KLM - (NERD ALLERT) What is your favorite note on the clarinet?
DCU - I love playing in F major and Ab major ... so all those notes. :)  And I don't like having to go over altissimo A.  Ever.   

KLM - What is your most memorable musical moment?
DCU - I was once totally transported by the first statement of the second theme of Academic Festival Overture, played by the New York Philharmonic, when I was a teenager.  It was so lush and all the bows were moving in perfect synchrony ... I'll never forget it, and I knew I wanted to be part of something like that.  From the stage, I'd have to say it was during my solo recital in 2006, when I finally got to play Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments -- the first statement of "Simple Gifts" was so poignant for me at that point in my life. I barely held myself together but my emotions really came out in the music.  I'll never forget how I felt either time.

KLM - If you could magically wake up and play any kind of music, what would you do?
DCU - Rhapsody in Blue. Oh, I did it once, in college, but it was a massacre.  For real.  And I feel invalid as a clarinet player because of that one darned piece ... so to magically wake up and be able to play Rhapsody in Blue would be awesome, and would satisfy 3 decades of feeling marginally adequate! :) 

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