Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spotlight on MUCS Paul Johnson

Senior Chief Musician Paul Johnson serves as the band’s administrative chief. His behind-the-scenes contributions to the command’s daily activities has been an important factor to the band’s continued success.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Plymouth, Minn., a suburb west of Minneapolis. While attending Wayzata Senior High, I pursued my musical interests by playing trumpet in the school’s band and musical theater productions, as well as in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies. I started college at the University of Minnesota, unsettled as to my career direction but interested in either music or engineering. I soon decided to apply all my energies to music and transferred to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where I received my Bachelor of Music. While in San Francisco I performed as principal trumpet with the San Jose Symphony. After graduation I studied with Vincent Cichowicz at Northwestern University, where I received my master’s degree in trumpet performance.
Halfway through my year at Northwestern, I auditioned for and was offered a position in the Chicago Chamber Brass. This was a great experience for me, both as a player and as an administrator. Each member of the quintet handled all aspects of the group. I gained experience in arranging music, writing contracts, pasting up graphics for offset printing, coordinating travel details, handling finances and administering payroll. It was a great lead-in for my career at the Navy Band, where I have also been involved in both the musical and administrative aspects of the organization. On the advice of (then Musician 1st Class, now Senior Chief Musician) Michael Cizek, I auditioned for the Navy Band and was offered a position in 1989.

What is your role as administrative chief?

One of the main attractions of this job related to my fascination with computer programming. Here I saw the opportunity for developing new custom software applications to streamline our processes. The job description of administrative chief is to be the watchdog over the Navy Band’s paperwork, including incoming and outgoing correspondence, reports, instructions, personnel records and official messages. What this most often means is that I will work with other Navy Band offices or individuals to help get documents processed through our internal channels and delivered to the intended recipient(s) while maintaining records in our archives. The tasks are more varied than I first imagined, and without the expert help of my staff of collateral assistants, I could not possibly get it all done by myself.

Tell us about the support staff.

The Navy Band’s support staff consists of 18 members, most of whom entered the band in a musical performance capacity. I have always been impressed by the expertise of the members of the staff in their disciplines, all having starting with little or no prior experience. Even though we don’t perform primarily as musicians for the band anymore, I think that our connection to each other as musicians and to the band’s musical product helps us to function as an ensemble, working together as a team to get the job done.

What do you enjoy doing when not working?

I still love to play and perform principal trumpet with the Fairfax Symphony. I enjoy trying to keep up my gardens and I like doing puzzles and playing games, especially bridge. My wife and I share the enjoyment of finding a great bargain. Every now and then we find ourselves on a “Craigslist adventure” that might end up being a piece of jewelry, a new cello for my son, or an 800-pound, 10-foot metal sculpture that now accents our garden. I also enjoy supporting the interests of my children; for my 15-year-old son this means lots of time at soccer practices and games and music concerts. For my daughter, who is spending a year abroad on a cultural exchange program, it means time on Skype hearing about her adventures.

Are there any particular moments that you consider to be highlights in your Navy Band career?

There are two isolated moments that fall into the "once in a lifetime" experiences for me. One was playing taps at the funeral service for former President Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda, Calif. The Sea Chanters chorus also performed at the service. We were flown out a couple days before the service and housed at El Toro Marine Air Base, where we were treated to almost round-the-clock jet noise as the pilots conducted what must have been training runs for takeoff and landing. On the day of the ceremony, I needed an early start to board a 4:30 bus to the briefing with the ceremonial coordinators. By 7:00, I was on my way to a local school gymnasium, our holding area for the morning. At midday, we moved again, this time to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, where we waited in the basement until the start of the ceremony.

My part in the ceremony, along with the firing party from the Navy Ceremonial Guard, was in the Rose Garden for the final honors. The religious service and eulogies took place on the other side of a ridge, hidden from our view, but I could hear the voices of the Reverend Billy Graham, Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Senator Bob Dole, California Governor Pete Wilson, and President Clinton. When the service was over, the body bearers carried the casket over the ridge and into the Rose Garden, followed by President Clinton and former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford. It was difficult to quiet the tendency to think about what a disaster it would be to suffer a cracked note with such a distinguished audience, but I kept reminding myself to just do the same thing I did for every veteran's ceremony I had performed in Washington since joining the Navy Band four years earlier. No one was less worthy of my absolute best effort, and if that was good enough before, then it would be sufficient on that day too.

When the moment came for the rendering of honors, the firing party came smartly to attention and fired their three volleys with exact precision, and I brought my trumpet to my lips and started the first note of Taps. I remember being startled when I heard a delayed echo of my sound coming from the loudspeakers on the other side of the estate. It was rather loud coming from the speakers, and pretty distracting, and I remember actually closing my eyes in order to maintain my focus on what I was doing and not react to the echo of myself. Because of its long tradition and the association with honoring the sacrifices of our veterans, the 24 notes of Taps are profoundly moving for most Americans. My mission was simply to be the messenger, to intone the melody without any overstated personal expression, and let the quiet simplicity of it ring in the hearts of those who were grieving their president. Sixty seconds later, I brought my horn down, saluted my former president, and stood at attention while the body bearers folded the flag. Once the flag was presented to Mrs. Nixon, I did an about-face and departed the site.

The other notable experience also involved the playing of taps in a funeral ceremony, this time on September 11, 2001. I was assigned to two ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, at 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. On my way to the cemetery that morning, I was listening to the radio, and the reports of the first plane crash in New York were just coming in as I was getting ready to take my position for the first ceremony. The details were still sketchy, and I was left wondering what had happened as I waited for the first funeral procession to arrive. After rendering honors and leaving the site, I drove my car to the other end of the ceremony to visit the washroom and take my post for the 10:00 service. I kept the radio tuned to the news station and learned of the second plane crash at the World Trade Center. In part because I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and partly because the news details were unclear, I pictured that these were small planes, like Cessna trainers, that had suffered tragic accidents.

At 9:37, I was sitting in my car just across Washington Boulevard from the Pentagon when I heard the horrible sound of American Airlines Flight 77 as it screamed past under full throttle and buried itself into the southwest wall of the Pentagon. Because I was nearly in the path of the plane and it was traveling at almost the speed of sound, I only heard the sound of the incoming plane for less than a quarter-second, and then the roar of the explosion as it sent up a massive plume of red flame and black smoke. As the flames continued, buses of military honor guard troops evacuated the cemetery, and distant sirens began sounding as they arrived on the scene from surrounding communities. Wondering what to do next, I went to the Visitor's Center, where I found the Chaplain who was to preside over the 10:00 ceremony, and I asked him what he was going to do. His response was calm: "I don't know about your schedule, Chief, but I have a funeral to conduct in ten minutes."

I returned to the Columbarium, and at 10:00 the procession arrived. With the wail of sirens on the ground and helicopters in the air and the huge plumes of flame and smoke billowing from the Pentagon just across the road, the Chaplain performed the rites of burial, and at the usual moment, I rendered honors as I had done hundreds of times over the last ten years, and after the flag was folded, I departed the site. Both these incidents stand out in my memory, for obvious reasons. After performing hundreds of these types of ceremonies through the years, they can become routine; we can tend to think of them as “just another funeral.” These two events are standouts in my memory because of their unique circumstances, but they serve as a reminder that no matter how “routine” this service can seem to us, it is never routine to those in the audience who are grieving their loved one. Even though we might be on number sixteen for the month, it is likely to be the only military funeral this family will attend in their lives. Our performances should never be considered “routine.” By always embracing the routine tasks as special, we prepare ourselves to carry out the special tasks as routine.

Chief Musician Juan Vasquez is principal percussionist in the Concert Band.

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