Decommissioning of St. Louis-based Air Force Band ends a tradition

Friday, July 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Beginning with its last public show on the Fourth of July, the distinguished history of the St. Louis-based 571st Air Force Band is starting to come to a close.

The ensemble, also known as the Air National Guard Band of the Central States, was commissioned in October 1941 andwill be decommissioned in September 2013. In reality, the end is coming much sooner: After Wednesday's performance, many of its 35 members will either commute to a guard band in Peoria, Ill., or take other duties in St. Louis.

"I will stay with the unit until it closes," says Maj. John Arata, the band's commander. "I have a responsibility to see things through."

This cutback isn't about money, Arata said. "It's about the size of the Air National Guard," which is regulated by Congress. The brass wants more slots for other specialties, most likely technicians. Musicians are taking the hit: There are currently 350 musicians in 11 Air National Guard bands around the country. Six of those bands will be decommissioned.

"This decision was not made by the Missouri National Guard," Missouri Air National Guard spokeswoman Maj. Tamara Spicer said of the decommissioning. The Air Force's public affairs office in Washington did not respond to requests for an interview.

Arata, who teaches music at Eureka High School, served three years in the Army and was appointed commander of the band in 2002. For him, as for all members of the guard, it's a part-time career: one weekend each month and two weeks each summer.

Along with teachers, there are college students, federal employees, stay-at-home mothers and computer technicians, ranging in age from 20 to 57. Most are sergeants and most earn about $6,000 annually for their service.

Arata praises the flexibility of his musicians, and he's a good example of it: he plays violin, clarinet and piano. In addition to conducting the concert band, he plays piano and fiddle in Sidewinder, the group's rock band, and plays piano in the jazz band. Members of the unit also make up woodwind and brass quintets.

The band's musical prowess has led to it being deployed to Afghanistan – which was a first for a National Guard band – and led Sidewinder to appear on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

The 571st has been overseas four times, performing primarily for troop morale. "We played a lot of current music to lift their spirits, to break up the monotony and the stress of life in the combat zone," Arata said.

The decision of whether to transfer, stay or retire presents different challenges for the band's members. About 15 of the 35 will transfer to the band in Peoria.

For six-year member Tech. Sgt. Kristi Frioux, a mother and teacher, going to Peoria makes sense. "It's how I can still serve and play," she said.

Two students, Airman 1st Class Adam Mendelson, a percussionist who attends Webster University, and Airman 1st Class Chris Higgins, a French hornist and a music education major at MU, are heading to Peoria.

For Higgins, the decision was easy: He's performing "higher-level music with experienced players," which makes him a better player himself. The decision wasn't so easy for Mendelson. "It took me a long time to decide," he said. What finally swayed him was the amount of ensemble playing he gets to do and what he's already learned in a short time: "musical skills, ensemble skills, people skills."

Master Sgt. Kathy Nix, the unit's oboist, won't be going with them. At 52, she had planned to stay until turning 60.

"This is the best way I know how to serve my country," she said. But now, "there's really no place for me to go."

The prospect of retirement is bittersweet, Nix said. "When we go out in public, we represent people's sons, daughters and other family members, people who are serving, who have served, who have been killed. We touch people's lives, and we do that through music."

Tech. Sgt. Paul Holzen agrees and plans to continue serving by transferring.

"When we play for veterans, we see how they're affected by the patriotic music that has meant so much for them," Holzen said. "There are tears running down their faces, they're standing up from their wheelchairs or walkers. Those are powerful statements as to the effect that music in the military has."

Horn player Tech. Sgt. Tom Sanders was still on the fence a week ago but was leaning toward leaving music. He works in information technology, and he has been offered a slot doing that in St. Louis. The father of twin 11-year-old boys, he likes being close to home instead of three hours away.

"Music has done it all for me," he said, from a substitute stint in the Omaha Symphony Orchestra to the Air Force band, to the guard — 22 years in all. "It's a tough call."

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