Before the music: Behind the scenes look at Heartland of America Band

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rachelle Blake
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
For some, the Air Force is only defined by awe-inspiring fighter jets screaming overhead, but the United States Air Force Heartland of America Band illustrates how the Air Force can be projected with a softer note.

The 15-member band communicates through the universal language of music and makes lasting connections with audiences from Offutt and throughout Nebraska.

Most people will see the band perform and never realize how much work goes on behind the scenes.

Before the band members are accepted into the Air Force, they have to audition. These auditions include showing the proficiency needed to read and play music on the spot and an ability to perform a wide range of music genres, a talent which is no easy feat.

"I sent some recordings and a copy of my resume to the band at Scott Air Force Base," said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jarrett Robinett, USAF Heartland of America Band drummer. "They were hosting a cattle call audition to fill vacancies all over the Air Force, and I was selected to come play live. It was a pretty grueling process. You have to display versatility in a broad area of performance styles."

Once you are in the band, you never know what type of performance you will be performing and when, he added.

"One day, in the morning, I could be performing at a promotion ceremony and that night I will have to play a rock and country show," Robinett said. "Then the next day, I'll be playing jazz at a reception at the Patriot Club."

There have been occasions when auditions are held and no one is selected. But, once an individual makes the cut, they are sent to basic training like everyone else. 

After basic, they are shipped off to their first duty station. They never experience technical school like most Airmen and are expected to be ready to perform upon arrival. This can be a lot of pressure for a young Airman.

"Whenever you get out of basic training, there is no phase out," Robinett said. "It is a shock and it is something we have to manage and be mindful of. Our unit does a good job of transitioning from the rigid lifestyle of training into the family squadron concept."

Here at Offutt, the band members are assigned into three groups, some performing in more than one.

"First we have Vortex, a rock band with brass instruments," said Doug Roe, Heartland of America Band musical resources specialist and director of operations. "Then those same brass players have their own group called Offutt Brass.  Finally, we have Raptor, a traditional rock band. We also have an audio engineer assigned to the band who supports all of these groups when necessary."

It is each member's individual responsibility to practice their respective instruments and stay proficient.  For a musician like Roe, who spent his 22-and-a-half-year military career in the Offutt band, this meant playing for several hours a day. But for each member, it is different.

"You have to manage your skills and keep them sharp," Robinett said. "I personally need to spend at least two to three hours a week practicing. But I know brass players, on the other hand, if they don't utilize the muscles in their lips, they atrophy and that can create a whole host of problems. So, brass players usually spend at least an hour a day practicing solo."

On top of their personal readiness, they also have to rehearse in a group setting.

"A group is only as strong as its weakest link," Roe said. "We can't have any weak links in our groups. They all have to be able to perform their job very well, just like an aircrew or anyone else on a team. Then they come together to practice as a group, so when they go out to perform, they are all reading from the same page of music."

Then just to add even more responsibility to their plate, the band members also have nearly 90 collateral duties. Each member is responsible for three to nine of the duties.

"Everyone in the band is at least double-hatted," said Roe. "We only have 15 people, so some will have multiple extra duties."

These duties include operations and media and publicity.

"Right now we are working on scheduling performances into next year," Roe said. "We typically start six to twelve months in advance. We also have to respond to short notice requests as well. We deal with a lot of the logistical matters like who are we playing for, how do we get there, where do we park our vehicles, etc."

For every request we accept, we have to decline three to five due to our limited manning, he added. But, when they are able to fill a request they aren't just there to play music.

"The music is our medium for making people more receptive to hearing Air Force messages," Roe said. "When we perform in public, our message is you have the greatest Air Force in the world and we live in a great country. As we go through our program, we always recognize the selfless service our Airmen perform around the world 24hours a day, seven days a week, and also take a moment to honor our veterans, the men and women who served before us. When I was in the band, seeing the veterans stand with pride as we performed their service song was the part of the program I enjoyed the most."

The band is also in charge of their set-up and tear down, which can take hours of work before and after a performance.

The culmination of everything showcases how unique the band's mission is, which can sometimes make for a very exclusive set of rules. Unlike other Airmen, who have some control over their off-time, the band is designated leave twice each year, called blanket leave.

"Try to imagine, playing on a basketball team, but giving the star center vacation," Robinett said. "So, rather than have a whole unit crippled in its capacity, the band schedules two, 15-day leave periods a year.  Unfortunately, I haven't been to a single high school reunion because of scheduling conflicts and it is challenging, but it is the nature of our job."

Except for those two leave blocks, the band members are constantly together at home station and on the road and they quickly become very tight-knit and family-like, making all the hard work worthwhile and enhancing their presence on stage and with their audience.

"You have got to have some sort of personal connection with those people you are performing with on stage," said Robinett. "The audience senses a more genuine performance from people who know and care about each other."