Outside looking in: Touring with the U.S. Air Force Academy Band

Lt. Col. Dan Price, commander and conductor of the U.S. Air Force Academy band, chats with Heinz Hilpmann, an Army WWII and Korean War vet, after the band's performance at Five Rocks Amphitheatre in Gering, Nebraska June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Darren Domingo)

Lt. Col. Dan Price, commander and conductor of the U.S. Air Force Academy band, chats with Heinz Hilpmann, an Army WWII and Korean War vet, after the band's performance at Five Rocks Amphitheatre in Gering, Nebraska June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Darren Domingo)

The U.S. Air Force Academy Band performs at Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering, Nebraska, June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Darren Domingo)

The U.S. Air Force Academy Band performs at Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering, Nebraska, June 28, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Darren Domingo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Everyone dreams of touring with a band. I'm talking incredible musicians, crazy hair and outfits and of course, powerful music. No, I'm not traveling with your favorite metalcore or pop band. I'm rolling with the U.S. Air Force Academy Band.

I was given the opportunity to travel for eight days with highly qualified professional musicians who hold degrees from conservatories and universities all over the country.

The theme of the band's annual Independence Day tour was "Spirit of the American West," a celebration of our nation's history and heroes.

I've always looked forward to my first special assignment, but I never thought I'd get to be a public relations dude for a famous military band.

"Here goes nothing," I thought as I entered the rear parking lot of the Academy Band Hall at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

Bodies hustled around me as cases of instruments were packed and stacked into a large moving truck. I sat with my bags as band members boarded the bus. One by one, Airmen entered excitedly and chatted about funny recent events around the band hall.

I shook hands and introduced myself to the different musicians.

The first person to speak to me was Airman 1st Class Katherine Stites, a regional apprentice and oboe player. When she said this was her first band tour, I was instantly put at ease.

Stites had a warm personality and helped me break the ice with the other band members. 

After the last bandmember boarded the bus, we hit the road. I'm a Jacksonville, Florida kid, so forgive me if I sound like a rookie when I say I can't get over how stunning the mountains look every day. As we drove through huge rock formations and maneuvered through canyons, I couldn't help but smile.

"Not a bad temporary deployment," I thought. 

I glanced around the bus. Some of my fellow travelers were asleep, a few carried on conversations with hearty laughter, and some were lost in music streaming through their headphones.

Wyoming

Laramie, Wyoming was our first stop. As we pulled up to our destination, I was impressed with the style of our first venue, an old band shell raised in front of a lush lawn dotted with a few park benches. I noticed the layers of white paint lathered on to the shell. The stage itself had a classic concrete foundation with small cracks around the pavement. I knew this park had been a big show center back in the day -- maybe during the '50s and '60s. 

I always imagined a prestigious symphonic band would play at concert halls or grand arenas, but I was struck by the vibe I felt here. I realized there is something special about a small town local gig that you just can't get from a posh, grand theater. It's a more intimate entertainment experience and people can come as they are.

As we trickled out of the bus, the band members began putting on heavy-duty gloves. Teams bee-lined toward the two moving trucks to unload the musical cargo. Some directed others where to wheel cases. Others assembled the tech booth. Within an hour after we arrived, the stage was ready.

Before the show began, the musicians splintered off into small groups to prepare for the show. I really got an earful of the methodical madness which was the warm up. Deep, low blasts of a trombone came from my left, flittering sounds of clarinet scales rose from my right. A jam session between a bassist and saxophone player took off behind me.

When show time finally came, I could feel the excitement rising. A mixed crowd of about 400 packed onto the grassy knoll and sat patiently before the concert started. I could see families with young children, locals who brought their pets, and Laramie senior citizens wearing hats signifying their prior military service.

A loud swell of a musical introduction silenced the crowd as the band reached out and filled the air with the opening of the Air Force song. Golden afternoon sunlight filtered through the Ponderosa pines onto the audience as children danced to pop and country medleys. The audience cheered when band members threw on Elvis wigs and '80s retro shades and parents swayed to the music with infants in their arms. Some in the audience lifted their sunglasses to wipe tears during the more sentimental pieces. 

After the concert, I met Dean Johnson, whose father played solo saxophone for John Philip Sousa, an American composer and pioneer of American military bands. The Academy Band played a few of Sousa's selections in their program.

"It was absolutely fantastic to hear this caliber of musicians," Johnson said. "I was raised around music and to hear this caliber of sound just made my night."

Nebraska

I met the parents of an academy cadet during the band's next show in Gering, Nebraska. Roger Schwartzkopf, father of Cadet 3rd Class Ryan Schwartzkopf, beamed with pride as he spoke after the concert.

"It was absolutely wonderful," he said. "We appreciate everything the Academy has done for my son and all the other cadets."

Later, I met World War II and Korean War veteran Heinz Hilpmann. I knew the bus was about to leave, but as he recounted his experiences during the wars, I couldn't walk away. This former soldier sacrificed for his nation and proudly represents those who have gone before him.

"Listening to this music, it kind of gets to you," he said. "I can break down pretty easily, thinking back. I wouldn't want to miss these [concerts]. It's really good entertainment and brings back a lot of memories."

Amongst the smiles, laughter and tears in the crowd, there was a tangible connection that could be felt just by being there. The Academy Band has the honor of creating an energy that resonates with their audiences -- and they bring it every time. I knew this trip was just beginning, but I've seen the gratitude and joy people leave with after these past two concerts.

After boarding the bus and taking a seat, I glanced around one more time. Some band members were tired while others laughed and discussed dinner plans. These Airmen love their jobs. They get to realize their passion and use their gifts to serve and be a source of encouragement and joy for other Americans.

As I peered off into the rocky skyline, I knew it was a blessing to be one of those lucky Americans. 

(The Academy band traveled through Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota June 27-July 5)