Music director reflects on 30 years at Academy

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Academy's music director is almost as much of a fixture here as the organ in the Cadet Chapel's Protestant worship area that he plays every Sunday morning. He has played the organ, which turned 50 years old this month, at weddings, funerals and worship services. He's instructed Cadet Chorale members whose sons and daughters later joined the Chorale.

Dr. Joe Galema grew up in West Lafayette, Ind. He graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a bachelor's degree in organ performance and received a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan. From there, he said, he came straight to the Air Force Academy.

"I was finishing my doctorate ... and I was interviewing and auditioning for different jobs around the country," Galema explained.

Galema applied for a job with the Academy as an assistant for administration and music in 1982 after seeing the job listed in a College Music Society newsletter. He spoke with Roger Boyd, the Academy's first music director, who flew to Michigan from Colorado Springs to interview him. A few days later, Galema received a phone call.

"My teacher had always told me, 'If anyone ever calls you about a job, just ask them for 24 hours to think about it and that you'll call them back,'" Galema said. "So I dutifully said, 'Can you give me 24 hours?' and (Boyd) said, 'No, I need an answer right now.' So I said, 'OK, yes, I'll take the position.'"

The main draw for Galema was the organ in the Cadet Chapel. The organ comprises more than 4,300 pipes, varying from the size of a pencil to more than 30 feet tall.

"I also knew that there would be the administrative side of it because that was in the (job) title," he said. "I had not ever been in the military before, so I didn't really know anything about the military end of it. The first year, especially, was a real learning year for me."

Administratively, Galema planned and organized choir trips, which required him to familiarize himself with a schedule and lifestyle unlike what he had undergone as a college student.

"The training part of it was completely different, and back then, it was more intense: a lot of yelling -- as we say, sounding off," he said. "We didn't have intramurals: We had (physical education) classes but no intramurals, so I had to get used to that. Weekends for freshmen were ... one overnight pass and one or two day passes per semester back then, so they hardly got off base, where in college I could go off-campus anytime."

Galema officially started his job on Sept. 13, 1982, but he first sat down in front of the keyboard at the chapel a day earlier.

"Roger wanted me right away that first day. I'd gotten here the Friday before, so I'd had a day to practice and get something ready," he said. "The organ is pretty famous because of the architectural design and because at the time it was built ... a lot of people hadn't seen pipes in the open before, so just coming here and playing it was really thrilling."

Congregations were larger in those years, and so were the choirs, Galema said. Singers would come four-abreast down the center aisle, split at the front, then walk down the side aisles into the balcony when they processed, moving in step with the hymn. Congregations and choirs are smaller today, but that doesn't take away from the magic.

"The building and the instrument have always been exciting for me," Galema continued. "Some days when I'm up there practicing, I think, 'Here I am with this wonderful instrument all the time.' It's kind of like driving into the Academy every day: If you don't see these every day, it's pretty impressive, and the Academy grounds are impressive."

Galema led the freshman Protestant choir in January 1983. After Boyd retired, Galema took over the upper-class Protestant choir. He assumed the leadership mantle for the Cadet Chorale in 1989 after Ed Ladouceur, the Academy's second music director, retired.

In that time, Galema's played for the funeral of former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay and the memorial service for the astronauts killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986. The Chorale has sung at the White House, at national championship football games and at the 1990 Country Music Awards. And while the Chorale is smaller today than it was 20 years ago, its cadets are no less talented.

"The ones who really want to sing ... more difficult music and the better sight readers will still join the Chorale," Galema said. "Besides numbers, there's still the commitment level: They're still committed to the organization and the performances. As far as the caliber goes, it's stayed the same and maybe even risen a little bit."

The ratio of women to men has increased as well: Women comprise about 40 percent of the Chorale today, compared to 33 percent in previous years. That mix -- a smaller ratio of women to men than is found in most church or school choirs, gives the Chorale a unique sound, Galema said.

The smaller congregation sizes stem at least in part from post-9/11 security measures, Galema said. For a few months after the terrorist attacks, the Academy was closed to anyone without a military ID. However, while church attendance declined after Sept. 11, attendance at the Chorale's performance of Handel's Messiah has remained steady.

"It's always been a pretty full chapel," Galema said. "I think it's just the fact that it's a quality performance that's free and open to the public."

The timing for the annual concert changed after Galema took over, from the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving to either the first or second Friday night in December. Galema moved the event to give his cadets more time to practice.

"When you do it the Sunday before Thanksgiving, it's a big push to get that work learned and practiced," he said. "It used to be that we had one rehearsal on the day of the concert. Now ... I have a soloist rehearsal on the Tuesday prior (to the concert), then the full Chorale the Thursday prior."

The timing window is tight: If it took place later in December, cadets would already have left for winter break. If it took place earlier, it would conflict with fall semester finals.

Galema said working with the cadets is the single most rewarding part of his job.

"There's turnover every year," he said. "We have the cadets graduate, but we have a new class coming in. It's not a challenge in a bad way, but it's a challenge in a good way to get the new cadets up to speed with the music and still keep the interest with the cadets who are returning to the groups.

"It's the energy of the people this age. You go to another university, and you have all ages of people attending," he added. "Here, it's just a specific age. That and all the different concerts we've (done) over the years, different experiences with national television ... every school year, there seems to be some new thing that we do, so that keeps me from getting stale."

And after 30 years, Galema doesn't seem ready to close the sheet music book on his career here.

"Ed (Ladouceur) always used to tell me, 'You won't feel old until someone comes in and says his dad was in your group," Galema said. "That happened. I don't know whether I felt old, but I thought, 'OK, here it comes.' It was 1985 grad's daughter who came into my office and said, 'My dad was in your Chorale.'

"Right now there's a senior in the Chorale whose mother was in the Protestant choir," he said. "So now in a few more years, we'll see if there's a superintendent who was a Chorale graduate."