Seton Hill Musicians Serve Overseas

This story is one of the many Stories of Service featuring Seton Hill students, alumni, veterans, current military personnel and military supporters featured in the Fall/Winter 2023-24 issue of Seton Hill's Forward Magazine.

When Katie Walls was entering her junior year, she changed majors, realizing that she preferred music performance over music therapy.

After shifting her focus, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do after Seton Hill. One day as she was walking through the Performing Arts Center, she noticed a flier advertising for joining a military band and realized this could be a way to pay for the graduate studies she wanted to pursue. 

She confirmed her interest during the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Conference that spring when she had a chance to chat and play with military band members.

Within days of Katie’s graduation in 2016, she was auditioning for the 28th Infantry Division Band with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Shortly after, she was shipping off to basic training.

After completing the job training requirements for being an Army musician, including multiple rounds of auditions and sessions at the United States Army School of Music, Katie applied to Carnegie Mellon University and earned her master’s of music in saxophone performance. 

While Katie’s initial interest in joining the military was to secure funding to continue her education while determining what she wants to do next, she now sees the military as her career.

“I never would have guessed I would have so much fun,” she said. “Now there’s nothing else I would want to do.”

While musicians in military bands have their own job responsibilities, they typically do not deploy on combat missions. 

However, Katie and eight other musicians from the 28th Infantry Division Band volunteered to deploy to Kuwait in 2022 at their general’s request where the band split their time between their musician duties and their day jobs on base. Since having a band overseas, especially for an extended length of time, was unusual, they were frequently requested by other units for various ceremonies and engagements.

Since the deployment called for volunteers, not all instruments present in the typical band arrangements were represented and the band operated as a much smaller group. As the assistant Music Performance Team leader, Katie had to work with what and who was available given the instrumentation of the volunteers in the deployment, which included trumpet players, saxophonists, a clarinetist, a trombone player and a drummer. 

“I used what I learned at Seton Hill and put my music theory knowledge to work transposing arrangements for the group,” she said. 

In fact, the articulation pattern for scales she learned at Seton Hill is still one of the first things Katie does to warm up. 

The arrangements with limited instruments as musicians weren’t the only challenges the band had to face overseas. 

“In the desert, the sand and wind would carry away our sound,” she said. “In the spring and summer, the metal of the instruments was hot to the touch and they went very sharp with the heat.”

While the band’s primary duties were to provide ceremonial support and improve soldier morale, they also had the opportunity to travel off base and interact with local communities in the Middle East. The band performed 43 missions ranging from ceremonies, concerts, international and civilian engagements reaching upwards of 10,000 people including a session at a children’s hospital in Kuwait, an international engagement with the Jordanian Armed Forces Band and performances in Qatar and Saudi Arabia before their return in August.

Katie works with 28th Infantry Division Band’s social media page and was able to share the impact of their group throughout their time overseas.

“It was nice to be able to show how our job as musicians has an impact on the Army,” Katie said. “We deployed as nine but were expected to do anything and everything a full-size band would do.”

One unexpected engagement came after a Christmas concert on base in Kuwait. A member of the Army Reserves came up to the band after the performance and started chatting with them about his love of music and how he missed playing the euphonium during his deployment. When he started talking about how he was majoring in music at Seton Hill, Katie said, “You’re not going to believe it, I graduated from there.” Though their time on base in Kuwait only overlapped briefly, current music student Shawn Dirda was able to practice with the group using their extra euphonium a few times before his unit had to move on to their next assignment.

Dirda’s time in the military also began as a way to finance his education, and he enrolled in the Army Reserves straight out of high school in the fall of 2020 – at the same time he was starting his classes at Seton Hill as a music education major. As he entered into the spring semester of his sophomore year, he found out he was being deployed to Kuwait with just two months to make preparations to leave.

“At first I wasn’t sure how to go about telling my professors, but they were understanding and did everything they could to help,” he said. “There’s a sense of community at the Performing Arts Center with your peers and professors.”

Though he wasn’t able to take his euphonium with him on the deployment, an instrument he has been playing since he was in elementary school, he stayed in touch digitally with his classmates and professors while overseas. He returned to the United States in the middle of the spring semester and picked back up with lessons and performing in community ensembles before making a full return to classes this fall.

While his post-graduation plans include teaching music and pursuing a graduate degree in ethnomusicology, Shawn will soon be joining Katie in the 28th Infantry Division Army National Guard Band. He passed his audition this fall and will begin drilling and rehearsing with the group soon.