Q&A: West Point Band Leaders, On Military Music and Their Memorial Day Concert
The West Point band bosses break down the inner workings of the academy’s music department
From left: First Lieutenant Darrin Thiriot, Chief Warrant Officer Three James Bettencourt, and Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Esch
It takes an army to produce great music — and West Point has the leaders to prove it. The four big bands within the military academy — Concert Band, Benny Havens Band, Hellcats, and Marching Band — thrive under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Esch, Commander and Conductor; First Lieutenant Darrin Thiriot, Deputy Commander; and Chief Warrant Officer Three James Bettencourt, Associate Bandmaster. The officers, each of whom holds a bachelor’s degree in music, oversee the bands and ensembles and help plan their performances. We caught up with the officers to hear about their roles in the music department, their musical experience, and the bands’ plans for Memorial Day.
When did you know you wanted a military music career?
Bettencourt: My dad was in the military, so I was an army brat growing up. I always knew I was going to do something to serve the country. Since my strength seemed to lie in music, it just made sense.
Thiriot: Ever since about ninth grade I knew that I wanted to do something in music. When I started college I was invited to sit in with an army National Guard band on a couple rehearsals, and I really enjoyed it and decided it was something I wanted to do.
Esch: I’m also a military brat, so my dad was an infantry guy, two tours of Vietnam, that sort of thing. I was originally a supply logistics guy. But I had gotten a music degree and somewhere along the line I just moved from the quartermaster into the army band field.
What does Memorial Day mean to you?
Thiriot: Memorial Day takes on more meaning here at West Point than it has in other places. There’s so much history here that it just kind of boggles your mind; it goes way back almost to the inception of our country. It’s just an incredible thing to learn about the specific things. We’ve been doing some research on a gentleman named James Reese Europe and how he was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters and the first African-American officer to see combat in World War I. Every little tidbit of information that has a connection to West Point makes everything more meaningful, and particularly in light of Memorial Day.
Are there any ceremonies the band plans to participate in?
Esch: A wreath-laying ceremony here is one of the big [events], at the Battle Monument. The other big one is the Queens Memorial Day Parade.
What is the best part about being the leaders of the band?
Esch: The best part of leading the band is working with some really phenomenal world-class musicians on par with anything you’d find in any major orchestra in the nation. They are committed and dedicated to their jobs as army musicians, and they come every day ready to go. It’s a joy to lead a team of professionals dedicated and committed to doing great work on behalf of the army.
Thiriot: The satisfaction of seeing projects come to fruition and seeing the smiles on people’s faces when you go to a place and meet with them. The patriotic fervor [the audience] displays after hearing a concert makes it all worthwhile.
Bettencourt: When we do a performance, sometimes you get the old guy who comes up to you and talks about their time when they served. “Yes, I was a sergeant in whatever group.” We all have something in common that we can all speak about. Just to see them get happy, and I light up when they talk about the good old days. I always like speaking with them when they come up.
What music inspires you?
Bettencourt: When I sit at home I love listening to big band. Some of the stuff my kids listen to, not so much. Just seeing the crowd enjoy it though, that’s enough for me.
Thiriot: I like a variety of music. I gravitate toward clarinet-centric things.
Esch: I love anything that’s really high energy, frankly. Even country, which I wouldn’t have said at all five years ago.
Favorite memory from being part of the band?
Thiriot: I had the chance immediately following 9/11 to play some concerts in various places around the country. To see the reactions of the audiences and the patriotic fervor that they had and their love for the country was inspiring.
Bettencourt: As a commander of the First Armored Division Band, I was able to spend a year in Iraq. In that time, we worked with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s ceremonial unit. It was very interesting to work with that group even though they’d been devastated by the war. They were getting back on their feet and they performed all the ceremonies.
Esch: One of the clearest memories I have is leading the army band in Washington, D.C., on the grounds of the Capitol, and playing “America The Beautiful” and looking down at sunset over the National Mall. Looking down, you can see the monuments in the distance. That’s a great feeling, a really uplifting moment.
How did it feel to have Sergeant Jeremy Gaynor represent West Point on The Voice?
Esch: He was an amazing representative. He’s obviously exceptionally talented. We spend a lot of time considering that the army is a profession and that we are professionals and that we are confident and people of character and people of commitment. He was all of that in the moments he was on that TV screen. He was as good of a representative of the American soldier as we could have asked for.