I'm Sergeant First Class Raymond Akers, I'm stationed at Fort McPherson at the Army Ground Forces Band in Atlanta, Georgia. And I'm the principal keyboardist there. Our unit is a 54-piece unit, and of course we have the concert band, and then we do ceremonial and marching band. Then it breaks down to the jazz band—a Duke Ellington type band. We have a woodwind quintet; clarinet quartet; tuba quartet; brass quintet; and of course, the jazz combo. We have a show band that does Top 40, and any other group that anybody wants to start.
The level of musicianship is the highest that I've experienced in the band field. I'm at my 22 year point in my career and this is the highest point of musicianship that I've experienced in playing. I'm enjoying it right now, it's great. It's definitely one of the best bands that I've seen or performed with in the military.
As an Army band we play all different styles depending on where we're stationed. You have to be familiar with your pop, your R&B, the funk, the reggae, the classical, the country—all the styles. I love the jazz combo and the quartet or trio setting. That's really what I'm enjoying right now.
I, as an artist, really try to reach the people. I admire people who captivate their audience, you know, blues singers have that ability where they just embrace the audience and the room just becomes one with what's going on. Whether they're singing or playing or whatever. So when I'm playing a song, I try to play songs that people can relate to, but I try to play them from my soul. I enjoy the compliments when someone comes up and says, 'that's my song and I've never heard it like that. You really played my song, thank you.' I enjoy that. I don't want to say that's what I live for as a musician, but it means a lot when you connect with somebody else with your music. They can really cause the band to totally change upon what they do and just take it in a totally different direction. I like that when the audience gets involved, and sometimes that happens where you just really connect with the audience. I like interacting with the rhythm players, especially the drummers. I really relate well with drummers and sometimes we're playing the song and if things are going really well—especially with the audience interaction—we're able to maybe just transition into another song, or play five songs in that little solo and then come out and go back to the piece. If there's no audience interaction you just kind of play the song. You don't want to step out too far because that energy is not there to really support that idea.
You know, the biggest thing as a musician is listening to different styles and, of course, talking to other musicians and meeting other musicians who play those styles or getting concepts from them, but the biggest thing is listening. If you listen to something and then you try to recreate that on your instrument I found that to be the most valuable tool in developing myself as a musician, especially with now we have music technology, the band in the box, sequencers, keyboards with all the bells and whistles. And that's really specialized my training because I use the sequencer to put in the bass and the drums, so that I can play the style, because it's hard to work on a style without the other parts in the music. The music technology that we have now speeds up the learning process light years.
I think the fact that I've been a lot of different places, my experience as a musician doesn't have to be military or non-military, it's just an experience as a musician. When people listen to you perform on a CD they're just listening to the music, they like your style or they don't like your style. But they want to know who you've really played with on the outside and they want your ability level, the fact that you have been on tour with a band whether it's military or not, they know that tour experience is tour experience. Being in the band field and traveling and playing in other countries, experiencing other cultures, you're equipped to handle certain things. When we say we're in the military, people know that we've experienced a certain culture, we've experienced a certain discipline and they know that if I've spent 20 years in the military there's a lot of hidden accomplishments in that. There's a hidden discipline to be able to deal with that lifestyle. It's a very fast-moving lifestyle.